Monday, 15 August 2011
Hugging a "hoodie" and making gangs lives "hell"
We were sitting waiting for a plane back from the USA when we saw our first images fo the riots. We'd been in the USA for two weeks and the riots, by that point, had been going on for days but we hadn't seen or heard anything about it in the US news (it's true when they say people barely mention international news there), until we were waiting for our flight to London to board. There were pictures of burning buildings, riot police, kids with their hoods up smashing things in, reports of it being "uncontrollable" and talks of curfews being imposed. And there were terrified Americans queuing for their flight to London.
And now that things have calmed down, everyone is talking about WHY it happened. Newspaper articles, TV debates, BBC polls. The Times reported that Cameron is going to "make life hell" for gangs by getting police to "harass" gang members constantly until they stop their life of crime. My Dad thinks there needs to be more discipline in our society. Some friends think it is race related, some think it's class issues. Is it unemployment? Lack of education? Disenfranchisement? Breakdown of families? Poverty? Is it selfishness? A culture of greed? Materialism? And although I don't agree with all the views put across (I don't even know where to start with criticising Cameron's "harassment" policy...waste of police time, a willful misunderstanding of social and economic factors, the perpetuation of anti-police feeling in some communities and well, the clue's in the name- I'm not sure that getting civil forces to "harass" people is ever a policy), I am glad that there's some debate about the "state of the Nation" and at least some awareness of issues facing young, socially excluded people today.
I won't get into the debates right now (although there may be another post soon that does) because the view point I want to get across right now is just what's on my mind, right here and right now and besides, I'm pretty sure everyone is sick of hearing everyone harp on about it. I've been thinking a lot about a Christian response to this, a response informed by love, forgiveness, mercy and the Bible's principles of turning the other cheek and not punishing punitively. This, however, isn't a weak or a passive response. It's not burying your head in the sand or excusing violent or disorderly behaviour. It's not wishy-washy. The Bible is committed, obsessed even, with justice. And I am challenging you, challenging myself, to trying to apply that vision of justice to our society. Not just justice in terms of jail sentences, community service, fines, taking away benefits and council housing- criminal justice (although I'm not sure taking away benefits and housing IS criminal justice- or effective for that matter). I'm talking about an absolute, unflinching commitment to wholesale justice in our society- the justice that the Bible urges us to- sharing possessions, lessening the gaps between rich and poor, rebuilding communities that are ravaged by crime, poverty, drug abuse, violence, lack of opportunity and lack of hope.
The paper is full of opinions, facebook is full of people critiquing society, the police, looters, rioters, anarchists and kids. So is church. And I want to ask, do you know what it is like to live in a London estate where unemployment is the norm, where poverty is rife, where violence is out of control and frightening? Do you know why people are in gangs? Do you know anyone in a gang? Do you know why young people put their hoods up? Have you every met a young person who has been harassed by the police, unfairly, because of the colour of their skin or because of where they live? DO you know how much weekly benefits are? Do you know how much trainers are? Do you know why kids want expensive trainers? Have you been to a school where no one is interested in getting the best out of you or looking into WHY you can't control your anger? Do you know anyone whose parents are drug users? Do you know anyone who deals drugs? Do you know why kids in poor areas are bored and angry and disenfranchised? Do you know what kind of a job they would apply for if they were applying for a job?
I'm not saying that there isn't a right and a wrong. That there weren't poor, angry and disadvantaged young people that sat at home and didn't go out looting. I'm not saying that it is okay to steal or be violent or hurt people, whatever your economic background. But I am asking people, I am asking Christians to get out there and meet some kids and get to know the issues. This isn't "hug a hoodie", this isn't token "get to know a poor kid". The last thing young people need is to be a charity case or to have people walk in and walk out of their lives. But volunteer at a youth club in a poor area, sign up to their newsletter, give money to projects that work with at risk young people. But don't just read the Guardian and tweet about disadvantaged Britain and hoodies and benefits culture. Because if you don't know these kids, how will you see them change?
Because I know someone who, a few years ago, would have been out there smashing things up and pissing off the police but she stayed home. In fact, I know a few people. But not as many as I'd like and I'm challenged by that.
There is a need for debate and for policy changes and for pressuring the government and for giving money to charities and there is a need to learn from what has happened. But in the meantime, the Church is called to be family to those who don't have family, to be love to those who don't know love or who have pushed it away, to give food to kids who don't get fed, to play with those who have never been played with, to bring hope to those whose lives are hopeless and to see things change. To push for change- not just preaching, not just praying, not just tweeting and not just having an opinion. And if you don't know how, ask someone who is already doing it. Being the change we want to see in the world, being ready to sacrifice, being hopeful that the next generation can be different. I'm not there yet but I'm ready to try.