Confronting the Hydra

Striving for restoration amidst retribution

The dark arts are many, varied, ever-changing and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.

Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Last night it came first from Huffington Post: President Obama scheduled an unusual 10:30pm EST press event. My curiosity piqued, I searched and speculated on zombie attacks and followed twitters’ varied topics until a consensus emerged: Osama bin Laden was dead, at America’s hand. It felt strange to say that, and the mixture of emotions online and in person was overwhelming: Christians celebrating his death and people saying Christians should not celebrate anyone’s death. As Allan Bevere said on facebook, it represents the complexity of humanity. In the end, a twitter post from csalafia felt the most appropriate: “I do not celebrate, neither do I mourn. Tonight, I exhale.” I did the same.

This morning, head a bit more clear, I reflected on President Obama’s words “Justice has been done.” But what kind of justice?

In Everyday Justice, Julie Clawson articulates that there are two different types of justice:

  • Retributive Justice: punishment of crimes against society. We have a department of justice, justices of the peace, and the Justice League. As Clawson writes “these groups make sure the laws of society are followed…or else.” It’s the “or else” part that dictates this type of justice: if you steal, you are punished and locked away from society. If you murder, you are punished.
  • Restorative Justice: restoration of relationships that have become broken. Clawson writes “instead of only punishing wrongdoers…biblical justice involves healing the brokenness that marred our relationships with each other in the first place.” If a person steals, then you work with them to develop an ethic so they don’t steal again. If a person cheats, then you work to establish trust again in their relationships. There’s a cause that’s a Hydra’s head…then there’s the cause that animates the head. Restorative justice deals more with the root causes of broken relationships than with the active causes (sinful behavior).

In my opinion, retributive justice has been at least partially done this past week: I leave that evaluation to the families of those killed by OBL and to God…both of which have more of a perspective than I do. But the slow work of restorative justice continues.

The work of building up the economies of impoverished areas so that desperate criminals do not emerge is not done. The work of educating women and families of what happens when terrorist groups come asking for their children is not done. The work of bettering Christian/Muslim/Jewish relations such that religious flashpoints do not boil over is not done. Much of the work of confronting injustice, of confronting the reasons and the sickness that nurtured a mass murderer is not done. It is fine to offer justice to bin Laden, but the work of confronting that which created bin Laden is not done.

Indeed, Harry Potter has it right: evil and injustice is a hydra, a mythical multi-headed creature that grew back two heads for every one that was cut off. A Hydra is thus metaphorically any persistent or ever-increasing evil with many sources and causes.

In our own communities, it feels great to seek retributive justice rather than restorative justice. Indeed, every community has a choice to be made when it comes to valuing justice:

  • Do we celebrate the shaming away of a woman from a Planned Parenthood, or do we work to offer better sex education and mentoring of teens so they respect women?
  • Do we celebrate the passing of a law that makes youth loitering a crime or do we offer creative and safe outlets for teens so that they channel their angst in better ways?
  • Do we celebrate the removal of a parish pastor accused of sin, or do we work to change the structure of a church that allowed/could allow the pastor to sin?
  • Do we celebrate the fundraiser that raised money to be given to the poor, or do we work to put it in the budget at a higher priority than new furniture for the parlor?
  • Do we celebrate the 100 families given food by the food pantry in the last month, or do we bring in financial experts and family therapists to change those families so they don’t need to return?

Today, I do not celebrate. Today, I do not mourn. Today, I exhale. But immediately my breath goes in again and I am enlivened to seek justice in all its forms in my own community which hopefully multiplies across the world. The very breath that Christ gave his disciples in John 20 (yesterday’s lectionary) that allows us to forgive sins and hold one another accountable for sin is ours for the taking. May we trust in that breath and know that every time we let it out, it is available to us again as we strive on the long road that MLK Jr says “bends towards justice.”


(Image credit: Hydra Station Collar from LOST on Lostpedia)
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