An “anarchist” genius to restorative justice?

One of my abiding interests during and after my time studying restorative justice at CJP with Howard Zehr was the influence of Anabaptist-Mennonite thought and practice in the formation of the modern restorative justice movement.

Howard has gone on record as saying his intellectual formation was influenced in part by the late Mennonite pacifist theologian, John Howard Yoder. And while I’ve never picked Howard’s brain about the particulars of this influence, I continue to look for hints and echoes of Yoder’s thought in the vision for restorative justice that Howard taught me.

One thing I’ve picked up on that Howard seems to have affirmed in one of my published writings on this topic is the Anabaptist suspicion of the state, rooted in the early movement’s historical experience of persecution in the 16th century at the hands of magisterial church-state arrangements in Western Europe. This suspicion of the state and its “wielding of the sword”/”carrying out justice” is one thing that I have argued influenced the formation of the modern restorative justice movement, and is an abiding critique that remains in restorative justice as I’ve received it.

(More positively, I’ve argued that it was Anabaptists’ theological and social imagination that made it possible for Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s to come up with programs that would eventually get called “restorative justice.”)

But back to that suspicion of the state. This is what I think connects Anabaptism and restorative justice to yet another movement: anarchism. In a recent post on his Thinking Pacifism blog, Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud surveys a very compelling paper on the thought of John Howard Yoder and various forms of anarchism, written by Ted Troxell, a professor at Central Michigan University.

Troxell argues that earlier forms of anarchism held a deep suspicion/cynicism toward the state, and often actively sought its abolition. More recent developments in the field of anarchism, however, namely postanarchism, take a less antagonistic and more nuanced and tactical (rather than strategic) approach to realizing anarchism’s positive aims: “freedom and…decentralized ways of organizing social life,” as Grimsrud points out. And this is where Troxell see’s Yoder’s thought connecting, i.e. in postanarchism.

Yoder’s radical theological commitments led him to what Troxell calls a:

structural indifference to the state: it is not that the state is unimportant or inconsequential on a practical level, but that neither the existence of the state nor the particular shape it takes is the primary locus of the community’s political considerations. (47, Troxell’s emphasis)

Grimsrud then argues:

When the focus is on constructing decentralized spaces to be humane more than concentrated efforts at overthrowing the state, the emphasis will be on the practices that sustain that humaneness—another point of close connection between Yoder’s thought and postanarchism.

And now we come full circle to restorative justice. RJ has been described as a more humane response (than the state’s response) to wrongdoing and harm done in families, communities, and societies. Perhaps there are rich possibilities in further unpacking the intersection of Yoderian-Anabaptist theology and (post)anarchism, and their intersection with restorative justice (hence the question mark in the title).

Perhaps this is also some of what animates the recent debates on this blog between Carl Stauffer and Ross London, re: the “mainstreaming” of RJ. I’ll leave it to others to further explore this tension…

[Brian R. Gumm is a graduate of EMU’s CJP & Seminary and is a minister in the Church of the Brethren. His past RJ experience includes community corrections programs – Circles of Support and a creative writers workshop – in the state of Iowa. He blogs regularly at Restorative Theology, where this reflection originally appeared, and can be found on Twitter: @bgumm.]