“Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.” – Howard Thurman
Recognizing victimization, rejecting violence, re-envisioning justice
Liberatory theologies that interface with restorative justice themes are keenly aware of the relational dynamics between the powerful and the powerless, between oppressor and oppressed, between those who traumatize and those who are traumatized. There is always a relationship there whether it is characterized by violence and injustice or by trust and cooperation.
Liberatory theologies emphasize humanity’s collective need to be freed from oppressive systems, and yet this pursuit is never separate from the inward journey of individuals to be freed from all they have internalized from those systems. Social transformation is always interdependent with personal transformation. A classic biblical text for this interplay is the Three Temptations of Jesus.
The nexus between social transformation and personal transformation is relational transformation. Restorative justice offers wisdom and direction in this later realm. The teachings of Jesus, likewise, remind us that conversion into God’s Kingdom is primarily about relationships. It also integrates our healing journey with our formation journey, that is, our inner victim boldly meeting with our inner offender for dialogue.
“To get rid of an enemy one must love him.” Leo Tolstoy
“The ally we must cultivate is the part of our enemy which knows the truth.” – M. Gandhi
“The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” “Love your enemy; it will ruin his reputation.” – Desmond Tutu
“For [Martin Luther] King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity.” –
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (Orbis Books, 2013)
A profound work connecting biblical history with American history.
“No one has explored the spiritual world of African Americans with the depth or breadth of Cone. Here he turns his attention to two symbols that dominated not only the spiritual world but also the daily life of African Americans in the twentieth century. In their inextricable tie, he finds both the terror and hope that governed life under violent racism as well as potent symbols of the African American past and present in the United States.” -Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
“James Cone is a world-historical figure in twentieth- century Christian theology. The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a powerful and painful song for hope in our dance with mortality—a song Cone courageously has led for over forty years!” – Cornel West
Read an article by Ric Hudgens about Vincent Harding’s hope for the “liberation of spirituality.” Harding considered Howard Thurman as his spiritual father and MLK as his spiritual brother, drawing strength from the spirituality of these two men.
Relational Proximity and Restorative Transformation
We’ve got to get proximate to communities different than our own. It’s one thing to say, “Those immigrants … ,” it’s another to go to a detention center and hear a man say, “I’m a pastor fleeing religious persecution. They burned down my church.” Who wouldn’t love that man? It’s easier to demonize people when you stay at a distance. We have to do the hard work of getting close to people to hear their stories. That will help us to have a more human response. (Brenda Salter McNeil, “Repairing Broken Systems Together” interview May 26, 2020)
Here is a powerful book to aid our understanding in Bonhoeffer’s own faith journey to confront white supremacy.
Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie L. Williams (Baylor Univ. Press, 2014)
“Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus is destined to transform Bonhoeffer studies. Previously scholars have focused on Bonhoeffer’s experience that year at Union Theological Seminary, but Williams makes a plausible case that his experiences in neighboring Harlem were far more decisive in shaping the man who returned to Germany to take on the Nazis and the Nazifying Protestant churches.” – David P. Gushee, Mercer University
Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.
Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World by Mark Brett (Eerdmans, 2016)
This book applies the biblical understanding of trauma from Israel’s political displacements to contemporary debates around decolonization, especially in the Australian context.
If you would like to recommend more content or links for this page, please contact us. Other themes, including trauma, historical harm, truth-telling, giving voice to the voiceless, and more, have all been integrated into biblical and theological studies.
Quotes on the Status Quo from Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses (1990)
Since biblical justice seeks to make things better, justice is not designed to maintain the status quo. Indeed, its intent is to shake up the status quo, to improve, to move toward shalom. The move toward shalom is not necessarily good news to everyone. In fact, it is downright bad news to the oppressor. (140)
Contemporary justice…sees as its primary focus the maintenance of order. Because it can separate questions of criminal justice from social justice, the order which it tends to maintain is the present order, the status quo. All too often, therefore, modern law is a conservative force. Biblical justice, on the other hand, is an active progressive force seeking to transform the present order toward one which is more just. In doing so,it looks out especially for the poor and the weak. (154)
“The text does not need to be applied to our situation. Rather, our situation needs to be submitted to the text for a fresh discernment. It is our situation, not the text, that requires a new interpretation.“ – Walter Brueggemann, Commentary on Jeremiah, Introduction