Tuesday, August 15, 2017

There but for the grace of God, go I

There have been some interesting culture events that have happened over the weekend. There was a political rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended in a crazy person running over a bunch of pedestrians, killing one and injuring several. The rally was under the banner of "Unite the Right" and was sponsored by various groups that the media/political intelligentsia have labelled the "alt-right"-which I am not exactly sure what that terms means exactly. It is sort of an omnibus boogeyman term for everyone in the supposed "alternative right" in the country that seems to encompass neo-Confederates, Neo-Nazis, Southern Nationalists, the Klan, and any other assorted racist goons, regardless of type or ideology.

Having grown up in a Southern county that is historically very economically depressed and had for many years an active Klan presence (they used to have a lodge building at the county seat and march during parades and such), I have been amused at the media trying to use this narrative of "alt-right" and paint all Southern dissident groups (and all Southerners by extension) as these huge racist bigots. Ironically, the crazy man who ran down the counter-protesters and many of the Neo-Nazis were not even from the South. In fact, the Klan and Neo-Nazis generally hate each other. Neo-Nazis are National Socialists and often anarchists, which makes no sense philosophically, but fringe loonies are not well renowned as systematic philosophers, but that is neither here nor there. Both of those things are generally anathema to the worldview of most Southerners. I am not actually posting this entry to discuss any of that.

What I have found almost as disturbing as the mayhem, nonsense, and racism on display by Tiki Torch Nazis is the reaction by many of my Christian friends in response to all this. Many have gotten onto their sanctimonious high horses to condemn not only the violence and racism (which is totally justifying) but to outright condemn all the people in the alt-right altogether, basically as not fit to live. While odious, this rancorously snotty blanket condemnation has not set well with me for a number of reasons.

First of all, not all Southerners are racists or alt-right (for lack of a better term) folk. This is not to downplay the sad history of race relations in the American South, but I have been distressed at how hateful some of the social media blanket condemnations have been of everyone. We are all sinners, let us not forget.

Secondly, let us not forget Christian charity that we owe to all people, not just the kinds of folks we would like to invite to dinner parties. People in the alt-right need our charity and love, lest our blanket condemnations and hateful respites to them turn them more violent and extremist. For, always remember the aphorism: There but for the grace of God, go I.

I bring this up because what is missing in this whole discussion is the reason people join gangs. By gangs, I do not just mean alt-right groups like Neo-Nazis or the Klan, but criminal gangs of any sort that play on race identity.

How can people end up like those people waving Nazis flags?
How can people end up joining violent groups like the Black Panthers?
How can people join notorious criminal gangs like MS-13 or the Crips or Bloods?

The knee jerk response is to say that people join these games because they are ignorant, no account scumbags.

Actually, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags.

To illustrate what I mean by this, let me tell you a story that happened to me when I was living up in South Dakota. I worked occasionally in my Anglican priest days at a youth camp in the Black Hills. I was chaplain one time for an elementary school camp, many of the campers being Lakota. I was giving a small group talk to some 4th and 5th graders about making good decisions that can affect your life. I had started the discussion by asking where the kids saw themselves in 10 years.

We went around the circle, and some of the kids said things like working or being in the military or what have you. I came to this one Lakota kid who could not have been  more than about 10 years old. He thought for a moment and said, in all seriousness, "I'll be drunk on a park bench somewhere."

At first, I was taken aback by this answer. I thought the kid was being a punk, but upon asking him why he said that, he appeared to be in earnest. He just said, "I'm Lakota. That's just what Lakota men do."

I do not remember exactly how I responded, as I was so taken aback by this matter-of-fact statement. But, eventually, we modulated back into a discussion of making good decisions like not doing drugs or joining gangs. One thing led to another and another of the Lakota kids basically told me, when I asked why people would join gangs told me one of the most amazing sociological insights I have ever heard, "People join gangs because they give you an identity. Something to do. It's like having a family, but a family that you are proud of."

In cultures where the family unit has disintegrated, parents are drunk, on drugs, or otherwise of no account, no kid wants to be a part of that family, but they are stuck with it. A gang, on the other hand, gives you that sense of family, of belonging, of worth, twisted and criminal as that may be. It gives you an identity, a horrible, twisted identity, but an identity of your own choosing nonetheless. People join groups like the Klan or Aryan Nation or MS-13 to escape the family they are ashamed of. Again, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags. These groups give them the identity and a sense of pride and belonging that their family and society has failed to give them. Therein, is the tragedy of it all.

This is why I repeat that people in these groups need not so much of our undying scorn and reverse hatred, but our Christian charity and prayer. We can disavow their odious actions and beliefs, but these people need our love. They need to hear our message that God loves them, and that they can be a part of God's family.

The world needs less hate, not more of it, especially not coming from us.

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