Whatever the issue area, be it Occupy Wall Street, immigrant integration, or how we are together in religious community, whether we’re conscious of it or not, a paradigm is operative.  A paradigm is a mindset or set of assumptions, often unexamined, about how things happen. It’s the way we shape and understand information; it reflects our perceptions and approach to problem-solving.

For example, our Unitarian Universalist justice ministries operate within a paradigm – a set of assumptions that inform our approach to social change as a gathered religious community. Precisely because paradigms and their accompanying symbols are so influential, it’s important that we pause and reflect on what we mean when professing  to be a justice-seeking people. In an age as divided and prone to violence as our own, what kind of “justice” do we seek? What models or paradigms are most appropriate and in alignment with our covenantal faith tradition Beloved Community religious vision?

Many, if not most of us, were taught and then socialized into a retributive justice paradigm. This justice model, symbolized by revenge and punishment, informs our criminal justice system and historically, has shaped the strategy and tactics of most secular social change organizations. We’re all relatively familiar with its characteristics and methods: define the problem and find fault by targeting individuals or institutions; mobilize anger and resentment by crafting fear-based messages, adopt a language of demand and control often in the form of public shaming and apply the use of, or threat of, emotional, psychological, and physical violence.  The unintended, often tragic consequence of such a de-humanizing model is change agents can become mirror images of the very attitudes and behaviors we’re hoping to change.  Admittedly over-simplified here, it’s still the case a retributive justice paradigm pits people against one another, often preventing the common good from emerging, and, I believe, is a model that has outlived its usefulness most especially in the context of religious community.

Alternatively, a faith-based restorative justice paradigm exemplified by participants in the southern freedom struggle a generation ago, is focused on “justice” as restoring right relationship.  The characteristics of restorative justice reflect an empathetic and disciplined spirituality of resistance through the practice of reconciliation and non-violence in thought, word, and deed.  Its source and power comes from nurturing a joyful and deeply compassionate love for self, other, and the world despite the pain and heartbreak of our brokenness:

… the theological foundation of social justice is protecting souls, …[healing the] repeated blows to the emotional integrity of the human heart. (Thandeka, A People So Bold)

Concerned with healing all wounds caused by living in a de-humanized world, this rapidly developing alternative to traditional community organizing tactics is based on the interdependent web of life  – all things are connected to each other in a web of relationships. Instead of revenge and punishment, restorative justice is symbolized by the vision of Beloved Community. The problem of wrong-doing then is that it results in a communal wound, a tear in the relational web, or covenant. Therefore, restoring right relationship is the responsibility of an entire community, not merely targeted groups and individuals. There is no “us” and “them;” we’re all in it together. This more holistic, prophetic model of justice making requires that we embody and practice our Universalist notion of God:

a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature is love. It is the largest thought the world has ever known; it is the most revolutionary doctrine ever proclaimed; it is the most expansive hope ever dreamed. ( Clarence Skinner, Worship and a Well Ordered Life)

Restorative justice realizes that liberation from a retributive mindset is often the work of a lifetime and happens in an intentional learning community where people are willing to risk experimenting with new ways of effecting personal and institutional change.

•    What paradigm is operating in your religious community?

•     “If the church is to impart to the world a message of hope and love, of faith, justice, and peace, something of this should become visible, audible, and tangible in the church itself.”  (David Bosch, Transforming Mission). How is your message visible, tangible, and audible in the church itself?

•    What might a faith development plan for activist-oriented Unitarian Universalists look like in practice? What is happening in your congregation?

Rev. Deborah Holder is the Minister of Beloved Community Formation in the Mountain Desert District.



Editor’s note: Deborah’s call for our faith communities to practice restorative justice calls to my mind a recent homily delivered by Rev. Parisa Parsa at an Occupy Boston vespers service. To hear the homily or read the text, check out the following post.

About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.


  1. Barnaby Feder

    I agree with Deborah’s characterization of our current justice system up to a point. It is indeed about retribution and punishment, but it also seems to me to have a whopping dose of simply trying to isolate the “problem elements” of our social system from the rest of us. The tip-off is that we incarcerate people according to formulae with very little insight into or concern for who they are as individuals — if the retributive and punishment impulses were pure, there probably would be more of an effort to tailor the system’s response to the individual targets. It looks to me like the system is geared to removing the so-called underclass from society in the vain and delusional belief it will somehow make the rest of us safer.
    Restorative justice is clearly the way to go. We have to be careful, though, not to minimize how difficult it is and we definitely need to have great pastoral support in place for dealing with situations where the outcome isn’t lasting reconciliation but a new round of injury and pain for either the original victims or some new victim. We should never underestimate how damaged the offenders we would be dealing with are.


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