On Tuesday night I went to an amazing lecture by John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He had been invited to Harvard to give the Noble Lectures at Memorial Church, and he spoke with amazing insight about “God’s Mission as Restorative Justice.” What is God’s justice really like? And what is the role of the Church in bringing it to the world?
There is so much to talk about in this lecture—I’m not able to cover even a tenth of what he said in this short post. However, a few things struck me particularly. First, the archbishop never made a dichotomy of justice and mercy. Instead, he shifted the questions of justice from “What law was broken? Who broke it? What punishment do they deserve?” to “Who has been harmed? What restoration do they need? Who is obligated to provide this to them?” The purpose of seeking justice is not to punish the perpetrators, but to restore broken relationships. God sent his Son, not to punish us, but to give us a way to restore our broken relationship with him. Similarly, in our own dealings with the world, we are to seek, not retribution or vengeance, but a restored world.
This restorative justice should stretch from the most personal level to the most international. During his talk, the archbishop told us about Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe who over the last thirty years has killed three to six million of his own citizens—or about a third of the country’s population. The archbishop has been vocal in his public denunciations of Mugabe—but he also writes regularly to the man, asking him to step down from his position and to work to right the wrongs he has done, and telling him that he is praying for him. To me, this was astounding. The archbishop is not willing to believe, a priori, that Mugabe is unable to repent. If you pray for someone, you must believe, however unlikely, that God still has power to change their hearts; you have not yet given up on them. This truly is a theory of justice that seeks to restore.
That was the broad idea of the archbishop’s talk. However, there was one more aspect that particularly struck me. At one point, the archbishop said, “Jesus told us, ‘my yoke is heavy and my burden light.’ If it’s feeling heavy, you’re probably carrying the wrong load.” The archbishop is certainly not a proponent of easy Christianity; he has risked his life and lost loved ones for the Gospel. But still he is able to say that Jesus’ burden on us should feel light. He told the story of how his father once offered to give a ride to a boy who was walking to town with a large parcel on his head. The boy put his load down to get into the truck, but as soon as he was seated he picked it back up and put it on his head again. This is what we do to God, too. We’re so in love with our own fortitude and moral effort that we won’t allow him to take our burden off us. Perhaps if we were more willing to trust God with the weight of impossible forgiveness, restorative justice would not seem so far out of our reach.