A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6F: Why is “Restorative Justice” a Better Way Out of Systemic Abuse and Historical Oppression Than are Retaliation or Misused Alternative Dispute Resolution?


Why is “Restorative Justice” a Better Way Out of

Systemic Abuse and Historical Oppression Than

are Retaliation or Misused Alternative Dispute Resolution?


Part 6F. In this final segment for Part 6, we look at the better way of resolution to situations involving systemic abuse and historical/societal oppression, through truth-finding before reconciliation. This last element sets up the basis for Part 7, comparing and contrasting agencies that promote independent investigations and restorative justice versus those that promote internal or partial investigations and dispute resolution processes that fail to dismantle systemic abuse.

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Restorative Justice versus Retribution

I have come to the conclusion that (1) internal investigations instead of independent ones, and (2) alternative dispute resolution (ADR) tools as have frequently been misused in Christian situations of reported abuse the past few decades have actually done much to perpetuate systems of abuse and protect malignant people in positions of power. Surely we must have better possibilities! But what are they?

Organizations with leaders who have been caught in misconduct often hire out for partial investigations, some form of conciliation, crisis management, and/or PR experts. Almost inevitably, these tactics get used to slant the truth in favor of the offending person or organization. (I cannot recall a single instance where they weren’t, and I’ve been tracking this as best I can since 2007.) These hiring actions make it look like due diligence is being done. It is generally discovered that abuse was inflicted by just one isolated individual, who then is disciplined, resigns, or perhaps even is fired. Such subsequent actions give the organization the appearance of sincerity in dealing with toxicity, but in fact it is an insidious mask. It typically leaves institutional and ideological elements unaddressed. The organization may remove offensive individuals, but infrastructures that sustained the offenders do not get dismantled, and the doctrines that support silence do not get deconstructed.

I’ve been able to watch some Church-related cases over time where a church, ministry, or organization outsources their crisis management. Here’s what I’ve seen … or not seen.

  • Specific details are rarely released about any institutional culpability uncovered during internal or partial investigation.
  • Binding agreements for non-disclosure/non-disparagement keep staff and survivors from breaking confidentiality about any findings, actions, or awards.
  • Maybe you get a pseudo-apology-confession from the celebrity at fault, and they continue on with their performance platform.
  • Perhaps a PR agent issues a statement on behalf of the credibly accused person and then says there will be no questions taken and no further statements, please respect said person’s (and his/her family’s) privacy.

Basically, everything happens behind a veil. Questions about the individuals and institutions involved persist, because the vacuum of silence they themselves created makes questions pop back up into public view like some whack-a-mole vermin problem on the Church prairie horizon.

This partiality approach to resolution lets offending individuals and institutions control the process, the investigators and/or facilitators, the findings, and the reporting. This is everything that Boz Tchividjian of GRACE warned us against in his article, Are abuse survivors best served when institutions investigate themselves?

And so, when they use a flawed approach that favors the hiring person or organization, it turns out that their process doesn’t resolve past systemic abuse and doesn’t necessarily prevent future abuse. Then, how best can we achieve justice for the recovery of victims, and implement prevention for protecting the vulnerable?

From what I’ve seen, restorative justice process offers a far better way for addressing past, present, and future than alternative dispute resolution tools have been.

They are based in an attitude of being conciliatory (hospitable, open-handed) versus being retaliatory (hostile, closed-fisted). Organizational leaders who propose ADR sound conciliatory but it all too often turns out to be controlling.

The core actions in restorative justice revolve around truth-finding followed by reconciliation. Thus, it combines investigation, publication to make findings known, and relational work.

The arena involves finding patterns in systems and history so toxic systems can be dismantled. It integrates investigating individuals, institutions, and ideologies that seem inseparably interwoven into the fabric of systemic abuse and historical/societal oppression.

Many, if not most, abuse survivors who go public say something along the lines of wanting justice to stop those responsible, and prevention so it happens less from here on out. As I noted in a recent Twitter thread, “resolution of past abuses AND prevention of future abuse” – these are “two dominant values in survivor communities. Christian alternative resolution processes seem to fulfill neither value for survivors; restorative justice approaches tend to do both.”

What could a restorative justice process actually look like?

What examples can we study?

What about financial reparations – are they always involved?

Do the cases have to deal with the same kind of abuse our own situation involves, or can those dealing with different forms also be relevant?

There have been over 40 Truth Commissions and Commissions of Inquiry. These Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) have been scattered across the globe and dealing with many kinds of social and political situations involving abuse and violence. Other similar investigation and reconciliation processes have been practiced in church-based settings.

You may be aware of the process in Canada for restorative justice with indigenous people, and the issue of forced attendance of children at residential schools. This specific violation was set against the backdrop of a range of offenses and discriminatory treatments.

Perhaps you’ve heard of how the Mennonite denomination  eventually dealt with sexual misconduct and systemic cover-up for theologian John Howard Yoder (see Case Study #2). Decades after the first women reported his misconduct, they finally entered a three-year investigation and repentance process that delved into multiple dimensions of their denomination’s training, publishing, institutions, etc.

Probably the most widely known application of a TRC happened in South Africa, set up in 1995, which I will overview later in this post. Meanwhile, I want to introduce the practice of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by looking at one conducted in 2016 by Black Women’s Blueprint. I find it particularly significant because it focuses in on systemic abuse via sexual violence, in a context of historical racial oppression.

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But before presenting those case studies, I want to share a brief personal aside. If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you know I’ve been adding a lot of posts to my category of Peacemaking and Becoming People of Peace. I have been on a very long journey to listen more widely, to empathize more deeply, to make a difference in society. Some of the personal experiences I share go back to the 1960s and ’70s … connections with Japanese Americans who were in internment camps or alternative work situations during World War II, friendships with Native American men and women, friendship with international students from Iran during the Iranian crisis. I have more such narratives to share when the time is right.

By the mid-1970s, I was on a pathway to learn more about the concerns of women, and was starting to grasp the significance of transitions from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power Movement. But I totally didn’t get it yet about apartheid and the calls of fellow university students for economic sanctions against South Africa. This all frames my selection of case studies from Black Women’s Blueprint and post-apartheid South Africa. I developed these as much for me as a way to think through situations of restorative justice, as for illustrations related to spiritual abuse survivor communities. I hope you’ll find them thought-provoking, too.

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Black Women’s Blueprint:

The Black Women’s Truth And Reconciliation

Commission On Sexual Assault

A recent tweet (January 9, 2019) brought my attention back to a Truth and Reconciliation process engaged in by Black Women’s Blueprint.


I became acquainted with the work of Black Women’s Blueprint through Lyvonne Picou, a social entrepreneur I was introduced to in 2017 by friends at Matryoshka Haus, who met her when they taught at DO GOOD X – “Empowering Christian Social Entrepreneurs to do good in the world.” At that time, Lyvonne was doing research for her Beautiful Scars ministry.

After the post-Harvey-Weinstein #MeToo hashtag got going in late 2017 – over 10 years after the “Me Too” movement was started by Tarana Burke – Lyvonne posted, “It’s Not a Scandal, It’s a System,” From it, I learned of this specific research:

The Black Women’s Blueprint has an ongoing study that found 60% of Black women are sexually abused before they turn 18-years-old. Sixty. Percent. And, since the Black church is 85% women, that means that half of Black church congregations have been sexually abused.

When we watch the video at the above tweet, we hear the speaker talk about that statistic and describe powerfully just what that has meant as a historic fact for African American women. We see the nodding ascent of women who are listening.

Because abuse and violence against women is systemic both in the U.S. and globally, the Black Women’s Blueprint TRC process was important. The preparation included exploration of strategic questions, as noted in this Prevent Connect article, posted April 7th by David Lee, Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault:

But talking about how and why sexual violence happens is not easy, and certainly not always comfortable. In order to prevent sexual violence, we must understand the context of sexual violence and center how legacies of racism, classism, patriarchy, and heterosexism collide and collude to create conditions ripe for the violence to occur in the first place.

Short videos were produced for each of seven key questions, posted on the Black Women’s Blueprint YouTube channel. Each video featured clips from multiple people, from a range of generations and backgrounds, speaking to nuances of issues raised by that particular question.

A Reckoning: Truth and Reconciliation As Prevention.

Leading up to the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from April 28th to May 1, 2016, Black Women’s Blueprint (BWB) asked a few strategic questions about the history of sexual violence against Black women in the US.

1. Have Black Men Ever Hurt Black Women?

2. What Does This Nation Owe to Black Women?

3. What Can White Americans Do to Make Things Right?

4. How Does Sexual Violence Affect Homes and Communities?

5. What Can White Allies in the Feminist Movement Do?

6. What Can Black Men Do To Support Black Women When They Experience Sexual Violence?

7. How Do You Think Violence Has Affected Your Life Or Black Women That You Know?

The first tribunal of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault was held April 28-May 1, 2016, in New York. The Archival Information page offers a description of the commission and its grassroots origins, a list of those involved and who they are, a summary of the 2016 Digital Reckoning Campaign, and an approximately four-minute video of question #4, “How Does Sexual Violence Affect Homes and Communities?”

Women and girls of African descent, many of whom were denied access and assistance from the criminal justice system, began to organize, realizing their own and collective transformation could not happen without public recognition and acknowledgment of the injustices and harms they had experienced.


The Digital Reckoning Campaign is a call-and-response digital project grounded in the concept of reconciliation for Black women with Black men, white men, white feminists, and other people of color to acknowledge the ongoing, complicit oppression of Black women. From descendants of slave owners coming to terms with the sins of their ancestors to Black men admitting to remaining silent and not showing up for Black women who continue to be brutalized, Black Women’s Blueprint calls for a dynamic dialogue on Black women’s pain and struggles. We hope to feature a myriad of intergenerational voices responding to violence against Black women.

A May 12th follow-up article from Prevent Connect offers details about the commission events and thoughts on their significance from Sandra Henriquez, Executive Director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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“Restorative Justice”

A situation of long-term abuse, violence, oppression, and violation of human rights calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. TRCs typically have four mandates, as mentioned in the January 9, 2019, Black Women’s Blueprint tweet:

  • Truth.
  • Justice.
  • Healing.
  • Reconciliation.

These are interwoven elements, achieved holistically through a highly intentional process. The truth of what has actually happened historically must be investigated, made public, and dealt with. Otherwise the sources will never be dismantled, the symptoms of injustice will return, those who have been victimized will not find recovery, and there cannot be genuine repair among those with enmity remaining between them.

This is all at the core of restorative justice.

The Wikipedia article on Restorative Justice gives a concise overview, including the history of the concept and a range of examples in its application. It also includes some important statements defining its process and contrasting its philosophy with the kinds of alternative dispute resolution methods so often pushed for in minister/church abuse cases:

Restorative justice is an approach to justice in which the response to a crime is to organize a mediation between the victim and the offender, and sometimes with representatives of a wider community as well. The goal is to negotiate for a resolution to the satisfaction of all participants. This may include a restitution to be given from the offender to the victim, or to take steps to prevent the offender from causing future harm.

A restorative justice program aims to get offenders to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused, to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves and to discourage them from causing further harm. For victims, its goal is to give them an active role in the process.[1] Restorative justice is founded on an alternative theory to the traditional methods of justice, which often focus on retribution. However, restorative justice programs can complement traditional methods.


As Braithwaite writes, “Court-annexed ADR (alternative dispute resolution) and restorative justice could not be philosophically further apart”. While the former seeks to address only legally relevant issues and to protect both parties’ rights, restorative justice aims at “expanding the issues beyond those that are legally relevant, especially into underlying relationships.”[8]

Let’s take a look at some aspects of how restorative justice was applied in the post-apartheid era in South Africa. It was a complex situation that where basic human brokenness manifested itself in severely immoral, unethical, and criminal actions.

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How Does Truth-Finding-Then-Reconciliation Work?

TRC in Post-Apartheid South Africa

A Social-Cultural-Political System Example

of Systemic Remediation (Repair) and Repentance

Note: I originally posted the following as Case Study #3 on Institutional Examples of Remediation, on my companion website to Futuristguy’s Field Guides. I’ve edited it only slightly for reposting here.

Since early on in the 2010 decade, I’ve explored the topic of apartheid in South Africa, and the role that peace-making played there in the 1990s. I’ve looked at how Nelson Mandela in particular sought to reduce enmity between the races, and to forge a sense of one nation out of what had been a horrific race-based split. Among the many documentaries and dramatizations I’ve watched about apartheid are Invictus, including all the related special feature interviews, about how the 1995 Rugby World Cup became a symbolic center for uniting the nation, and a related documentary, Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle.

In them I see deep lessons on both humility and having a conciliatory spirit, and how these two complementary attitudes can fuel peace-making efforts that embody “compassion, restraint, and generosity.” Those three qualities were absent under apartheid, according to a speech Mandela gives to his fellow black and coloured* South Africans in Invictus. And now, as their newly elected president, he hopes these qualities will be exhibited by the black and coloured majority toward the white minority. [*In South Africa, coloured is a term used of people from not-white, not-black backgrounds, e.g., Asian, South Asian, Pacific Island, mixed-race. See the link for their self-descriptions. When Gandhi worked as a lawyer in South Africa, he was considered coloured; there were many restrictions on them as well as on South African blacks.]

One social-political approach South Africa used to redress the realities of harm under 30-plus years of apartheid was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an approach that has also been used in other countries where animosity and atrocities between people groups had occurred. According to that South African website, their motto was: “Truth, the Road to Reconciliation.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the Government of National Unity to investigate and report on gross human rights violations committed between 1960 and 1993. It will also consider applications for amnesty by people who committed political crimes. The Commission will be in operation until December 1997.

The hope was that airing the truth of the mistreatment that happened under white domination would help ensure it did not happen again. The TRC hearings have been critiqued by some, lauded by others. Two decades later, the outcomes are still considered mixed. But, they at least testify to holistic efforts made to bring peace to a troubled nation by involving people from all cultural sectors – religion, media, politics, police, community leaders, everyday people. It also finally gave a chance for sharing the truth and for being heard – whether as a victim or as one who was a victimizer.

Over several years, I looked into the abuses of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s facilitation of a culture of forgiveness, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission practices that ties together the issues of survivors, perpetrators, and the larger community. Three key thoughts emerged out of my studies and reflections:

First, it was clear to me that black South Africans sharing their stories was crucial for their healing as individuals, and reclamation of their dignity as a people group. They spoke of atrocities of violence committed on themselves, of family members tortured and murdered. They received public catharsis that had been withheld from them by requiring they hold on to their narratives in silence privately, as if they and their loved ones were of no value. They reclaimed truth about what had been lost and dignity in who they were. Some were able to openly forgive their oppressors, including in some cases in front of the specific individuals who had harmed them, after first confronting them.

Second, the opportunity for amnesty gave others the chance to search their actions and clear their consciences of misdeeds that had brought great damage to others. I was startled as I watched excerpts from the TRC hearings and other interviews when white South African policemen and security agents described specific tactics of terror and torture that they’d used on black South Africans. Several whites also spoke of how their separation from blacks under apartheid was all they’d ever known, and that they had believed it was right. And so they had been willing to commit themselves to its protection – including doing whatever it took to preserve their privileged way of life. Some were visibly shaken by the realization that their life-long beliefs had inflicted such toxic impacts on other human beings.

Third, now the nation knew both sides of their history and could not officially hide. Not everyone was keen on digging through the past; some thought it would just reopen wounds. However, a much fuller knowledge of the horrific truth had been laid out in public hearings and in printed materials. It could not now be retracted, even if someone then willfully chose to ignore it. But those investigations and hearings for justice were also part of a larger relational movement toward health and unity as a nation. The process instilled in many a hope for a united future after decades of official apartheid that had followed over three centuries of subjugation of blacks and other races by white European settlers.

I think the TRC proceedings hold some stark and astonishing potential parallels to what we see in spiritual abuse survivor communities. As I have observed repeatedly in cases of spiritual abuse, when victims share their accounts of what happened, and are listened to respectfully and reflectively, there’s very often a significant transformation that takes place. Something fundamental changes.

For instance, I wonder if, for some who finally receive (or give themselves) permission to share their story, that is a moment when their identity shifts from an orbit around “victim” to a trajectory as “survivor.” Giving voice to truth fuels movement forward, even when both victim and survivor remain important terms.

Sharing one’s experiences also becomes a forum in which the evidence shows that others were culpable to some degree, whether they actively participated as accomplices, or passively benefited as bystanders. Through the investigation and publication processes, they may begin to see the drastic, destructive impact of their actions.

There is a difference between being responsible for something that happened, versus taking responsibility for our part in it. Hopefully, being confronted with other people’s very human stories of damage caused by the inhumane actions of perpetrators and those who protect/promote them sparks their conscience and fuels their trajectory toward taking responsibility.

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