Retribution or restoration?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. — Matthew 5, 38-40

After the abo­li­tion of apartheid in South Africa, the groups that were pre­vi­ous­ly opposed to each oth­er had to find a way to deal with the past. For this, the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion was estab­lished, led by Desmond Tutu. There had been so many human rights vio­la­tions that it was impos­si­ble to build crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion cas­es against all per­pe­tra­tors. In order to still find out the truth, the com­mis­sion offered amnesty if some­one would tell hon­est­ly what they had done. This was often in front of (fam­i­ly of) the vic­tims. In this way, there was recog­ni­tion of the crime, and per­pe­tra­tors asked for for­give­ness. Between 1996 and 2000, the Com­mis­sion heard thou­sands of vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors (an exam­ple is the sto­ry of the mur­der of four men from Cradock).

Desmond Tutu writes:

Gen­uine rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is based on for­give­ness, and for­give­ness is based on true con­fes­sion, and con­fes­sion is based on penance, repen­tance, grief about what you’ve done.

By just say­ing “what has been, has been,” you do not come to terms with what hap­pened, you can­not leave the past behind like that. How can you for­give if you do not know who and what you need to forgive?

The work of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion is an exam­ple of restora­tive jus­tice instead of ret­ribu­tive jus­tice. It is aims to restore rather than to pun­ish. This res­onates with an old penal sys­tem in the African ubun­tu phi­los­o­phy, where rela­tions between peo­ple were the key. The amnesty that was offered was not an end in itself but a means to restore relationships.


It so hap­pens that I will prob­a­bly per­son­al­ly gain expe­ri­ence in this area. A few weeks ago my bike was stolen at the sta­tion in Gilling­ham. Because the police caught the thief in the act, I had my bike back on the same evening. So con­grat­u­la­tions to Kent Police, and even more so because they want to apply Restora­tive Jus­tice in this case. Over the next month I will be invit­ed for that. I’m curious!

This Lent I am writ­ing about break­ing down walls of hos­til­i­ty; part­ly on the basis of a book by Belousek. Many, prob­a­bly all, peo­ple feel that restora­tive jus­tice con­flicts with an instinc­tive cry for ret­ri­bu­tion. Belousek sees this as a human char­ac­ter­is­tic that is ’tamed’ God in the Torah to a pro­por­tion­al exchange: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. But Jesus makes it clear that God does not ask for ret­ri­bu­tion. You should treat oth­ers, not as they have treat­ed you, but as you would have them treat you. In that way we can break the vicious cir­cle of retaliation.


  • Desmond Tutu, 2004. God has a dream, A vision of hope for our time
  • Dar­rin W. Sny­der Belousek, 2011, Atone­ment, Jus­tice and Peace