As alluded to in the first section of this essay, neither Jesus nor Paul denied that courts have some place in our societies. Our societies currently need court-type processes just as badly married people may need the option of divorce. It is not that there is anything wrong with restorative practices per se, just as there is nothing wrong with the institution of marriage per se. The limitations of both have more to do, in Jesus’ words about divorce, with our “hardness of heart” at times (Matthew 19:8). In this section, I consider the limitations of victim-offender dialogue – which is to say the limitations of the people in conflict – and offer some guidelines for the application of restorative practices in schools.
The Limitations of Restorative Practices
Humanly, Jesus’ standards can seem impossibly hard at times – things like turning the other cheek, never turning our backs on the poor and loving our enemies. Growing in the faith of Jesus – believing in the absolute goodness of God – enables us, I believe, to become more committed to such ideals…. including resolving difficulties through dialogue and natural human empathy. Hence, I believe, that the limitations of victim-offender dialogue are due to our basic lack of trust in the goodness and sufficiency of God. The so-called problem of Evil or suffering is a universal stumbling block for us that leads I believe (in ways there is no space for me to justify here) to a ubiquitous belief that justice intrinsically has and requires elements of retribution. Colloquially, it is the belief that wrong doers have to “be taught a lesson” through inflicted suffering, alongside which the “mere dialogue” of restorative practices is seen to pale by comparison.
Dislike of restorative practices
If the theology, experience and imagination of those in leadership positions (all the way from SSO to Minister of Education) leads them to be convinced that fear of sanctions is the most effective strategy to maintain order, restorative practices can seem like an open invitation to social chaos! Such views can be very ingrained and change may need to wait upon those people personally and directly experiencing for themselves (in their work places) the power of victim-offender dialogue as ‘victim’ and as ‘offender.’ Good training will invite reflection on personal experience and role plays. Considerable thought has gone in and continues to go in to finding productive whole-of-school (and even whole-of-town processes) to introduce the model. The best ones, in my opinion, introduce restorative practices not as one more arduous or trendy gimmick (on top of many other modern requirements of teachers), but simply as a consciousness-raising, refining and intensifying of what people already do when they sooner or later clash with those they care most about. However, no matter how keen and proficient school staff are in enabling victim-offender dialogue, it will never always work and this is because of the attitudes brought by both victims/complainants and offenders/defendants.
The main reason some alleged victims or complainants don’t want victim-offender dialogue is because they want “blood.” They fail to see that revenge only stems from their hurt egos and from their insecurities. They fail to see that gaining revenge won’t actually strengthen their spirit or soul and is more likely to increase rather than decrease the risk further victimization in the future. If these folk cannot be graciously persuaded to genuinely enter into the restorative conferencing process however, their desire for court-type alternatives needs to be respected though not necessarily actively actioned on their behalf. For example, if parents want to call in the Police over an assault, whilst declining to call Police in, the principal may nevertheless support the parent’s right to do so, co-operate with Police enquiries and manage the process positively. (However, the principal may initiate calling in the Police if his/her proposal for restorative conference fails to get parental support from all the parties or if no adequate process can be achieved or if the matter is so serious that the principal is legally or professionally required to do so.)
The main reason that alleged offenders or defendants do not to want to be genuinely engaged in victim-offender conferencing seems to me to be the emotionally confronting nature of having to account for one’s wrongdoing. On the other hand, an alleged offender who has observed or believes a restorative process to be a “soft option” may expect that by engaging minimally in the process they will be able to escape a more severe punishment from the court-type alternative. Both examples point to a limitation of victim-offender conferences in that they require the alleged offender to genuinely engage in the process and to be committed (with the support of others) to acknowledge the harm they have caused and to account for it as far as they are able, and not block the process by feigning ignorance of their deeper motivations and emotions and/or by feigning remorse.
Guidelines for schools
The following guidelines address the need to begin restorative processes with sufficient good faith on both sides of the conflict. For the run of the mill, every-day-type of minor misunderstandings (that take as little as a minute or two to sort through), good faith on both sides can be assumed at the beginning (and a lack thereof can be redressed later if necessary). However, in more serious offences where feelings are running high among the conflicting parties and their supporters, these guidelines become correspondingly more important to follow from the outset.
Teachers must remember that participation of an alleged offender in good faith can never be mandatory…
If an offending student is unwilling to give (in a suitably supportive environment) an account of their behaviour, they may prefer to opt for the alternative to restorative justice i.e. for a court-type process (meaning for a teacher to decide who is right and wrong, and who should get what punishment). If they seem to only want to be involved in a conference because they see it as a soft option and do not credibly try to account for the incident, then they abuse the good will and intent of the meeting. Hence, in serious cases, the alleged offenders’ motivations and intentions need to be assessed carefully before making the decision to proceed to a conference.
The genuine process is more important than the outcome…
Despite having tried to sort out the conflict by honest and open dialogue involving others as necessary and having had a good deal of discussion, the offender may still continue to feel justified in his/her attitudes and actions. In that case, all that is left to do may be to regard them as not enlightened by the Gospel of God’s love yet (i.e. “treating them as an unbeliever”). Perhaps we will be surprised later to find that they really understood more than they seemed to at the time. We should remember that to see things from other’s perspective and to admit to harming/offending another can take a lot of insight, courage and faith in oneself and others. Those who don’t know God’s grace in their hearts can really struggle to see the moral dimension, eat humble pie and talk honestly from their hearts about their offence. (Hardened offenders have testified how much harder it is to give an account of oneself than to stand in a dock and receive a heavy punishment from an authority – for a good example see http://restorativejustice.org/press-room/02personal/videos-relating-stories-of-restorative-justice ). Those who don’t see the process through to a satisfactory outcome, may nevertheless benefit from however far they did get; albeit not obviously so at the time. At least the victim has been able to express his/her complaint, and can be assisted to adjust their attitude to the offender… perhaps the victim will not choose to trust the offender so much in future, according them due respect but in a more formal way.. i.e. will see them more as “an unbeliever”… or perhaps the whole matter will just wash over as happens more easily with children than with adults.
The victim’s expectations need to be realistic
The victim themselves might approach a victim-offender conference with faulty expectations – for example, with a worldly-justice mentality. They should be counseled that their own role in the conference is to say own their truth – that is, disclose what’s been done to them, to give opportunity for the defendant to give an account and to take responsibility and to get support from their community – regardless of whether the accused responds in the way they would like or not. The conference is not an opportunity to try to force an accused to become repentant. It is a process of assisting the accused to see only what they are already willing to see regarding the harm they have caused. If and only if they genuinely see the harm will they be motivated and able to make satisfactory responses, but affordingthe defendant with an opportunity to empathize with the complainant does not entitle others to try to harass the defendant into repentance. What the defendant chooses to do with the moral information they gain in the conference is between them and God.
Fortunately, we know from experience that most offenders will be surprised to find out from the victim’s testimony the extent of the harm they caused – and will, at that point, spontaneously be truly sorry for it as well. Such acknowledgement, a willingness to make amends and the commitment to do better in future are the main things victims generally need to heal the strained relationship and move on, better friends than ever with the other.
Love helps people transcend shame as quickly and kindly as possible
Although some theorists have analysed the emotional patterns encountered in victim-offender conferences and have made much of the emotion of shame, such observations should not be confused with conference aims and intent. Shaming is not the goal or the method of choice for restorative dialogue. Shame may naturally be present and needs to be minimized, or better converted to guilt. The key ingredient and the antidote to shame is love. All parties at a conference, especially wrongdoer, need to be aware they are held in great care and respect by others, especially if they experience a sense of shame in the proceedings. Shame is not bad in itself but it is a difficult emotion to process and warmth and respect will help the alleged offender to move through shame to guilt to responsibility and then to healthy pride.
In my view, shame is a stage when bad actions are naturally interpreted by the offender to necessarily imply and mean that the offender is a bad person. Because of this natural effect of shame, shame (combined with our consciences) has great power over us to interrupt our bad behaviour, even bad behaviour that in other ways is highly attractive/desirable to us (and which in other contexts could be highly appropriate). Later reflection on our bad behaviour (including at a restorative conference) should result in us shifting our view of the problem from our identities to just certain behaviours and attitudes, thereby letting our deeper selves off the hook so to speak. This narrowing and limiting of the shame-type emotion is, I believe, the important transition from shame feelings to guilt feelings. Guilt feelings plus health self-concept then lead us to take responsibility (including apology, restitution, recommitment to the relationship and to respect, justice, etc). Such responsibility and the resulting warm and genuine reconciliation, will in turn produce a sense of dignity and healthy pride. The process then, starts at shame and ends with dignity.
On the other hand, deliberate exacerbating the shame to increase likelihood of repentance in restorative processes is unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful, and, especially if the one shamed takes offence either at the time or later, counterproductive. Disproportionate and persisting shame can overwhelm the offender and inhibit the healing process completely. Some people are much more vulnerable to this outcome than others and the conference facilitator needs to protect against the conference being a deliberately or unintentionally an overly/unnecessarily shaming process and instead deliberately try to minimise the shame an alleged wrong-doer feels, still consistent with an adequate accounting for the offence. (What is an “adequate accounting” will in turn depend on the severity of the offence and the maturity and culpability of the offender.) Hence, a good start in setting a respectful tone at the beginning of a conference is to acknowledge and thank the alleged offender (and all other participants too) for their attendance and willingness to look at the incident and to work towards a better understanding for everyone of what happened and what needs to happen now to make things better.
God’s sets a high priority on us living, “as far as it depends on us, at peace with all people” (Rom 12:18), and if there is conflict, hurt and a break down of harmony we have an obligation whether we feel we are the victim or the victimizer (and whether guilty or innocent of accusations) to get into dialogue with our brother or sister to sort it out. We must turn the other cheek but we must also speak out. In helping our children in such matters adults need to assist them to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) and try to ensure that “no-one fail to obtain the grace of God and that no root of bitterness spring up and contaminate the many” (Heb 12:15).
For such reasons, I believe, we need to take seriously both Jesus’ example and Jesus’ teaching in regard to honest, respectful dialogue plus non-retributive responses to offensive behaviour.
 And if they have suffered a significant loss, say the death of a loved one, even the hardest punishment of those responsible will not come close to alleviate their main trouble – the grief of loss.
 If other members of the community are not going to give good support, then the complainant could be steered away from a conference, or if they insist on participating, at least warned of others’ attitudes.