At the time of writing this article, there have been over 63 deaths in London. Numbers rise significantly if incidents outside of London in remote and unexpected locations like Bath are considered. The simple fact is that the number of knife crimes has reached such epidemic proportions in our society that without faith it is almost impossible to imagine the situation being reversed.
It has been suggested that London could learn from the work undertaken by authorities in Glasgow, where the reversal of the upward trend in knife crime has been nothing short of incredible. Surely, there are lessons to learn, but there are also distinctives – not least the racial politics that inform knife crime in London – that need to be considered.
I have personally attended three strategic meetings about knife crime in London – one of which I hosted at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. The appetite to find a resolution to the challenge of youth violence is high, and the disposition towards collaboratively identifying that solution is greater than I have known during my years of serving in London. That appetite is equally intense outside of the Church, with strategic players in Black civil society intentionally connecting with church leaders to explore how joint action can result in change.
I’m optimistic but not naive. The power dynamics and politics that exist within and between both the Church and Black civil society readily mirror those to be found within the very gangs we are seeking to reach, and potentially have the capacity to undermine any effort to work collaboratively or to indeed extend our positive influences into the spaces that gangs occupy within our communities. Finding solutions will not be easy; expectations will need to be managed, but intentional, practical and coordinated action needs to follow as a matter of urgency, and before the situation gets worse than it already is. There are no easy answers. However, we must remain optimistic and look for clues for a solution within ourselves, our communities, the wider society and, particularly, the source book of our faith, the Bible.
So where might we start? A good place might be the life of Moses: his call to be a liberator, and the Exodus account of the accidental murder of a fellow Hebrew. Allow me to make a few observations in relation to youth violence.
Firstly, we must take seriously the impact of structural dynamics of state power, and acknowledge they are equally as important as family environments, personal ethics or choices. The structural violence of austerity, heartless social and hard-hitting economic policy that exposes the poor, weak and marginalised to vulnerabilities of various sorts, plays a role in how those affected by such policies not only view their own lives, but how they perceive others in power as perceiving them. In some cases, the pressures lead to bad decision-making, including criminality.
Secondly, given the above, it is reasonable to conclude that perpetrators of violence will not recognise the positional or structural authority of any outsiders – especially instruments of the state – they consider to be alien or indifferent to their environment and insensitive to their lived experience. This was Moses’ concern at the point of his call (Exodus 3). His preoccupation with ‘being accepted’ by the Hebrews he had lived apart from – and subsequently deserted, in an attempt to preserve his own life after murdering one of them – left him concerned about his legitimacy and proximity, how credible he was, and what his social location and political position had been in relation to their oppression.
The problem of ‘outsider-imposed solutions’ still remains, and almost always leads to assertions and impositions that ‘insiders’ do not recognise and consider to be illegitimate, and therefore respond to unfavourably. Therefore, identifying and empowering individuals, who have either had a history of ‘being a Hebrew under Egyptian oppression’ or standing in solidarity with the opposed, is fundamental to success.
Lastly, Hebrews will never leave Egypt without a vision of something better. In other words, not only must a vision be cast for a better state of personal and societal existence, but those presently involved in the politics of power, on both sides, that separates and polarises communities within society must be invited to reimagine a future that is different, and commit to work towards it.
This may sound idealistic – and to some extent it is. Jesus reminded some disciples that, despite whatever poverty-alleviation initiatives are created, “the poor will always be with you.” However, He did not say that the number of the poor and the severity of their poverty would not be reduced or alleviated! His statement was both an attempt to deal with reality, but also to offer a hope for a better future possibility. It presents a model for our thinking about youth violence, and how we go about seeking to make a change.
We face reality, but we also have hope that things can and will be different. We must paint a vision of the Promised Land that appeals to all in society.
Rev David Shosanya is founder of The State of Black Britain Symposium; founder and director of the Minister’s Appreciation Ball, and member of the Advisory Council Trans-Atlantic Roundtable on Race and Religion.