Amid the continued barrage of images from the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict, you may have encountered harrowing footage of tattooed Salvadoran prisoners stripped down to their underwear and stacked against each other in jail yards throughout the country. In April, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele made significant efforts to clamp down on gang violence. Bukele threatened to cut off the food supply to these prison inmates and audaciously brandished the success of his campaign against gang violence on social media.
While seeing the disturbing images of Bukele’s recent crackdown on gang violence, I could not help but think of the lessons from The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. Many TJP readers are already familiar with the teachings of the book’s author Greg Boyle S.J., the founder of the world’s most extensive gang intervention and re-entry program, Homeboy Industries (HBI). The kernel of Greg’s ministry is God’s radical love, dismantling the message that some lives matter more than others. Whether gang members or board members, prison inmates or national political leaders, or anyone in between, God shows no partiality and endows us with unshakable goodness and dignity.
If God so unconditionally loves us grounding our unshakably good being, what would motivate a person to join a gang and eventually require the services offered at HBI or merit President Bukele’s punitive measures?
Fr. Greg, perhaps one of the world’s foremost gang ministry experts, knows the stories of gang members profoundly and intimately. He claims that every gang member joins a gang or commits a violent crime for only one reason: despair, a lethal absence of hope. Saul, for example, killed his abusive stepfather in self-defense at the age of 13. Here is despair in a young man’s heart induced by the suffering and distress from abuse. Saul then spent 23 years in jail before he finally had the opportunity to enter HBI training. “I’ve decided to grow up to be somebody I always needed as a child,” he says, now showing tenderness toward the young men in his former shoes, treating them all as his sons and helping them find their way.
A gang member healed of their despair will never return to their former way of life. Instead, Fr. Greg says, their healing offers extravagant tenderness and the ability to speak the whole language. The person who is fluent in this language “chooses to live in the soul, inhabiting the tender fragrance of love” and “puts the welcome mat out so that others find a home in [them].” This message of extravagant tenderness is the core of healing and must be the only response to gang violence. If Fr. Greg is correct, the punitive justice measures enforced in El Salvador will not merely miss the mark in eradicating gang violence. Instead, President Bukele will exponentially exacerbate the problem of violence by ensconcing more despair in the hearts of those already in the throes of gang activity.
The Whole Language is the last in a trilogy of power books, following Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Each book highlights the power of a particular virtue: boundless compassion, radical kinship, and now extravagant tenderness. The books compile stories, parables, theological musings, and spiritual insights from over 37 years of connection with gang members. Amid his musings, Fr. Greg draws conclusions about our relationship to God that might seem unreasonable to a traditionally-minded Christian. Fr. G challenges widespread beliefs and supports a tender, softer God who calls us back to wholeness. In one instance, he muses that “Jesus hardly mentions sins, and I’m not sure he’d say he died for them.” On sexuality, he says, “the gospel doesn’t know what a sexual ethic is; it only has an ethic of love that longs to include and foster belonging.” On moral development, Fr. G posits, “God doesn’t require anything of us except to receive this love that will change everything…God doesn’t want us to be good. We already are. God only longs for us to be joyful. God has little interest in our behavior, only in our abundant happiness.”
Fr. Boyle appears to be drawing a hard line between two competing images of God in the conclusions drawn above. In his view, God accepts us for who we are no matter what, unconditionally, unequivocally, no exceptions. On the other hand, many Christians would argue God loves us too much to allow us to remain in our sinfulness and draws us forth for a life without addiction and inordinate attachments. So a relationship with God in this light entails that we change our behavior to conform to God’s loving demands. But Fr. Greg explicitly rejects the God of requirements. The tension, in short, could be summed up in the already and the not yet. God already loves us for who we are and accepts the being we have become. At the same time, in a traditional Christian standpoint, we are still not yet complete. Because of our sinfulness, we are not yet manifesting the fullness of our potential as God’s disciples and friends. Fr. Greg appears to reject the latter view outright.
But how might the two worldviews come into fuller dialogue? This question goes beyond the scope of the article, but it is one every Christian must engage with in their relationship to God and one Fr. Greg challenges every Christian to ponder in this book. Can Christians worship and love a God who both unconditionally accepts them and who demands the best from them, just as a parent demands the best from their children, or a teacher requires rigorous work from their students, or a friend expects the best for and from their best friend?
However, one need not accept every theological conclusion Fr. G draws to learn from his worldview. The stories Fr. G shares are the heart of all three books. They convey knowledge of gang members that can shape our intuition and instincts, thereby influencing how we think about God, moral responsibility, and our inherent goodness. Fr. Greg’s accounts immerse us in a tenderness-infused worldview. Even though one might disapprove of Fr. Boyle’s worldview – and even if one outright rejects it – the experience in it broadens our perspective in a way similar to visiting a culture very different from one’s own. This experience is of a culture enriched and matured in decades of mystically tender loving.
To speak the whole language in Fr. Boyle’s worldview reorients our moral compass, helping us distinguish a visceral response to violent crime, like that of President Bukele, from tenderly seeing the inherent unshakable goodness of all human life. Take his story of Max, who committed murder at the age of 16. The judge metes out punishment for an adult crime, even though it was a crime done by a minor, saying to the boy, “I think you’re a monster.” Fr. Boyle responds, “society punishes people for bad behavior, and we call it justice, but real justice restores. We’ve mistaken moral outrage for a moral compass. A moral compass helps you see with clarity how complex and damaged people are. It is the whole language. Moral outrage increases the volume and the distance that separates us. I suppose if I thought moral outrage worked, I’d be out raging. But rage just means we don’t understand yet.” Greg’s compassion roots itself in his radical theology of love, and it challenges us to view Max, El Salvadoran gang members, and indeed ourselves with extravagant tenderness, unconditional acceptance, and mystical wholeness.
I worked at Homeboy Industries and experienced firsthand the fruits of Fr. G’s lessons in action, meeting some of the former gang members about whom G writes in this book. Though most of the trainees appear gruff, tattooed, and part of what society might perceive as dangerous or untouchable, the homies I had the privilege to know were extraordinarily tender, hilarious, loving, and inspiring. It confirmed for me in person that Homeboy Industries serves as a beacon of hope in the center of what once was one of the most violent zip codes in the world. I began to see firsthand why Fr. Greg radically rooted himself in the image of God who accepts us all in extravagant tenderness. So many men and women who came through the doors of HBI told me stories of extreme shame and even hatred of themselves to the point of despair, not expecting or hoping to live beyond their teenage years. This despair was born of trauma and years of being told in various ways they are not worthy of love, compassion, or tenderness. This experience brought me to grapple more with Greg’s theology, compelling me to dive deeper into understanding the God who loves me already, completely, infinitely acceptingly and unconditionally.
The Whole Language compels us because Fr. Greg speaks to the heart of our human experience – a journey of trauma, healing, and wholeness through compassion, kinship, and tenderness. Fr. G calls us back to remember who we truly are, inviting us to acknowledge how we are held and embraced in the arms of an immeasurably loving God.
The Whole Language is available from Simon & Schuster wherever books are sold.
Header photo courtesy of the author (left). Greg Boyle, SJ is third from the right.