Restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition

October 23rd, 2013 by Howard Zehr in Criminal Justice

I recently had occasion to reflect on some of the points of resonance between restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition.  I am particularly grateful for the help of my friend Sujatha Baliga in this.

As a Mennonite, I grew up in a family and a tradition of nonviolence and peacemaking, and knew something of Gandhi.  However, it was as a student at Morehouse College, during the civil rights era, that I engaged more deeply.  It was there that my understanding of the Gandhian tradition was mediated through the work and example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom I had the privilege to meet), Dr. Vincent Harding (a long-time influence on my life), my professors and the civil rights activists with whom I came in contact.

Many observers (and not only those within what has been called the “peacemaking criminology” tradition) have noted that our criminal justice system is based on, and enforced by, violence or the threat of violence.  Political scientists often point out that the basis of the modern state is the “legitimate monopoly on violence.” The criminal justice system is a major player in enacting and expressing this:  “You’ve harmed us, so we will harm you.”

Quinny and Wildeman, in their book The Problem of Punishment, note that from its beginning in the 18th century Enlightenment, the primary focus of criminology has been on retribution and punishment: “Historically, the focal concerns of western criminology have not centered on the themes of personal peace and social justice…. We have had a reactionary criminology of violence and repression in the defense of an existing social order rather than a criminology of peace, justice and liberation.”

Thanks to Sujatha, I will focus my observations around three words associated with Gandhi:

1.  Ahimsa, often translated as “nonviolence,” should not be a negative.  Rather, it refers to positive action grounded in a worldview of respect for one another, a vision of how we live together.  Likewise, restorative justice is based on respect.  It too represents positive actions of caring for one another, for our needs, and our relationships.  It reflects a vision of how we live together, steeped in values such as respect, responsibility and relationship.

In my religious tradition, it is expressed in what I call the “Shalom triangle” – a reminder that we are called to live in right relationship with each other, with the Creation and the Creator.

2.  Swaraj refers to the concept of self-rule.  The Gandhian movement emphasized self governance, both personally and socially.  Similarly, restorative justice argues that individuals and communities have the potential and the resources to govern themselves.  In its practices, it encourages both individuals and communities to call upon their best selves.  Restorative justice is, or should be, about helping individuals and communities develop their capacity for self-governance.

3.  Satyayraha, probably the best-known of these terms, is often translated as nonviolent resistance. However, it is better translated as “truth force,” or action through truth.  Like ahimsa, it is a positive, not a negative.  Restorative justice too represents encouragement toward truth-telling and truth-seeking.  While the criminal justice system, and our disciplinary policies generally, often discourage a holistic telling of the truth, restorative justice encourages it.

I will end with three quotes attributed to Gandhi.

1.  The first is well known:  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” – a critique of revenge and retribution.

2.  “Be the change you wish to see.”  It is not clear that Gandhi said exactly that, but he did say something similar:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”[1]

We see this happening in restorative justice conferences and circles.  Restorative justice asks us to be this change – to live it, practice it – as practitioners and as participants.  Many argue that restorative justice represents a way of life.

3.  “That action alone is just which does not harm either party to a dispute.”  This, like restorative justice, represents a direct challenge to the prevailing criminology of violence.


[1] Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi , vol. 19 (Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division, 1958), 233; quoted in Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 342.