Kenneth Wettig is Pastor of Early Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Live the Sign: Radical hospitality amidst an Inhospitable culture as the local mission of the church […]
” Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:9-12
It was a typical Sunday morning in 1987. After church, my friend Melissa handed me an offering envelope with this Isaiah 58 passage written on it, indicating that God told her to do so. The words sounded nice, but not life changing. I put the piece of paper in my Bible, where eventually it became one of many pieces of paper that accumulated, along with church bulletins, sermon notes and gum wrappers.
Years passed. In 1996, I bought a new Bible; when I cleaned out the papers in the old Bible, I ran across that offering envelope with those verses from Isaiah. As a youth minister at a rural church in Georgia at the time, I felt God’s call on my life, but didn’t really know how to apply these seemingly larger than life principles to my limited understanding of faith. In spite of my small vision for the world, I wondered what it might mean for us to be well-watered gardens or restorers of the streets with dwelling?
I shared the story about the envelope with one of my youth ministry friends who quickly brushed it off as verses about Jesus, not about us. Jesus was the repairer of the breach and the restorer of streets with dwellings, not us. Slightly embarrassed to have thought those verses might be about God’s call on my own life, I again returned the envelope to the back of my Bible where I eventually forgot about it.
Fast forward to 2007. I am at a family reunion in Berne, Indiana, having a conversation with one of my cousins who began sharing about her recent master’s degree in restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University. Little did I know that that conversation would completely alter the trajectory of my life. I had long since left youth ministry and was working on a PhD in Educational Psychology, researching student discipline and looking for alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.
As Jen, my cousin, described it, restorative justice, stands in opposition to retributive justice, which focuses primarily on punishment. According to Kay Pranis, restorative justice is not about getting even, but about getting well and bringing healing to relationships that have been disrupted by crime, by conflict, or by disrespect. I dug in and spent the next four years of grad school reading everything I could find on restorative justice.
And then there it was, randomly flittering out of my Bible one day: the envelope. You will be a well-watered garden. You will rebuild the ancient ruins.
And though I had all but given up on Christianity as a viable expression of my spirituality, something about this passage compelled me–something that felt so familiar to the restorative justice I had been learning about.
At its core, restorative justice is about how we relate to those around us and how we work to restore those things which are broken, including ourselves, our relationships, and the institutions that often perpetuate oppression and injustice.
In Isaiah 58:3-4, we find God angry with Israel; their fasting was corrupt because they were exploiting their workers, they were fighting, and they were filled with violence. In God‘s economy, the fast isn‘t about our sacrifices; it is about the way we partner with God to restore God’s shalom on the earth and to establish a world where love reigns and institutional injustices are torn down and replaced with mercy, justice, and humility. It’s a place where those who have been pushed to the margins of society (sometimes by me) are restored to community. The fast, as defined here, is more about feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger than about repentance, singing songs and tithing.
For me, this is the message of Isaiah 58:6, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the ties of the yoke.”
As I write this, we are on day 41 of a new presidential administration. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the first few weeks after the election saw a stark rise in hate crimes; as of today, there have been over 1,000 bias-related incidents. Since the election, at least seven transgender women have been murdered, 21 Jewish community centers and schools have received bomb threats, families are being torn apart due to deportation, water protectors have been forcibly removed from their own land, Flint, Michigan, residents still face toxic water, people of color continue to experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, and the Attorney General’s office just announced that they will scale back on prosecuting incidents of police brutality.
We are not a well-watered garden. We are not a flourishing, fruit-producing oasis in the middle of a dry land. Literally and metaphorically, there are too many dry places that need springs of water, there are dead places that need life, there are broken walls to be rebuilt, there are unjust institutions that need to be torn down, there are streets where children live that need to be restored.
Kathy Evans is Assistant Professor of Education at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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