Giving Youth a Chance

Jim Consedine

Both major political parties have recently released policy regarding young people and what they would like to do about problem areas. Problems associated with disaffected youth are not new. Aristotle complained about them nearly 3000 years ago. But it seems they do get more complex with each passing year as our society goes global and continues down its destructive path of seeking primarily economic and material success while knocking spiritual values and options.

Our dominant philosophy of personal ‘freedom’ leaves the whole area of what constitutes the common good of humanity virtually untouched. In this country, these past 40 years have seen a massive shift in consciousness about what constitutes a good, fair, just and stable society. The prevailing ideology indicates that individual rights rule. Power, advancement and prestige lie with the elite. Primarily with successful individuals.

We are now reaping what has been sown. We have developed a society where alienation is widespread, particularly among youth. Belonging is no longer an automatic component of their lives. Yet it is what all long for. There are more than 80 youth gangs in South Auckland alone. Gang culture is mainly about belonging. The competitive education policy of Tomorrows Schools produces some winners and so many losers. There were also nearly 5000 teenagers under 15 years of age who don’t attend school. Their number is rising by 8% per year. Principal youth court judge Andrew Beecroft describes them as ‘unexploded human time bombs.’ There are several thousand young drivers who delight in hooning around in supped-up cars and annoying their neighbours. They too seek to belong. There are those who tag indiscriminately, subjects of a recent government initiative. They tag to belong. The list could go on.

The society we have created is a long way from the Christian vision of the scriptures and contained within so much of the social teaching of the Church. There we are commanded to build a world where God’s justice is the prevailing ethic, and not an optional extra. There individuals are placed within the context of the wider human family. The poor and the disadvantaged have a particular focus. The scriptures are all about relationships with the community and with God, not individuals. Yet often the churches themselves are dominated by the individualistic ethic. Try a small litmus test – how many parishes have active social justice committees?

So what did the major parties offer regarding youth? Sadly, very little that attacks the root causes of the issues. Largely the political focus has been on the culpability of the young people rather than any reflection on the sort of world adults have made for them. It is election year and as is the custom, each party wants to ratchet up penalties to appeal to the punitive negative side of voters. Showing toughness with miscreants is part of perennial political posturing. During its nine years in office, Labour have expanded the youth prison system as well as doubled the adult prison population. That has been an expensive miscalculation and disastrous policy for the thousands affected.

Like Labour, National wants more education for longer. Their financial entitlement carrot may not be enough. Getting young people to stay in education longer could be a pipe dream for both parties. National have spent some time saying that they weren’t advocating ‘boot camps’ for youth offenders – a 1980s policy that failed dismally yet has appeal to those seeking simplistic solutions. They may yet categorise 12 year olds as adults, a favoured New Zealand First policy with no merit.

Obviously, there is no silver bullet. Getting the right philosophy (and theology for those of faith) is the first necessary step to positive policies. Public discussion about non-violence could be a good start. Everyone screams about the violent culture we live in. Where is the discussion about non-violence and non-violent strategies? Develop a bigger range of youth work schemes and more apprenticeships. Subsidise them if necessary. Why not, if the social benefits are positive? Train more community and youth workers on the ground to engage the disaffected. Provide better resources for family group and restorative justice conferences. These processes are a modern application flowing from Christ’s death and resurrection inviting accountability, respect, a change of heart, forgiveness and healing. They are the Christian option. Make restorative justice processes mainstream and an alternative to retributive justice.

But please – no more prisons. No boot camps. Let’s bury the philosophy of vengeance forever. It is destructive and unchristian. It has never worked. Let Christians operate from a life of creative faith, not punitive ideology. And let the nation benefit.

Tui Motu, March 2008

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