Restorative justice

A few weeks ago I got to visit our local jail. Some of you may not be aware, I work for a newspaper and cover the cops and court beat, so I drove out to do a story on inmate work programs. In our particular county, some inmates spend time outside, growing food for the entire jail population.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was much more lovely than I imagined. A greenhouse holds rows and rows of pots stacked on top of each other with green lettuce leaves in various stages of growth. Other plants line the edges –  peppers, tomatoes, and golden potatoes sticking out of the dirt.

A second greenhouse is overflowing with flowers donated from Wal-Mart – ones near death, need some extra care to pull through. The inmates water them and nurse the plants back to health when possible, repotting and eventually donating creative arrangements to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and Parents of Murdered Children.

It all sounded neat when described by the corrections lieutenant, but I wasn’t sure whether the inmates would be as enthusiastic. I was wrong.

Two women, clothed in orange jumpsuits met with me at a picnic table and described how much they loved their work. They loved getting their hands in the dirt, seeing their work grow from tiny seeds to green sprouts poking out of the earth, to full leaves ready for harvest.

Many of the women come into the jail with drug problems, they said, and working outside teaches them how to live sober in the world again, noticing things they never noticed before – how blue the sky is, how bright are all the colors our world is painted in.

Sitting there listening to them, it occurred to me that this is what justice looks like in all its intended beauty.

In Christian circles, people sometimes talk about God being loving and God being just, as if they are two separate things. As if, despite the way our savior came in peace and laid down his life for us all, our God would still like to see the world burn.

It’s an understandable perspective from some Bible passages, certainly. But I think the Biblical authors glimpsed the Lord most clearly when they wrote of peace and restorative justice, beating swords into plowshares.

After Amos announces the destruction of Israel, he shortly changes the tune, and the Lord speaks,

“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them.”

Everywhere in the prophets, after fierce judgment comes all this beauty. Isaiah writes:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”

The women at the jail didn’t say any of this to me, of course, didn’t talk about God at all. But all the same, perhaps he meant them to give me a living picture.

This is justice rolling down, when God wrests away the things we’ve enslaved ourselves to – idols of jealousy, hatred, fear and pride. It might hurt for a moment, breaking the addiction, but God is leading us into a garden, bursting with sweet blossoms and verdant leaves. We’ll remember the color of the sky again and the grace of working the earth with our hands. This is justice.


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