Restorative Justice in the Bible in the Wake of Black Lives Matter

Victoria Omotoso is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Exeter. She is also a Theology alumni of the University of Leeds. Her current research involves exploring cross-cultural audience reception of Jesus films.

‘No Justice! No Peace!’ This mantra has been ringing through the daily news coverings of the Black Lives Matter protests which have emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. A black man who was suffocated to death by a white police officer whilst begging for his life. It is a video that I refuse to watch because it not only upsets me but as a black woman with black men as brothers it traumatises me. Yet, I’ve come to witness that George Floyd’s death seems to have finally awakened the consciousness of mostly white, Western societies, as it has sparked wide protests, not only in the US but also across Europe and beyond. Protesters demand the dismantling of a system which benefits a privileged portion of people whilst consistently discriminating and oppressing others. To make it plain, the system benefits white people whilst black people and people of colour continue to be discriminated against in every aspect of society, economically, socially, judiciously, and in education to name a few.

As a black biblical scholar, my approach to the Bible comes from place where as a black woman I first encounter the text through my own context and experiences. Hence, I ask how these Black Lives Matter protests help us think more about restorative justice. So first, I draw parallels from the Bible. The current calls for restorative justice resonate with the Hebrew Bible, in particular the prophets. Throughout the books of the prophets, we see them advocate for justice. Justice, for them, was restorative: a justice which seeks to balance the economic and social, etc. inequalities in society, in order to ensure the flourishing of all people. At the heart of this is the biblical idea that all human beings are created in the image of God. As Genesis 5:1 puts it, ‘When God created human beings, he made them to be like himself.’ God intended for all human beings to be treated equally with dignity respect and value.

When this breaks down, and human beings begin to devalue other human beings by treating them as inferior and oppressing them, this goes against God’s intended purpose for his image bearers. The Bible records that whenever this phenomenon occurs among the people of Israel, God sends warning messages through the prophets, like Jeremiah (22:3), Amos (5:6-7) and Micah (6:8). Yet, Israel’s unbothered privileged few continue to oppress the poor and take no concern for the injustices that were being perpetrated. And so, God confronts Israel giving them an action plan to follow. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression…’ (1:17). The justice God required from Israel was not passive, it was to be active, not just a retributive justice but a restorative justice. Restorative justice not only advocates for justice but it proactively seeks out where injustices can be made right, it corrects and reverses the damage done to the oppressed and make the concerns of others your own.

The current Black Lives Matter protests are calling for such restorative justice towards black lives. Black people, in western modernity, have been the oppressed, we are the oppressed that have been discriminated against economically, socially, judiciously, and even physically. Those who are racially privileged in society and do not concern themselves with the historic and ongoing oppression of black lives, but rather passively wave it off or not see it as a problem, are reflective of Israel’s privileged population. George Floyd, through his death, has become a prophet calling for the biblical vision of justice to materialise.

During this time, we begin to witness restorative justice emerging from these protests. Those in power are coming into a fuller awareness of their previous passivity, and the restoration of the damage is slowly beginning to take place. Examples range from the taking down of statues ‘honouring’ people who perpetuated slave trade and other gross injustices towards black people, to the removal of past TV shows that are racially compromised. The protests have made those who are powerful and privileged aware of racial injustices inscribed in our society, and they are challenged to reverse these and to begin to dismantle the structures of oppression. Yet we also see the backlash, from those who refuse to listen to Isaiah’s instruction to do good, seek justice and correct oppression.

No doubt, restorative justice won’t happen overnight. For Black people have generations of deep-rooted resentment and pain. Yet the current protests have unleashed a renewed energy in which we can begin to join together not just as black people but with allies of every race. The Black Lives Matter protests testify to the fact that a new chapter in our society is emerging where injustices are being exposed and dealt with. As the prophet Amos says, ‘But let justice roll on like a river!’ and so I say, roll on justice, roll on!

Written By: Victoria Omotoso

Image Credit: Tim Dennell @Flickr