Is the Tea Party movement racist? Your answer probably depends on where you land politically. But the truth is never as clear cut as our personal ideologies and allegiances might suggest.
At first glance, they seem completely unrelated. But a closer look reveals the inextricable link between the value our nation places on wealth and the value it places on human life in our inner cities.
As an urban minister and a political professional, there have been two big news stories that I have followed with some level interest recently. The first is the debate in Washington D.C. over the creation of a bill to regulate the banking and finance industry. The other is increasing levels of violence on inner-city streets around the country, perhaps most notably my home, Chicago. I, like many Americans, have looked at these issues and asked myself, “How can America deal with these two great crises?”
At first glance, the issues seem completely unrelated. After all, financial regulation has to do with billionaires on Wall Street. It’s about reigning in the bank bosses who single handedly drove the American economy off a cliff and caused the worst financial meltdown in recent history. While violence among the lowest economic ranks is clearly about desperation associated with a lack of financial resources. Since young African American and Latino people do not have access to jobs and other financial resources, they revert to illegal means of creating income; a drug industry that has violence as one of its primary byproducts.
Since I rarely expect things to actually be what they seem to be at first glance, I pondered these things further and read a little more. I surfaced a slightly more critical analysis that supposed that the fallout of corporate misconduct worsened conditions for the American poor and caused the spike in violence. It was clear to me that the issues were related, but a relationship of causality did not pass intellectual muster. If one caused the other, it would have had to precede it. Also, African Americans have never known a time in this country when they did not struggle for economic justice. Why is the violent response such a recent phenomenon?
Then I read in the recent Pew Center poll that most people in America are frustrated with government. It was clear that we are missing the big idea. What if there are not two groups and two crises? What if we really are one nation, experiencing one crisis? In America, from the wealthiest Wall Street banker to the most impoverished city dweller, we have a spiritual problem. But, what issue is there as pervasive and deadly as to be able to sneak into every level of society and bring it down so thoroughly?
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that misplaced values caused Vietnam and that those misplaced values threatened the very life of the nation. I believe Dr. King’s thought process is relevant to this current crisis.
We have allowed ourselves to come to the place where money is valued above everything else in our society. The relentless pursuit of money and the pleasure it can provide has led us into the kind of chaos and violence we now experience. Chaos among those who have more access to economic resources because we consume at rates faster than we can produce. Violence among those with less access because we compete over very little. The poor don’t mind killing one another or watching each other die because we have been taught (however indirectly) that a life without money is a life without meaning.
Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did all those years ago, “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities.” While we work to reform Wall Street and build economic opportunity into our inner-cities, we must realize that these are not the great solutions. We must have,, a revolution of values; righteousness over pleasure, honor over power, life over money.
Amid the calls for finance reform in Washington and economic development in Chicago, I fear that we will not see peace until we see, across the socio-economic spectrum, values reform and character development.
Derrion Albert did not die because of a lack of jobs or social programs. He died because we expect more righteousness and leadership from our government and civil institutions than we do from each other.
As I watched the video of, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of anger or passion. From the voice of the young person filming the mayhem on his camera phone to the faces of the perpetrators of the violence; there was no hatred, no rage. This was simply a leisure activity. Derrion’s death was not the goal, just an unfortunate outcome.
Those young people were not doing something that they were forced to do; they were doing something they wanted to do.
As director of the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to fill the city with peace and drive out violence, I have worked in many neighborhoods across the city organizing and mobilizing churches and other Christian organizations. We have adopted schools, conducted all-night prayer-and-praise meetings on dangerous corners, beautified streets, and conducted activities for young people. But clearly we have not done enough.
I know that there are those who say the solution to our problems in America’s inner cities is that we need more jobs and more afterschool programs. I say not so. We have in this city more afterschool programs and jobs available to youth than we did in 1959. But we did not see young people beating each other to death in the streets back then.
Derrion died just outside the doors of a faith-based community center that would not have turned a single member of that mob away if they were looking for afterschool recreation. As I watched, I realized that it’s time for the church to come forth and lead. Allow me to explain.
In practically every generation prior to this one, the great problems in America had to do with civil rights. From the unjust system of taxation without representation which led to the Revolutionary War to the unjust Jim Crow laws that led to civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, we have struggled as a nation to overcome problems that were a matter of public policy. Since those problems were emanating primarily from the halls of government, we struggled to shift public policy discussions, change laws, and elect men and women to national and local government who could make necessary changes and hold the line on previous victories. And as we did this, things improved.
I humbly submit to you that those days are over. Public policy and government statute are not the great source of our problems, and the methods of previous movements have been and will continue to prove ineffectual in our time. It is time for a new approach. I do not mean to assert that every law in this nation — or even in this city — is now just; this is certainly not the case. But the law and public policy discussions of our time are not the cause of our problems as they have been in the past.
In the past the law dictated that people of color could not vote. The accepted public policy held that people of color were somehow less human than white people. The clear solution for that kind of injustice is to change that law, to shift that public policy to something more just and humane. This is the basic ethos and methodology of civil rights. Civil rights can be demanded and won from the government.
But today we have laws against drug sales, we have laws against illegal drug possession, we have laws against murder. There is not a respectable public policy professional or organization anywhere in this nation that would make an argument against those laws.
So, why is Derrion Albert not alive today?
Perhaps, the answer is demonstrated better than it can be articulated by the radio DJ who plays endless hours of violence and debauchery, by the policeman who drives 70 m.p.h. the wrong way down a neighborhood street, by the crowd of misguided teens who dispassionately beat one of their peers to death with a piece of wood and their bare hands.
Imagine the impact that we could make if every believer in Chicago truly began to pray for peace in our city, then allowed that prayer to motivate and strengthen us toward action. What if every school in Chicago was adopted by a handful of churches? What if believers in every neighborhood began to take responsibility for a block, a train station, a bus route, and went out to meet the people there, serve them, and act as a presence for peace? What if we turned the power of protest onto the drug dealers by coming to the hottest spots at the hottest times (usually nighttime) and exposing their activities done in darkness with bright lights, singing, and prayer? What if there were a prophetic voice coming out of the church that, through both its words and actions, could consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? That would be an appropriate movement for Chicago — and for every urban community.
The great problems of our time — and, as such, the violence problem in Chicago — are not a matter of civil rights, but human rights. They are not caused by problems in our public policy and government structures; they are caused by great flaws in our values and cultural structures. The solutions cannot be demanded and won from the government; they must be demanded and won from one another. The challenge is not to turn an unjust government toward justice, but to turn an unrighteous culture toward righteousness.
And that’s precisely why it’s time for the church to come forth and lead.
Photo of Derrion Albert:.