“Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
It’s easy to become obsessed with ‘issues’ – from war in the middle east and the ensuing refugee crisis, to the negative gastrointestinal effects of gluten on our gut, there is no shortage of issues to address and causes to fight. If I’m honest, I’ve begun to become just a little skeptical about some of the fads of what causes churches adopt. (I’m aware the notion of there even being ‘fashionable’ causes for which to advocate is pretty grotesque, but it’s all around us.) These issues and causes can easily become all-encompassing and all-consuming. Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian activist, suggests a different starting point. He urges us, “don’t choose issues, choose people. Then the issues will choose themselves.” It never ceases to amaze me how polarized our advocacy can become. Couldn’t we be pro-life AND pro-choice? What about choosing to love the good in both Israel AND Palestine? What if, sometimes, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater? What if we carefully held the baby and loved it as best we could? And, if we poured the bathwater onto a flower bed or vegetable patch, we could even find generative ways to redemptively use something we’d previously written off as waste.
I didn’t expect one of the most upsetting aspects in being friends with young people in gangs and on drugs to be the misunderstanding and judgmentalism of others. Namely, the ear-bashing that more polished, less-obviously-addicted people, enjoying the trappings and conveniences of living in the centre of inequality-exacerbating systems, give me about the moral nihilism of my marginalized friends, whom they have never met. And from that skewed logic, the question is asked ‘how can you work with those people, aren’t you scared?’ or, even worse is the naïve notion that society’s problems would all be solved by locking all of them up in prison.
[As an aside – some thoughts on prison, why it’s a self-defeating idea, and will never solve the problem of gangsterism:
- Institutions don’t change people; people change people. (This shouldn’t surprise those of us who profess to following Jesus, because he tells us the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.)
- Pro-social change comes about when inner core beliefs are altered in a person. Punishment, or fear of punishment, will never change someone’s core beliefs. At best, it might bring about behavioural change – but when all those around you are dragging you down, your polished behavior won’t last long. Have a look at the re-offending rates for those who leave prison. – Retributive justice never gets to the root issue behind a crime. Want to reduce crime levels? Then have a go at addressing poverty, sexual abuse, hopelessness, trauma, absent or neglectful parents etc. (The epitome of hopelessly misguided retribution is, of course, the death penalty – ‘we are killing you in order to show that killing people is wrong’.)
- Because prison gangs run the prisons, to be incarcerated in South Africa is often synonymous with becoming more deeply embroiled in gang activity. ie, not only does prison rarely help, but it can actually criminalise you more.]
Please Don’t Feed the Trolls
A couple of months ago I came across a deeply distressing and violent story on a certain ‘Gangwatch’ Facebook page. It was a post notifying people of what had recently taken place in a Cape Flats community nearby. There were four photos of an unconscious young man lying on the street at night, with blood on the ground around his head and hands. In one of the photos, someone had taken the young man’s trousers off. The ominous title was, ‘Meet his match’, and the description to the update was as follows: “This is the after-math when u break in , he was caught this morning at 3,45am in… [a certain road], breaking in for the numerous time,, and he got a hiding of his life. [His name and address were then given]…he says that he steals anything of value and exhange it for heroin at a merchant in the Vlei.”
The young man in the photos was reported to have been addicted to heroin to such an extent that he had resorted to house-breaking in order to fund his habit. He had been caught and beaten to death by local community members. It was a brutally violent end to what had presumably been a troubled life. It disturbs me that, whether on a local or national level, people think that killing others is ever a legitimate way of showing the righteousness of one’s own cause. Yet what was equally disturbing was the barrage of hate-filled diatribe in the comments section. It seemed that the majority of those commenting genuinely approved of the killing of a drug addict. Such was the anger towards him that when one young female posted a comment condemning the violence, she was met with numerous personal attacks.
She wrote: “I don’t care what this guy done! This is inhuman and indignifying. I’m not justifying his actions but his crime does not make it okay to expose him like this. He is still a human. He needs to be dealt with accordingly but not like this. Whoever done this to him and still had the audacity to take pictures and expose him is no better than the drug addict who tried to break in.”
Responses were as follows (I have just edited out people’s names – the rest is copy and pasted):
“[You] live in an imaginary world where drug addicts just need a hug. In the real world this is what is needed a lot more of it and seriously with more brutality.”… “If you defending these criminals you part of the problem”… “This man got what was coming to him. If the law fails us, we do it ourselves… WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE! People like you help these scoundrels get away with murder! Or maybe you’re just from another planet. If so, welcome to Cape Town!”… “it rips ur heart out knowing you worked so hard for what you want paid so much money for your stuff and along comes mr druggie not only steals your stuff but to ad insult to injury he sells it for next to nothing. not trying to be rude or anything but stick a memory card up your behind and save that bs for someone who cares”… “he can be glad we’re not in a Muslim country…because then he’ll have no hands!!😯 so he should consider himself lucky ;)”… “he deserved it. Why does he not sell his fancy clothes and shoes to satisfy his disgusting habit. The problem is the justice system does no justice, he would be out on the street doing the same thing again. People are fed up and will not tolerate this type of behavior. Peace.”… “Moer die vark”… “He deserves its becoz all the pple sweat nd hard work just fell on him….pple must stop covering for drug addicts becoz that’s y they never cum right! Y must u work hard nd the next person just takes they had to chop of his hands then he won’t steal better of won’t do drugs too lol….”… “One less many more to go!”… “He got what he deserved! !! Let this be a lesson to the rest of the slime!!!!”… “he’s lucky i wasn’t there i would of burn plastic bags on him.”
This callous insensitivity towards those who struggle with drug addiction is fairly common place in Cape Town. It is another one of the things I find saddest – that those who have no clue about another person’s story make a moral judgment about them. There’s a line that says ‘your enemy is just someone who’s story you haven’t heard.’ I sometimes act judgmentally unthinkingly, almost instinctively, and I hate that I do. Ultimately, we will probably never know the amount of pain those even closest to us carry – let alone someone we meet in a fleeting encounter. Therefore, as each person we meet is most likely more broken than we would imagine, we should always aim to be kinder than others think is reasonable. Besides, if it boils down to choosing one over the other, I’d much rather be unreasonably kind, than just reasonably kind.
Beauty in Brokenness
One of my heroes is an Canadian Catholic theologian called Jean Vanier. Here, he writes about living life with the physically and mentally disabled. He is gloriously honest about his flaws, his propensity to anger, and his longing for plaudits. “They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable, or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart. I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me. That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was.” (From Brokenness to Community, p.19)
This is something Manenberg teaches me better than anywhere else I’ve lived. High Risk Youth (who are in some ways marginalized by mainstream society in parallel ways to the physically or mentally disabled, in that many don’t seem to know ‘what to do with them’) are often dirty, always angry, masters of manipulation, violent to the extreme, and yet often they cry themselves to sleep at night. You can smell, see and touch their brokenness and pain – there’s no hiding it. And as one intentionally seeks friendship with these conspicuously broken people, one’s own less conspicuous brokenness rises to the surface. As this happens, you realize how we are all in the same boat, you see how much pain you’ve hidden from others your whole life, and how much grace others show you day by day. And so your heart becomes more thankful for forgiveness and friends, and you grow in humility and gratitude. This was a journey I hadn’t ever learnt living anywhere else. Growing up in the privileged mainstream, I’d always been taught that to be transparent about brokenness or pain is perceived as awkward at best or, at worst, shamefully weak. Friends and community in Manenberg have shown me that there is more than one story about each one us, and that there truly is ‘beauty in my brokenness’.