Editor’s Introduction April/May 2022: Restorative Justice: Prospects for Transformation & Penitence

[1] On January 6, 2022, the Lutheran Ethicists gathered by Zoom before the virtual annual meeting of the Society for Christian Ethics.  The topic was about the nature and possibility of justice in America after nearly 250 years of slavery and not quite 160 years of post-slavery systemic racism.  This issue of JLE presents the written essays that were presented at the Gathering.

[2] The first presentation, by Dr. Richard Perry, explained through examples in recent American history the different types of Justice we might seek: retributive, distributive, and restorative.  In this essay explaining this vocabulary of Justice, Perry reveals the deep ropes of injustice that continue to bind us even as he calls out with faith in a Just God who promises restoration.

[3] The second presentation, by Dr. Ted Smith, set forth a plan for reparations.  Smith’s call, however, comes only after a careful analysis of the way the past sins of slavery still affect the wealth and opportunity of Black Americans and, thus, the continued responsibility for racism that white Americans must acknowledge.  This is especially true as new systems of oppression are being constructed and new acts of racism are continually being performed. Smith is clear that reparations will not satisfy the requirements of retributive, distributive, or restorative justice.  No act can justify or wipe clean the hearts of those who have been tainted with the legacy of slavery and the continuing of racist oppression.  Rather, he argues reparations, done as an act of love towards neighbor, can affect good in the world. And that is what we are called to do.

[4] At one point during the question and answer period during the Gathering, someone asked in earnest why we can’t at least make a pledge to stop new racist laws from being passed, for example stop voting rules aimed to suppress minority voices.  The answer is bound up in the truths these essays tell.  The sins of the past continue to affect the actions of those who live today.  We are bound and cannot free ourselves.  These two essays help readers reckon with that truth.

[5] Reckoning with sin is what we are called to do in this dark Lenten period.  This year, the lengthening of days offers little solace to a world entering its third year of the pandemic, a world at war, and a world staring at a future of climate change.  Our children do not deserve to live in a world so plagued by the sins of their parents and grandparents.  But as these essays explain, this is their world, and they will be shaped by it.

[6] Admitting that is important in several ways.  Occasionally, I have parents call me in my office where I work as a college administrator and complain that they feel their children are learning too much about slavery and racism.  “I don’t want my daughter being crushed with guilt for things that happened before she was born.”   I feel for their concern even as I mourn more for those parents who call in anxiety that their child will not be accepted and welcomed on our predominantly white campus as a student of color.  Why should our children have to grow up in a society where they are so tightly bound by the structures of racism that they are bound to suffer their affects or contribute to their perpetuity?  These essays don’t explain why, but they do explain that it simply is the case.

[7] Finding ways to seek faithful and loving actions will not fully restore our world nor save our neighbors from murderous racism or crushing guilt.  But yet we are called to do them in love even so. And in doing so, we may hope for a new order when our children will no longer have their teeth set on edge by their grandparent’s eating of sour grapes.

Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.