Culture of Despair - John Perkins

Posted on January 1, 1994

Sarah packed that week's grocery bags in the trunk, climbed into the car and started the engine. The passenger doors suddenly opened and three youth from my neighborhood jumped in. With gun to Sarah's head they sent her on a 45-minute joy ride through Pasadena and ended up in a secluded park where for over an hour they played a game of cat-and-mouse with her. Finally exhausted, Sarah collapsed. The boys topped off the afternoon sport with multiple rape and a single pistol shot to the head. As Sarah’s family grieved the loss of wife and mom, these boys explained to the police the reason for the afternoon’s event: “The bitch was there.”

An isolated story of three misguided youth? Hardly. There is an alarming population of criminal children who roam the streets of inner city America. Jim, a sixteen-year-old kid in Los Angeles, is one of them. On a typical day he will roll out of bed late morning, eat from the fridge and walk the streets to link up with a few other boys his age. By noon he has dealt drugs, defaced an underpass support, scratched the sides of cars parked in “their” territory by unsuspecting motorists and lifted some candy from a corner grocery store. The afternoon is spent half drunk, philosophizing about the dominant culture's abuse of him (the tribal ritual that justifies his crimes) and late afternoon is consumed with snagging other youth on their way home from school. Evening provides the cover for hits on cars and stores and by midnight he has moved a stereo and VCR, done the “wild thing” with a 14-year-old girl and filled his veins with the latest, cheap, mind-altering chemical.

This is as good as it gets.

Anyone who lives in the city know we are in a critical time. A society of angry black youth are defining this new territory. They are the vigilante mayors, police officers and teachers. They determine what the law is and they are brutal in their demand for complete control. They will take someone’s life with the detached swish of a knife that one expects from a hardened, prison-trained criminal. They rape, maim and destroy with the same indifference they make a ham sandwich. These are the children of America’s tangled history with oppression. They are the legacy of racism, and they are tomorrow’s inner city adults. That should wake us up if compassion and justice do not.

Jim knows that homicide is the single greatest potential cause of death he and his friends face. Fully 25 percent of their peers are in jail. Seventy percent are the children of unwed mothers and half of them will be unable to find any form of legal, meaningful employment. The family structure of these youth is negligible: very few can identify their fathers and “home” is more like a hoarding house where rent and food are free. How do people measure good and bad in this environment? There is no moral compass in the hearts of these youth. They cannot distinguish the value difference between a life and a tennis shoe, love and sex, ownership and the desire to possess—or destroy—what is not theirs. These youth do not live for tomorrow or the next decade, nor are they making plans for love, marriage, employment or civil service. They are driven by the untrained impulses of the moment and nothing but destruction is strewn in their wake.

When I walk through the streets of inner-city America, I have to summarize the overwhelming feeling as hopelessness. “Where is God?” I often want to cry out in these early morning walks. “Where is the justice, the tenderness, the mercy?”

The media and others who just casually pass through our inner cities see the violence. They are rightly repulsed by the disregard for life and the arrogant abuse of innocent citizens. But these surface forays into our neighborhoods do not reveal our true condition. We have become a culture of despair. We are a collection of men and women, boys and girls, who do not believe in a good future. We believe that society has exhausted both the means and the will to intervene for us, and our experiences of unemployment, lack of education, homelessness and chronic violence leave most inner city people simply to seek a means of survival. We are, if you will, the Sudanese refugees of America—no home, little food, no representative government, violence, no work. The only difference, perhaps, is we do not have the generosity of the media, relief agencies or the United Nations rushing to provide assistance.

I believe it is no longer useful to ask, “How did we come to this?” The debate continues to rage but it is not providing any new data. or insights to solve the desperate problem. Liberals are expert at describing white guilt and the need for powerless social programs, conservatives arc equally expert in describing it as a “black problem” and denying any complicity in the mess. And Christian leaders seem all too absorbed by the opinions of the political spectrum without taking personal steps to enter into the pain of our inner city. This is not only true of white Christian leaders—blacks run away from these territories as soon as their financial wealth provides the means of escape. In fact, the black community is cursed with several high visibility leaders who do not appear to have an agenda that would lead to lifting their people from despair; they do just the opposite. They are opportunists, media gluttons. When we experience a spate of violence or an unjust jury verdict, they jet into our cities and stir us up to emotion, calling us to condemn the whites for their insensitivity to our dilemma, encouraging us toward greater anger and despair. These men are not true leaders. They do not live with us, they do not carry our pain, they do not linger with us long enough to become a part of the solution. Rather, they jet off to the next media opportunity.

Am I being too harsh in my judgements? Live with us for a few weeks and I believe you will agree with me fairly quickly.

Some social activists are nervous about my assertions. They wonder if 1 am belittling the pain and abuse experienced by the inner city blacks—pain that is directly connected to an unjust system. On the contrary. I see the injustices every day in our communily—the police brutality, corrupt judges, red-lining by banks, discrimination by employers and woefully inadequate education. And that is precisely why I live in the inner city: the system does not deliver the goods.

And conservative social activists aren’t giving us a fair shake either. They grandstand our conditions as “evidence” that liberal programs did not work, the implication being that we should all vote Republican. These leaders are just as opportunistic as their counterparts. They do not know the pregnant teenagers whom they claim get pregnant “just for the welfare check," nor do they understand the debilitating nature of despair. Neither do they linger with us in our pain. In an ironic sense, they are partners with their liberal foes, both looking for government solutions without the cost of personal sacrifice and involvement. For too many of them, the plight of the inner city is just fodder for political gain.

Heal Thyself?

All of us have been trained to some degree to doubt the motives of politicians. So, even though it is neither fair nor accurate to cast all politicians in the negative light I have just described, we are nut surprised at the callous and cool response these men and women often give our deplorable conditions. We want to expect the best of these civil servants.

But all the more, we should expect the best of ourselves—the church. Sadly the evidence is not in our favor. We have to wonder if the church at large has adopted the notion that the inner city should just heal itself. Not only has there been a frightening exit from the inner city to the suburbs by Christians of all color, but too many of those large churches that remain in the inner city are commuter churches—you drive into a protected parking lot and rush back to the safety of your home after the sermon. In other words, these edifices serve as a personal worship center that may as well be in the suburbs, or another country, for that matter.

The church today requires a fresh vision of its pastoral and prophetic role. In Matthew 4 we have the picture of Jesus leaving Nazareth to go to Capernaum where he says that the people who sit in darkness have now seen a great light. They lived under the shadow of death, the darkest place The life of Jesus had to be authenticated by his sojourn through Capernaum and it is the same for the church today. The inner city is the darkest place in our nation. If the church is going to be an authentic bearer of the light, it will have to go where our people are living under the shadow of death. If we do not bring the healing light to this culture of despair, who will? And what do we presume to be the value of the Gospel in contemporary society if it does not follow the way of Jesus? The religious leaders of Jesus’ day mocked him for his attention to those who were outcast, poor, despised, sick and alien. Jesus’ response was simple enough: I am the Great Physician. I have come to those who are sick.

And he is still the Great Physician.

A Center of Hope

The church needs to become intentional in its commitment to the inner city. There are no easy solutions or simple programs that will reach deep into this culture of despair. Christians need to confront the pattern of the world, which is to offer short term answers while avoiding the pain. The church needs to become that tough-faith community that immerses itself in the dilemma, that prays for strength and courage to persevere, and that joins with other Christians in unity and love while seeking how, together, they can hold forth the eternal hope. We need to become personally linked to the inner city. And we need to do it over the long haul. Our tenacious efforts themselves become the visible hope to people who have forgotten how to hope. Our deliberate commitment will eventually translate into local youth becoming the new school teachers, business owners, city council members and community development experts. People will experience the dignity of their own people becoming the local leaders who provide honest answers and salve that are not politically driven by outside interests.

The social programs we offer should not be separated from the body of evangelizing believers who live and work together in the inner city. That separation is false and cruel. The hope that we extend to the inner city is one that brings together rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, employed and unemployed, housed and homeless—all under one roof to worship God. Social programs are implemented and operated in a way that underlines this truth that we are all God’s children, created in dignity. People are given the opportunity for personal advancement while the corporate expression of the body challenges the local structural injustices that make this personal advancement almost impossible. In this way the church is saying that when one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. Personal and corporate commitment to this pain extends a hope that can literally bring new life.

The church has suffered in part from the influence of a dispensational doctrine that relegates all hope as some "pie-in-the-sky” idea that allows us to escape the realities of this life. That kind of thinking is heretical and is unfaithful to the work of Jesus. No, we do not personally usher in the Kingdom, but Christ does, through us, as we hold forth that hope.

And we boldly tell the story of Jesus. We cannot claim to love people wholly if we do not share their personal forgiveness of sins we experience and the presence of the Holy Spirit who comforts us and equips us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The work of Calvary is as central to our commitment to the inner city as any other part of our activity there.

Lawndale Community Church is nestled in one of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods. Life there is fraught with the cruel companionship of unemployment (as high as 65 percent), robbery, murder, drugs and gang warfare. Lawndale Community Church (LCC) is located there precisely because of the pain. Led initially by Wayne Gordon, a white kid from Wheaten College, LCC has grown to a regular attendance of 300 on Sundays and sponsors a host of programs including a medical clinic, housing and education. The church's annual budget is over three million dollars, most of that going directly to the kinds of ministry that change people’s lives. And that change is both physical and spiritual—last year more than 100 people gave their lives to Jesus as a result of the outreach of LCC. Wayne now has a full-time partner in Carey Casey, an African-American who serves as the pastor of LCC while Wayne oversees the various community development projects.

Lawndale is a very bright spot in today's culture of despair. The work and vision of these Christians have shown that the gospel can make a difference in the places of pain. And, thankfully, LCC is just one of hundreds of churches that are quietly going about the work of bringing Christ to the urban centers of America.

I am convinced that America faces the possibility of its own permanent “Lebanon.” The inner city begs for the partnership of compassionate, intelligent and courageous people who are not paralyzed by despair. I would like to think that partnership can come from the church. We can be those people who help absorb the pain, who provide vision and comfort, who join in the mourning and the laughter. We can be the people who move between activity that ranges from personal witness, to advocating fair housing legislation, to providing employment skills and academic tutoring

Anything short of this kind of commitment will not reflect the agenda of people who have entered into the community of faith. And anything less spells disaster for America's inner city.

Tags: H&D, Cultural Issues


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