Monday, January 8, 2018

Beyond Behavior

People communicate. One way or another, they communicate. They don't always use words. The powerless and children (who are almost always powerless) are less likely to use words. They may not know the words or be able to find them. Or they may fear (or they may know) that their words will fall on deaf ears. But they communicate all the same.

They communicate by what they do and often that includes what we consider bad behavior.

I recently read Gregory Boyle's heart-wrenching and heartwarming book Tattoos on the Heart about his decades long work with gang members in Los Angeles.

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is; the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. 

Several years ago I attended the Darkness to Light Training, led by my friend Steve Collins of Adults Protecting Children. Much of the training was in video form as we watched interviews with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. After hearing the stories, the survivors then shared how the abuse impacted their mind, soul, body, behavior. As Steve led us in discussion, he asked the question, "What do we call these kids?" And answered it himself, "We call them bad kids." The point being, we see the behavior rather than hear the language of defeat, the yelp of despair, or the cry for help behind the behavior. This should not be so.

We Christians talk an awful lot about the heart to be so focused on the behavior. I think it would do us all a lot of good to see the person behind the behavior. To ask what might be going on. To think outside the box of what we see. I understand that this can be hard. It is difficult to imagine the level of trauma or pain or mental illness or desperation that would drive people to do things we disapprove of. If you just don't get it, seek understanding. Listen to stories. Read books. Expand your horizons so that other life experiences are on your radar.

Sure, pride or lust or greed or selfishness or a downright wicked heart might be the reason behind bad behavior. Or it might not be.

Willful sin is not always the reason behind every act that doesn't pass muster. We are quick to punish the starving beggar who steals a slice of bread and slow to feed his gnawing hunger. I think there is such a fear of "excusing" sin and such an eagerness to jump on the admonishment and accountability bandwagon that we never even listen to the sinner...and thus miss the real message, the cry for help, and the opportunity to be Jesus to that person.

As Boyle says of his mission:
It's about gang members, not gangs. It's about infusing hope to kids who are stuck in despair. It's about healing the traumatized and damaged so that kids can transform their pain and cease to transmit it. It's about delivering mental health services in a timely and appropriate manner to the troubled young among us. Above all, it's about reverence for the complexity of this issue and a singular insistence that human beings are involved. There are no demons here. Just young people whose burdens are more than they can bear and who are having difficulty imagining a future for themselves. 

The pointing fingers and the Nike version of sin management, "Just Stop It,"  don't reach into the heart of a person in despair. Boyle's success with gang members has everything to do with looking beyond the behavior to the human beings dying behind it. Can we do that, too?



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