Jesus Christ, during his earthly ministry, was harshly critical of the religious leaders of his day. He accused them, in one particular instance which takes up the entire 23rd Chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, of behaviour which had the effect of keeping people away from the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees, a sect of Judaism fixated with pious observance of the Mosaic Law and the scribes who were experts in the interpretation of that law, were singled out for the harshest criticism. Both groups were guilty of an obnoxious holier-than-thou attitude anchored in a misguided belief that they somehow were more highly favoured by God than others.
But straight-talking Jesus, who was never afraid to take on the establishment and speak truth to power, dropped a bombshell on both groups. He declared: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23: 27 (NSRV).
Earlier, in Matthew 7: 21-23 (NSRV), Jesus had delivered another shocker. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
These biting words have as much relevance today as over 2,000 years ago when they were first uttered. They should stir every contemporary church leader to sit up and take note with a deep sense of humility, instead of adopting the holier-than-thou posture of the Pharisees and scribes.
Those who choose, in the exercise of their free will, to accept the mantle of being Yahweh’s standard bearers on this earth have a solemn responsibility to be worthy examples of His love and to build up people for the Kingdom of God instead of tearing them down.
Unfortunately, many ordinary folk, not fully understanding the faith they practice, place some pastors on a pedestal where they see themselves as above criticism, even in cases where criticism may be justified. Many believers do so out of fear that confronting the man or woman of God would see them being consigned to the fires of hell with which they are threatened. And so, they allowed themselves to be controlled.
But pastors and priests are imperfect like everybody else. Countless scandals over the years involving once high-profile churchmen, such as Jimmy Swaggart who tearfully fell from grace a week before he was scheduled to conduct a crusade here some years ago, prove the point. Known for his fiery television sermons which emphasized the writhing punishment of hell fire, his downfall was triggered after it was revealed that he had sought the comfort of a prostitute. Given their influence, we must demand accountability from church leaders in much the same way that they demand accountability from others.
At a church service last Sunday, Rev. Lucille Baird, senior pastor of Mount Zion Ministries – I cannot call her “Apostle” because such would conflict with my theological understanding of the title – essentially declared war on a much-maligned segment of our young people. In a blanket statement which smacked of stereotyping, she urged the authorities to crackdown on blocks where mostly young people congregate, denouncing them as breeding grounds for crime.
She reportedly said: “We have to watch these blocks and we can’t be reactive. If two people sit together, break it up. If three people stay together, break it up before it becomes a colossal giant that we can’t kill. Because they sit there and it becomes a place for growing crime and criminals.”
Rev. Baird’s comment points to one logical conclusion – namely, that young people who lime on the blocks are criminal-minded. Can she produce incontrovertible supporting evidence? Her judgemental pronouncement unfortunately speaks to an underlying fear which is evident among many adults in relation to our young people. Instead of reaching out and initiating a much-needed dialogue to improve relations, they choose through their language to erect barriers when building bridges is what is needed to resolve many of the issues affecting our young people and the wider society.
Some block youth admittedly have issues with the law but not all. Besides, there are some persons, law-abiding and gainfully employed, who choose to hang out on the block with the boys (and now the girls in some instances) as a way of de-stressing after work. Young men congregating at certain chosen spots in the community is not new. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, I occasionally limed on the block but it was not called so then. We used to hang out under a tree or on the steps of the public bath. It did not turn me or any of my contemporaries into criminals.
Back in the late 1990s, as a new block culture was taking hold on the island, I sought to initiate a national conversation aimed at a better understanding of this social phenomenon. By then, American inner city and Jamaican ghetto influences had started to invade our cultural space and was redefining the concept of a block. As managing editor of the Advocate, I assigned Margaret Harris, a senior journalist on the Special Assignments Desk, to do a 12-part series on the block phenomenon. The articles, entitled Reflections from the Block, were an eye-opener.
I accompanied Ms. Harris on a few occasions and interacted with the young men. They were not hostile. They warmly welcomed us and gladly shared their experiences. We generally found highly intelligent, street smart young men engaging in serious “reasoning” on burning national issues instead of planning crime. It was on the block where for the first time, I heard mention of the idea of three ‘Barbadoses’. Mostly highly educated but lacking support in their quest for self-fulfillment and feeling let down by society, the young men saw themselves occupying Barbados on the third or bottom tier. In the first Barbados were the wealthy, they contended. In the second Barbados was the majority of population trying to keep with the Joneses but not really having the means.
I recognized at the time that a decisive public policy intervention was required to create opportunities to bring these young people from the periphery into the mainstream. But getting back to Rev. Baird. What really is the problem with two or three persons sitting together in a public space? As far as I am aware, the Constitution of Barbados still offers citizens the lawful right to move around freely and associate with each other. If I decide to hang out under a street light with two friends, what is so wrong that our gathering should be broken up?
Such thinking reflects what seems to be a veiled desire by a particular segment of our Christian community to have a kind of fundamentalist theocracy where Old Testament justice providing for the stoning of gays and the severe beating of wayward youth, among other punishments, would be the order of the day. Interestingly, some of these elements are closely aligned to the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP), having been co-opted into its winning coalition for the 2008 general election.
As Rev. Baird is regarded as a pro-DLP pastor, she should have used whatever influence she has to call instead for a decisive public policy intervention that seeks to give hope and meaningful support to the young people on the block. Alternatively, she could have also canvassed some of her colleagues, whose churches collect thousands of dollars in tithes monthly, about the idea of allocating a percentage of those earnings to support a block youth empowerment programme.
The church has a moral duty to make such things happen so that the people of God “may have life and have it more abundantly”.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)