Sunday, December 9, 2012

Awakening: A Reflection On Restorative Justice, Religion and Racism

Introduction To An Awakening 

The path of my spiritual progression over the past few years has coincided quite closely with my overall awareness in what we in the West would normally consider more "intellectual" and "sociopolitical" areas. It is notable that we so often take special care to delineate the differences between the categories. The truth is that increased awareness corresponds quite closely with a clarity that illuminates the true interconnectedness of all facets of the universe. This is not a new idea, yet many are coming to the realization for the first time, and in that sense it seems particularly progressive. Rupert Ross (2006) is just one of many who have looked at ancient religious traditions - in his case among the aboriginal First Nations peoples of North America - and determined that the interconnectedness of the universe is not only expressed in their beliefs, but in their language, and in the way they experience community. With a language void of nouns, it is impossible to apply labels to people such as "criminal" or "black" that have had historical traumatic meanings for human beings in the United States. Rather, a noun-less language allows for descriptions of bad or "criminal" actions as a sign of being out of balance with the universe - and further allows for greater equality in viewing "other" human beings.

My own spiritual path has progressed along a study of Islam that has actually been going on for many years
now. I have been slowly studying the Qur'an and reading scholarly interpretations of the religion for quite some time. But recently I have become more vocal about these studies as I've become particularly inspired by Sufi mysticism and its meaning for making sense of events that have occurred in my own life - such as a 

definite experience of something bigger than myself when I first awoke after a near-fatal car accident in 2009. I have no doubt that there was divinity in that experience, as it has changed me in drastic ways regarding my purpose and worldview - which is now people focused versus career advancement - as well as my ability to live a disciplined, clean and sober life. What this means for me personally as far as religious commitment (to any faith) is another question. I don't feel advanced enough in my awareness, and further, the level of clarity that I believe has been granted by divinity has given me the sense that I need to use the resources at my disposal to take in more of where my heart is in relation to the religion of Islam - and specifically Sufi mysticism. Yet what draws me to Sufi mysticism - perhaps even the primary attraction for me - is its ability to focus on equality, justice, the true condition of the heart, and the pluralism it recognizes and honors in all who seek towards ultimate truth.  This is a much more accurate vision of the heart (metaphorically and literally) of Islam that is sorely needed in light of the blatant Islamophobia that is present in modern day American society.    Mysticism is a form of metaphysical awareness that seeks to unite rather than divide, that looks for common ground with other forms of spiritual higher awareness, and that discards any conception of a human vision of what the term "God" or "divinity" even means. That last point has been key for me, as I know there is something bigger than myself - even if now I only view it as the simple but profound energy of love - that I can see everyone relating to in some respect, and this includes atheists.

Restorative Justice As A Universal Principle 

I present this backdrop for a reason as I intend to show how the concept of Restorative Justice - which is one that seeks to restore or unify broken relationships out of past wrongs - so closely connects to an overall vision of love as well as any religion/ideology/basic belief that expresses love as the ultimate awareness. This semester - my final in the classroom for my MA studies in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University - I've had the privilege of studying under the man who many refer to as "The Grandfather of Restorative Justice", Howard Zehr. 

Zehr's focus has been on the criminal justice system, which is very much broken in the United States and the world writ large, and how a concept of restoration of broken relationships rather than punishment is much more in tune with the universal love that we can all sense in our lives if we allow ourselves. This restoration is not an easy process, and it must be grounded in an advanced awareness to be facilitated properly as well as implemented in the larger society. This is where my studies of Islam and Sufism have brought greater clarity to the concept of Restorative Justice, in that Islam promotes awareness of right relation to divinity. 

Restorative Justice and Racism in America 

I am especially interested in Restorative Justice as it relates to racial divisions that are still very much alive in the United States. Zehr's focus on criminal justice is perhaps appropriate as a point of departure when discussing the historical treatment of Black Americans. Zehr himself has attempted to reach across the divide by enrolling in Morehouse College and becoming the first white graduate in 1965. He did so (as I understand it) for a couple of reasons, one of which was to support the Civil Rights Movement . Secondly, I believe he intended to show solidarity and a desire to right the broken societal relations in America that have existed for hundreds of years in the dehumanization of an entire segment of our population. The Civil Rights movement was certainly a part of this attempt at restoration, but it was only one step in the process, and this is very important to understand, and is also something that I believe is lost on most Americans today.

The attempts at breaking and replacing oppressive racist structures in American society did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, nor did it end with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Yet, for all practical purposes, it would appear that way to any observer of our country over the past five decades. After those two figures were murdered, we suddenly seemed to have advanced to a "colorblind" society in our discourse, and any attempts at further restoration of broken national relations between groups and classes of people - particularly whites and blacks - was pushed aside and deemed irrelevant in a "post-racial" Western world.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and one only needs to look at the prison system demographics, the War on Drugs, and the continued existence of gentrification, denial of equal opportunities in jobs and education and inner-city ghettoes to see that our systemic structures are still very much in place. They may in fact be stronger than before the Civil Rights legislation as they are now taboo to discuss, yet more complex and subtle in their manifestations. Attempting to zero in on one part of the structure of modern-day racism makes it difficult to describe the factors surrounding that particular structure as purely racist. For example, while it is true that black people are prosecuted at a much higher rate for drug offenses than whites (despite equal if not more use of drugs by whites), it is hard to pin down where the specific fault lies (Alexander, 2012). Is it with the judge's sentence? The police officer who used racial profiling to arrest the black drug offender? Or the increased patrolling of black neighborhoods by policemen? All are certainly contributing factors, but are very difficult to prove in isolated observation. It is only the view of the whole that gives us a sense of clarity as to what's going on.

Malcolm, Martin, Islam, Christianity, Justice, Love and Revolution 

Malcolm X was a man who recognized all this, even before the War on Drugs, and called this American racism exactly what it was - the product of a nation built on lies (X, 1965). Malcolm - along with black society as a whole - recognized that a nation that claimed to be based on freedom of not only peoples but markets, yet had a foundation of slave labor as the reason for its vast wealth, was one that was living with a dissonance or tension in the national consciousness. Many had seen this of course - particularly blacks - but Malcolm was the first to articulate it in not only an eloquent fashion, but one that was to the point and easily understandable by the masses. In fact, it was all too understandable for whites, and Malcolm derived much of his passion for justice and equality from his religion, which of course was Islam (X, 1965).
Islam not only represented the moral integrity in Malcolm's life, but it also provided a framework from which to formulate and articulate the necessary steps that would need to happen for America to restore itself in right relationship to the black community (Cone, 1990). He called for the destruction of the white way of life, and in this sense has echoed Black Liberation Theologians such as James Cone (1970). This destruction was not meant to kill whites existentially, but to kill whiteness as an oppressive condition in our society. Granted, Malcolm believed that solidarity and unity must first happen within the black community, but this was only so the oppressed could be as one in their understanding. This understanding was an awareness of what needed to take place to restore their full dignity as human beings in a racist society (X, 1965). After the unity of the black community, as reflected in Malcolm's later years, then anyone with a vision of a unified, equal, restored society could participate in the struggle. For the revolutionary struggle against racism and oppression is a world-wide battle, not one that is limited to one race. By virtue of the revolutionary ideal of restoring right relations between divided or hierarchical classifications of human beings, the true revolutionary resonates with the universal ideals of love, equality, justice, and in this case, restorative justice.

Malcolm understood this, and further understood that his religion of Islam emphasized this same vision of justice and equality. The true spirit of revolution against oppression recognizes this as well. This is one of the main reasons that Islam was so attractive to Malcolm, as the Western Christianity that he knew (and that I know as well) had been co-opted by white power structures for increased subjugation and even justification of oppressing an entire race of people. Further, this racist view of Christianity has expanded to foreign dominance of nations deemed inferior to our own in our vast grasp for resources - a fact recognized by both Malcolm X and notably MLK at the end of his life (King, 1992).

 In this sense, that religion must be destroyed (Cone, 1970). This is not saying that Christianity as a whole needs to be destroyed, as so many misinterpret this statement, but only that the version of Christianity that has developed out of a racist society built on a foundation of lies, enslavement, murder, imperialist expansion and illegal wars, and their often religious justifications, and the continued idea of a "chosen people" needs to be destroyed for racism to be destroyed as well.

Jesus, Mohammed, and all the great prophets, figures of divinity and teachers of ancient love traditions, religions and philosophies recognized this. A society built on lies will be corrupt throughout its entire structure. Certainly there is much good in America, but that good will always be tainted with the dissonance of racism, until these past wrongs are restored to proper relationship. What this means empirically might involve a movement of a revolutionary nature, but at the very least it must begin with America being honest with itself once and for all. The principles of the universal truth of love demand this. The great religious traditions demand this. Restorative Justice in its philosophical and existential reality demands this. Our own Constitution demands this.

Further, it is important to understand that this revolutionary re-structuring of American society will have to run quite deep. I'm not calling for violence, lest anyone misinterpret me. I consider myself a practitioner of nonviolence, but at the same time am not an absolutist in that respect. World conditions in the present day have shown me that nonviolence does not work in all situations. What I am calling for is a total restructuring of our society to rid this scourge of racism that has never gone away, but has only become stronger and more entrenched the longer we refuse to deal with the lies and the longer we refuse to own our past. This re-structuring will involve American Christianity writ large, as well as a re-structuring of our political and economic system. The latter is perhaps irrevocably corrupted and in need of a complete overhaul or overthrow and/or collapse. As for American Christianity, there are elements of the church that are already leading the revolutionary struggle, and it is possible to look at this sector of society from more of a reformist position as the religion itself is built on a foundation of universal truth.

But Capitalism by nature dehumanizes certain elements of society (by naming winners and losers), and it is arguably out of Capitalism that slavery and racism came to be in the first place (Shawki, 2006). Cheap labor was needed, and it was easier to make indentured servitude a part of our Capitalist society if those who were/are indentured are viewed as not quite human. Therefore, political structures - particularly in America - that were built on this foundation of racism cannot stand. This is not only true from a revolutionary perspective, but also from a perspective of true metaphysical justice and love. What is built on lies will eventually fall. What this looks like in reality, I cannot say. America is a powerfully established nation and world presence. Yet, the cracks are forming in our economic base. It might involve an economic collapse and the prior organization of positive change agents ready to step in and restore justice and equality in the wake of this collapse for racism to be eliminated, and imperial expansion and murder to stop.

Concluding Comments 

All of this shows us that Restorative Justice on the national level is incredibly complex, and will involve a great deal of pain in the proper implementation and steps required to restore relationships between races and classes. Nevertheless, it is something that I believe is inevitably necessary for our very survival as a nation and as human beings. The religious faith of both Malcolm X and MLK gave them a point of departure for their own struggles for justice both personally and as leaders of their people, and it is starting to do the same for me. Spirituality is something that should be constantly evolving in a person if it is legitimate and true. My own evolution in this respect is ongoing, as is the corresponding truth and reality of Restorative Justice in my own life. Yet both have given me a better understanding and clarity of the world around me, as well as my relation and responsibility to that world, and for that, I am eternally grateful.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Cone, J. (1990). A black theology of liberation: twentieth anniversary edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, J. (1990). Martin, malcolm and america: a dream or a nightmare. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Jr., M. L. (1992). I have a dream: writings & speeches that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.
Ross, R. (2006). Returning to the teachings: exploring aboriginal justice. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Shawki, A. (2006). Black liberation and socialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
X, M. (1965). Malcolm x speaks. New York: Grove Press.


Anonymous said...

May I refer you also to the text by Richard Bell, Rethinking Justice. He also expands on Tutu and Truth and Reconciliation.

Chris Broadwell said...

Good work here! A theology student myself, also interested in Sufism and Restorative Justice and writing on it this semester. I think there is so much happening between the two fields, may we see the two worlds as one.