Image: A sign of hope over the community of Inuvik
Today’s readings offer two radically different versions of justice.
In the first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, we find the Lord announcing a purge of all those who have not committed themselves to a right way of living according to the covenant. Those who have given their allegiance to the God are spared, but the rest are killed, and piled up like cord-wood. It is a frightening account and meant to catch the attention of those to whom the prophet is preaching in order provoke a conversion of their hardened hearts.
Contrast this with the gospel reading where we find quite a different sense of bringing wrongdoers to account. Jesus advises for members of the community to work out their grievances peaceably with one another without resorting to violence or even to the courtroom. Talking and listening are the tools by which justice is served and those who have done wrong are not exiled or erased from the community but are able be reformed with the help of their neighbors and to make restitution.
This is the difference between the criminal justice system that relies on prison as a form of punishment and restorative justice which seeks to keep offenders close to their community of support rather than banishing them. If this seems like an impossible task or too idealistic to be tried, consider the following examples.
At the Redemptorist parish in Saskatoon, members of the pastoral team have volunteered their time with the John Howard Society and the Circle of Support program. This initiative had members of the community offering support to convicted sex offenders who had been released from prison. By meeting regularly, the person who had offended received moral and practical support as they integrated back in to the community. Such support gave them a sense of belonging as opposed to being on alone on the margins where the temptation to re-offend was greater.
In the Northwest Territories, community justice counsels meet to deal with those who have committed non-violent crimes in order to find a community-based approach to justice and restitution. In our country, where there is an over-representation of indigenous people incarcerated in the penal system, the hope is that, by offering an alternative to the normal court and prison system, a personal approach might be taken to cater to a solution that better suits the needs of the offender and the community. Working together to solve these kinds of issues give people ownership of their issues and an opportunity to fix problems locally as opposed to sending people away.
The justice which Ezekiel describes is God’s justice. Ultimately it will be up to the Lord to decide who is innocent and who is guilty, who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who will not. Ultimately, we all count on God’s mercy because none of us are blameless. But while we are in this world, we would do well to follow the advice of Jesus as we seek to get along with one another. Not resorting to harsh judgment and condemnation of those who have done wrong but by exercising compassion and a true desire to unite the community.