Where’s the Answer — Religion or Justice?

Where’s the Answer — Religion or Justice?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

A religious message has its limitations when it comes to young people, correct? In the first place, they don’t go to church anymore, at least the teens don’t, so what religious message are they going to hear? And, in the second place, those who deliver the religious message (priests, ministers, rabbis) don’t really know what is going on in their neighborhoods, do they? They live in or around their churches, synagogues or mosques, and are not out on the streets where the young people spend their time, but are in their rectories or homes. They don’t have a clue what life “on the streets” is all about, right?

Now there are exceptions, like Fr. Michael Pfleger in Chicago, who is out on the streets, but he is not the norm. And, granted his effectiveness, does it really flow from the religious tone of his sermons, or more from his street-wise comments on the neighborhood in which his church of St. Sabina is located?

It is really the community organizers, and the followers of the methods devised and employed by Saul Alinsky, that know the neighborhoods and the streets and alleys within them, who are truly effective. They are street-smart, and familiar with the very areas of neighborhoods where crime and violence prevail, and seem to enjoy a modicum of success in bringing some semblance of order and peace to these turbulent and troubled areas. President Obama was such a community organizer during his Chicago days.

What this comes down to seems to be a comparison between the effectiveness of religion, with its programs/methods, vis-à-vis the practical and experiential techniques that the application of justice can bring to bear upon such urban problems. Religion, with its focus on God, the bible, prayer (and the sacraments) and church attendance fails to speak street-language, shows little awareness of local issues and problems, and proposes solutions and answers to crime, drugs, and prostitution under the umbrella of “sin”, a “catch-all” category with no effective specifics to it. Its solution is “repent and convert”, but this is an individuated solvent that lacks a social dimension to it.

Whereas justice, broken down into its parts, musters up solutions that are pat to the problems at hand, focusing on guns, poverty, abandoned buildings, unemployment, poor housing, lack of education. Its solution is more police on the streets, shuttering abandoned housing, scattering drug dealers, government handouts (more money in the neighborhoods), jobs, better schools, etc.

But if these tools of justice are touted as the answer, why, after several decades of their deployment, has there been so little noticeable improvement in the quality of life in these troubled areas? The headlines in our newspapers and on the evening news seem to differ little today, from those that appeared years ago. And the amount of federal, state, county and urban monies that have been poured out on these tortured areas is huge.

So the effectiveness of the tools of justice seems just as unimpressive as that of the rituals of religion. Perhaps an amalgam of the two approaches, but with an emphasis on the religion factor, might show more promise. Why? Consider many of the churches in large, urban areas, both Catholic and Protestant. They now stand in crime-ridden areas. This refers, of course, to the “old” churches, built when the neighborhoods surrounding them were densely populated with parishioners who filled them on Sundays, and supported them generously. Out of this combination of devotion and commitment grew cathedral-like edifices that seated hundreds of parishioners. And many of them were, and are, architectural jewels in terms of size, structure, stained-glass windows, statuary, organ music wafting down from the balcony, and church bells ringing from lofty towers . In short, they were and still are beautiful.

Preserving these gems, not allowing them to disintegrate even th0ugh the earlier population has died out or moved on, can be a major step in rehabilitating the neighborhoods. If they are given some exposure, in an open, clearly visible venue, surrounded by nature’s contributions of trees, bushes, flowers and lawns, they can be oases of the awesome, the majestic, the transcendent, into the neighborhoods now besmirched with liquor stores, shuttered houses, debris-littered alleys, vacant lots, and graffiti inscribed walls, that, in short, spell ugliness. Confront them with beauty as some of the recent street art has already attempted to do. When placed side by side with ugliness, the contrast of the beautiful is striking, and potent.

So, should the urban municipality and religion combine to save these marvelous temples with their steeples stretching into the heavens above, a new factor enters into the plight of urban blight. It is the unsung and overlooked power of beauty, already available in these soon-to-be-abandoned temples of God, that can prove salvific, that is, life-giving and life-saving. Beauty has gone unappreciated for its potency. It operates in a different key from the urban music of a Saul Alinsky. It emanates from religion.


One thought on “Where’s the Answer — Religion or Justice?

  1. What a great idea! I’m reading Albert Holtz O.S.B. “Downtown Monks” who did a similar thing in New Jersey. I believe young people would be attracted to doing just this type of ministry in the abandoned parts of our cities. I think we should pursue this.

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