04/27/2012 06:56 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Galatians 3:23-29: The Law Was Our Teacher

Some criminals today are doing more than sitting sullenly in a cellblock. They're accepting the challenge to repent, make restitution, restore relationships and change their ways. Are we ready to shift our focus from revenge to reconciliation?

I have just read the draft that outlines the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church that I am ordained commitment to being an advocate for Restorative Justice. For me this affirmation by our church follows very closely our understanding of Lutheran theology and the reality of our concupiscent sinful in need of grace and restoration.

Fact is, you can go straight to Scripture if you are looking for support for tougher justice. If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Exodus 21:23-25). "Life for life" -- that sounds like crystal-clear justification for capital punishment, if not raw, naked revenge.

As I reflected on the ELCA's draft statement for restorative justice that will be formally presented at our Church-Wide Assembly in 2013, I have a new true meaning of justice -- and decided that it MUST include both the victim and the offender. It offers the guilty an opportunity to be restored -- restored by showing repentance, making restitution for damage, restoring the relationship and making a commitment to change their criminal ways. With the approval of the victim, offenders who qualify attend a series of supervised meetings with the victim(s). What usually happens is that the offender is able to put a face on his victim. There crime is personalized. Complete restitution must be made, and together he and the victim work out the details. Such discovery is found within my definition of Christianity that affirms that we don't have the freedom to exclude anyone. Even if you become enemies, you're challenged to love your enemies. Jesus didn't call for revenge on his killers; instead, he said "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

This isn't "tougher justice," but it sure is tough. In fact, it may be the most difficult type of justice to achieve. But a growing number of people are trying to pull it off, including the ELCA, who now says that we would like to give those a chance that killed his brother and tell them: "I forgive you."

Revenge has been replaced. Replaced by reconciliation.

The apostle Paul approves. In fact, if there is any biblical character that benefited from restorative justice, it is Paul himself, who started his career as a violent anti-Christian. On the road to Damascus, he was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1), having just approved of the killing of the deacon Stephen. A light from heaven caused him to fall to the ground, but he was not killed -- he was given a second chance. He converted and went on to serve the first-century church.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recalls that "before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed" (3:23). Call this the "tougher justice" approach -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, following the divine law that Paul describes as a "disciplinarian" for us. "But now that faith has come," he goes on to explain, "we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (vv. 25-26)

This is tough justice. It's tough because it doesn't feel fair. It doesn't seem right to lump together good, law-abiding citizens and bad, law-breaking criminals, and say that in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith.

All are one in Christ Jesus. All One. Good and bad. Saint and sinner.

It's an idea that benefits us. We ourselves are a forgiven people, so why is it so hard to believe that what works for us might not work for others? If God forgives us, requiring only confession and repentance and a restored life that bears witness to our repentance, then why can't such an approach work between ourselves in the human family.

Restorative justice.

The key to dealing with most criminal behavior may well be the application of basic Christian principles: repent, make restitution, restore relationships and change your ways. In our rush to extend jail sentences and build more prisons, we have forgotten that offenders are people and that people can be transformed by the love and discipline of a committed community. "Crime is not primarily a breaking of the law," as expressed in the social statement, but "Crime is primarily a breaking of relationships in a community, where real people have hurt real people." The secret to healing broken relationships is restorative justice, not punitive justice.

Had Paul concluded his statement with his description of the law as an instrument of imprisonment and condemnation, then the human situation would indeed be bleak beyond all hope. However, just as the law enters that it might fail, so too it condemns that it might save. And how did the law perform this "strange work"? By so provoking transgressions, by so exposing human wickedness to the scrutiny of divine holiness, by so eliminating every avenue of self-justification that the sinner is drawn, conscience-stricken and impoverished, to the only place where authentic redemption and liberation can be found.

Thus we cannot move from Abraham to Christ, from promise to fulfillment, without going through the law after all. We are affirming as ELCA Lutherans with this drafted social statement on restorative justice that the "law was our teacher." However the bondage of the law as used in the criminal justice system is secondary and subordinate in God's overall economy of salvation, the law nonetheless has a necessary and irreplaceable role to play. Martin Luther in his words summarizes restorative justices by saying, "God wounds in order to heal; he kills in order to make alive."