Does New Zealand’s Justice System Go Far Enough?

A makeshift cell is the last place you would expect to find one of New Zealand’s spiritual leaders. Last year the Anglican Bishop of Wellington, Justin Duckworth, spent the best part of a week living in a small, fenced-in chamber outside the local Cathedral to pray for criminals and their victims. This provocative act was designed to draw attention to ineffective aspects of New Zealand’s justice system and encourage thoughtful reform.

According to Duckworth, restorative justice and community involvement are key aspects of improving the rate of re-offending among New Zealanders who have spent time in jail, as well as the overall impact of incarceration on the community. In a TV interview Duckworth advocated for a justice system, ‘where the criminal has to front up and take responsibility for what they did, and have to actually make restitution, and actually have to live in the consequences and see the pain that they’ve caused and the hurt that they’ve caused’.

Duckworth’s time in a cell highlights some of the weaknesses with an incarceration-only approach to justice – the lack of true repentance, restoration, healing and forgiveness.

Like Duckworth, I believe the church has a special role to play in this process; a role which has often been neglected and side-lined by mainstream Christianity. As followers of Christ we have something to offer – the ultimate message of forgiveness, peace and hope; the message of the cross.

A little-publicised part of New Zealand’s early history illustrates how the message of peace, faith and reconciliation led to restoring justice being practised across our nation. October 19 1836 marks the murder of a child – Tarore – the daughter of the Maori chief Ngakuku. Tarore studied at the mission school in Matamata, Waikato, where she was given a copy of the Gospel of Luke in Te Reo Maori. This small book became a treasure amongst her people who would listen as the story of Christ was shared. They drank in the message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

One night while Ngakuku and Tarore were traveling they were ambushed by some of the Arawa tribe. Tarore was killed as she lay sleeping. Her murderer noticed her treasured book and took it thinking it must be valuable. At her funeral the next day her father preached against the desire for utu, revenge. This revolutionary act set in motion a sequence of events that paved the way for restoration and reconciliation between tribes.

No one in the Arawa camp was able to read the book and it was not until a visiting slave named Ripahau (who was literate) read the text aloud that the people understood its true value. Tarore’s murderer was convicted by the message of peace displayed in the Gospel of Luke and humbled himself to go and seek forgiveness from Tarore’s father. Visiting Ngakuku was an extremely dangerous move and could easily have resulted in death. A local re-telling of this story claims that as the men approached one another tears were shed and they embraced. After repentance peace prevailed between the two men and a church was built to honour the message which brought about reconciliation.

Amazingly, the story of reconciliation does not stop here. Ripahau travelled to Otaki where he met Tamihana Te Rauparaha, the son of a fearsome warrior. Using Tarore’s book he shared the message of forgiveness and peace with Tamihana, who responded with a changed heart. The word of God and the actions and person of Jesus Christ inspired Tamihana to travel to the South Island to make peace with people who had traditionally been his mortal enemies. Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand reports that, ‘When he (Tamihana) was asked by Ngai Tahu chiefs if his father was going to come to attack them he would reply, “He indeed will not come; for I have indeed come hither to you to bring an end to warfare, and to bind firmly peace by virtue of the words of the Gospel of the Lord”’.

The story of Tarore and her treasured book encourages us to remember that the message of true peace and reconciliation is powerful enough to unite even the most determined of enemies and bring forgiveness for unspeakable wrongs. The restoring justice described in this story was just as revolutionary back then as it is today – if not more so, being set in a context marked by revenge and warfare.

There are no easy answers when it comes to discussing justice reform and more than enough problems to work through. Our justice system desires change to reduce re-offending but merely locking someone up does not necessarily bring about a change of heart. Jesus says our problem is within us, out of our hearts comes selfishness, greed and hatred.

In 2014 we celebrate the bicentennial of the message of reconciliation coming to New Zealand. It is time for Christians to remember the power of the gospel. Christians need to think carefully about ways the church can encourage and facilitate a justice system where the responsibility and consequences of criminal offending go hand in hand with true restoration and reconciliation. For a justice system that encourages repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation we need the life-changing gospel of Jesus.

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