ShePonders: Restitution

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“… I want to see this kind of salvation come to my house.”
By Kelley Johnson-Nikondeha

Audio: ShePonders: Restitution

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My beloved South African friend, René, traveled in, bringing gifts of rooibos tea and Merlot from a local wine farm. She shared in our holiday tradition of turkey roasting, potato mashing and thanks giving, not that many months ago. She regaled us with tales from her homeland that left us all thoughtful and thankful, for post-Apartheid South Africa is a complex context. We spent the next morning cloistered in conversation while clutching coffee. We spoke of the theological voice of women, restitution, mutual friends, favorite spices and she offered her wickedly good impression of Desmond Tutu.

Yes, we spoke of “restitution.” (Doesn’t everybody?) She is part of The Restitution Foundation, a group of South Africans devoted to thinking and enacting restitution in their country. They offer this scenario as an example:

“Imagine a man’s bicycle is stolen. This now means he has no transport, and cannot get to work; thus he loses his job. Without a job, he cannot educate his children or support his family. Perhaps he used that bicycle to run errands for the homebound elderly woman next door; now she is affected by the loss as well. Jobless and frustrated, he becomes a drain on his community rather than a resource. What would restitution look like in this situation? Certainly it is not just returning the bicycle. He is not the only person who has been affected by the crime; his family, his neighbors and his community have also suffered.”

“Compensation” would dictate that the bike be replaced. “Charity” would suggest offering some food to his family or maybe school supplies for his children. Restitution demands more, but can also deliver something much more lasting and transformative.

As we sipped the dregs of our morning coffee, she shared about her baggage boondoggle. Our domestic carrier charged her twice as much as expected for her two checked bags. This really put a crimp in her already tight budget. So from then on, each time I picked up the check for lunch or paid for her sundries along with mine at the grocery store, I’d wave it off as making restitution to her on behalf of my country’s airline policy. We’d laugh and carry on. It was a joke–because I’d planned on spoiling her every chance I got whilst she was in town! But the joke had legs– ones that began pushing on me in terms of what restitution means in my own context.

Satisfied

After the final meal we shared, she handed me the receipt for her baggage fees and declared that restitution had been satisfied; rather tongue-in-cheek! All laughing aside, I knew a new word had entered my discipleship vocabulary.

Zaccheus

Walking through Jericho one day, Jesus looked beyond and above the crowds and saw a small man perched in a tree. All the locals knew it was Zacchaeus, a rich man due to his work as the chief tax collector.

Jesus called out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The little man moved down the tree and into the street quickly, eyes shining with excitement at the unexpected opportunity to host the Rabbi.

“Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” It was then, after this astonishing statement of restitution, that Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house … ”

Giving half of his possessions to the poor was an extravagant act of charity–a great start. But the most revolutionary action was the decision to offer restitution to those he defrauded. He knew his riches were gained by exploiting the poor and his actions had impoverished an entire community. His offer of restitution demonstrated his awareness that they deserved more than “charity” (discretionary giving from his abundance) and more than “compensation” (dollar for dollar repayment). His offering made it clear that he was moving away from unjust gains and toward the costly practice of justice. I think this is why Jesus declared that salvation, or transformation, had come to his house.

Think about those who he would repay over the next set of days–what must that exchange have been like? They would come face to face with the chief tax collector but this time they would walk away with a heavier purse–radical! They would look him in the eye and he would do the same and maybe for the first time ever they saw each other as “neighbor.” Amazing! This would mark the beginning of a new relationship between them and a new way of engaging in community life together. I imagine Zacchaeus’ road of restitution was hard and had its share of pitfalls as he learned this new practice, but I am convinced it was a worthwhile journey toward the good that blessed the entire neighborhood.

So, here is the lingering question: How do we incorporate the practice of restitution into our daily discipleship? My Palestinian friend makes me laugh. Our kids play together in the park most days. I think of the policies of my country toward her people, her homeland and wonder how I can enact restitution in the context of our friendship. My state is infamous for poor attitudes and treatment of the immigrant community–is this yet another opportunity for me to find some way of living out justice by practicing restitution?

The Restitution Foundation in South Africa helps whites think about their status as beneficiaries of power and privilege, as well as creating opportunities for them to participate in restitution in townships and other communities affected by the injustice of Apartheid. Maybe we be could reflect on how we might be beneficiaries of our own systems and consider the power and privilege we possess. Then, let’s get creative and imagine how we could practice acts of restitution for individuals of these communities.

It will be costly, radical and deeply transformative. But I want to see this kind of salvation come to my house!

____________________________________

My dear friends, I would love to hear your thoughts on this:

For example:

  • Where have you been the beneficiary of power and/or privilege?
  • How can you imagine incorporating the practice of Restitution into your daily discipleship?
  • Any other thoughts?

_________________________________

About Kelley:

Kelley Johnson Nikondeha is co-director of Amahoro Africa and international staff member of Community of Faith with her husband Claude. She’s a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader and mother of two beautiful children. Kelley lives between Arizona and Burundi. She loves handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann.

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Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called shelovesmagazine.com–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at idelette.com and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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Idelette McVicker
  • What a fantastic post. And it gives me so much to think about. Compensation is cheap and easy. Restitution… that is costly. That requires an investment of our lives.

    I wonder how I can be part of restitution for those who made my clothes in sweatshops? Or those who picked my food for slave wages. I try to avoid buying from unethical sources, but haven’t always.

    And within Canada, this perfectly illustrates the issue with our native communities, and the government + citizens’ unwillingness to see the impact of systemic racism on our native brothers and sisters. We seem bent on stingy compensation, and have not at all grasped what restitution might look like.

    Thank you for raising these questions, Kelley. I really appreciate it.

  • Kelley Johnson Nikondeha

    Thanks, Erin. Restitution really has far-reaching implications, as you have already begun to sense and even unravel. Quite a year of prayer and pondering ahead…

  • Kelley, this post really hits me at my core … I think you might suspect that. I appreciate, however, how far I’ve come–from just being emotional about this part of my story, to thinking more rationally about it now and being cognitive of future steps.

    I loved the distinction between restitution, charity and compensation.

    Plus: I spent some time on the Restitution Foundation website. I think this might be a Rene conversation in Burundi in May. I would love to know how I could be part of Restitution in the South African story. Who knows …

    Meanwhile, I am sitting with my privilege and power. One thing that came to mind as I was thinking how I’ve benefitted from my family’s position of privilege, was that I got to have a good education. I had access to books. A library. That’s the place where there’s tears.

    I don’t know what it all means yet … But I will sit with it and hold it up to God. Thank you for leading this conversation, Kell. I am so looking forward to hear more of how this word will become flesh in your life this year.

    Thank you for pondering deeply, sis. You are so loved. xo

    • Kelley Johnson

      Well, a conversation with Rene is always a good idea! But, yes, she can share more and offer more insight as a fellow SA sister. Books, hmmm. Keep holding that thought and those tears.

      • I love this, “Keep holding that thought and those tears.”

        I have a ton of tears lately. Gosh.

  • Sherry

    Wow, K – this is powerful. I have MUCH to ponder now. I agree with Idelette about the distinction between restitution, charity and compensation. This challenges me. Thank you!

  • Beautifully, well written. I am in a restitution moment myself right now,a nd have been before. As Lattie said, you can’t be a warrior of justice wielding a might sword if you cannot keep yourself in check. Sadly, I found a lingering sentiment dwelling something rotting a bit like an apple core in my heart, so I started about a year back this journey of restitution. Sometimes it makes me cringe, because the think the restitution opportunity is bi-directional, but I took the first step, made the leap, and know that if I don’t do these steps anything I try to build will fall victim to an eventual sinking core. So each day, I put on my obligations to make right my wrong attitudes and cynical spirit, and in its place provide abundance and generosity without condition. One day at a time; I guess it all we can do. Love you!

  • This is so interesting, I have never thought about those definitions of restitution as opposed to compensation. I like it, it immediately speaks to be of true justice, true righting of relationships.
    You’ve given me a lot to ponder today. I think one aspect of power and privilege is that it has a blinding or hiding effect, so that it becomes hard to recognise that our privilege may have been gained, or be being maintained, through injustice. It’s important to keep asking, what aren’t I seeing here?

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