Restorative Justice

written by Glen Aaron on October 4, 2018

“What kind of spiritual and community practices do we need in order to develop our ability to face the truth, to listen to pain, to understand our own complicity in the suffering around us, to create true justice and forgiveness?

I think this is one of the hard truths we face when we truly listen to the voices of victims.

The truth is that pain in this world is not isolated and discreet – it’s not over there…separate from me.

Pain travels along the interdependent web that connects all of us, and healing that pain, preventing more pain – requires all of us to turn and face it among us and within us.

This truth about pain is the rationale behind a different sort of justice process, called restorative justice.



Our criminal system uses retributive justice, which looks at what laws were broken and what punishment the perpetrator must receive. But here’s how Desmond Tutu – who was part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission – describes Restorative justice:

‘Restorative Justice…begins from the premise that a crime is an act not against the State but against another person and against the community. In this model of justice, accountability is based on the offender taking responsibility both for the harm they have caused and for taking action to repair the hurt. Victims are not peripheral to this process of justice…but play an integral role in deciding what is needed to repair the harm…and the fabric of the community. Restorative justice seeks to recognize the humanity in each of us, whether we are victims or perpetrators…[And]…forgiveness is central to restorative justice.’[1]

Breaking the cycles of pain and violence in our world requires both TRUE justice and REAL forgiveness.

So I’ll close with a story from our own UU universe about restorative justice.

Last year, Barbara and I went to New Orleans for General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists. On the final morning of worship, our newly elected President interrupted worship to say that the night before, two UUA staff people: Tim Byrne and James Curran were violently robbed and severely injured in the French Quarter. Tim was in critical condition.[2]

The four suspects were black youth age 18-21. Two turned themselves in. Three had been residents at a shelter for young adults at risk.

The shocking and bloody incident was caught on surveillance camera and quickly became such a viral video that New Orleans city officials worried that the story would deter potential tourists to the French Quarter.[3]

When President Susan Frederick-Gray made her announcement that morning she said:

‘I want to acknowledge the sorrow, fear, anger, and heartbreak of seeing a loved one, a member of this community, violently attacked…Throughout the General Assembly, we reflected on the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence. This week, those reflections became personal and proximate.’

Just the night before, our Ware lecturer, defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, had talked about the injustices and inequities in our prison system and the hard paths that lead there. He said there are four essential things that we must do to create a more just and equal world:

  1. Get proximate to the poor, the neglected, the excluded, and abused
  2. Change the narratives that underlie racism and other inequalities
  3. Stay hopeful about creating justice
  4. Be willing to do uncomfortable things

So here was one of those uncomfortable things.

That next morning President Susan Frederick-Gray invited us to hold the attackers ‘with universal love’ we also hold for James and Tim.

I don’t think this is an example of cheap forgiveness – of rushing too quickly to forgive, like we sometimes have with some of the prominent men accused of sexual abuse. It’s also not like the cover-ups in the sexual abuse scandal.

We have to ask: whose pain are we listening to, whose freedoms or livelihoods are we defending? Is it only the people who have already experienced lives of privilege and power? Are we privileging their stories before first listening to the pain of the victims?

The victims in this case were certainly in pain. Tim Byrne was unconscious for 24 hours after the attack and doctors were afraid he might die. His fellow staff at the UUA, and the local UU congregation reached out to provide comfort and practical aid over that many months that Tim underwent physical, occupational, and speech therapy. He’s finally now back to work full-time.

A few months after the attack, he says that one of his co-workers, Elizabeth Nguyen, senior strategist for our UU ‘Side With Love’ campaign, brought up the idea of restorative justice.

Tim said that both he and his husband ‘both quickly felt like this sounds better than anything the criminal justice system could do.’ Tim said he learned the four men ‘were of the age where they were deeply affected by [Hurricane] Katrina and were displaced,’ and that they had aged out of their foster care and had been living in a shelter. He also learned that the UU group in New Orleans was collecting money each month so the defendants could purchase soap and shampoo in the jail.

He said, ‘Wait a minute, they have to pay for soap? That’s not a luxury. So that crystalized for me that [prison is] just not humane.’ James and Tim both wrote letters to the court advocating restorative justice. He hoped that he and James and their families could meet with the defendants. He hoped there would be some kind of ‘monitored transition’ where the young men were put on a disciplined and overseen path to make improvements, whether that be education, training, job skills…

He said, ‘I’d rather that they not go to jail. My sense is that that is not a system that’s going to improve people.’[4]

Unfortunately, the prosecutors were dismissive, saying, Yeah, that’s not going to happen. They’re probably going to get 20 years.

Tim wrote a second letter, saying, ‘Recidivism statistics show that incarceration doesn’t stop criminal activity, but creates more of it.

We all want to prevent Dejuan, Joshua, Nicholas, and Rashaad from reoffending. In this case, I believe a different approach, one that starts with a real acknowledgement/confrontation on the part of the young men of harms done (and demonstrated commitment to change), and that incorporates services for substance abuse, anger management, and counseling, has the most chance of leading to the desired outcome.’

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a group of about thirty UUs had been working to encourage the restorative justice process on the case, meeting with the defense attorneys and DA, writing letters to the judge. They provided the young men with books as well as money to buy soap in jail. With Tim and James’ permission, ten or so UUs attended each court hearing over the past year, often wearing our iconic yellow Side with Love t-shirts or Black Lives Matter t-shirts.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end the way we hoped. The young men were each sentenced to 5-8 years in prison for each charge. Tim and James felt these sentences were less than if they hadn’t gotten involved, but they were still disappointed.”[5]


This article has been taken by permission from a sermon recently given by Rev. Emily Wright-Magoon at the Unitarian Universalist church of Midland, Texas where she is pastor.


[1] Tutu, D. Tutu, M. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path to Healing Ourselves and Our World. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014.

[2] Walton, C. “Two UUA employees violently robbed in New Orleans”. UU World, June 30, 2017. Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.uuworld.org/articles/two-uua-employees-robbed-new-orleans

[3] Wells, C. K. “4 suspects in French Quarter beating, robbery now in custody”. Nola.com, June 28, 2017. Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2017/06/french_quarter_beating_arrests.html

[4] Mcardle, E. “New Orleans activists urged restorative justice for assailants who attacked two UUA employees”. Nola.com, August 20, 2018. Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.uuworld.org/articles/nola-restorative-justice

[5] Nolan, H. “4 plead guilty in French Quarter attack on Boston tourists, who asked for leniency in the case”. Nola.com, May 22, 2018. Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2018/05/4_plead_guilty_in_french_quart.html

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