“Those who are beneficiaries of God’s peace become instruments of God’s peace. This peace, we must remember, is the comprehensive shalom promised by the prophets, inclusive of restorative justice and coterminous with the kingdom of God.”

– Michael Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, p. 195

My Journey To and With Restorative Justice

by Michael J. Gorman

April 2019

My home computer has 450 files that contain the phrase “restorative justice.” The earliest of those files is dated to 2007, when I was working on a little book called Reading Paul (Cascade, 2008). It appears that my first articulation of the biblical notion of restorative justice occurred at that time. In discussing justification, for instance, I stressed the connection, in both Greek and English, as well as in a good reading of Paul, between justification and justice—God’s saving justice that sets things right (pp. 119–21). I contended later in the book that the church is called to “participate with God in the cruciform, restorative justice (or “righteousness”) of God promised by the prophets, brought to fulfillment in Christ, and integral to the experience of justification” (p. 185).

The source of these two aspects of my articulation of Pauline theology—God’s mission and the church’s—is itself twofold.

First, the idea that God sets things right is my American English translation of Tom Wright’s well-known British English phrase “to put things to rights.” I had become convinced that Tom was on to something critical about biblical theology in general, and Pauline theology in particular, that many interpreters had missed.

Second, and more importantly, I had begun to see the continuity between prophetic and Pauline notions of justice. Once again, many biblical interpreters had failed to see this connection, but it was becoming clearer and clearer to me, and the best word to express this notion of saving justice in both the prophets and Paul is, I came to believe, “restorative.” This connection between the prophets and Paul found expression in an article entitled “Justification and Justice in Paul, with Special Reference to the Corinthians” (Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 1/1 [Fall 2011]: 23-40). In that essay I stressed that God’s justice is restorative rather than retributive or retaliatory.

By this time the phrase “restorative justice” had started to appear in almost all my work on Paul, both articles and books, with a heavy concentration in 2014–15, when I was writing and finalizing a longer book, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Eerdmans, 2015). In fact, the 2011 essay on Paul and the prophets became the basis of the longest chapter in that book. The book emphasizes God’s reconciling and world-redeeming dikaiosynē, or restorative justice, and the church’s role in that divine mission. Furthermore, I have argued as well for the connection between restorative justice and a proper understanding of the atonement.

As I have considered Scripture, God’s mission, the church’s mission, and various aspects of “justice” in the United States, I have become increasingly concerned about the vast difference between restorative justice, on the one hand, and various forms of retributive justice practiced locally, nationally, and internationally by the United States, on the other. I have been inside a maximum-security facility, and I have appreciated the work of various ministries to offenders and victims. Most especially and most recently, I have witnessed firsthand the injustice of ICE officials doing harm to innocent people—including a family in my church—in the name of justice and security. These experiences confirm what I know to be true from Scripture: that God has a better way, and we are invited to be part of that better way.

Michael J. Gorman teaches at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD

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It is my strong conviction that the kind of holistic, communal, participatory, missional model of the atonement that we have called the ‘new-covenant’ model is precisely what the church needs to appropriate, articulate, and actualize today. I look forward to others joining the conversation and, more importantly, putting this model and its participatory practices into practice. (237) The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant

Books by M. Gorman: