Earlier this Spring we invited pastors, activists, and theologians to use each of the weeks of Lent to reflect on the last 50 years of the criminal justice system, which has been best characterized by mass incarceration: the combination of policies, attitudes, customs, and legislation that have exploded the size of the prison population and the reach of the criminal justice system, and which has resulted in the permanent marginalization of people of color. We called the study 50 Years of Failure.
Out of that excellent study we knew we needed to not only continue to point out the horrors and ineffectiveness of the current system; we needed to cast forth a new vision of what a criminal justice system could and should be. This is what we did a week and a half ago on the 2nd floor in our co-working space in an incredibly illuminating discussion featuring two of the writers of the study, two criminal justice experts, and someone who spent 27 years incarcerated. Sadly, and ironically, while we were upstairs, someone came into our building and stole two paintings from the gallery in our lobby that are part of the show, Permitanme Hablar, by the artist, AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez.
The show highlights the theme of liberation and power, particularly by women of color. I know AnaYelsi; she is a good friend and she is one of the most talented people I know. And I LOVE her artwork. In fact, when we were planning out the gallery space in our lobby I knew one of the first shows was going to be AnaYelsi’s work. It was made for her to have a show there.
So, when we figured out that two of her paintings were missing and we were able to see on the security cameras that it was a gentleman who came into our building, took the two pieces, and then scurried out, I was both greatly saddened and angered. I was angry that someone obviously saw the beauty of the art, but who also centered themselves in such a way that they missed the themes of the show and the paintings individually that are about claiming liberation and power. What this man did was a violation. His actions are harmful.
When we realized that it was a burglary, I immediately contacted AnaYelsi to see what she wanted to do. I had a feeling, but I wanted to center the person most directly harmed by the crime. AnaYelsi requested that we not contact the police and wanted us to focus on a restorative justice approach. Our hope was to identify the man who took the paintings and to request that he return them and hear about the harm he created. We are still working towards this goal.
For both AnaYelsi and myself, we have come to understand that one of the many, many faults of the criminal justice system is that it does not center victims of crime. The criminal justice system does a lot of things – devastates individuals and communities of color, makes corporations lots of money, and creates political careers for District Attorneys – but bringing healing to those victimized by crime or restoration for those who have caused harm? No, not at all.
The ironic thing though is that tough-on-crime politicians (many of whom were once DAs, as noted above) love to talk about how retributive policies will bring healing to victims of crime when there is absolutely no evidence to support their claims. If these politicians were truly interested in healing they would adopt a restorative justice approach.
Retribution results only in violence, vengeance, and continued crime and harm. Retribution does not bring about healing. Instead, if we are to seek healing and restoration, we have to act creatively, use our imaginations to seek real solutions, and work outside the system. There are simply too many stakeholders in the status quo to operate within the system in which it is now constructed.
I am writing this because as word has spread about the theft and our response to it we have had some angry reactions to our opting for restorative justice. I am not surprised that people do not understand – we have been ingrained to believe that the police should be present in far too many areas of our lives. We have been ingrained to believe that our security is independent from the security of others and often comes directly from the expense of others. We have been ingrained by a society and an economy that seems to flourish when there is violence. We have been ingrained to believe that retribution and violence are the only adequate and available pathways to when we are wronged or harmed. As followers of Jesus we all too easily forget that Jesus was harmed and he was wronged. In Matthew 26 Jesus is faced with his wrongful arrest and his eventual death by the Roman State and he reminds everyone that he could easily call down 12 armies of angels to defend him. He didn’t.
Jesus decided not to call the authorities. Jesus decided not to seek retribution. Jesus decided not to meet violence with violence. Thus, at the Festival Center, we are choosing restorative justice not because we are politically liberal, or because we are enlightened. We are opting for restorative justice because we follow Jesus. This is the way of Jesus.