Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Aimlessness and Sin
It’s not been a very good start to the summer. Let’s not dwell on the prosecution of government officials for assaulting hotel employees, misdirecting campaign funds to cover up scandal, or trading high offices for personal favors. Nor should we preoccupy ourselves with the public humiliation of one caught up in an “anti” social media escapade. As for the historical creativity of potential political candidates – Paul Revere rode to warn the British? – enough has probably been said.
Of more substantial concern is the soul searching currently underway in Chicago where a rash of crimes in normally secure, comfortable neighborhoods has people on edge. Assault and robbery of innocents in broad daylight by roaming bands of older youth near campuses and even next to the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast has the city unsettled. A new mayor and police chief are facing their first major public challenge.
At one level this is a simple public safety issue. Arrests have been made of some suspects, police have increased their presence, and strategies are being implemented, we are told, to restore a sense of security to the neighborhoods. But the fact that these bands of youth are African American inevitably complicates the public conversation and exposes raw sensitivities, anxieties, and prejudices.
Some are claiming that these crimes in well-off, predominantly white neighborhoods are getting more attention – and response – than crimes in poorer, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Many African Americans worry that this will lead to more racial profiling of young black men. Police say no, but it’s hard not to imagine that they, and many others among us, will view groups of African American teens as threats in ways that white teens roaming the streets in packs are not. White privilege endures; the racial politics this city has been so desperate to leave behind may under the burden of these crimes prove to be more dormant than dead. Are these early summer assaults an aberration, an odd set of unique events unlikely to be repeated? Or is this the tip of a more ominous iceberg that threatens a social fabric already worn thin by an economic recession that has eviscerated large swaths of the city while leaving many more privileged neighborhoods unscathed?
Much remains unknown, subject to speculation, often self-serving. What we do know is that these incidents point to multiple failures – The failure of parenting and of those who ought to be teaching the next generation how to parent. The failure of churches to help young people develop a sense of personal responsibility, spiritual center, and moral discipline. The failure of public schools to form intellectually accomplished young people capable of and eager for achievement. The failure of public and private leaders to forge an economy offering meaningful opportunities for employment that rewards workers with a livable wage.
Aimlessness seems at first blush to be a rather benign way to describe sin. The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith links them together, no doubt a reference to the existentialist philosophers of post World War II Europe who wrote about the deep sense of personal moral and spiritual estrangement and ennui they experienced around them in the rubble of war. Aimlessness is far from benign. It represents a sense of purposelessness that finds expression either in despair or rage. When society through its families, churches, and public or private institutions abandons its young people of whatever race to aimlessness, it invites both the seductiveness and the consequences of sin. And whether that sin is expressed in the erosion of a young person’s dreams or in angry assaults on the innocent, the violence done to the divine image we bear surely borders on the unforgivable.
John H. Thomas