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Love thy neighbour, goth and emo

12 April 2013

A wider definition of hate crime has much to say about valuing identity, argues Rachel Mann


Dangerous difference: a poster of Sophie Lancaster, who was murdered because of her goth clothing

Dangerous difference: a poster of Sophie Lancaster, who was murdered because of her goth clothing

LAST week, Greater Manchester Police (GMP), took an extraordinary step. Besides registering "hate-crime" offences on the grounds of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or transgender identity, GMP has decided to start doing so for crimes against goths, emos, metalheads, and punks.

The police are indicating that to be part of certain music sub-cultures is a fundamental expression of identity, and ought to be respected as such. As a lover of metal and rock, and as a priest, I suggest that we should welcome this. Yet it is easy to parody sub-cultures, and many might argue that the police would be better off spending their time investigating "proper" crime. But the tragic events in a Lancashire park six years ago suggest otherwise.

In August 2007 in Bacup, a goth, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, and her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, were attacked because of the way they dressed. Maltby has since made a partial recovery, but Lancaster died. Their attackers were jailed for life. Her family and friends set up the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, as a charity to campaign to change attitudes towards people who have a different lifestyle or appearance. The GMP commitment is the fruit of a long cultivation.

CHRISTIANS might be bamboozled by the subtle distinctions between sub-cultures such as emo, goth, and punk. On Saturdays, in a square behind Manchester Cathedral, large numbers of young people gather, sporting a variety of T-shirts, wild haircuts, and extravagant make-up. A skilled eye can spot the various tribes that are united by a common perception that they are outsiders.

Those with memories of the '70s will remember the impact of punk, and its seeming lack of respect for established culture; they might not see anything in that sub-culture worth protecting. Others might say that people with Mohican haircuts and a love of angry music are more likely to be the cause of trouble than the victims of it.

But it behoves people of faith to make a more Christ-centred response. I have been interested in various music sub-cultures, especially metal and prog, for more than half my life. They can offer alternative identities to those who feel that they do not fit in with the social norm. They have a powerful appeal, especially for younger people who are negotiating the profound identity changes of adolescence.

Equally, because they reflect our broken nature as human beings, all sub-cultures contain a proportion of troublemakers. Yet the GMP's commitment recognises the extent to which members of certain sub-cultures can be marginalised and assaulted simply for being different.

SOME sub-cultures can be difficult for "normal" society to relate to, not least because many of those groups exist precisely in reaction to the dominant culture. In my experience, however, punks, metalheads, emos, and goths are typically peaceful, normal people, with a passion for music, and a desire to belong and to be affirmed.

We should not treat the GMP's plans as a form of political correctness, in which everyone can now claim to be part of a victimised interest group. Even if claiming protection under the law on the basis of being a special group is open to question, a Christ-centred approach entails taking individual and corporate identities seriously.

Jesus's ministry was spent almost entirely in the company of those whose identities were either fragile or under question. His service was undertaken alongside tax-collectors, lepers, women, and rural nobodies. He died the death of an excluded criminal, while the righteous looked on or mocked.

A common refrain in spiritual-direction circles is that we are called to be our true selves. For some, being part of the goth or punk scene will be an important rite of passage. It helps individuals to explore what it means to be themselves, but also what it means to be part of a community, united by a love of music and social lifestyle. For others, it will become a fundamental theme, shaping their aesthetic, social, and political tastes for their whole life.

MANY people - including me - often feel that we do not quite fit the social norm. Part of the appeal of certain forms of music and styles of dress is that they help people to express their sense that who they are is at odds with conventional society.

The fact that there are now Christian goth eucharists, and a heavy-metal "church" called the Order of the Black Sheep, are indications of the way in which alternative lifestyles can help to shape our identity in Christ.

We cannot avoid the fact that identity has become the great modern theme. We see this when prominent figures such as Lord Carey write about how Christians in Britain are a persecuted minority (News, Press, 5 April). Having experienced verbal threats on the grounds of gender and sexuality, as well as being into the "wrong" type of music, I find such claims questionable.

It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus was more interested in the marginalised and vulnerable than in the righteous and comfortable. Christians have a social and spiritual commitment to those in our community who seemingly do not fit in. And, just as the community that emerged around Jesus was not filled with the respectable and the safe, we should not imagine that our Christian service and love is about turning heavily made-up goths into clean and decent-seeming disciples.

If part of our Christian vocation is to see the face of Christ in our neighbour, then it is also to see him in the face of a punk, metalhead, or goth.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas, Burnage, and Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral.

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