Two World Views: Punitive vs Restorative

by Mary Skillings

Three Fundamental Questions

In the punitive world-view in which our culture is steeped, we require answers to these three questions when harm has been done to someone or to the greater community:

  1. What rule, law or societal norm was violated or broken?
  2. Who did it?
  3. What should the consequence be to punish the person who broke the rule?

Punishment essentially means to extract retribution.  What does he or she owe for indulging in this behavior—not owe monetarily for specific material harm, but owe for having “done wrong”?  Furthermore, we expect the offender to passively comply with what someone else decides his consequence, or punishment will be. 

Compare the nature of these three questions to the following three questions that are immediately asked when we operate from a restorative world-view:

  1. What harm was caused because of this event?
  2. Who was harmed?
  3. What needs to happen in order to give voice to and restore those who were harmed?

These questions focus us on the real harm. It requires those who caused the harm to take responsibility for their actions and to participate in the process of repairing the harm and making things “right”. It involves those directly and indirectly effected. It also allows for understanding of the underlying reasons and motives on the part of the one who caused the harm and steps can be taken toward real change.

Repairing Harm – Restoring Community

Think of a community as a beautiful piece of fabric. When harm occurs within the community, it causes a tear in the fabric, weakening it. The process of retributive justice may punish the offender—but does little or nothing to mend the tear in the fabric. In fact, often, the very process of punishment causes another tear. Conversely, when a restorative process is applied in a situation of harm, the rips and tears in the fabric of the community are attended to and mended the best they can be.

The restorative model of repairing harm within a community also brings to mind the Japanese art of Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) or kintsukuroi (“golden repair”), the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates the artifact’s unique history by emphasizing the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing the artifact with new life. From broken shards of pottery regarded as useless and destined to be swept up and discarded, with love and attention, beauty is created.