Before we chat with Rev. Romal Tune at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement this Wednesday, February 26, I need to make a confession: I wish that the young people who join gangs would go to church instead; if there’s a God in heaven, then gangs should wither and die and church youth programs take their place.
It doesn’t sound like much of a confession, does it? Before I met Rev. Tune, author of God’s Graffiti founder and Executive Director of Faith for Change, I didn’t think so either. I thought I was making a fairly obvious, perhaps routine moral judgment: gangs bad, church good. But Rev. Tune is a former street kid who has committed his life to improving academic outcomes for at-risk youth so when he talks about churches and gangs, he speaks with authority. After hearing him rock the house at the Christianity 21 Conference in January my confession poured out of me.
Romal challenged my simplistic moralizing when he pointed out that churches sometimes mirror typical gang behavior when we shouldn’t – adopting with strict membership requirements, defining ourselves in opposition to other types of Christians, and reserving our ministries for our own community – and fail to imitate what we should – their passion and commitment to meeting youth where they are, taking care of their needs, and providing a sense of safety, belonging and purpose.
Moan about your dwindling attendance at youth programs all you want, Romal says, but don’t demonize or dismiss gangs as having nothing to teach us. Not like I did, hence my confession: I scapegoated gangs, using my condemnation of them to avoid taking responsibility for the mainline church’s failure to attract and retain youth members. The thing is, I should have known better because I work with mimetic theory which has this concept of the skandalon. That’s Greek for scandal and is often translated as stumbling block. We lift the idea straight from Jesus who taught us that if we are scandalized by something, we are probably caught up in a rivalry. (See Matt. 16:23 and all of chapter 18 to see Jesus linking scandal and rivalry.) That’s right – the reason I was so down on gangs was because they were better at doing the thing I claimed to value so highly. I condemned them so I could deny to myself just how much I envied their success and how much that success challenged the depth of my commitment to youth. Instead of walking the talk, I demonized gangs and congratulated myself on being the good guy.