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The Church and crime

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry, Contributor

Years ago, when crime was getting out of hand and the government of the day launched a Home Guard programme to help deal with it, the then prime minister, Michael Manley, volunteered to serve and set an example. The police high command quietly talked him out of it. The prime minister on the streets would have been a security nightmare. It would have required a squad of Protective Services officers to protect the First Constable out there 'protecting' the country, sucking off scarce resources rather than helping the fight against crime.

It is important that prime ministers - and everybody else - know what their business is.

I tell the story of Manley and the Home Guards in the context of renewed criticisms of the Church not doing enough to help solve national problems, as in the January 4 story, 'Church failing Jamaica', carried by The Gleaner. In that story, an acting commissioner of police, Glenmore Hinds, accused the Church of being too passive in the fight against crime. "The Church, likewise many citizens," he complained, "does not come in a fulsome way to tell all it knows about crime and criminals ... . All citizens, including the Church, can do much more and should strive to do more," DCP Hinds charged.

Flagellating the Church

Ardent church woman, Esther Tyson, who heads a church school, joined the fray in flagellating the Church for being too laid back in its fight against crime and poverty. In her Sunday Gleaner column, Tyson noted that in a country where there are churches in most crime-prone areas, the level of criminality should not be so high. She accused some churches of benefiting from the largesse of area dons, and of having women who were associated with criminals as members of their congregations.

"If we are to survive as a people," argues Mrs Tyson, who has personally suffered tremendously from crime, "the Church needs to take a more proactive approach in affecting what is happening in the nation."

Roman Catholic deacon and Member of Parliament Ronald Thwaites firmly supports Tyson's assessment of the dormant Church as "spot on". The Church is usually fast asleep with its back turned to the troubles of the country in Las May's humorous but very inaccurate cartoons.

With respect to the poverty issue, Thwaites reminded The Gleaner, "I have consistently said there is a constant transfer of wealth ... from the poor to the rich in this country and the Church does little to stop this ... . That is against Christian ethics," he added.

Veteran newsman, Gary Spaulding summed up the situation at the start of his January 10 Gleaner story, 'Don't blame us - Church leaders say they are doing their part in the fight against crime'. Spaulding wrote, "As the nation continues to struggle to find answers to the crime problem, more and more fingers are being pointed at the Christian Church for its perceived failure to play a lead role."

A defensive and perhaps shamed Church, through the Jamaica Council of Churches, too often regarding itself as the spiritual arm of the state, has agreed to a Crime Summit with the Police. The Church has also got very busy with counter-PR, trotting out all the wonderful things it has been doing against crime.

What is the business of the Church? What is the role of the Church in crime-fighting?

The Church, like prime minister and Home Guard volunteer Michael Manley in the 1970s, had better stop to figure out what is its real role in society. And it should be easier for the Church. Prime ministers don't have an operations manual, the Church has one. So figuring out what its business is can't be that hard.

Let us begin by dissecting a live and direct practical issue in the fight against crime before taking up some theological considerations. The Gleaner, last Monday, carried as its lead story on the front page, 'Getting tough - Minister Nelson says stiff anti-gang laws to be unveiled'. Now, bearing in mind the majority of urban churches are in gang-friendly, poor neighbourhoods, partly because the well-to-do are saying, "not in my backyard" to churches, how should the Church respond to this anti-gang thrust by the Government and its police force?

Church leaders in peril

You can be very certain that any perceived action on the part of the Church to unmask gangs will lead to a lot of dead church leaders, and members and burnt churches. But self-preservation has never been the Church's highest interest, at least not when it is looking after its real business. Its founder and leader promised a lot of pain, blood and death in His service and set the example. But what should the Church bleed and die for?

Collaboration with the Government's anti-gang thrust, affecting communities in which gangsterism and crime are deeply embedded as a way of life, is bound to compromise the ministry of the Church to those very communities. It is not only gangsters themselves who believe that "informa fi dead". Many of the children at Principal Tyson's school, which is one of the better uptown ones, also believe that "informa fi dead".

And speaking of Christian ethics, on what ethical basis can the Church supply to the police intelligence gathered from its ministry in particular communities and to particular individuals? And how might that intelligence-sharing compromise further ministry under already difficult circumstances?

Minister Nelson says his anti-gang legislation is "going to be a bit draconian". Already, Amnesty International has "cautioned against any legislation that would infringe on people's rights". Is it OK that the Church should be siding with in the defence of human rights against draconian measures, a position which may make the Church appear pro-gang, or is it the Government that the Church should side with in its anti-gang thrust, alienating itself from gang-dominated communities?

And finally on the gang issue, might not the greatly increased security needs of churches collaborating in the Government's anti-gang thrust far outweigh any benefits to be derived, as was the case with having First Constable Mike on patrol?

Simple but difficult theology

Now for some simple but difficult theology, difficult only because the Church has often chosen to toss 'the Manual' and leave both its members and outsiders with false impressions about its purpose. The first point is that the Church, a non-statal institution of called-out believers, serves Christ and His kingdom while dwelling as good citizens in the various states of this world. It was not designed to serve the interests of the State and the Government. And it takes its orders from its leader.

The next point is that the Church, certainly the Apostolic Church, ministers to individuals, with the primary purpose of calling them to salvation in Christ but helping them to deal with their troubles in this world. The Church does not have a mandate to order society, but when it does succeed in its primary mission spectacular social, political and economic transformation follows. The transformative power of Christian revival is very well documented but has been largely sidelined by society and by the Church itself more interested in using state intervention to bring about positive change than in changing people's lives as the basis for changing society.

There is widespread and growing rejection of the spiritual message and authority of the Church by leaders and people while wanting the material benefits of its ministry. This is not only the height of hypocrisy but, ultimately, is unrealistic.

The Church confronts evil, primarily in the conduct of individuals, not as a societal abstraction, like Ahab confronted by Elijah and Herod by John the Baptist. And it pays the price. Amazingly, it is Carla Gullotta of Amnesty International in Jamaica, not a Church leader, who has pointed out that, "if the Government was going to be serious about dismantling gangs, it also had to look at the relationship between politics and gangs."

It is difficult to identify a political leader in this country who is not affiliated with the Church in some fashion. One of the finest services that the Church could render in the fight against crime is to confrontationally call individual political leaders, senior police officers - and gangsters - to repentance. But that is far more demanding than brokering peace treaties between gangs and handing out welfare packages in the desperate places where gangsters, historically bred and sustained by the country's tribal politics, run things. And the gangs sometimes provide better social services than both the Church and the Government from the proceeds of extortion and the drug trade.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to or