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“Ain’t gonna study war no more”

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Restorative justice and the ministry of M2/W2

Bobby Oatway was a horrific sex offender. Some 15 years ago, when released on parole, he was run out of a B.C. city before he’d even moved there, and landed in a halfway house in Toronto. He was eventually run out of there by local town councillors and upstanding Torontonians.

Every day outside his halfway house, those fine citizens chanted, “Go away, Bobby Oatway! No one wants you, Bobby Oatway!” He spent the rest of his sentence in a B.C. prison.

Upon his release, a small community of Christians spoke to the prison chaplain and said they would watch out for him if he moved to their interior B.C. town. He did. But about a month later, a newspaper article exposed him.

Leaders called a town council meeting. The death threats to him in absentia were chilling. Afterwards, about 300 people walked to his motel and began chanting, “Die Bobby Oatway, die!”
Bobby slipped out of town the next morning.

A few days later, my wife, daughter, and I accompanied him to be introduced to a “Circle of Support and Accountability,” consisting of several men and women, who buffered his presence in a new B.C. community, arranged with the police to keep his whereabouts secret, and held him accountable to not reoffend.

My wife and I went back to that community many years later. Bobby and his wife had just moved and were holding an open house for all their neighbours. The juxtaposition was dramatic. He’d left three other Canadian communities, rejected and in fear, but was welcomed and welcoming in this new community. He still holds down a job, pays his taxes, and is a contributing member of society.

When violence and the threat of violence were removed, Oatway flowered.

Justifying violence
There are many who would say that Bobby Oatway got what he deserved after he was released from prison. Indeed, very few voices have denounced violence by the state since the era of Constantine in the fourth century.

“The history of punishment is in some respects like the history of war,” says Deirdre Golash in her book The Case Against Punishment. “It seems to accompany the human condition almost universally, to enjoy periods of glorification, to be commonly regarded as justified in many instances, and yet to run counter to our ultimate vision of what human society should be.”

Many Christians also support violent solutions to crime and terror. According to an April 2003 Pew Charitable Trusts poll, 87 percent of white American evangelicals supported President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. One could find similar statistics about Christians in support of mass killing and violence repeated throughout the entire sweep of Western Christianity.

Jesus’ example
But when we study Jesus’ example, it runs counter to the idea of violence. James, the half-brother of Jesus, reflecting the Sermon on the Mount, wrote, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do…Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 2:18; 3:18).

Jesus said simply, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Why do so few Christians accept Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence? “One reason that the world finds the New Testament’s message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless,” writes New Testament theologian Richard Hays. “On the question of violence, the church is deeply compromised and committed to nationalism, violence, and idolatry.”

Restorative justice ministries
Advocates of restorative justice seek to reclaim the nonviolence of Jesus. Their cry echoes the refrain of a wonderful Negro spiritual: “Ain’t gonna study war no more!”

Restorative justice offers an alternative to war – war on crime. Its goal is to see offenders like Bobby Oatway return peacefully to their communities and become productive citizens. It embraces, rather than excludes, the victim, offender, and impacted community. It’s a peacemaking, rather than war-making, response to crime.

According to Henk Smidstra, chaplain at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in B.C., “restorative justice can be regarded as a cluster of values, beliefs, and attitudes that determine how the viewer defines the situation and determines its solution….Call it the lens of the heart and mind that can see conflict as either bad, or as an opportunity to grow and heal; as an event that breaks the law, or as an event that has harmed people.

“[Restorative justice] puts emphasis on restoration, and on healing the harm of all those affected by conflict or crime. In fact, offenders and victims all become collaborators in looking for solutions that will creatively address the obligations created by the hurtful incident…. Restorative justice focuses on relationships, not on controlling or punishing others, but empowering others to flourish and be active participants in restoring and maintaining community well-being.”

Many Christian ministries, such as M2/W2 Association – Restorative Christian Ministries, work as advocates of restorative justice. Founded in 1966, the vision of M2/W2 is to recruit and empower people to reflect God’s restorative and inclusive love within the criminal justice system and wider society, to foster healthier communities.

Currently, M2/W2 runs three programs in B.C.: a one-to-one prison visitation program, Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), and Parent to Parent (P2). Through these initiatives, M2/W2 practices the values of “peacemaking” and “embrace.”

Peacemaking. Jerry was abandoned by his parents after a bitter divorce. He went to live with his grandmother with whom he really bonded. She suddenly dropped out of his life when she returned to her home country to remarry.

Jerry went from foster home to foster home, deeply wounded. He became an expert in martial arts and trained police professionally. He also meticulously planned and carried out rapes against women, acting out of deep rage toward them.

After his life sentence, two of his victims arranged to meet him face-to-face through an agency that operates a “Victim Offender Mediation Program” (VOMP) for serious and violent crime. Both women, after their separate meetings with Jerry, stated at a press conference they had been enormously freed in putting the rapes behind them. Jerry remained in the program and felt he had been significantly changed through his victims’ generosity towards him. He remains crime-free many years later.

The essence of peacemaking, according to VOMP, is a “therapeutic dialogue” however arranged, including face-to-face encounter when appropriate, safe, and properly mediated. This enables and helps facilitate, though never guarantees, reconciliation.

Embrace. Because of sex offences against minors, John has a lifelong ban on being in a place where children are under 18 years. His sex crimes are horrible. He’s the ultimate pariah – a social outcast.

John is also a human being with enormous artistic talents, mechanical and all kinds of handiwork skills. And he’s a very hard worker. His CoSA circle of five volunteers just celebrated with him two years of crime-free life outside prison. He’s a vivid storyteller, full of exuberance about life, and totally committed to CoSA’s mission: no more victims!
The essence of embrace in response to crime is holding the offender accountable to never reoffend, and to affirm the offender in a life path of no more victims. It also means commitment to community and having fun along the way.

M2/W2 Association – Restorative Christian Ministries is committed to peacemaking. This means embracing the criminal enemy, while simultaneously holding out for healing of victims and the community impacted by the crime. It’s a tall order. But we can attempt no less as we continue to follow Jesus’ example!

—Wayne Northey is executive director of M2/W2 Association Restorative Christian Ministries, and lives in Abbotsford, B.C.

Restorative justice’s Mennonite roots

One of the newest trends in the justice system is grounded in a faith perspective – restoration. Restorative justice is now a subject of worldwide interest. Canadian Mennonites have played a crucial part in its development and M2/W2 is one of the leading proponents and resources to groups who are interested.
The first Canadian restorative justice program is credited to a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer who was also a probation officer, in Kingston, Ont. More than 30 years ago, Mark Yantzi and fellow volunteer Dave Worth, with the agreement of Judge Gordon McConnell, led an offender (now, himself, a restorative justice volunteer) into a process of reconciliation with the victims of a series of tire-slashing incidents.
Since then, there have been a wealth of stories of success and reconciliation. Some jurisdictions in Canada include restorative justice as a structural element of their justice system. The restorative justice division of M2/W2 is also growing.
Most M2/W2 programs in Canada have Mennonite roots and volunteers. The exception is B.C., where M2/W2 was interdenominational from its inception. However, MB volunteers and MCC were major contributors to M2/W2’s growth. Christian Reformed churches and their members have since become major contributors to the effort, with five of the eight current M2/W2 B.C. board members coming from a Christian Reformed background.
The motivating theology differs slightly from one denominational base to the other, but the effort to make a difference in people’s lives is the same. Christian Reformed theology views prison-related work from the perspective that Christ is Lord of culture – and those in prison are part of the culture. Mennonite perspectives centre on a theology of service as outlined by Jesus in Matthew 25. —Barrie McMaster


M2 is man-to-man; W2 signifies woman-to-woman. Friends. Through the ministry of M2/W2, inmates in correctional systems ask to be matched with a spiritual friend, someone in their corner. Since the 1960s, Christian volunteers, many of them MB or Mennonite Church Canada members, have filled that role, regularly visiting inmates.

However, visitation ministry isn’t easy in Canadian prisons these days. The proportion of inmates with problems of substance abuse, addictions, and disabilities has increased. More inmates struggle with mental illness. Inmates exposed to HIV or Hepatitis C are increasingly common. A growing number have impaired brain function because of drugs. There are more prisoners who come to the system with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Like never before, there are high demands on the correctional branch for special services to cope with these new realities, and volunteer groups like M2/W2 feel the same needs. Wayne Northey, executive director of M2/W2, said, “We’re not professionals. So we asked for additional training for our volunteers.” The correctional service responded with special training last year, and now, M2/W2 hopes they’ll offer the curriculum again because it helped volunteers recognize symptoms and behaviours associated with different disorders, which can, at times, affect the flavour of a friendship.
For all that, volunteers still visit prison inmates and still make a difference in people’s lives. But there are more requests for matches than volunteers available. In B.C., M2/W2 needs 200 more male volunteers to fill the demand, a number that has changed little over the years.
The situation for women is different. Though the number of female prisoners is up significantly, the number of female volunteer visitors has generally kept pace. —BM
For volunteer information, contact M2/W2 at info@m2w2.com, 1-604-859-3215 or 1-800-298-1777.

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