America's Inner City Problems Cannot Be Solved Without God

There are two big mistakes most Americans make about our inner city problems:  we believe that the troubles of the inner city are mostly about race, and we believe that they can be solved without God.

The failure of the blue social model to solve the problems of the underclass in America’s inner cities was one of the great tragedies of the last 30 years.  Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent; tens of millions of lives remained blighted, and a culture of violence, degradation and despair has taken hold among some of our society’s most vulnerable and needy people.  Generations of children are growing up in gangs; our scarce financial resources are being consumed by a grotesquely overbuilt prison system; whole segments of our population are unable to cope with even the simplest demands of modern life.

It is not that a generation of anti-poverty spending and affirmative action did not have some good results.  The United States now has a larger, stronger, better educated and better off Black middle class than ever before.  Many of these better off Blacks are leaving the inner city,  just as whites in past decades fled the high taxes, high costs and high crime of the city for better schools, better homes and lower taxes elsewhere.  America needed to do something to address the consequences of slavery, segregation and discrimination; what we did wasn’t always enough and some of it misfired — but I am proud that we tried, and proud of the progress, however incomplete, that this country has made toward the goal of a truly race-blind society.

There are some who blame all these problems on the culture of welfare and entitlements.  Those can cause problems, but the tragedy of inner city social meltdown is not just an American problem and we can’t just look at American history and policy to understand what is going on.  In Mexico, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and many other countries the mix of large cities and rootless young people without the academic or personal skills needed for success creates a dangerous social stew.  Introduce the illegal drugs business into those settings, and you get the too familiar mix of gang warfare, drug addled youth and organised crime bosses who make Al Capone look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

If we look at the situation globally, it becomes clear that this is not simply an American problem.  It is a problem in the Arab world and in Latin America.  Increasingly, there are signs that some immigrant communities in Europe are headed in this direction.  It is a problem in sub-Saharan Africa.  Thuggish neo-Nazi youth groups in some Russian cities are showing signs of this kind of social and moral breakdown.  In the Philippines and Indonesia there are alarming signs of a growing underclass in large cities.

Restless, violent and poor urban communities have been with us for a long time.  What often seems to happen is that poor people migrate to the cities in hopes of more exciting and rewarding lives.  Historically, some of the migrants “made it” to find good jobs and new lives — like Dick Whittington, the boy who, legend tells us, ran away to London in the middle ages and ended up becoming Lord Mayor.

But many of those migrants found sadder fates; cities were not very healthy places, and the combination of poor sanitation and sewer facilities, bad diet and poorly preserved foods, poverty and violence meant that many cities had to constantly draw on the countryside to keep their populations up.  In the last 150 years, the flow to the cities increased with the mechanization of agriculture and improvements in transportation — and developments in public health meant that more of those migrants lived and had children, even if they failed to find the kind of upward mobility they hoped for.

What this means, not only in the United States, but in cities around the world, is that we now have something new: vast urban conglomerations whose populations include second, third and even fourth generations of people who know nothing but the city — and lack the opportunity and ability to earn their way out of the slums through normal, legal channels.  Most first generation migrants to the city have strong family structures and work ethics shaped by the hardworking rural communities from which they come; their children and grandchildren grow up in the cities.  Often, these successor generations lose the discipline and structure their parents and grandparents brought from the countryside and at the same time they fail to acquire the skills and the habits that make for success in the city.  It is these people who form the heart of what Marx called the lumpenproletariat, urban people who live disorganized lives in a criminal or semi-criminal environment.

Today in the US and even more elsewhere, this lumpenproletariat is a serious social problem.  The wasted urban landscapes of this increasingly globalized phenomenon offer some of the saddest sights in the long history of human misery.  Drug addicted young women desperately sell their bodies in the age of HIV; their unwanted, uncared for children grow up as best they can.  These inner city infernos are more than a tragedy and more than a nuisance; increasingly in the United States and abroad they are a danger.  Drug lords and terrorists have many interests in common and in more than one place they are merging; the vast flow of illegal funds fuels a global trade in weapons, a global corruption of the police and border guards, and facilitates the smuggling of money, people and goods on an immense scale.

The links between the drug trade, the gang culture of the urban underworld and violent religious extremism are troubling and deep.  The revenues of the central Asian heroin trade have fuelled terrorist movements from Pakistan and India into Russia and beyond.  The radical religious figures who from time to time have tried to build a base in American prisons and inner cities have already created “home grown” jihadis in a handful of cases.  The social conditions of the inner cities create cohorts of young people vulnerable to the message of radical religious groups; the gang culture trains them in violence.  Around the world these angry, alienated and violent groups — often found among socially marginalized minority communities — represent one of the gravest social dangers and vulnerabilities we face.

There is not much energy in the United States today to take on the problems of the inner city.  That is understandable; the ghetto has been the graveyard of good intentions of the last generation.  Billions were spent, and things just got worse.  With Blacks abandoning these urban wastelands for the suburbs and the south, it’s easy to see why so many of us would rather build new prisons, murmur the Serenity Prayer and accept those things we cannot change.

This would be a mistake.  Morally, whatever we feel about the violent gangs, neglectful parents and drug dealers, the vulnerable children in these cities have a just claim on our compassion.  And the danger that alienated young people could drift into terrorist activity, while it should not be overblown, is real.

There are things that government can do and some policies — like improvements in police methods — have made things better.  Promoting an economic recovery to increase employment opportunities for marginal workers in the US — and policing the border to prevent illegal immigrants from competing for the new jobs — will help.  Developing alternatives in the criminal justice system so that fewer non-violent offenders serve long sentences in prison and using vouchers and charter schools and other methods to broaden educational opportunity would help.

But technocratic fixes and government policy however wise and inspired cannot fix everything that is broken in the inner cities of the United States and abroad.  Drug addiction, cycles of violence and abuse, the prevalence and attraction of street gangs and the appeal of religious extremism are not the kinds of things that bureaucrats can do much about.

Many (not all, I hasten to say) of the most vexing and persistent problems of the poor are human problems first and foremost.  I don’t say this to blame the poor for their own poverty; it is easy to see how social conditions, poor employment prospects and external pathologies contribute to the creation of a generation of young men who aren’t ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood.  It is easy to see how growing up in an environment in which two parent families are rare could make young women think that having children outside of wedlock is just the way things work.  It is easy to understand how young single mothers without guidance or role models, without economically useful skills, could be overwhelmed by the emotional and financial stress of single parenthood.  Without strong families, healthy community organisations, and the guidance of role models and caring adults, it is easy to see how children and teenagers can be fooled into thinking that the images generated by our pleasure-seeking and irresponsible commercial entertainment complex define the meaning of life.  I make no claims that if I had grown up in an inner city environment that I would make any better choices than anybody else.

But the hard truth is that unless someone reaches the lost generations in our inner city with powerful, life transforming messages, the dysfunctional cycles of violence, poverty and destruction will continue.  The people in our cities need the power to change their lives — and that kind of power, for most of the people most of the time in history, comes through transformational encounters with the power and the presence of God.  That, historically, is also where we have to look for many of the individuals who are ready to dedicate themselves to the lives of difficult service that our inner cities demand.

If we cannot bring the power of faith to bear on our suffering cities, we will not help most of their inhabitants become the effective parents, breadwinners and citizens we need.  I do not say we will get nothing done without faith — but without the kind of transformational power that has historically helped Americans face challenge and change we are unlikely to make substantial inroads on the psychological and personal devastation in our wasted urban landscapes anytime soon.

In a society like ours, where church and state are separate, there are limits to the government’s ability to address spiritual ills.  I am glad those limits exist; I am glad that church and state are separate in this country.  But the very fact that our government must restrict itself to non-religious programs and activities means that many of the most important factors affecting the health of our society ultimately rest outside government and what it can do.

The spiritual poverty of the generations of young people growing up in a drug and violence saturated anarchy is one of those problems that government just can’t solve.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with an old friend lately: the Reverend Eugene Rivers of the Asuza Street Church up in Boston.  I’ve known Gene since we were both taking classes at Yale back when mammoths ruled the earth and Richard Nixon was in the White House.  Gene was studying European intellectual history while looking for ways to minister to lost inner city youth; I was moping about the intellectual decline of liberalism and trying to figure out what if anything the Bible had to say to the Baby Boom.

Since then we’ve continued on our trajectories; Gene reading and organising, me mostly moping and writing.  We’ve kept in touch because we share some core beliefs and concerns.  While neither one of us would hold ourselves up as an ‘achieved saint’ or the perfect role model for American youth, we both think that God lives.  Neither one of us is unsympathetic to many of the concerns of “modernist” theology and we don’t live in a cave into which word of modern hermeneutical and critical scholarship has never filtered, but we both think — and feel — that the God of Abraham can still be seen in that burning bush, that the One who spoke to Moses, the prophets and the apostles still speaks today.

What I’ve learned from Gene lately is a new appreciation of the importance of the Black church in the redemption of the inner city.  Specifically, I’ve been learning about the importance of the Pentecostal churches.  Historically, the Pentecostal churches in the United States as elsewhere are strongly rooted among the poor.  In the favelas of Brazil, the “informal settlements” of South Africa and in the squalid slums surrounding emerging megacities like Nairobi and Lagos, as well as in America’s inner cities, Pentecostal churches, many in storefronts, are often the most active, the fastest growing, and the most connected to the aspirations and the needs of the communities they serve.

If we are serious about changing lives in the inner cities, we need to think about strengthening the capacity of these churches.  (In highlighting Pentecostal churches I don’t want to scant good work done by other churches and by non-Christian groups including mosques, but in the US as in many other countries the Pentecostals stand out.)

The pastors and lay leaders of these churches know their neighborhoods and have an ability to reach those in need in ways that government bureaucrats can’t.  They can reach out to the children of prisoners and to others whose families have largely dissolved; they can reach addicts and they can find ways to bring community pressures against the drug sellers.

In the United States today we have wealthy congregations which can’t find missions that fully engage the talents and resources and abilities of their members — and we have poor congregations surrounded and even overwhelmed by needs they don’t have the resources to meet.  This is not just about money; it is about leadership, experience and know-how.

Hundreds and thousands of American churches have developed international mission programs to address poverty and acute social needs abroad while witnessing to the power of faith.  Can’t we do more here at home?

Teams of volunteer professionals could help public school teachers set up charter schools in partnership with churches that combine education, after school programs and mentoring for at-risk children.  Others could support efforts to organise day care, senior care and other programs that serve the needy in ways that combine public support, private philanthropy and volunteer energy.  Suburban congregations (including synagogues and mosques) could form congregation-to-congregation partnerships with inner city churches and mosques.

None of this will solve all our inner city problems completely.  But whether you are a diehard Great Society blue social model enthusiast or you are a penny-pinching, welfare-hating red state libertarian, you probably know that the problems of the inner city cannot be solved by civil servants and government programs alone.  Finding ways to bring the talents and resources of America’s faith communities to bear on the problems of the neediest among us is something that both left and right should support.

Evangelical preacher Rick Warren says that he doesn’t want to be known as right wing or left wing; he wants to be the whole bird.  Whether that’s a realistic aspiration for Rick I leave for others to decide, but the problem of our underclass is a problem that ought to concern both wings.  It’s just possible that if more of us spent more time like Gene Rivers with the poorest and neediest among us, we might find it easier to keep our political arguments from being so hot and so ill-tempered — and life in the United States might just improve.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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