Marshall, Christopher D. Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.
I am in the middle of writing a dissertation on transitional justice and teaching a three-month Sunday school class on biblical justice. In both of those endeavors Christopher Marshall’s work has proven to be vital. In his previous books on biblical justice as restorative justice (Beyond Retribution and The Little Book of Biblical Justice), Marshall has proven himself to be a world-class scholar of both the Bible and of the restorative justice movement. His work on this subject has influenced theologians, ethicists, and even political scientists to begin speaking of justice after crime and violence in primarily restorative rather than retributive terms. (For example, see the work of theologian John W. de Gruchy and political scientist Daniel Philpott.) Thus, I was very excited to read Marshall’s newest contribution to this topic.
In Compassionate Justice Marshall examines two of Jesus’s parables (The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son) through the lenses of restorative justice, and suggests that reading the parables through such lenses can influence contemporary justice practices. Here Marshall flexes his interdisciplinary muscles by engaging in critical biblical scholarship and dialoguing with the most recent scholarship in law and criminology. Marshall’s basic argument is that these parables are stories of justice as restoration rather than simply stories of mercy. Thus, Jesus teaches us the importance of compassion in justice by telling these stories.
The basic thrust of the restorative justice movement is that criminal justice should focus more on the needs of victims and the restoration of ruptured relationships than the mere punishment of offenders. Generally speaking, western legal systems understand justice as the punishment of criminals or, more metaphysically, the balancing of the cosmic scales of justice by inflicting an appropriate amount of pain and/or shame on those who have caused pain/shame. Crime, in this general framework, is understood primarily as a violation against the state or a cosmic scale of justice. Against this understanding, restorative justice advocates and practitioners argue that crime is primarily harm done to persons and relationships rather than primarily harm done to the state. Thus, justice is primarily the righting of the wrongs done to persons and relationships and not primarily about wrongs done to the state.
Reading Jesus’s two most famous parables through the lenses of restorative justice, then, highlights the ways that these parables are about the restoration of persons and relationships. Jesus teaches that what is required in instances of injury is the restoration of those persons/relationships that have been injured. For example, in the story of the good Samaritan we see the Samaritan take steps to make right all of those things that were made wrong. Where the robbed man is ignored the Samaritan gives him attention. Where he is robbed the Samaritan provides for him financially. Where he is physically injured the Samaritan provides for his physical healing. Where he is left in the elements the Samaritan provides him with shelter. It is not just that the Samaritan shows the robbed man mercy, but he meets the exact needs that arise from the injustice he endured. In this, the Samaritan engages in restorative justice.
In a similar manner, Marshall shows us how the father in the story of the prodigal son restores the son to his proper relationship as a son. The way that Jesus tells the story makes it clear that the prodigal does great harm to his relationship with his father (and his brother). In an honor/shame society the prodigal’s actions serve to sever the parent-child relationship he has with his father. Thus, when he is starving in a far-away country he can only imagine returning to his father’s house as a servant. However, his father restores him to the status of son by his treatment of him upon return. Similarly, the prodigal’s brother refuses to even call him brother but refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” However, the father pleads with the brother to accept the prodigal as a brother. The story, then, can be read as a story of the restoration of relationship – as a story of restorative justice.
Importantly, both of these parables highlight the place of compassion for the restoration of relationship and the doing of justice. Marshall, therefore, argues for a place for compassion in justice. Arguing primarily with Annalise Acorn’s book Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice, Marshall employs these parables, as well as his vast knowledge of the literature in restorative justice, to argue for the appropriateness of compassion in criminal justice.
The book is interdisciplinary, well-researched, and accessible. It continues Marshall’s important contributions both to biblical studies and restorative justice. Anyone interested in biblical studies, criminal and restorative justice, reconciliation, and methods in interdisciplinary scholarship should read this book. It receives my strongest recommendation.