Thu | Aug 16, 2018

Church, crime and cynicism

Published:Sunday | April 26, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne

Two Saturdays ago, the prime minister was in church and she had a message for the nation through the Jamaica Baptist Women's Federation: "Send your children to church even if you don't go. We have to go back to a kinder Jamaica, a gentler society.

We have to go back to being a people of strong values, of service, community and peace."

The prime minister was bewailing the increased slaughter in Jamaica since the beginning of the year, particularly of our children. The murder of those boys in Clarendon was fresh in her mind and hard on her heart, as indeed the nation's. The growing number of secular critics would, of course, be very cynical of her advice (Just last week, Dr Michael Abrahams, who doesn't joke to attack the Church, had written his column about the many Christians who are not nice people). But cynical or not, empirical research does establish that going to church can mitigate against socially negative factors.

I have been reading Harvard Sociology Professor Orlando Patterson's edited 676-page tome, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth (2015), where the essays establish the importance of churchgoing to black youth's positive socialisation. The same has been true of Jamaica. The Church has been doing a far more effective job of rescuing a number of youth from criminality, hopelessness and alienation. Many secular critics are simply unaware of the Church's impact. Now, I believe the Church could have a greater impact, and I certainly believe the institution can be far more effective in its messaging.

But I have met many young people from the inner city in 28 years of doing my television show 'Profile', who have testified that had it not been for the influence of church attendance, they would not have had the positive counterbalancing to the negative influences. The prime minister was on target. Too many of our youth today are unattached - not in school, church, youth or community clubs or any workplace. The gang or crew becomes the only source of attachment for some as they themselves are deprived of any attachment at home, where the father is usually absent.

The poverty of our people closely mirrors that of black America. And the socio-cultural factors are the same. Seventy per cent of all African-American children and more than 80 per cent of poor ones are born in single-parent households. Orlando Patterson, one of the most brilliant and accomplished intellectuals this country has produced, calls this an "ethnic and national tragedy". Contrast that with the fact that more than 70 per cent of Euro-American children are born to married women. Most Asian youth are also born in homes with two caregivers (married or unmarried). Here in Jamaica, sexual promiscuity and 'gyallis' behaviour is lionised and glorified. It is celebrated in our dancehall music, roots plays and is quite acceptable uptown.

Norms and values

We keep on talking about economic reform, political reform, economic growth, improved governance processes and structural reforms, but unless we radically reform our norms and values, we will continue to skid. One of the key lessons I have been drawing from poring over Patterson's massive volume is the interconnectedness between the political, economic and structural factors and the cultural and personal. Orlando Patterson pulls it all together in his final chapter:

"We should make it absolutely clear that even with the successful implementation of all the above-mentioned programmes, there will be no substantial change among millions of disadvantaged youth and their families in the inner cities until black Americans assume full responsibility for their internal social and cultural changes that are essential for success in the broader mainstream capitalist society."

Increased policing, improved intelligence gathering, more security control by themselves will not solve our crime problem. Teaching beatitudes or Sunday school stories by themselves won't do either. There has to be a combination of hard and soft strategies. I think Peter Bunting understands the right mix and he must not be discouraged by the spike in crime. He must redouble his efforts, not sink into despair. Fighting crime is not an overnight task.

Adopting the Mark Wignall Solution will not be the way to bring down crime. (Did you read his chilling column last Thursday?) I still believe in tough policing. I still believe, like Wignall, that there are some dog-heart, hardened criminals out there who have to be dealt with appropriately, but our history has shown that hard policing methods by themselves will not solve crime. Targeting 'irredeemable' youth has been tried and has failed. Bunting's strategy of combining hard and soft methods and his promotion of his Unite for Change initiative represent the kind of efforts that have the potential to make a difference.

The spike in crime is not an argument against his strategies. It is simply an indication of how hard a task he has and of how much leadership, strength and commitment he needs to stay the course.

What he said in his last Sectoral Debate presentation is still true today: "When families collapse, schools fail to educate, the economy does not produce enough jobs, we turn to law enforcement to save us. Nothing could be more wrong. It gives law enforcement an impossible burden. It takes us all off the hook. The task is to launch a strategy that engages the energies, passion and commitment of all." That he must accelerate.

Unite for Change has been running some particularly poignant ads advocating responsible parenthood and family life. Private-sector companies like Digicel, LIME, NCB, Scotiabank, Grace, Sandals, Wray & Nephew, the electronic and print media and the advertising agencies must join forces to support a massive media campaign under that Unite for Change banner. These private entities need to see the connection between the goals and objectives of Unite for Change and their own prosperity. We are all in this thing together.

We all know that Wignall, as an atheist, is sceptical of the Church. But, Mark, the Church has changed some of those "irredeemable" fellows. I have known and interviewed some former dangerous killers who have made the change. It's possible. It was not just idle talk when Portia advised us to send our children to church. But the Church needs to do better at preparing our youth for life in the real, tough world.

Pastors and church leaders must spend more time talking about the practical things of life, not just about how to have faith for miracles, blessings and healings. People must be taught coping skills. They must be prepared for disappointments, setbacks and the frustrations of life. They must be told it's not an easy road. People must learn in church how to control their emotions; how to master their feelings and not be hapless victims of their anger, resentment, bitterness and broken dreams. You won't get rid of the revenge killings, the reprisals, the murder-suicide of lovers if people don't learn emotional control.

A man must know he doesn't own a woman. She is not his property to be disposed of when she is no longer of any 'use' to him. Our men kill their women because "if me caan have har, no other man fi get har". Our decadent dancehall music encourages us to have those misogynistic attitudes. Cultural Matrix says of rap music what is precisely true of Jamaican dancehall: "Regardless of the causal link, any cultural genre that routinely celebrates retaliatory murder and rape and dismisses women as 'hos' and 'dirty bitches' for the taking, trashing and discarding is morally bankrupt ... . These lyrics are self-evidently evil-speech acts. That the men who sing them also act them out in their own lives and have become role models for an entire generation of youth simply makes matters worse."

Appropriate messaging

The Church has an uphill task, and that is why it has to be thoroughly equipped. The Church should teach not just theology, but a philosophy and psychology that can help people in this life, not just get them to the next.

The newer churches have been teaching many to have faith, to hope, to know their present circumstances don't have to define them. While I have deplored the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel, that part of it which builds self-esteem and makes inner-city youth know they can achieve great things and that "all things are possible" is good. But they also learn to accept the vicissitudes of life.

This is where an ancient philosophy liked Stoicism is valuable. We need to internalise the words of Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, who said nearly 2,000 years ago in The Emperor's Handbook: "I hear you say, 'How unlucky that this should happen to me!' Not at all! Say instead: 'How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen."

Portia's right. Send the children to church. And please, pastors, teach them well. Peter Bunting needs some divine (not Wignallian) intervention.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and