How do Christians relate this new, transformed model of justice to the justice systems of this world?   – Millard Lind (1986)

“COVID Spring” (with Dutchman’s Pipe vine) – photography by Howard Zehr

The following is based on excerpts from Howard Zehr’s book, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Herald Press, 1990).  In 2015, a 25th year anniversary edition came out with revised content.

Creating the New Within the Old

“Part of the answer to Lind’s question (above), then, is to get our act together. Too often within the church, we have ignored the victims and have responded to wrongdoing with a retributive lens borrowed from the larger society. The apostle Paul warned that Christians should avoid taking their disputes to state courts which operate under inappropriate assumptions. His point was not merely negative, however. He assumed that the church should develop its own alternative structures to implement covenant justice. Surely we must re-examine the lenses we use for dealing with harm and conflict within the church and create new structures which incorporate a restorative understanding. In this way, the church can provide a model to others. “

“When we operate outside the church’s framework, we need to take our restorative lens with us, allowing it to shape and inform what we do. The church must also lead the way in setting up alternative structures within the old framework. We must take the lead in planting plots which can serve as tests and models” (226).

In this context, Howard Zehr quotes Catholic Worker Peter Maurin (Easy Essays)

“The Catholic Worker believes in creating a new society within the shell of the old with the philosophy of the new, which is not a new philosophy but a very old philosophy, a philosophy so old that it looks like new.”

A ‘Demonstration Plot’

Taking the agricultural plot analogy from Clarence Jordan (Koinonia Partners) and John H. Yoder (Anabaptist theologian), Howard Zehr described how the early VORPs (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program) served as an experimental ‘plot’ to help develop and test new understandings of crime and justice” (173).

“In planting and nursing such plots, the church’s role is critical. Although the VORP movement is well established in the world at large by now, the church played a pivotal role in its development and spread, and still remains deeply involved in many communities. That is as it should be. VORP embodies a vision of justice that is inherently biblical and thus provides an arena where the church can implement its vision.”

“The VORP movement desperately needs the church if it is to survive in a form that matters. Pressures to be sidetracked from the vision are many. The church can provide the kind of independent value base and independent institutional base which is necessary to carry the vision. Motivated by a biblical vision of justice as restoration, perhaps the church can continue to plant plots which will experiment and demonstrate another way. If VORP is to survive as a catalyst for change, the church must remain involved” (174).

“We must become justice farmers, planting our experimental and demonstration plots….We should offer new services to victims which operate from a restorative framework. These include all-important rituals* which will show that we as a community stand with them in their suffering, in denouncing the wrong, and in seeking healing. Likewise, we need to offer new services to offenders and their families. Through it all, we need to explore alternatives to punishment which offer possibilities for accountability, repair and empowerment…. The involvement of former victims and offenders will be essential” (223).

Spaces for Lament and Forgiveness

*Zehr refers later to “Genesee justice” from Genesee County, NY, where collaboration with church communities provided Psalm-based lament services for people victimized by violent crimes (208). He also quotes Walter Brueggemann at length (48) regarding the healthy benefits of honest lament directed toward God.

“Very many people in our repressed culture need constant permission to speak their rage, hatreds, hurts, fears….The church’s business is not to do something good but to say the truth. Sometimes the only truth is that it hurts” (Walter Brueggemann from a 1980 workshop on the Psalms in Toronto).

Zehr continues… “The church has a critical responsibility in this process. Unfortunately, too often it has wanted to avoid the pain, to dispense with the lament. But at the same time it has pressured victims to forgive. It has been reluctant to forgive victims for their natural feelings of anger and hostility toward the offender, toward society, and toward God” (48-9).

Related to lament is the capacity of church communities to maximize the conditions in which forgiveness can be experienced. “Certain conditions help forgiveness to happen. An expression of responsibility, regret, and repentance on the part of an offender can be a powerful help. An essential condition for most people, however, is support from others and an experience of justice. Prayer is an important part of this ‘healing of memories.’ A person or group in a pastoring role can hear confession and offer absolution. All of us, and especially our congregations, have a responsibility to encourage an environment where this can happen” (47).

…a responsibility to encourage an environment (for forgiveness)

“Both victim and offender need to be healed, and this healing requires opportunities for forgiveness, confession, repentance, and reconciliation” (51). To what extent can churches become demonstration plots where the soil is rich enough with nutrients for these relational opportunities to happen?


“If the most common promise from God in the Bible is “I am with you,” perhaps the most common commitment Christians should make toward harming and harmed people is “I am with you.”  – Ted Lewis


View more photography by Howard Zehr which includes his “Doing Life Revisited” series of duet photos created 25 years after his original “Doing Life” photography project with life-sentence inmates. Read more about this project on the Prisons webpage.