Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Restorative justice’s ties to Mennonite traditions

A white water tower stands in the background behind flowering trees and bushes in front of a brick building. The EMU logo appears in blue letters on the water tower.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Big ideas about criminal justice reform are coming from a small college campus in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Eastern Mennonite University, located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, began the nation’s first graduate level program related to restorative justice. Now students come from around the world to study big ideas about reform on this small college campus.


JONATHAN SWARTZ (ASSOC. DIR., ZEHR INSTITUTE FOR RESTORATIVE JUSTICE): Eastern Mennonite University is a, I think it could be properly called tiny, a university in the Shenandoah Valley located in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

PAULA DITZEL FACCI: This is Research Methods for Social Change. And this course is structured in three parts.

JONATHAN SWARTZ: The Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice is a program of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. But it's a program that is really meant to connect folks around the conversation about restorative justice, both locally, but also nationally and internationally. The Zehr Institute is at Eastern Mennonite University in part because Howard Zehr himself was raised in a Mennonite context. And so, the roots of some of Howard's analysis and thoughts about justice are woven into kind of the fabric of how Mennonites have thought about restorative justice, especially in the last 20 to 30 years. Mennonites are historically a part of a, kind of an offshoot of the Reformation in the 16th century in Europe that, so part of what became to be known as Anabaptism. Early Anabaptists were involved in baptizing adults, which at that time, was completely new and unknown because infant baptism was the way that most folks came. And so, the term Anabaptism means to be baptized again. And so, Anabaptism, from which Mennonite, is a stream that continues, kind of begins with this critique, in some ways. And then has to find active and positive and productive, like, ways to build community, ways to create, ways to worship, even, in those days, that are consistent with that critique. So, the process of restorative justice can be talked about as a way for those who have done harm to look at what accountability means, to look at what healing means, but also, for those who have been harmed. Some of the original energy around restorative justice, that I think that still is there, it has to do with attending to the needs of people who have been harmed. Sometimes our retributive system thinks of it in the sense of, well, if pain is inflicted on this particular individual for this particular violation, that will prevent others from committing that violation in the future. And so, restorative justice critiques that and wants to question whose needs are being met by the infliction of punishment. So restorative justice has multiple kind of points of intervention, but one of the most important ones is paying attention to the experiences and the needs of those who have been harmed, and their needs, their experiences as they vocalize them.

PAULA DITZEL FACCI: You are also using those lenses of-

JONATHAN SWARTZ: We were the first full master's degree in restorative justice in the U.S. People come from around the world because the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding has been known and become known for a particular approach to peacebuilding. Our niche doesn't exist in many places around the world. And so, we have a lot of students coming to us because of that particular approach. There have been big contributions to social movements because of some small things that have happened at many places around the world, for sure. And I think CJP has been one of those places.

Related Articles
  1. Restorative program kneads change through baking
  2. Lynchburg City Schools turns suspensions into solutions
  3. Restorative justice’s Indigenous roots
Related Stories