Crime: A Crisis of the Spirit

At a recent Washington, D.C. meeting for church leaders and activists, keynote speaker Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend declared that some young people of the street were "monsters" who could not be saved and we would have to give up on them. This statement is frightening, given that Kennedy-Townsend—a Justice Department official from one of the country’s most liberal families—reflects the thinking of many Americans caught up in fear and anger over violent crime.

Crime and violence have come to dominate the national discourse, and this context has generated the federal crime bill now under consideration by Congress. Shortly after Bill Clinton’s stimulus package to create jobs went down in defeat, the Senate somehow managed to find $22 billion for a crime bill.

Although crime and violence are very real problems in our cities and elsewhere, the current intense focus is not emerging out of a dramatic increase in crime. In fact, FBI and local police statistics indicate that crime is going down. Crime has become a diversionary and divisive issue that keeps the focus off the real systemic problems facing this country.

The crime bill serves both political and economic ends. It is being driven by its political value to those in power who want to maintain high poll ratings and those out of power who see it as a means to obtain office or influence. Both parties are jockeying for the "tough on crime" label.

Economically, controlling violence and crime is big business in America. The crime bill is a jobs bill—but not for those in the inner-city area where it is most needed. The bill calls for $9 billion for the hiring of 100,000 new police officers (how many will come from the areas where they will be deployed?) and $3 billion for the building of prisons. And what of inner-city youth? Well, they can have the inmate jobs which pay 25 cents an hour.

Politically, the crime bill shifts the focus from how we can reclaim and renew our cities to how we can control the "monsters" within. It offers no hope and little relief for our young people. It simply renders yet another vehicle for "pimping the pain" of our youth.

The paucity of prevention measures, with an abundance of punishment clauses, demonstrates how the system has given up: three strikes and you’re out; death penalty expanded to include 50 new crimes, some with no murder or violent crime conviction; trying juveniles as adults; longer prison sentences; mandatory minimum sentences; and federal anti-gang statutes. While there is a legitimate need for dealing swiftly and surely with repeat violent offenders, that is clearly not enough. There are few jobs, education, training, or rehabilitation options in this bill. There is little understanding of the hopelessness, pain, and anger among our children.

BUT HOW SHOULD WE respond to this violence and crime that is a reality in our communities, that is killing our babies, destroying the moral fabric of our community, smothering our hope and our humanity?

For us as Christians, ironically enough the answer came from Kennedy-Townsend. When challenged from the floor about her giving up on youth, she responded, "You are the church, you are about redemption and forgiveness—that is not my role." That answer calls us to a place of love, faith, and hope. This is the time for the church to show the nation by its own action how to respond.

Several national church representatives who attended the National Urban Peace and Justice Summit last year committed ourselves to work together on the followup. Catholics, evangelicals, and protestants have joined as pastors in partnership with present and former gang members. We have named ourselves "The Things That Make for Peace": The Churches’ Anti-Violence Action Net-work. We are pursuing the things that truly make for peace.

The group has rejected the administration’s crime bill and endorsed instead Rep. Craig Washington’s bill, which focuses more on prevention than punishment. We are working to end racism and sexism. We are committed to working for community economic development that offers jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to youth, to maintaining and expanding the gang truces in five cities, to promoting unity and peace, to ending police brutality, and to empowering young women to find safe spaces.

Our most important objective, however, is mobilizing uninvolved local churches to answer the call from our youth for spiritual guidance and political and economic support for their efforts to truly transform their own lives. We want to work with our youth as they search for salvation and redemption. In the process our faith grows strong. We are witnessing God’s love at work in the lives of these young people, lifting them up and turning them around, placing their feet on the solid ground of redemption and renewal.

So you see, Ms. Kennedy-Town-send, we cannot give up because, yes, we believe in the power of God’s love in the face of these young people, and we cannot give up on you or others who do not yet share our vision and our hope. We invite you and all Americans to take another look with new eyes at these youth and envision them being the solution and not the problem. The nation you save might be your own.

Expanding prison buildings and imprisonment over the last 20 years has not brought us more security. Why? Because the crisis cannot be solved by the criminal justice system. It is a crisis of the spirit, a moral unraveling of the thread of community that only God can put right. The challenge for the church has never been greater. The youth call us to this—our finest hour. Let us not miss the moment.

JEAN SINDAB is program director of the Economic and Environmental Justice Program of the National Council of Churches and co-chair of "The Things That Make for Peace": The Churches’ Anti-Violence Action Network.

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