Published: Jan 19, 2013 12:00 AM
Modified: Jan 17, 2013 01:20 PM
In our family, card playing was how you learned to count. My grandfather’s favorite game was setback. The men who stopped off at his store often stayed for cards or checkers. The handmade checkerboard sat on a 10-penny nail keg; the checkers were Nehi Orange or NuGrape bottle caps.
When you asked what the men were up to, they’d say, “Just sitting around telling lies.” Meaning swapping stories, news, opinions. It’s how men commit friendship.
At heart my grandfather was a connector. He was more interested in people than profit. He kept a metal file stuffed with pages of credit owed him from folks in the community. I am quite sure he never collected on any of it. If he were in the middle of a card game when someone needed change, he simply let them to make their own from the small bills at the register. On more than one occasion, he told a friend the combination pull-keys to the bank drawer underneath.
During the long years of the great Depression, break-ins were common – businesses, homes, henhouses – and the heavy plank that secured the store’s double front door was smashed through more than once. One afternoon my grandfather informed his friends he was spreading flour near the door so the sheriff would have footprints. That night someone broke into the store though the upstairs loft. They took canned goods, mainly, and other foodstuffs. They had tried to jimmy the drawer safe but couldn’t.
My grandmother was certain it was one of the customers that day. She was also certain she knew which one.
My grandfather just said, “Let it be.”
Justice, like God, looks different to different folks.
In one of his speeches, Dr. King said, “I want to get the language right tonight” and I take that to heart. When we talk about justice we may be talking about very different things. Our impulse toward justice may be a movement toward inclusion and restoring community, or it may be a self-righteous desire for revenge that only generates more harm. Justice that does harm isn’t justice. It’s violence.
I wonder sometimes if a 12-step program would help eliminate our dependence on violence as a solution to our deep sorrows and petty angers. One of the 12 steps involves making amends to those who were harmed. In restorative justice, a fundamental question is, Who has been harmed? It is a profound question. Who was harmed during the break-ins at my grandfather’s store? Almost everyone, really. My grandparents who lost income for their children; the perpetrators who lost self-respect; the community who found themselves awash in mistrust and defended against one another; the entire country who watched as millions upon millions of men, women, and children went without work, health care, food, or education.
A wise woman recently said to me, If anyone is outside the Kingdom, there is no Kingdom. If any is harmed, we are all harmed. How do we find ways to repair harm rather than create more? It may be the government’s responsibility to maintain order. But only people can make peace. Justice is our responsibility.
When we institutionalize punishment as a replacement for justice, we remove the possibility to make amends and be made whole as individuals and as a community. So, how do we reclaim our right to make peace?
Peace isn’t an outcome. Peace is a process, ongoing and dynamic. Part of what it means to be human is to connect and reconnect, again and again. I think our capacity to reconcile with one another is one of our most hopeful traits.
Some of the most violent schools in America, the most underfunded and forsaken, have reduced school violence by enormous margins – 80 percent, 90 percent – in only a year or two by incorporating restorative practices in their schools. The practices open a space to recreate the human connections that are the foundation of community. Teacher to student, student to student, teacher to administrator – practicing justice requires creating space to tell the truth about hopes and dreams and pains and angers. Often what we most need is simply the dignity of our lives acknowledged. Truth-telling alone goes a long way toward restoring relationship. Sometimes making amends is the unexpected result of simply sharing our truth.
The Juvenile Justice Project, housed at Campbell Law School, now has programs in a half-dozen Wake County schools, helping divert children away from the criminal justice system and back toward a connected relationship with their community. There is a movement locally toward restorative justice – in our schools, our neighborhoods, our communities – and I am hoping we will see it grow. I am hoping we will reclaim our right to make peace.
Peace isn’t the absence of conflict; it is the presence of trust. Most miraculous happenings, the birth of a child, spontaneous healings, our recent Technicolor sunsets, have so little to do with our intent. But justice does. Peace does. We are all telling lies; we are all telling miracles. Reconciliation is a miracle. And we all count.Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices (www.hiddenvoices.org). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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