The Flow of Restorative Dialogue: Resonating with the Shape of the Hebrew Bible

by Ted Lewis  September 2021

Whenever I ask restorative justice facilitators to tell me the general outline they use to lead people through a process of addressing harms, they nearly always describe a three-part outline:

  1. Storytelling – What Happened?
  2. Impacts – Who Was Affected (and How)?
  3. Resolution – What Repairs Can Be Made?

What I’ve noticed over the years is that this outline essentially aligns with a movement from Past to Present to Future.  And this makes perfect sense. If people cannot move forward from the Past to the Future, they remain stuck in the past, and it is really hard for them to even think about what can be new or better. And so, a good facilitator can sense if people are shifting from Past information to Present feelings, and from Present feelings to Future possibilities.

When there is a fullness of storytelling and expression of feelings, leading to new empathy for the other party, then “Shift Happens.” You can actually sense a change in the room. The natural tension that was there at the start of a meeting gives way to a more relaxed mood. Once this happens at an emotive or energetic level for both parties, then they are ready to talk together about practical matters of the future. They’ve now gained enough trust to envision a future of co-existence.

Walter Brueggemann, in this book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education, presents a similar three-part framework that aligns nicely with this restorative dialogue outline. But first you need to know a bit about the three-part structure of the Hebrew Bible known as the Tanach or TNK.  This acronym stands for:

  1. Torah – the Pentateuch (first five books)
  2. Nevi’im – the Prophets (history and prophets)
  3. Ketuvim – the Writings (wisdom literature and all the rest)

Brueggemann describes how these three can be viewed as establishing three very important elements that sustain a healthy community: 1) an Ethos to remember the past through story and expectations; 2) a Pathos to express present feelings, values and concerns; and 3) a Logos (wisdom) to imagine and bring about a better future. This also fits with a movement from the disclosure of real happenings in the past, the disruption of real life in the present, and the discernment of real possibilities to make things better in the future.

  1. Pentateuch – Ethos – PAST — Disclosure
  2. Prophets – Pathos – PRESENT — Disruption
  3. Writings – Logos – FUTURE — Discernment

This is a fascinating progression to chew over! When harming and harmed parties come together to disclose more truth about what they experienced, there is a greater completion of the full story. But this also brings up old pain and trauma; there is a dissonance that results from previous stories that rub up against each other. But because the conversation is done in a dignified way, the truth-telling spills into trust-building, and there is now a deeper human connection that connects both sides. Without this deeper empathetic connection, Shift will not happen at a heart level.


I love how the Joseph story in Genesis illustrates this progression. In fact, it is the capstone story of Genesis, a book which is full of rivalry stories. In the Joseph cycle (comprising one quarter of Genesis, we see how rivalry turns into a story of reconciliation. Joseph essentially leads his brothers to make the vital connection between truth and pain. By recapitulating his story (past) through the involvement of Benjamin (present), he effectively opens the way for ‘the truth’ to be real, no longer hidden, and this then leads to the restorative duet of accountability and healing (future). But the brothers have to feel it first; without that experiential dimension of empathy, there is no satisfaction for the victim and no inner-motivated change for the offender. And so Joseph effectively places his brothers into the story that has been repressed in the family system.

Can you see how Disclosure and Disruption are at work here to bring the brothers to a deeper moment of awareness for their past offending? Joseph could have been revengeful, but he chose to draw them cleverly into the story so that a restorative outcome could happen. This in no way is being ‘soft on crime’; to the contrary, it is harder for the brothers to go through this agonizing process of reliving the family pain, rather than keep it all hidden under the rug. Judah, of course, represents the element of greatest conviction and repentance as he puts his own life on the line for the sake of Benjamin. This revelation finally leads to Joseph’s cathartic weeping and eventual reconciliation.

In this Genesis story we see how Sin and Pain converge, where the harming action and the harmed effect are narrated together without denial. The only way to get there is for victimized people to find a way to express their pathos which makes it easier for the offender to admit to their wrongdoing without the usual self-justifications. All of this happens when all parts of the full story come together. The basic role of the facilitator is to empower parties to have the best possible communication they can have. The facilitator makes this hard conversation as easy as possible (facile in French means ‘to make easy’).

In closing, the Torah represents the container in which the restorative conversation can happen. It allows for the reviewing of the past based on memories and values. The Prophets represent what I call the heart-zone, the place where truth and pain come together. It is where ah-ha moments happen, where conviction is stirred, where empathy is built, where apology and forgiveness are expressed, where people connect with the common humanity of the other. All of this builds new trust which then gives people inner permission to wisely move forward in coexistence with the other party, and then to discuss new possibilities which otherwise would not have been possible.

Restorative justice, in the end, is not simply a matter of harming and harmed people coming together for dialogue; restorative justice is primarily a matter of helping harming and harmed people to move forward in life from a captivating past to a liberating future.