I just watched a documentary on the National Geographic Channel called LA Gang Wars about the gangs in the Compton area in Los Angeles, and it made me think about faith and indoctrination. I don’t want anyone to think that I am equating church life with gang life, but when you look at why people join or become more involved in a church or a gang, the psychology seems to be very similar.
I’m not a psychologist, and I could be misinterpreting or missing things, but these seem to be some of the biggest motivating factors for people becoming involved in either a church or a gang.
- People want answers.
- People want easier lives.
- People want somewhere to turn when they have problems.
- People look for these things where they’ve been taught to look for them.
Let’s break these down a little more.
People want answers.
Everyone has questions, whether it’s something as philosophical as “Why does the universe exist?” or something as simple as “Where will I get my next meal?” Religions try to deal with the more complicated issues, but for a kid who falls asleep to the sounds of gunfire and sirens every night, the kind of question that commands his attention may be “Should I shoot someone from another neighborhood who walks by my house?” Those are the kinds of questions that gangs answer.
Either way, people are looking for the answers they think they need, and someone is always willing to give them their own kind of answers, but they are not always the right ones.
People want easier lives.
When people have hard lives, they have all the more reason to want their lives to be easier. This is one reason that missionaries have more success in poor areas with a lot of problems than in more wealthy and healthy areas.
While religion doesn’t make people’s lives easier by allowing them to work less or to have more money, it does provide things like hope, peace of mind and community. Gangs provide many of these things and often more.
Gangs provide a sense of community, but one that includes the “us vs them” mentality that can keep a member in and make them do almost anything for the group. Gangs provide a kind of peace of mind by simplifying their lives down to the most basic “kill or be killed” mentality. No remorse, just do what you have to do to survive, and take out “the enemy” whenever, wherever, and however you can.
If you were living in a war zone, would you want to work at a store for low pay, unarmed and expecting that at any time someone may come in and rob or kill you? Or, would you want to make relatively large amounts of money hanging out with your friends, feeling safer armed and with a group of people who would kill for you? Legality and morality doesn’t matter at that point. What matters is the gang and your position within that “community”.
Sure, most of us would say “Just leave the area, that would make your life easier!”, but many present or future gang members don’t feel like that is an option, and others can’t even imagine life any other way.
People want somewhere to turn when they have problems.
Most people have their families to lean on in hard times, and many will also turn to whatever god(s) they believe in, which is one of religion’s strongest draws. The same need is also one of a gang’s strongest draws.
A very large percentage of gang members have absent parents, and many of them have already lost family members to gang violence. Far from turning them away from gangs, the desire for parental figures or revenge drives many people, even young children, right into the arms of the gangs that cost their family members their lives or freedom.
A seven year old is unlikely to go out and start killing people on his own, but if his gangbanging father was killed by a rival crew, and a leader in his father’s gang takes the kid under his wing, he’s going to find the comfort he’s looking for, but he’s also going to find violence, crime and probably a life-long blood-feud against the rival gang. He could easily be a killer long before he could be a father to the gang’s next generation.
People look for these things where they’ve been taught to look for them.
Who are the easiest people to indoctrinate?
Most children are born with an inquisitive nature and a willingness to accept what they are taught, either explicitly or by example. This applies just as much to relatively harmless lies (“there is a fairy who comes and buys your teeth if you put them under your pillow”), and even very harmful lies (“there is a man in the sky watching everything you do and he’ll punish you for eternity if you don’t do exactly what we say he wants you to do” or “anyone who talks to the police deserves to die”), as it does to truth.
Children are very often intentionally indoctrinated early with the ideas of their parents’ religions, but the minds of children with gang members in their families, or even children just living in areas with high levels of gang activity, are being filled with the ideas and ideals of gang life, for the most part unintentionally.
The outcome is still the same. If you see your parents face Mecca and pray to Allah 5 times a day, you will probably become a Muslim. If you grow up surrounded by violence and vengeance and then see your gangbanging older brother shot down in the street, you will probably take his place and go looking for revenge.
We owe it to our children, and to the rest of the world, to instill in them the best of what we have learned as adults who are capable of more rational and informed thought. We also owe it to them to protect them as much as we can from our unfounded biases and beliefs.
Teaching children that fire will burn them is important. Teaching them that “those people are lazy and useless and should be sent back where they came from” is not.
“Saint” Francis Xavier knew what he was talking about when he said “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.” The early years of a person’s life will deeply affect them until the day they die, and if they are taught the wrong things, that may be all too soon.
Children do not need to know that the gang from the next block should be killed on sight, and children do not need to know that bread can turn into the flesh of a god-man that people eat once a week. If either of those things is true, it should be just as true when they are old enough to consider the issues for themselves.