Father Greg Boyle’s solution to an unjust criminal justice system: radical kinship

Greg Boyle, S.J., prays over attendee before speaking at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles April 2 as part of America Media’s Church in America initiative. (America Media/Cassius Pettit)

The answer to crime is not punishment, according to Greg Boyle, S.J. Ultimately, he said, the answer is kinship.

“Radical kinship is the only thing that mattered to Jesus,” he said on April 2 during a talk at Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles. “We are one, and we belong to each other.”

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The evening, dubbed “Healing Communities Through Kinship,” was co-sponsored by the university and America Media as a part of the Church in America initiative. The initiative fosters meaningful conversations about the future sustainability and growth of the U.S. Catholic Church, with a particular emphasis on Hispanic Catholics. Coverage has focused on three key topic areas: immigration, criminal justice reform and Catholic education.

Unlike kinship, Father Boyle explained, “judgment separates us from each other.” He cited the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The father did not see ‘sin’; he saw ‘son,’” Father Boyle said. “Once you see the kind of God we have, there can be no fear. Love drives out all fear.”

“For Jesus, it wasn’t about taking the right stand on issues. It was about standing in the right place.”

In the 1980s, Father Boyle witnessed gang violence in his community while serving as the pastor of Dolores Mission in Los Angeles. In 1992, Father Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Homeboy employs former gang members as well as previously incarcerated individuals, reducing recidivism, substance abuse and reconnecting individuals to society.

“For Jesus, it wasn’t about taking the right stand on issues. It was about standing in the right place,” he said. The place to stand is with the marginalized. “You go to the margins, and you brace yourself because people will accuse you of wasting your time. You don’t go to the margins to make a difference. You go to the margins because you want those voices to be heard.”

Father Boyle stressed that going to the margins is not about making the marginalized different but about letting the marginalized “make you different.”

“Unless there’s a connective tissue, born of tenderness, which is the highest level of spiritual maturity, otherwise love stays in the air or in our hearts or in our heads. Unless love becomes tender, there’s nothing that connects us to each other,” he said. “And that’s God’s dream come true: that you may be one. How do you obliterate once and for all the illusion that we are separate?”

“If kinship was our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.”

In his books and in his speaking engagements, Father Boyle underscores that no one is “less than” anyone else. He peppers his philosophy with comedic and emotional anecdotes about former gang members that he has met through Homeboy. The stories “widen the circle,” broadening the definition of who belongs to the group so, ultimately, the group includes everyone, “and no one is left outside.”

“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope. And it’s about pain and trauma and damage so intense and unspeakable. And it’s about mental health and mental illness,” Father Boyle said. “But if you think it’s about bad guys who need to have their behavior altered, yikes!”

Standing with the marginalized and getting to know them makes it impossible to demonize them, he said. That means standing “with the disposable so that the day will come that we stop throwing people away.”

“Until we think Dylann Roof belongs to us, we’re not going to make any difference,” Father Boyle said, referring to a young man who shot and killed nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C. “You can talk about policy or pass legislation. And you’ll reach back and you’ll pat yourself [on the back] and say. ‘We’ve addressed this head on.’ Well nothing is head on, ever.”

Father Boyle advocates instead for getting back to Jesus’ “original program,” which he summarized as inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving kindness and compassionate acceptance.

“The more we can be in the world what God is, imagine what could happen...if we widen the circle,” he said. “If kinship was our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.”

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Correction, April 10: The first name of Dylann Roof was initially misspelled in this article.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rob S
6 months 1 week ago

You are absolutely correct. The Jesuits that educated my grandfather would not recognize the Jesuits that educated me. Oh and the Bishops thought pedophile priests just needed to have the behavior altered and look how that turned out.

Mister Mckee
6 months 1 week ago

"You go to the margins, and you brace yourself because people will accuse you of wasting your time. You don’t go to the margins to make a difference. You go to the margins because you want those voices to be heard.”
Father Boyle's reading the parable of the Prodigal Son, while helpful, is rather TAME, compared to this one:
http://qspirit.net/prodigal-son/
But I guess it depends on the socio-economic comfort levels of the audience he wants to hear those voices.

J Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

Fr. Greg is doing fantastic work in Los Angeles with gang members. But to think that all that is necessary is some Kumbaya will mean that many innocent people will die and experience physical and financial harm. There seems to be no appreciation of what has led to the dysfunctional behavior of gangs. It is like the root causes do not have to be addressed.

Fr. Greg, keep up the wonderful work but reality has to be faced.

John Butler
5 months 4 weeks ago

So many are critical of Greg Boyle SJ.They believe he is so unwilling to look at the real character of many of the former gang members and their ways of thinking and how they act.
Less than 4 years ago ,I felt much as they did after 30 plus years as a cop in a majority Latino city with gangs and lots of poverty and crime.
If you really look at some of these folks and many like them , you might just spit the face of Christ.
Father Greg is dead right about allowing your heart to open to soften and to really see God in our fellow man.it is what I Hope our church is all about.
Sometimes change is good,and allowing ourselves to open to the marginalized brings us closer to the one we say we love.
We can’t say no to them and yes to Christ- they are one and the same.

John Butler
5 months 4 weeks ago

So many are critical of Greg Boyle SJ.They believe he is so unwilling to look at the real character of many of the former gang members and their ways of thinking and how they act.
Less than 4 years ago ,I felt much as they did after 30 plus years as a cop in a majority Latino city with gangs and lots of poverty and crime.
If you really look at some of these folks and many like them , you might just spit the face of Christ.
Father Greg is dead right about allowing your heart to open to soften and to really see God in our fellow man.it is what I Hope our church is all about.
Sometimes change is good,and allowing ourselves to open to the marginalized brings us closer to the one we say we love.
We can’t say no to them and yes to Christ- they are one and the same.

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