Portrait of a justice artist

Howard Zehr tells how restorative justice began and spread — and why we need a sense of wonder

Zehr photographed former student Leymah Gbowee of Liberia after she received the Nobel Peace Prize. — Walnut Street Books Zehr photographed former student Leymah Gbowee of Liberia after she received the Nobel Peace Prize. — Walnut Street Books

Howard Zehr began as a practitioner and theorist in restorative justice in the late 1970s at the foundational stage of the field. Following a career as a writer and editor, speaker, educator and photojournalist, Zehr is largely retired but continues as distinguished professor of restorative justice and co-director emeritus of the Zehr Institute at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.  

Editor and author Phyllis Pellman Good interviewed him in connection with the release of his book, Restorative Justice: Insights and Stories from My Journey (Walnut Street Books, Lancaster, Pa., 2023).

Howard, people across the country and around the globe refer to you as one of the founders of restorative justice. Do you understand why?

As far as I can recall, there was no concept of restorative justice before I began writing about it in the early 1980s. There were many developments that laid the basis for it — for example, victim-offender reconciliation preceded it. My intention was to create a synthesis of these ideas and clearly communicate about them. I pulled things together in a coherent framework and gave it the name restorative justice. Others in the United States, Europe and Australia were pointing in a similar direction, but no one had packaged it completely or clearly.

What is restorative justice?

It is a relational approach to justice that focuses on repair of harm. And to the extent possible, those affected by, or involved in, that harm should be actively engaged in that process.

The Western approach to justice tends to be individualistic, based on rights and the punishments people are believed to deserve. Restorative justice recognizes we are all embedded in a web of relationships, our actions affect that web, and we have responsibilities for the effects of those actions.

This is recognized by most Indigenous worldviews. It is central to a biblical understanding of justice and to the Bible in its entirety. When relations are broken or unhealthy, we try to make them right.

How did you get started on this journey?

Crucial events and processes were my encounters as a high school student with Vincent Harding, a lecture series at Goshen College by John Howard Yoder and my decisions to attend Morehouse College and then to teach at Talladega College, both historically Black colleges.

My Ph.D. dissertation research in the history of crime played a role. So, too, did my practical engagement while in Alabama as a prisoner advocate and as part of a research team for activist lawyers, defending mostly Black victims of police brutality and death-row inmates.

I got involved with the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program in Elkhart, Ind., started by Mennonite probation officer Steve Miller and others, when the House of Simon, a transitional house for the formerly incarcerated which I was directing, burned down. Experiences with VORP led to my rethinking of justice.

Is restorative justice practical?

Though it didn’t have the term yet, RJ started as a practice when Mennonites Mark Yantzi, Dave Worth and others pursued a case in Elmira, Ont., that is widely accepted as having launched the movement. The VORP effort in Elkhart, Ind., started shortly thereafter. No overall theory or term existed for it then. But when I was trying to communicate what they/we were doing and explore its implications, I developed the concept of restorative justice and adopted the term.

Practical applications have emerged in many fields beyond the criminal legal system. School applications are probably the most widespread, but RJ is being used in arenas as diverse as attempts to address historical harms, workplace wrongs, medical malpractice and peacemaking after armed conflicts.

I have an attorney friend who practices restorative law by asking basic RJ questions: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligation is it to address those needs? What caused this situation? What is the process to engage those involved in the resolution?

Zehr met with Pope John Paul II when Zehr was chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. (With typical humor, Zehr says his wife thinks the photo looks like he is trying to sell the pope a used car.) — Walnut Street Books
Zehr met with Pope John Paul II when Zehr was chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. (With typical humor, Zehr says his wife thinks the photo looks like he is trying to sell the pope a used car.) — Walnut Street Books

Has RJ changed lives?

Families have described healed re­lationships; victims and offenders have reported changed lives. Many have changed career trajectories after encountering RJ. Sometimes it is simply the concept of restorative justice that changes people’s thinking and lives.

Early on, I was mystified when people talked about RJ as a way of life. RJ originally emerged as an effort to address shortcomings of the criminal legal system. How could that be a way of life? Besides, many of the basic values of RJ are ones that I grew up with as a Mennonite and seemed common sense to me. Eventually, I realized RJ offers a framework for living grounded in relational values and principles, a framework many people lacked.

Do Mennonites have a natural inclination to restorative justice? Or might it be the opposite?

RJ is widely recognized as having come out of the Mennonite community. Mennonites often seem to think they have a natural inclination toward RJ, but I’m not so sure. In my experience, it’s been dangerous to think that. It has kept us from implementing programs and safeguards, because we think we are already doing it. Some other denominations have been more deliberate and forward-thinking in implementing RJ policies and practices than Mennonites have been.

As students took your classes and then returned to their own countries and communities, what happened over the years?

One exciting development was the networks — sometimes across historical conflict areas — that emerged when people studied and lived together at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Palestinians and Israelis met “the other” for the first time in Harrisonburg, for example, then went home to work together. NARPI — the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute — was born as South Korean Anabaptist Jae Young Lee and others came together to offer regional trainings and networking across northeast Asia.

I have found that RJ resonates with many Indigenous traditions. It’s a modern formulation with key Indigenous practices combined with today’s human rights sensibilities. Some of my former students from Indigenous traditions have taken RJ back to their communities as a way of revitalizing and legitimating those traditions, many of which have been suppressed by Western colonial powers.

Zehr met with Mother Teresa on a Mennonite Central Committee project. — Walnut Street Books
Zehr met with Mother Teresa on a Mennonite Central Committee project. — Walnut Street Books

How does photography (and the arts) relate to this approach to justice?

Photography and justice have been my two passions, and I have tried to bring the two together.

Effective communication must be both verbal and visual. Photography can be a way of doing justice by giving visibility and voice to people on the margins, by building bridges between people, by challenging stereotypes, by furthering dialogue.

You talk a lot about humility. Why? 

I am especially concerned about recognizing our limits and biases, the limits of our personal truths. As hard as we may try to be objective and balanced, each of us is shaped by our gender, our race and ethnicity, our experiences, our histories. It is important to be aware of the limits of what we think we know and to be open to others’ realities and views. Being too secure about who we are and what we can do leads to rigidity and smugness.

Some, especially among law enforcement, say that restorative justice is a cop-out, a soft approach to a difficult problem. What do you say?

I’d say they haven’t experienced it. Taking one’s punishment — for example, going to prison — can be easier than facing up to the harm. The research on outcomes of restorative justice processes overall is much more positive than that of the traditional criminal legal approach.

You say in your book that humans need to capture a sense of wonder. What do you mean?

The Western world tends to approach knowledge through doubt. While there is a place for critique and skepticism, I think that our overall attitude should be one of awe and wonder at the world around us, including humanity. And an appreciation of mystery.

I share a quote in the book: “Wondering is unknowing, experienced as pleasure.” Ambiguity and mystery are as crucial for restorative justice as they are for the artist. Mystery and ambiguity (along with respect) allow space for the unexpected and for differing visions and perceptions.

Humility, respect, awe, wonder — these are key words for the justice artist. Basic to all is an appreciation of the mystery of the human spirit. My challenge is to learn how to float in a vast sea of mystery that can only be approached in an attitude of awe and respect.

Phyllis Pellman Good, a member of East Chestnut St. Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., is a book editor and writer.

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