Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings
Once again, politicians and commentators are talking about gangs - this time as a result of their apparent role in some of last week’s rioting. The Prime Minister has signalled that he will make it one of his priorities, turning for advice to Bill Bratton, the retired American police chief with experience of gang culture.
Yet a great deal of experience is already available in the justice system to policy makers and you only have to spend time with young people themselves to understand why, for some, the gang is so important. If we are to wean them away from the gang, recognising the needs the gang satisfies has to be the starting-point.
From time to time I visit young offender institutions – youth prisons. I remember well a conversation I had with one young teenager about his gang membership. He said, in effect, that the gang gave him the three things he most craved – respect, a sense of worth and something to do. By respect he meant protection. When he walked the streets with other gang members, no one – as he put it – would 'mess' with him. By a sense of worth he meant that the gang was the only context in which he counted for anything. His mother worked long hours and had little time to give him when she came home, and he struggled at school. In the gang he was somebody. And the gang gave him something to fill his days both now and in a future where there would be few low-skilled jobs for the likes of him. Unfortunately, what the gang filled his days with were activities that were often anti-social and sometimes criminal.
The aftermath of the riots may not be the ideal time for thinking dispassionately about gangs. Our first priority should be the punishment of offenders. But the destruction on our high streets does reveal in starkest fashion that the lives of our troubled youth are bound up with ours. If we are to make a difference to their lives, then, yes, they must be punished for criminal acts – they need to know their actions have consequences and victims - but we also need to think about how we can better meet the needs the gang satisfies.
Some of the young people I meet are not easy to like. But if I am ever tempted to wash my hands of them, scripture has a way of rebuking me. They may be troublesome but they are still children; and Jesus in the gospels reserves some of his sternest words for those who can’t be bothered with children. If they cause children to stumble it would be better if a stone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the uttermost parts of the sea. I don’t think he added a rider about troublesome children being an exception.
Available since: Mon 15 Aug 2011
Reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news.
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