November 29, 1992

The Gang Mentality

My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. Proverbs 1:10

Victor was 13 years old when he joined a gang.  He did it, he says, “because I thought I’d be accepted better, and they seemed like family.”  Before long, Victor was taking part in drive-by shootings.  “My friends would call me their ‘little gangster,” he says.  “With the gun, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped.”

One day, when Victor was 15, members of a rival gang broke all the windows on his car.  Victor tracked down several of the supposed culprits and started talking trash with one of them.  “And then I pulled out the gun,” says Victor.  “And he said, ‘You ain’t going to shoot me,’ and I just started shooting because he didn’t think I would.  It would have looked stupid if I pulled the gun and then didn’t shoot him.  I would have looked dumb.”

Victor is just one of the exploding number of teenagers who belong to gangs.  According to U.S. News and World Report (4-8-91), “Gangs are growing like cancer…  In the Los Angeles area, gangs doubled from 400 gangs with 45,000 members in 1985 to 800 with 90,000 members in 1990.”  Today that number is estimated at well over 100,000.  And the problem isn’t restricted to Los Angeles.  Gangs are growing in all our major cities, and they are spreading to the suburbs and to smaller towns as well.

Why is this?  What makes gang life so attractive to so many young people?  What can we do about the situation?  To answer those questions, we need some insight into the gang mentality.  And there’s no better place to get that insight than the Bible.

Gangs aren’t a new phenomenon, you know.  Already 3,000 years ago, parents were warning their children about gangs.  The basic issues today are much the same as they were back then.  Some things are different, of course–today’s gangs are funded by drug money and armed with a deadly arsenal of high-tech weapons, and that raises the stakes–but the deeper issues remain much the same as they were almost 3,000 years ago, when God inspired the writing of the Bible book of Proverbs.

In the very first chapter of Proverbs, concerned parents talk to their son about what to do when he is asked to join a gang.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.  They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.

My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, “Come along with us;  let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul;  let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;  we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder;  throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse–my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;  for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood…  These men lie in wait for their own blood;  they waylay only themselves!  Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain;  it takes away the lives of those who get it. (Proverbs 1:8-19)

When we examine this material, we see three basic appeals that the gang makes to the young man.  It offers power, it offers money, and it offers friendship.  These three things appeal to genuine desires that every person feels: power appeals to our desire to be significant, money appeals to our desire to be successful, and friendship appeals to our desire to belong.  Let’s look at each of these.

To begin with, everybody wants to be significant.  Nobody wants to be a nobody.  So if you’re feeling small and insignificant, it’s mighty tempting when somebody offers you power, sheer, raw power; when somebody puts a gun in your hand and invites you to take part in a drive-by shooting, when, as Proverbs 1:11 puts it, “they say, ‘Come along with us;  let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul.'”  That’s not an easy offer to refuse if you’re starving for significance.  What could possibly make you feel more important than literally having someone else’s life wrapped around your trigger finger?

Victor, the young man I mentioned earlier said,  “With the gun, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped.”  Another gang member, Clarence, told a reporter, “The gun made me feel macho like nobody could touch me like no one’s going to mess with me.”

Michael is another gang banger whose gun made him feel important.  A few years ago Michael fired six bullets into the back of a 17-year-old girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Even after he was arrested and convicted of murder, he felt no remorse.  He figured that the killing transformed him from a nobody into somebody:  “I done did something, and I’m known,” he boasted with a smile.  “I consider myself public enemy number one.” (Time, 8-24-87)

A kid may become a gang banger simply because he would rather be a bad somebody than a good nobody.  Everybody wants to be significant, to be able to say, “I done did something.”  And a gun offers a quick shortcut from feeling totally insignificant to the godlike power of life and death.

A second powerful attraction of the gangs is money.  Everybody wants to succeed in life, and success is often measured in terms of money.  Many young people, especially those in poverty-stricken communities, see little opportunity to succeed financially, and gangs offer them a way to make a lot of money in a hurry.  As the gang says in Proverbs 1:13, “We will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder.”  You can make more money stealing cars than parking them.  You can make more money selling crack for a few weeks than flipping burgers for a year.  When you’ve got nothing, and you see other people driving their own cars and flashing a thick wad of bills, and you’ve got the opportunity to join them, it’s hard to say no.    Clarence started dealing dope and carrying guns at age 15.  He says,

I wanted to get paid.  I thought money was the world.  I’d spend it on my girlfriend, or I’d take all my homeboys out.  If you made money that day, you’d pay, and that made me feel like I was the big daddy, the big man with the master plan.

Joining a gang can mean instant money.  You’re no longer a failure–you’re a success.  You’re “the big daddy, the big man with the master plan.”

Power appeals to our desire to be significant;  money appeals to our desire to be successful;  but the third aspect of the gang mentality is most appealing of all:  the chance to belong.  In Proverbs 1:14, the gang says, “Throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse.”  When they say that, they aren’t just talking about sharing money, although that’s part of it.  They’re saying, “In our group, it’s all for one and one for all.  If you need a place to belong, if you need friends and companions who will look out for you and stick with you, then we’ve got what you’re looking for.  Throw in your lot with us.”

According to Victor, that was his main reason for becoming a homeboy.  He did it, he says, “because I thought I’d be accepted better, and they seemed like family.”  For many people, the gang is the only family they have.  When your home life is non-existent, why not become a homeboy?

Other gang members do have homes and loving parents, but they join gangs anyway because they’re more eager to be accepted by their peers than by their parents.  Michael Hagan said, “The gang is your family.  The more my parents told me to stay away from gangs, the more I wanted to hang out with them.”

Gangs have a lot to offer.  To kids seeking significance, the gang offers power over life and death.  To those seeking success, the gang offers money.  To those who need to belong, the gang offers friendship and acceptance.  No wonder gang life is so attractive to so many, especially to kids who are surrounded by despair, who are trapped in poverty, who have no real family to call their own.

However, although the gang’s appeal is very powerful, it is ultimately self-destructive.  Proverbs 1 describes the consequences this way: “These men lie in wait for their own blood;  they waylay only themselves!”  The gang lifestyle is really a “death-style”–all too often it ends in a hail of bullets or an overdose, with the ultimate destination being hell.

We’ve seen that, despite these deadly consequences, the gang mentality is still very attractive.  Now let’s look at some ways that this mentality is present in all of us, not just those who actually become gang bangers.

Millions of people who never join a street gang or get involved in organized crime are still fascinated with gangster movies like Boyz ‘n’ the Hood, Goodfellas, The Godfather films, and others.  We like watching the bad guys in action.  Not only that, we even want the good guys to be violent.  Why is that?

Well, at the movies you don’t just watch an actor;  you identify with a character.  You become a Lethal Weapon, a Terminator, a Rambo, a Batman, a James Bond with a license to kill.  You become the death-dealing hero;  you have the power of life and death over others.  For a few hours, at least, you’re no longer ordinary and powerless–you’re extraordinary and deadly.  Our appetite for video violence shows that many of us are closer to the gang mentality than we’d like to admit.

As for going along with the gang in order to make some quick money and take a shortcut to success–that doesn’t just happen on the mean streets.  It happens on assembly lines and in boardrooms and securities exchanges and advertising agencies every day.

You may have some qualms about what someone else is asking you to do, but if you want to get ahead, you’d better go along with them.  Your conscience may be whispering a protest, but meanwhile, the people around you seem to be shouting, like the gang in Proverbs 1, “We will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder–if you do what we say.”  Capitalism without a conscience–doing what everybody else does so you can get ahead–that approach has a lot in common with the gang mentality.  But if you want to be successful, what other choice do you have?

Even with all that, however, the most obvious and powerful force in the gang mentality is simply the need to belong.  We’re all susceptible to peer pressure because we all have a powerful desire to be accepted, to fit in, to be affirmed and loved.

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name and you’re always glad you came.  You wanna be where you can see your troubles are all the same.  You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

Maybe you recognize those words from Cheers, the popular TV show set in a bar.  Why do some people hang around bars?  For much the same reason that others join street gangs.  They’re lonely, and they want to be accepted.  “You wanna be where you can see your troubles are all the same.  You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  Some of us are so desperate for acceptance that we’ll take it wherever we can get it–even from gang bangers or drinking buddies.

As you can see, the gang mentality affects all of us in one way or another.

It’s hard to be different from the crowd, and sometimes it’s downright dangerous.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives a striking example of this in The Gulag Archipelago, his powerful account of Soviet life under Stalin.  He tells about a Communist Party conference in Moscow province.

At the conclusion of the conference [writes Solzhenitsyn], a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for.  Of course, everyone stood up… The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.”  For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued.  But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching.  And the older people were panting from exhaustion.  It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.   However [continues Solzhenitsyn], who would dare be the first to stop?  The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it.  He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation.  But he was a newcomer.  He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested.  He was afraid!  After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first!  … So the applause went on–six, seven, eight minutes!  They were done for!  Their goose was cooked!  They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! … The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium.  Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding!  Nine minutes!  Ten!  In anguish, he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop.  Insanity!  To the last man!  With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers!  And even then those who were left would not falter. . . . .Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat.  And, oh, a miracle took place!  Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone?  To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down.  They had been saved! …

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were [says Solzhenitsyn].  And that was how they went about eliminating them.  That same night the factory director was arrested.  They easily passed ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different.  But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

Isn’t that crazy?  It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.  People do all sorts of crazy things, things they don’t really believe in, just because they are terrified of the consequences if they dare to be different.

Remember Victor?  He’s the one who said, “It would have looked stupid if I pulled the gun and then didn’t shoot him.  I would have looked dumb.”  Victor was more afraid of looking stupid than of being stupid.  He was obsessed with what others might think.  That was the only thing that mattered to him.

Without faith in God, without having your needs met by him, you have no reason not to go along with the mob.  In fact, you have no other choice.  Without God, your choices are controlled by fear and despair.  You assume that there’s really no good way to meet your needs;  the bad way seems to be the only one available.  You find yourself believing that goodness always loses and evil always wins.  In a dog-eat-dog world, it seems like you’ve got just two choices:  you can either bite or get bitten.  So why not run with the pack?  When the only Golden Rule you know is that the one who has the gold makes the rules, why follow the rules?  Why not just steal some gold and make your own rules?  If you don’t really have a home, why not become a homeboy?  Why stay away from the gangs if there doesn’t seem to be a better alternative?

Fear and despair are a big part of the gang mentality, and we as a society must work to fight the conditions of poverty and injustice and drugs and broken families that produce such despair.  That is extremely important.  But even that is not enough.

You see, the problem is ultimately not just social, but spiritual.  We’ll never deal effectively with the gang mentality until we realize that the desires and needs it appeals to are very real.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be significant, or wanting to be successful, or wanting to be accepted and loved.  Where we go wrong is in trying to meet those needs apart from God.  And that’s a spiritual problem.  It is simply a fact of human nature that we will cave in to peer pressure, we’ll never be strong enough to resist the gang mentality unless we have some other way to meet our deepest needs.

And God’s way is the only way to do that.  Just before Proverbs 1 starts talking about gangs, verse 7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”  When you fear the Lord, you take him more seriously than anything else, and suddenly the gang mentality isn’t so appealing.  You find that God is meeting all your needs, including your needs for significance, success, and acceptance.

First, if you want to be significant, to really be somebody, God makes that possible for you, no matter what your neighborhood is like, no matter how bad your circumstances may be.  The Bible teaches that every boy and girl, every man and woman, has been created by God to reflect his image.  God made you special.  And that’s not all.  The Bible says that when you put your faith in Jesus, you become a child of the king (Romans 8:14-17), and that makes you a prince or princess.  You become royalty, and according to the Bible, you will reign with him forever and ever (Rev. 22:5).  In fact, the Bible says that God’s people will judge the world;  they will even judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2,3).  If that doesn’t make you feel significant, nothing will! Second, if you want to be a success, really a success, Jesus will show you what it’s all about.  You won’t just think about it in terms of money.  You’ll think about the treasure in heaven that Jesus promises to give those who follow him.  You’ll want to become rich in love and good deeds, not just in dollars.  You’ll want to become everything God wants you to be, not just what your peers say you should be.  And you’ll look forward to the rewards that God has promised those who love him.  That’s success, and it lasts forever.

And, finally, if acceptance is what you’re looking for, you can do a lot better than merely fitting in with your home boys or drinking buddies.  You can be accepted by Jesus Christ himself.  You can be his friend.  By faith, you can know that he loves you and cares about you.  He loved you enough to die for you, and now he wants you to know that he is alive right now, calling you to become his friend.  You don’t know what it’s like to really be accepted until you know that God has accepted you.

Once that happens, Jesus can even turn peer pressure to your advantage.  It doesn’t have to be a matter of you and Jesus against the whole world.  The Lord knows how much you need to be accepted and supported and held accountable by other people, and so he’s provided a place to find friends who really want what’s best for you, a place where people will encourage you to soar in the skies like an eagle, rather than scurry in the sewer like a rat.  It’s a place where, instead of the negative peer pressure to follow Satan, you feel positive peer pressure to follow Jesus.  It’s a place called church.  So come to Jesus.  Become a part of his family, the church.  That’s God’s alternative to the gang mentality.

PRAYER

Father, thank you for showing us the way of life through Jesus.  Forgive us when we try to meet our needs without you.  Help each of us by your Holy Spirit to turn from sin and despair, and to find salvation and hope in Christ Jesus.

Help us as individuals and as communities to break the deadly cycle of poverty and drugs and despair.  Give special strength and courage right now to young people who are pressured to join gangs.  Help those who are already involved to find a way out.  And, dear Father, help each one of us, whatever our situation, not to conform to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.