The Common Good

Wall Street and the Crisis of Urban Violence

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?"

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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. Violence among the lowest economic ranks, on the other hand, 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 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, as Dr. King suggested, 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.

portrait-chris-butlerChris Butler has been involved in several community organizing projects in Chicago and around the state of Illinois. Chris recently founded the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to "make peace happen" in Chicago. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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