What do restorative justice and revenge have in common?

When I wrote Changing Lenses in the 1980s, I positioned the concepts of retributive and restorative justice as opposites.  Later, in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, I acknowledged that this was not always helpful and, in fact, masked some important commonalities between their underling assumptions.   Now I want to go further and explore the connection between revenge and restorative justice.  Before you gasp and close this page, stay with me.  I’m not trying to rehabilitate the practice of revenge or retribution.  Nor is my intention to discount the importance of forgiveness.  I do want to explore an underlying link between them, however.

I’m drawing here on ideas sparked by reading an evolutionary psychologist (Michael McCullough, Beyond Revenge), a law professor and Nordic historian (William Ian Miller, Humiliation and An Eye for an Eye) and a novelist (Margaret Atwood, Payback).

Retribution, revenge and forgiveness all seem to reflect a basic human sense of fairness, of balance and reciprocity, thus a fundamental need to “balance the score.”  According to McCullough, all three have been functional throughout human history.  Although I don’t have space to explore this here, he in fact argues that all three have contributed to human cooperation.  As Atwood notes, for example, the instinct for “payback” is the basis for debit and credit that makes our economy possible.

Some quick definitions:  Retribution is an effort to make right the wrong, balance the score, with some semblance of proportionality and limit (an eye for an eye in the book of Leviticus).  Revenge is retribution “plus” – it tries to right wrongs by going beyond proportionality (the “Law of Lemech” in Genesis).  The definition of forgiveness is more contested but for now I’ll use that offered by Dutch law professor Herman Bianchi:  it is letting go of the difference between what can be restored and what cannot.  Part of what is in the balance here are issues of humiliation and honor.  McCullough says that historically forgiveness is most likely among people who know and care for each other, and revenge is often directed toward those who are more distant.

I have heard prisoners as well as residents of our inner cities talk about what it takes to survive in their violent environments.  If they are wronged, they feel they have to over-react.  Only by being seen as irrationally violent will they be safe from future attacks.  In this perception, only the threat of revenge can provide safety in a lawless environment.  This, says, McCullough, has been one of the functions of revenge historically:  to provide some semblance of safety in situations where “pacified social spaces” don’t exist. This is, however, a very shaky and dangerous state.  

Structures of retribution such as criminal justice systems, with their emphasis on a measured, proportional, response are one effort – though far from ideal – to provide such pacified social spaces.  We are less likely to take things into our own hands when we know that some kind of justice will be done, when balance and honor will be restored.

What does this tell us about justice?  One important implication is that when a wrong occurs, we need a response that acknowledges the wrong and in some way balances the score.  To be balanced, however, it seems essential that the resulting obligation must be costly for offenders; given the pain and harm, if the offenders action isn’t difficult, it doesn’t feel satisfying.  (See also Aaron Lazare, On Apology, for an important discussion of this.)

McCullough argues that we are used to labeling revenge feelings as bad and forgiveness as good; we then ask people to go against their vengeful tendencies and to forgive.  However, if it is true that revenge and forgiveness are both deeply embedded and sometimes functional, this is unlikely to be successful in many cases – at least without the kind of commitments that our religious traditions represent.  Rather, he says, we have to create a context that encourages forgiveness and makes revenge unnecessary or undesirable.   While espousing the value of forgiveness may help, it can also set up resistance.  Structures for safety and justice that meet people’s needs and help them to learn to know “the other” can create an environment where revenge is rejected and some measure of forgiveness may be possible. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system does this poorly – thus the origins of the restorative justice movement.

Let me be clear: I believe that forgiveness can be tremendously healing.  It is a process, though, not a state, and it must be chosen rather than imposed.  And it is much easier to choose this road when our needs – including our needs for vindication – are met.  Furthermore, in my view restorative justice does not turn on whether forgiveness occurs.  Rather, it is about about meeting needs, addressing obligations, an involving those impacted in the process and outcome.

Revenge, by the way, according to Atwood comes from the Latin vindicare – to justify or liberate.  To take revenge is one way to liberate oneself of the feelings of anger and dishonor.  The score that needs to be settled is a pyshic sore, a wound to the soul.  But tit-for-tat, she says, leads to rat-a-tat-tat, an endless chain of violence.  Courts of law are one attempt to end the chain, though they often leave a bitter taste.  Forgiveness is another.   I would add restorative justice processes as a third option and this may or may not involve forgiveness as such.

What does all of this mean for restorative justice?  First, it means that we need to take seriously the need for those who have been harm to be vindicated – for the wrong to be acknowledged, honor restored, and efforts to be made – preferably by the one who offended – to make amends.  This acknowledgment and efforts toward amends by the one who offended must be costly – it can’t be glib or easy.  Justice is about balance. 

To be truly restorative, then, our processes must provide safety, vindication and balance for those victimized but also provide an environment that humanizes the “other.”  This is the core of restorative justice:  repairing harm, meeting needs, carrying out obligations, engaging those who are part of the situation.  Sometimes – often  – the dynamics of apology and forgiveness take place but I see this as a possible byproduct of a process designed first of all to meet the needs of all those involved.