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Review of Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.



[1] The very heart of Christopher Marshall’s latest book, Compassionate Justice, explores two beloved parables in which the main characters are “moved by compassion” to show mercy and do justice. As with Beyond Retribution, Marshall eloquently juxtaposes detailed exegesis with insight into the theory and rich religious underpinnings of restorative justice in modern legal systems. Through detailed examination of the well-known and well-loved parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (Luke 10:25-37 and 15:11-32), Marshall looks closely at the nature and practice of compassion. Likewise, he recognizes the art and grace that provoke love toward the one who is “other” and mercy toward the one who does violence to us. Ultimately, he pairs compassion and justice as necessary dance partners in a faith-based response to crime and all those who are impacted by it.

Compassionate Justice


[2] Marshall is ideally situated in New Zealand, one of the first nations to utilize restorative justice practices alongside traditional legal court proceedings in addressing crime. Restorative justice is a process that responds “to wrongdoing and conflict [seeking], above all else, to repair the harm suffered, and to do so, where possible, by actively involving the affected parties in mutual dialogue and decision-making about their needs and obligations” (5). In the modern age, as in Jesus’ time, the priority of compassion over the compulsions of the law, or forgiveness over retribution, is seen as radical, weak, and ineffectual. The author shows how the compassionate outsider and the father who overflows with love for both of his sons are paradigms which shape our understanding of a just and loving God, the God we are called to emulate.

[3] Marshall is highly lauded in biblical and restorative justice circles as an important contributor to the still developing study and practice of restorative justice, particularly its biblical heritage and religious foundations. Due to his scriptural expertise, one natural audience for Compassionate Justice would be other biblical scholars intent on a detailed exegesis of the Prodigal Son and/or the Good Samaritan, especially with an eye to studying the values of compassion and justice. His explorations might also be a respected resource for attorneys interested in a faith-based response to crime. Marshall in fact spends significant time on the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan where both the lawyer and Jesus confirm that the heart of the Law is love of God and love of neighbor.

[4] Still, Marshall’s engagement with the Good Samaritan is particularly rich and extensive and lends itself best to the intersection of biblical wisdom and the practice of justice. The exploration of the Prodigal Son is more succinct and a beautiful story of forgiveness; the application to restorative justice, however, is less compelling. Most problematic was the concluding chapter of the section on the Prodigal Son (Chapter 9) which delves into the experience and attitude of the elder son. Marshall casts him initially as victim of the younger brother’s actions along with his father and the community which benefits from the generosity of this landowner and employer. However, Marshall subsequently paints the elder brother solely as a bitter whiner with no basis for his own feelings or perspective on how to respond to the prodigal’s return. Within a restorative justice framework, the harsh judgment placed on the brother who stayed home is an offense to each victim’s right to grapple with sentiments of betrayal, injury, and offense in their own time and in their own way. As Marshall says several times, neither forgiveness nor compassion can be compulsory, and yet, when the older brother understandably struggles with anger and hurt, he is judged by the book’s author as selfishly hurting his father just as deeply as the younger brother did (237).

[5] Part III of the book also misses a rich opportunity. After skillfully exploring the significance of compassion to the work of justice, Marshall does not bring home the wealth of the parables in apt conclusions, interdisciplinary dialogue, and recommendations for the way forward. Instead, he spends almost 20 of his final pages critiquing the conclusions of Annalise Acorn, author of Compulsory Compassion. That her deductions seem to dismiss the powerful role of faith and hope in the restorative practices seems clear, and this is indeed problematic. The objection is not to Marshall’s decision to confront Acorn on her conclusions; the problem lies in the inclusion of this lengthy book review in a book about two parables and their wisdom for our attempts to demonstrate compassion and confront the harm done by crime.

[6] In part because of the attention paid to Acorn here, Marshall does not fully succeed in making the necessary connections between the two parables and Part III’s examination of compassion. Nor does he commendably fulfill the book’s claims to juxtapose these powerful parables with the injustices and inefficacy of modern legal and criminal justice systems. There is frequent mention of crime and law, in biblical times and now, but not to the extent that a modern restorative justice practitioner could formulate enhanced or improved prescriptions for what ails our communities, courts, and legal processes. Marshall admits several times in the book that his approach is primarily theoretical and frequently abstract. However, innovations in theory should potentially inform praxis; this ideal is not reached via Compassionate Justice.

[7] There are three ways that Christopher Marshall might have made Compassionate Justice more engaging and beneficial to the theory and subsequent practice of restorative justice. First, an oversight must be mentioned. Though restorative practices find a staunch ally in the spirit of Levitical law and the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, they owe much of their rich tradition to global indigenous practices. This was not acknowledged adequately in this book. Second, he needed to make a stronger case for why his lengthy exegeses contributed to the library of restorative justice resources. Finally, the power of story to shape imagination and rescue theory from idle wanderings was strikingly under-utilized. In Part III, the author shares a heart-rending story of the death of a 7-year-old boy and the forgiveness his parents offered to the young man who accidentally killed him. It was rich with the power of restorative justice and the challenges it faces from lawyers and other members of the public who struggle to imagine this sort of grace-filled decision. I was waiting for Marshall to compare this family’s generosity with that of the Forgiving Father in the parable, but that didn’t happen. I was left hungry for other examples of the experiences and power of restorative justice seen in New Zealand, the U.S. and elsewhere.

[8] Compassionate Justice is endorsed by key theorists and practitioners in the field of restorative justice, and the author’s wisdom regarding compassion and the offerings of the Gospels to fortify the theory of restorative justice are clear. That he offers us sufficient grist for the mill to promote more effective restoration and healing in the face of crime and violence is less evident.

Christie Billups, D.Min. spent over 15 years ministering in the jails of Chicago, IL, and continues to promote the knowledge and practice of restorative justice in the region through education and networking. She is Assistant Professor of Theology, Director of Pastoral Ministry, and Coordinator of Service Learning at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL.

© July/August 2001

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 13, Issue 4