Taking Chivalry to the Street

Nobility as an Alternative to Gang Violence

When I talk about exploring the Code of Chivalry as a warrior’s code of honor in the modern world, I’m usually using the term warrior symbolically to conjure up a sense of self-respect and strength in a competitive environment. But in East Los Angeles, there’s a man who is confronting a different type of “warrior culture,” one based on real violence and brutality. For him the word warrior is no colorful metaphor.

BoyleThe man is Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the director of Homeboy Industries, a foundation created in 1992 to give at-risk inner city youths an alternative to drugs and gangs. Father Boyle’s mission is a simple one: Provide young men and women with productive, legitimate means of making a living. Gang members looking for a way out of the cycle of crime and violence come to Father Boyle as they begin their quest for a new way of life; Father Boyle, in essence, offers a labor pool of reformed gang members to local businesses and enterprises that need workers. Former members of rival gangs work side-by-side in these endeavors, putting aside their hostilities for the sake of a better future and a safer community.

If this exchange of life-in-the-’hood for a steady paycheck seems a “no brainer,” think again. Drugs and prostitution offer tantalizingly quick profits; silk screening T-shirts or doing landscaping work are slow, hard ways to make a living. For a young man or woman with an abusive family history and little or no education, stepping away from gang life is anything but an easy choice.

I first learned of Father Boyle’s efforts with Homeboy Industries when I heard him interviewed on NPR’s mid-day talk show, Fresh Air. When the host asked why a gang member would forego street life in favor of a 9-to-5 job, Father Boyle spoke of an “inner nobility” that steered these young people away from easy money when given an opportunity to pursue an honest vocation. When Father Boyle invoked one of the Seven Knightly Virtues as a means of turning adolescents away from crime, I knew I had to learn more about his program.

Father Boyle was generous enough to share his views with me in a recent interview, and I think everyone with an interest in Chivalry Today will be intrigued by what he had to say.

In my seminars, I describe European culture at the dawn of the Age of Chivalry as a period of “government by street gang.” In the 6th and 7th centuries, barbarian tribes led by men who were hardly more than teenagers ruled a world where preying upon the weak and helpless was accepted and even glorified. The “barbarian way of life” has been romanticized through a variety of colorful characters such as Conan and Xena, but the fact of the matter is, the tribal warriors of the Goths, Huns and Lombards made their living on theft, terror and slavery.

Jump ahead 1,500 years or so and you’ll find a striking parallel between the barbarians of the “dark age” and the gangs on the streets of East Los Angeles, for whom robbery, turf wars and prostitution rings are de rigueur. You’ll also find a striking parallel between the method used by medieval reformers who sought to incorporate the barbarian warriors into a stable, productive society and the method used by Father Boyle to get young men and women out of gangs and into stable, productive family lives.

“The truth is, no gang member ever seeks to join a gang,” Father Boyle says. “All that talk of honor and loyalty just makes (gang membership) palatable.” He explains that most gang members join their gang because they are running from something — they are fleeing from a life that’s even more painful and destructive than an existence on the streets. Father Boyle’s approach is to give them something rewarding to work toward rather than trying to solve the problem by prosecution or preaching.

To help young people put gang culture behind them, Father Boyle turns their focus inward, allowing them to discover and explore their own sense of dignity and self-worth. “Nobility means finding your own personal value rather than measuring yourself up against an outside image,” he says. “What I do is to get them to see the truth of who they really are and then guide them toward becoming that truth.”

Father Boyle’s notion of nobility is fully consistent with the definition of that knightly virtue within the Code of Chivalry. Nobility is a sense of purpose and inner strength that we feel when we are clear in our goals and values. It’s the recognition that our character doesn’t change based on who is watching or who we’re trying to please. It is, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the ability to “stand like a rock” on matters of principle; Father Boyle’s work helps these young men and women find bedrock to stand on.

The Dilemma of Chivalry

In trying to consider Father Boyle’s message from the viewpoint of a “gang warrior,” however, I can see a potential dilemma — the same dilemma that the ancient barbarians must have faced when presented with the choice of a life of chivalry versus a life of war and plunder. On one hand you’re telling me that I’m noble and dignified, on the other hand you’re telling me to submit to someone else’s rules. Isn’t submission a sign of weakness?

Father Boyle defuses this potential dilemma with a message that is distinctly chivalrous: Living a civil life requires far more strength than living a savage one. He points out that allowing a conflict or rivalry to escalate into violence shows a lack of control, and that is a lack of strength.

“In the gangs they’re used to dealing with every confrontation aggressively,” Father Boyle says. “They call it going ‘head up.’ We talk about these encounters with them and point out that there’s another way to handle themselves.” Through discussion and social reinforcement, Father Boyle helps these young people recognize that walking away from a fight is the greatest show of strength there is. Refusing to go “head up” shows the strength of their own commitments to the spouses and children who depend upon them to earn a living rather than winding up dead or incarcerated.

This message is a wonderful echo from the days of chivalry — when real warriors had to make the choice to use their weapons to kill and plunder for their own gain, or to be inspired by those who loved them to serve a greater good and build a brighter future. As the 13th century Spanish author and knight Ramon Lull observed:

“Those who love wars, theft and robbery cannot be knights, for these things are against the nature of chivalry. On the contrary, a knight must seek peace and respect good people who never harm or threaten others.”

Additionally, Father Boyle points out that stepping away from the gang culture must be a choice that comes from within, which is one of the elements of a true warrior’s code. “I don’t go out on the street and beg people to leave the gangs,” he said. “All I can do is be here for them when they’re ready.” Yet his patient approach conceals an underlying sense of purpose and vision — through his work at Homeboy Industries, Father Boyle is creating a community for these men and women to belong to, allowing them to see the value of being respected and admired. As Father Boyle says, “You can’t scare people straight, but you can care them straight.”

Creating safe, caring, supportive communities is what the Code of Chivalry is all about — it is, after all, the catalyst that transformed the predatory ideals of a savage, barbaric culture by establishing the image of the honorable, noble knight. Searching for that sense of inner nobility, and using it to create trust and stability where once there was brutality and discord, is what Homeboy Industries is all about.

Father Boyle’s chivalrous message is not limited to the streets of East Los Angeles, however. Whether you are a former gang member or a successful corporate CEO, living by the honorable, respectable principles of the true “way of the warrior” isn’t something you can be coerced into. You must choose that path, and you must guard your choice with strength and determination, because every day that choice will be challenged by vanity, expedience and desire. Being a knight means having the strength to walk away from those temptations rather than going “head up” and indulging in selfish, destructive behavior. Father Boyle and his friends at Homeboy Industries provide noble examples of chivalry at work in the modern world that we can all aspire to.

Learn more about Homeboy Industries and its sister organization, Jobs For A Future, by visiting their website. Father Boyle is eager to partner with local businesses interested in exploring creative business ventures and growth opportunities.

Listen to the on-line broadcast of Father Boyle’s interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross at the NPR website. Or, read the story of Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries in the book, G-Dog and the Homeboys, by Celeste Fremon.