Being bad to do good

Culture | The Straight Edge punk scene proves St. Paul was right

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

A pedestrian gets hit in the face by a skateboard-for smoking a cigarette. A teenager is jumped by a gang who carves an X in his flesh-because he was using marijuana. Cities from California to Poland are facing a new kind of gang, which uses the same old criminal violence, but in the name of virtue. The movement is called Straight Edge.

The name is taken from a 1981 punk song by Ian MacKaye of the band Minor Threat: "I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and smoke dope.... I've got a straight edge."

Nothing would seem more welcome than a youth movement that forswears drugs, alcohol, smoking, casual sex, and other problematic behavior that plagues contemporary society, especially among teenagers. But the Straight Edgers turn a laudable quest for virtue into a cult of moral fanaticism.

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Straight Edgers use chains and clubs against those they consider less virtuous. "If they can't get you, you wake up in the morning, your car will be just pulverized, every window broken out," reports Detective Scott Magleby of Salt Lake City's gang unit. They have also firebombed fast-food restaurants- for being insufficiently nutritious. Animal rights is another of their causes, and bombings, vandalism, and "rescue operations" against labs and businesses that exploit animals are among their calling cards.

Affecting the body piercing, cropped hair, and tattoos of other denizens of the punk scene, Straight Edgers have adopted as their symbol the letter X, which is the handstamp rock clubs use to show a patron is too young to buy alcohol.

Associated Press reporter Arlene Levinson interviewed Jacob Kenison, 19. He is not only Straight Edge but "hardline," as tattooed across his chest, the strictest faction. Hardliners are anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-abortion; sex is only for having children, though marriage "doesn't really matter"; they are pro-animal rights and vegan in diet (no animal products whatsoever, including dairy products).

When he was 18, young Mr. Kenison fell into a deep depression, tormented because his car was ruining the environment and going to the doctor might draw on animal experimentation. He even felt guilty about his clothing. "There's animals that live in the cotton plants--some live in the shade," he told the reporter. "The main reason I'm vegan is, I felt bad."

He set fire to a leather craft store and was arrested. He was also charged with bombing a mink co-op and is awaiting trial.

The Straight Edge movement is dramatic proof of the biblical insight that fallen human beings, apart from Christ, simply cannot do good works of themselves. Trying to keep the law by their own efforts turns into a maze of legalism, self-righteousness, and--ironically--immorality.

It is highly significant that young people today-raised in a values-free zone and victimized by broken families and moral anarchy-would want morality so much they would kill for it. But what they really need is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who would forgive both their guilt and their self-defeating moralism and who would give them his righteousness instead of their own.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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