A Fire In The Center


New Gloucester, Maine

I had a dream last night. It was about justice. I’m sure it was prompted by the ACLU of Maine Award Dinner I attended earlier in the evening. There were stories told of justice, the struggle and the fight for it, on the behalf of individuals and of groups. On the drive home I felt proud to be a lawyer.

Anyway, my dream last night was both vivid and formless. I woke from it searching for a metaphor – not for justice as we know it, but for Restorative Justice, that toddler trying so hard to find its legs.

I showered, and as I scrubbed my arms and legs I thought of the elephant and the blind men, and how each believed that what they touched was the whole truth. In the daydream of my shower I saw one man holding tight to the tail. He proclaimed that he had found it, that school conferencing was Restorative Justice and that Bethlehem, PA is the holy city. A second man grabbed a leg, asserting that victim-offender dialogue is Restorative Justice. A third man clutched another leg, shouting out that Youth Court is RJ. Another man said it’s community restorative boards and a fifth said it’s restorative circles. A sixth man, riding on top of the great beast, said that restorative conferencing is what Restorative Justice is all about.

I finished my shower, dried and dressed but wasn’t satisfied. The elephant story was incomplete. It spoke of processes but was lacking in some way.

I remembered the passage from John: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Perhaps Restorative Justice is like a house where place is as important as process. In my mind’s eye I could see a mansion, with long hallways and rooms of various sizes and uses throughout. I opened one door after another. There were schools, churches, workplaces, neighborhoods, justice systems, jails and prisons. Each one a place in need of healing and an opportunity for Restorative Justice.

I liked this image but I’m not sure that Jesus had such a dwelling in mind. It’s too western and too segregated. Maybe a Mediterranean house provides a better image, with its doors opening to a common courtyard. Or perhaps better yet is the image of an African or Navajo village with thatched huts and teepees opening to the communal fire. In the village everyone participates in the life of the community, whether to celebrate a wedding, give honor to the passing of an elder, or meet in a circle to weigh the impact of a harm inflicted by one on another.

And then the young Perceval came to mind and the search for the Holy Grail. It could be that the Grail myth is an appropriate metaphor for Restorative Justice, unattainable and yet worth pursuing. The Grail was thought to be a container for what is most precious. For the Celts it was a symbol of plenty and for early Christians it symbolized eternal life. Psychologically it’s a symbol for wholeness never to be completely realized.

A few years ago I took a course on advanced issues in Restorative Justice. There was great discussion about what Restorative Justice is, is not, and what it could be. Near the end of one class Howard Zehr commented that he had long thought of Restorative Justice as a flame or spark, that it informs our work without defining it.

Maybe that’s why the image of an indigenous village resonates – the communal circle around a fire in the center.

– Fred Van Liew