“It was very much an eye-opener,” says Kilbourne, now an associate UMC pastor in Little Rock, Ark., of the background part of the course.

For help with grounding the students theologically, Carder relied on lectures by Campbell, a Pauline scholar who argues that a society’s approach to punishment reflects its understanding of God. Campbell has devoted much of his writing to challenging the justification theory of salvation as traditionally drawn from Paul’s letters.

“He feels that reading Paul forensically is an incorrect reading, that you can only understand Paul through the lens of grace,” Carder says.

Campbell also argues — with as much passion as Carder — that restorative justice must be the Christian way.

“At the end of the day, we believe in the system of reconciliation we’ve got from God, or we don’t,” he says. “And if we believe in it, we should be applying it.”

While restorative justice is about making things whole for offenders and victims — rather than simply exacting punishment — putting the idea into practice is not so obvious.

Carder required four papers of his students, one of them a description and critique of a restorative justice model. He devoted three class sessions to exploring such models, and his required reading included James Samuel Logan’s Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment.

As it happened, the professor in the office next to Carder’s — Tammy Williams — was using the same book in a Black Church Studies course. They co-sponsored a panel discussion, open to the public and widely attended by members of their classes. It featured North Carolinians active in restorative justice and able to address with authority the real-life possibilities of Logan’s ideas.

As stimulating as all this was, students say, the trips to the prison were what distinguished the course.

“We were able to meet a diversity of people who are in prison,” Adkins says. “We were able to tour the different prison areas. We were able to speak to inmates and staff. It gave legs to all that we were reading.”

Willis actually worried that the visits would give students a romantic picture of prison life, since prison officials hand-picked inmates to meet with them. Though well within the prison complex, the gatherings occurred in a comfortable multi-purpose room, not in crowded living quarters.

But the first visit included a tour of the medical complex’s psychiatric ward, where conditions were Spartan, and despair palpable.

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