Knife crime and youth violence are urgent and pressing issues in my south London community.
As a parent of three secondary school-age children, it’s never far from my thoughts. Like so many families, our children have been affected by muggings and threats.
This week in my youth group we held a raw and honest session looking at this subject. We touched on very sensitive issues, but we believe churches must be talking about this. In a very straight-forward and obvious way, this is a salvation issue.
It is about saving young people: both from harm and from causing harm.
We all want safety and peace but Jesus did not say ‘Blessed are the peace-lovers’, he said ‘Blessed are the peace-makers’. Being a peace-maker demands action.
Fear and anger
Youth violence involves a potent mix of fear and anger.
There is genuine fear among both young people and their families. The fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of how to respond to a threat, of a small mistake, look or comment leading to tragedy.
But there is also anger. Our group is mainly black young people and hearing them express their grievances about how stereotypes affect them was extremely moving. They spoke about people crossing the road to avoid them or being banned from shops having not caused any trouble. Hearing these stories had a big impact on me personally. These are not experiences I ever had.
Fear and anger easily create a downward spiral which deepens divisions in the community. People of different ages and races see each other with increasing mistrust and alienation grows.
One thing I always notice is how empty our local parks are. Fear destroys community and leads to power being handed over to the wrong people.
What causes the problem?
At the youth group, we looked at this model and discussed which form of poverty is most significant.
Our discussion showed the utterly inter-connected nature of these issues.
A lack of resources is a key driver because the young people most risk are from deprived housing estates and materially poor backgrounds. They are most affected when youth services are closed.
But poor relationships are also at the core of this issue. Talking about families is a very sensitive issue but it cannot be sidelined. Sheldon Thomas, an ex-gang member and founder of Gangsline, said “bad parenting, absent fathers and bad male role models” are among the biggest problems when tackling violence.
And lastly, there is the problem of identity. Too many young people feel negatively perceived by others and don’t have a sense of hope and positive self-identity. Too often the media reinforce these stereotypes.
A harsh reality of these different forms of poverty is their compound nature: they draw on and deepen each other. If you are affected by one you are more likely to be affected by another. Relationship breakdown often deepens both material poverty and negatively affects identity. Likewise, addictions and criminal behaviour deepen all three aspects.
As the youth worker at my church, Neil Charlton, put it in an email to me:
‘I think the poverty of resources is primary; it fuels and exacerbates the problems of relationships and identity. Material inequality has powerful psychological effects.’
Answers to the problem
In the youth group we broke into 3 smaller groups to each discuss a different question: 1) How can young people stay safe? 2) How can violence be addressed? and 3) how should society change?
These were their answers:
How can young people stay safe?
- Choose your friends wisely
- Be careful where you walk after dark – take safer routes
- Keep expensive things off display
- Don’t try to be a smart-talker
- Go to youth groups and do positive activities
How can violence be addressed?
- Offenders need rehabilitation which builds their life-skills
- More Police for a clearer sense of authority on the street
- Encourage church-going and Christian input
- Street Pastors
- More youth groups based on estates
How should society change?
- Less stereotypes in the media and a more positive discussion
- Address culture of excessive masculinity
- Open more youth centres
- More black role models
- Better equality in society
A practical role
I have been volunteering in urban youth work for over 25 years but I feel am just starting on a journey to understand these issues better .
One thing I do know is that churches have a central role to play – both in what they can do practically and what they can say politically.
The church often has the key resource of buildings and people. They are fundamentally places of relationships, often already more inter-generational and inter-racial than many other institutions. Most deeply of all, we have a powerful message of affirmation, forgiveness and wholeness that can speak to people’s very identity.
I pray that churches will grow in confidence and courage. To be peacemakers, we need confidence in the relevance of our message and, most importantly, have the courage to put it into action.