Archive for December, 2011

Warning: Christian Theological Stuff Ahead. Not for all tastes…

I – A Song from My Childhood (and a question)

Among my earliest memories.

I will sing of my Redeemer,

And His wondrous love to me;

On the cruel cross He suffered,

From the curse to set me free.

Sing, oh, sing of my Redeemer,

With His blood He purchased me,

On the cross He sealed my pardon,

Paid the debt, and made me free.


Question: To whom did the Redeemer pay the debt that purchased/pardoned/liberated me?

Everyone knows (or assumes they know) what happened in Davis on that Friday afternoon (given that it has all gone “viral” there is no need to rehash the events here). And most people have an idea about what needs to happen now.

But do we really know what happened beyond what our eyes and ears reveal? And what should we do about it? Is it too late to ask these questions?

Beyond the warnings, the chants, the spraying, the crying, the inevitable accusations, condemnations, denials, apologies, calls for resignations and appointment of commissions to investigate it all lies the reality of what happened to everyone involved. What happened is that something broke—or something already cracked finally gave way, or something fragile was finally shattered. The “something” that broke was relationships. Relationships that sustain a community and nurture it to enable its members to do things that none of them (none of us), individually, could do alone.

We talk a great deal about “community” but simultaneously seem unable to define what it takes to build it; uncertain what to do when it breaks down; ill equipped to rebuild it when it lies shattered at our feet. And so we stand around the broken relationships of that day and we avert our eyes, raise our voices and demand relief—from someone, from somewhere—relief that will soothe our brokenness and make the pain and uncertainty go away.

If what really happened on that day is that relationships were broken (and yes, laws may have been broken—I am not saying they were not) then what should we do about it?

In our world justice has come to mean a few things that are pretty clear to all of us.  When we all understand something then none of us really question it or the premises on which it rests.  This is the case here, I believe. To us, justice means 1) discovering if laws were broken; 2) finding who is responsible if they were; 3) trying the accused according to norms that assume innocence until guilt is proven; 4) punishing the guilty if the guilt is demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.

More deeply, however, justice has come to mean that those found guilty should be removed from among us (Resign! Fire him/her!). And while we are learning that we can’t do this forever—building more jails and putting more people in them seems to solve little while its costs are enormous (and not just financially so)—we are so deeply committed to this way of thinking about justice that we cannot imagine viable alternatives. “Someone must pay!” has come to mean “Someone must leave!”

But perhaps more importantly than these points is how we define the “victim” in our current justice system.  As it currently stands, in criminal cases it is the state, not the actual victim of a crime, who is the victim. The offender’s offence is against the state and the state determines both the guilt and the punishment. In this world the true victim plays a bit role—serving the needs of the offended state as a witness or silent bystander to whom the state points as part of the revealing of evidence. Our system shunts the victim aside with vague promises of “closure” if/when a guilty verdict is announced.

It is important to keep these realities in mind as we return to Davis and revisit what really happened on that sad day. The victims were a group of students who by most people’s reckoning had violence perpetrated against them by the campus police force with the tacit or explicit support of their superiors.

[Some may object that I am proclaiming guilt before due process has taken its course but I think I am on safe ground because one of the “superiors” in question—the University Chancellor—apologized publicly after the event saying she felt “horrible for what happened.”  I know, I know, that was not an admission of guilt that would stand up in any court. But let us be honest and not hide behind process here.  Let us acknowledge that in that very human act of apologizing the Chancellor admitted that wrongs were done.  True, the wrongs were not named and the whole thing was stated in very general terms, but you and I know what was going on here.  Further, I am not suggesting that victims were engaging in legal behavior—I am not exonerating them of wrongdoing.  I am merely saying excessive force was used in an injurious way.  That, I would argue, was wrong even if no court of law says so.]

But in addition to those who bore the brunt of the force, the victims also include the entire community which now finds itself riven by doubt about the role of an entity that it had, heretofore, assumed was in place to protect it.  Please do not mistake my meaning here: I am not appealing to some sloppy sense that “we are all victims.”  Rather, I am acknowledging that when a very public act of violence is committed against members of our community—whether we agree with them or their lifestyles or their choices—that violence affects all of us.  In this way we, along with all those involved become part of a broken thing—the broken relationships that cause us pain, outrage and doubts about whether we can ever make this broken thing whole.

The question we must ask is whether the assumptions and practices of our extant justice system will serve the needs of a broken community; of the victims who have physically healed from the violence but bear its scars; of offenders who also have needs along with responsibilities; of the students, employees and leaders of UC Davis and citizens of our city who struggle to know what to do now given a new and more troubling understanding of the fragility of order in our small town.

It will do us no good for the state to determine that it is the victim and must try the offenders away from us and deal with them in its way. We need a justice system that has the potential to bring the victims and the offenders together so that

1) The victims can tell their story, be honest about their anger, their hurt and how they feel wronged;

2) The offenders can acknowledge the wrongs they have committed;

3) The two can agree on a plan for how the offenders can make things right;

4) The relationships that lie in tatters can be restored.

We need restorative justice: justice that seeks to reestablish relationship by assuring that the wrongs that occurred are named and corrected. This can only happen if we all commit to a process of listening, of discovery and learning. Does the state have a role in this at all?  I believe it does. A creative Attorney General or District Attorney with the help of a wise judge could encourage the parties to seek the help of a professional victim/offender conference facilitator (I will not say “mediator” because that assumes two groups with equal standing, that is not the case here).  The state can agree to abide by the decisions that the parties come to and step in only if the two cannot reach a mutual agreement.

Restorative justice will allow victims to get information they need—most importantly perhaps answers to the questions: “How and why did the police respond this way? Why did they hurt us?”

Restorative justice demands accountability of the offenders. In this case that would be the police officers who used force, the police chief who was negligent or actively promoted the use of force, the Vice Chancellor who (tacitly or explicitly) supported or was willfully ignorant of what the police planned, and the Chancellor who ordered their removal and was, again either willfully ignorant or in support of the actions taken.

Restorative justice will allow the community to grow in its sense of community and be empowered to engage more actively in healing and restoration in the future.

In the end, restorative justice says that offences are a violation of relationships, that these violations create obligations and that the central obligation is to right the wrongs committed. May we find a way through the brokenness brought on by this event so we can develop the tools to truly build community at our university and in our city.

Much more needs to be said about the offenders—the fact that they are people, that their lives, too, have been fundamentally altered by the choices they made. Much more also needs to be said about the role of the “institution”—UC Davis. While we point to the Chancellor and the police as the perpetrators of violence we must also consider how the institution of which they are a part conditions and constrains their ability to act (and react) to situations like the one in which we find ourselves.  More on these issues later, perhaps.

For more on restorative justice principles see: The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr.