Can I Live?
Young Black Men and the Quest for Meaningful Life
A Theological Analysis of Juvenile Delinquency
By Theodore (Teddy) N. Maynard
The subject of this theological analysis arose out of my work with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), the juvenile division of the criminal justice system. A brief overview of the DYS process should prove helpful in introducing the subject of the analysis. In Massachusetts, as in most states, juvenile offenders of the law are not convicted of a crime; rather, a judge commits them to the care of DYS. Once committed to DYS, the youth undergoes a series of assessments and evaluations. Based on these assessments, DYS places the youth in a treatment facility, whose level of security varies according to the severity of the crime committed. Following their time in a secured facility, DYS youth return to their homes and are required to report to Day Reporting Centers (DRC) each day after school. According to their behavior and compliance with the standards set by their caseworkers, the days that a youth is required to attend decreases until, finally, the youth is discharged from the care of DYS
My work with DYS takes place at the DRC level. While at the DRC, youth are expected to attend required group sessions pertaining to their offense. If a young man committed a violent offense, for example, he would be required to attend the anger management and violence prevention group modules. In addition to these required groups, various volunteer organizations offer optional groups to the youth to aid them in their transition process. These optional groups are also encouraged by the administration because they lack the financial resources to sustain a full schedule of paid professional workshop leaders. As an outgrowth of my ministry as the Associate Minister for Youth at an inner-city Africa-American church, I lead an optional group at a nearby DRC. The group is called “Hip-Hop Nation”, and it seeks to utilize contemporary rap music to stimulate critical thinking and discussion among the youth about their circumstances and their future. The majority of the young people who report to the DRC are African-American and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 20. There is a small number of females who meet in their own group during the time of “Hip-Hop Nation”. Consequently, my work has been primarily revolved around young Black males and their issues. The subject of this theological analysis is what I perceive to be a struggle and search for meaningful life manifested through the, often, troubling responses of these young Black men to their world.
Before I outline the specific issues involved in the analysis, it is necessary to pause and clarify the way in which I will use the term “Black” as a category of social identity throughout this analysis. In contemporary United States culture, the term “Black” is generally thought of as a category of race to refer to persons of African descent. Additionally, “Black” is often conceived in binary opposition to “White”, where “White” represents persons of European descent. Historically, these categories gained prominence in American popular discourse during its early participation in the already booming transatlantic slave trade in the late 17th century and the early 18th century. As African slaves began to replace European and Asian indentured servants as the laborers of choice for the development of what was then called “the New World”, it became important to distinguish between slaves and free persons using a strict us-them ideology. Derived from primitive studies of world cultures and Darwinian evolutionary theory, race theory provided North American settlers with the language that they needed to justify the growing slave-industrial complex that would be the backbone of production for what was to become the United States. “Black” people were ‘them’ while “White” people became ‘us’. With the advancement of cultural studies and the biological sciences, a more complex theory of ethnicity has replaced the politically antiquated, and biologically incorrect, categorizations of “Black” and “White”. Recent demographic shifts in the United States have led some sociologists to project that persons of European descent will not even constitute a majority of the population within the span of a generation from now. So the question must be asked, “Why continue to use the term ‘Black’ as a category of social identity?”
I begin my answer by asking another question: “Why do we continue to use ‘White’ as a category of social identity?” We do not do so because the term accurately captures the ethnic history of persons in the United States who identify themselves as such. I contend that we do so because the term “White”, while ambiguous and imprecise as a category, is still helpful as a reminder of the historical process and significance of the social construction of the United States. It is a fact that while each new group of immigrants to this country suffered discrimination and exclusion initially, generally, those groups whose skin was a of a lighter hue eventually assimilated into the mainstream culture. A major factor in their assimilation was the ‘us-them’ structure that separated African slaves from everyone else. (We here acknowledge the exception of Native Americans and Asian indentured servants, who were either killed or hidden away). “White” is the group that was not enslaved. And as an historical reminder, “White” is a useful term, still.
Similarly, I will use the term “Black” in this analysis to refer to Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, as well as to those groups that were subsequently assimilated into that group. By doing so I hope to highlight the reality that “blackness”, while an arbitrary designation that was used primarily for subordination, is an accurate category of social identity so far as it captures the historical formation of social class in this country. Also, include groups whose ancestors were not slaves in this country but who have been assimilated into this group in order to be consistent with the present social setting out of which the subject of the analysis arises. In this latter group I include African immigrants, whose recent arrival to the United States precludes them from the American slavery experience; I include immigrants of African descent from the Caribbean and South American descent, who have experienced slavery in their respective countries; and I include Hispanic immigrants, whose ancestry may or may not include persons of African descent, but who find themselves socially and culturally compatible with African-Americans. I should also state the limitations of this categorization to Northeast urban cultures, since the distinction and separation between African-Americans and Mexicans is heavily stressed in the Southern and Western parts of the United States. However, my usage of the term “Black” for the young African-American, Latino, and Caribbean men involved in DYS is justified. This will become more apparent in our discussion of the structural factors involved in juvenile criminal activity in urban communities.
The young Black men (and young women, who I exclude from discussion because of my lack of experience, not lack of concern) that I work with are at a stage in the DYS process where they are asked the question: “Will you learn from your mistake and transition out of the program, or will you continue to disobey the law and warrant a return to prison?” Each one of them agrees on a contract of behavior with their caseworker, who represents DYS. The contract includes a curfew, mandatory visits to the DRC, obedience of al laws of their household (to be set by parents, or foster guardians), and attendance at school or an equivalent program. If the young men comply with the terms of the contract, they work their way to more freedom and less monitoring, until they are discharged and set free with no criminal record at all. The system is designed to give youthful offenders a second chance at responsible living.
However, the system does not adequately address the quality of life that these young men will be set free to live. The behavioral contracts do not ensure rehabilitation. They do not even prevent further criminal activity, since the young men can do as they please once they leave the DRC walls. As long as they do not get caught, they can return to whatever activity warranted their commitment in the first place. Even the mandatory and optional groups do not ensure a successful transition for these young men. While we do all that we can to help them in their growth, and hopefully, change, we cannot determine their actions. Something much deeper inside of them will determine how they respond to this question that is put before them by the system: “Will you change or return to prison?”
In an effort to understand the concerns that the young men harbor deep inside, I once asked these two questions during one of our sessions: “What about your life do you regret?” and “What is your purpose or goal in life?” Not one young man regretted the crime that they had committed. While a few attributed this lack of regret to their belief that they were innocent, most admitted that their actions were at least illegal, if not wrong. For this latter, more representative group, the absence of regret was due to their belief that all that they had done is a part of who they are; to regret their actions, for them, meant to deny a part of themselves. And while most said that they would like to be different in the future, they also resigned themselves to the possibility that they might relapse into criminal behavior as a means of attaining material possessions or simply as a function of the always potentially violent surroundings of their neighborhoods.
Two major areas of concern emerged in my mind from our discussions that I believe to have theological significance. First, these young Black men articulated their visions of a better life in almost purely materialistic terms. The preoccupation with the attainment of material goods like cars, clothes, jewelry, and other items that signify high social standing was overwhelming. Rarely were images of loving relationships or personal self-expression included in their visions of the ideal life. Of course, the common denominator for all that they envisioned was money. Money and its attainment was perhaps the greatest motivating force in their lives.
The second area of concern was their resignation to lives of delinquency. In their quest to attain material possessions, they turn to criminal activities like stealing or selling drugs as a means of earning money. For many, this behavior is seen as the only alternative that they have, since continued poverty is out of the question for them. Still others, committed to earning money through legal means, say that violent (and therefore, criminal) activity is an inevitability due to their surroundings. They carry weapons as a means of protection against old enemies, made during earlier skirmishes. For these young men, criminal activity seems to follow them wherever they run. They conclude that it is only a matter of time before they are arrested again and sent back through the DYS process, or worse: the adult court system, which is far less committed to rehabilitation and more to punishment through jail time.
Out of these discussions several questions arose regarding these young Black men. First, “why do they aspire to nothing more than the attainment of material goods?” Second, “why do they feel trapped into criminal and/or violent lives?” And finally, “what does it mean to live for them?” Stated in ontological terms, my question is “what are the factors that inhibit the actualization of their potential in socially acceptable and personally beneficial ways?”
My analysis begins with the premise that these young men are trying to live. They are trying to exert themselves in the world. However, their world has presented them with notions about what it means to live meaningfully, while denying them access to the means that they need to live in that fashion. Thus, they either struggle against the opposition to fulfill the given ideal life, or they seek alternative, subversive ways of living that allow them to live meaningfully by denying the dominant culture’s portrayal of meaningful life.
In order to articulate this predicament of young Black men more concretely, we will narrow the scope of our conversation to one young man in particular, whom we will call Adam.
I chose to interview Adam because of his age. At 14 years of age, Adam is the youngest of the youth that I have encountered during my time at the Day Reporting Center. Many of the older young men express one of two sentiments towards their delinquency. Either they have matured to a level where they can reconstitute their lives without breaking the law, or they feel that they are into the criminal life so deeply that they cannot retreat if they tried. My focus then turned toward the younger kids in the program. What happens at 12, 13, and 14 that enables a 16-year-old boy to admit that he is too steeped in a criminal lifestyle to live otherwise? That was my question. It also helped that Adam was outspoken and willing to talk candidly. So, in the end, my decision was prompted by intellectual speculation as well as by logistical necessity.
Adam was born in 1987. By 1990 his father was incarcerated over 1,000 miles away in a Southern state, serving prison time for drug trafficking. While Adam has spoken with his father via telephone, his mother discouraged him from seeing his father behind bars. Adam is still waiting for his father to come home.
Adam grew up in a public housing tenement community—known in the Black community as ‘the projects’. Along with his mother, Adam lived with his older sister, his aunt, and his grandfather. Adam looks back on these days with fondness, relating memories of a happy childhood filled with friends and fun. His sister, who is five years his senior, often initiated fights with him because, as he says, “I was spoiled.” Although even a conservative economic analysis would render Adam’s childhood household working class, at best, Adam reflects on their financial status this way: “We were doing well financially, you know. We was definitely not poor; even though we was living in the projects, we still had a little money, you know.” This statement is true as far as Adam experienced the family’s situation. As the youngest child of his grandfather, Adam received care from his mother as well as all of her brothers and sisters, a number that Adam never revealed since I do not believe he knows the exact number.
Adam may not have known how many aunts or uncles he had in reality, since, as he says, “my grandfather was a pimp.” This fact was a matter of no little consequence in Adam’s life. Indeed, Adam confessed that a majority of his time is spent “messing with females.” When probed as to what this entailed, Adam elaborates about “getting your line-up right.” The line-up of females in every man’s life ought to number three, according to Adam: “You got your wifey, you know. That’s the one that’s just for you. Then you got, you know, your little side thing. That’s for you and maybe your best man and everything. Then you have your little hoe. That’s the one that’ll f—k your whole crew, know what I mean?” Adam proceeded to outline for me the rules of the “pimp game” and how he traps women with “mind games.” When asked who taught him about the pimp game, Adam explains that his grandfather and uncles sat him down at an early age and “broke it down”, or taught him the basics. Through his close relationship with one of his uncles Adam was able to see all of the lessons modeled effectively. The most significant contribution of the male role models in his life was to teach him how to be a pimp. Adam says that though the pimp game never struck him as a way to earn a living, he utilizes the techniques of manipulation that he learned as guiding principles in his own personal relationships with women.
Aside from “f—king with females”, Adam and his small group of 2 to3 friends spend the majority of their time “hanging out, smoking weed.” Adam insists that he is not a drug addict or dealer. He and his crew smoke weed “to relax”. He insists that they do not constitute a gang, but admits to their occasional criminal activity “just for fun”. Adam was arrested for attempting to steal a car on one of their escapades. For that he received a few months probation. After being pulled apart from a fight during school, however, he was searched and consequently arrested for gun possession. This charge would warrant his committal to the Department of Youth Services, which recommended his time in a treatment facility.
Now that Adam is out of the treatment phase of the process and into the transitional phase, he is offered the opportunity to reflect on his life and what direction he will go in terms of his criminal behavior. Adam is described by one of the DRC staff as a “fake thug”. Adam himself admits, “crime ain’t really my thing.” As to why he carried the gun, Adam replies automatically, “for protection.” When asked about the details of his acquisition of the gun, Adam more honestly explains: “It wasn’t really for protection necessarily. I got it from around the neighborhood, you know. If you find a gun or somebody give you a gun, you not just gonna give it back. You gonna keep it. Around the neighborhood, it just the fact of having one. At my age, I just didn’t care. I just wanted to keep it. Just to have it, you know?” In a moment of self-reflection Adam admits to the importance of the gun as a status symbol in the community. For him to carry a gun at such a young age is a powerful statement about his potential for respect, leadership, and popularity within the social circle that constitute Adam’s formative community.
Adam does not aspire to a life of crime, however. In his words, his dream is to be a “billionaire businessman.” Adam dreams, “I want to lace my mans for cheaper. If they want a car with some nice rims and everything, they’ll come to my dealership. I’m sick of seeing people get ripped of for cars by white folk. Why would you buy a car for $26,000 when you can get that same car used for like, $10,000? So, what I’ma do it sell it to my mans for cheaper. And I’ll sell it hooked up. I’ma have a whole fleet of car shops, barber shops, anything a Black man need, he’ll come see me.” At the center of Adam’s vocational dreams is the desire to “lace his mans”, which translated into English means to provide Black men with the items that they seek in order to project an image of success that commands respect.
Ultimately, Adam seeks respect from his community. In his goal to become a “very rich man” lies a desire to be needed and respected in his community as one who not only possesses the material goods that are the measure of success for the community, but also offers those goods to others. Adam claims he would rather be respected than feared because “if you feared, eventually somebody will overcome that fear and take you out. But, if you respected, people gonna always show you love.”
Communal love in Adam’s context is expressed to an individual by the reputation that the community upholds for him. If the community thinks that you are worthy of respect due to your ability to achieve a measure of success, then you are loved. If the community perceives you as unsuccessful, or average, then you are unloved. This is why material goods are so important to Adam. It is why he works so hard to maintain his “line-up” of females. It is also why he possesses and carries a gun. This desire to be considered as more than average in the community—displayed through the attainment of material goods—drives the decisions that Adam makes in these formative adolescent years. The community struggles against poverty and lack of access to material things. It follows then that those who succeed in fighting against this structural denial of access will be elevated and respected—loved. The tragedy of this situation is that success is determined by access to popular perishable goods, rather than significant achievements that might ensure a more lasting and substantial breaking through of the wall of poverty, such as acceptance into college. This tragedy will be taken up a little later in the analysis. For now it is important to note that Adam desires not only to achieve these images of success, but he wants to be known as the source of these goods for others, making him important in their lives. I contend that Adam’s delinquent and socially irresponsible behavior stems from his quest for meaningful life.
During the Harlem Renaissance Black culture produced two expressions of the quest for meaningful life on the part of Black men that have been recognized as genius. I speak of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In Native Son, Wright’s depiction of Bigger Thomas as a young Black man incapacitated by poverty and driven to madness by racial oppression still stands as one of the most poignant cultural expressions of the sources for Black rage. However, Wright’s social analysis is often lost in his graphic portrayal of Bigger’s near-psychopathic violence toward White people and his denial of responsibility. Bigger clearly chooses his fate, and thus, is a difficult character to sympathize with. Ellison’s Invisible Man tries to complete what Wright’s Native Son failed to do. That is to highlight the responsibility of White America for the inequality that creates Black rage, while not losing sight of the Black man’s ability to respond to the absurdity of oppression in a variety of ways. Both novels attempt to express the individual and social dimensions to the Black male struggle to exert his humanity in a country built on the back of his dehumanization through the eyes of a Black protagonist whose response to absurdity is socially unacceptable, and even criminal.
Literature, however, has never been as accessible to the masses of Black America as music. Thus, we look to find a cultural expression of the predicament of young Black men that resonates with them. For the young men that I work with that means hip-hop music, otherwise known as RAP (Rhythm and Poetry). Cornel West points to Black rap music as :the most important development in Afro-American popular music since 1979” (Prophetic Fragments, 185). In his words: “Black rap music is primarily the musical expression of the paradoxical cry of desperation and celebration of the black underclass and poor working class, a cry which openly acknowledges and confronts the wave of personal cold-heartedness, criminal cruelty, and existential hopelessness in the black ghettos of Afro-America” (Prophetic Fragments, 186). Like the literature of Ellison and Wright, Black rap music seeks to express Black male responses to the absurdity of oppression as experienced in the “black ghettos”, while not hiding the, often, criminal nature of their response.
With this framework in mind, we turn to the most prolific hip-hop artist of the last 5 years, Sean Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z. Jay-Z has sold more albums than any other rap artist has since 1996, achieving multi-platinum sales with each of his last 3 releases. More importantly for our discussion, Jay-Z has achieved this success largely on the heels of his ‘cross-over’ appeal to White suburban teenagers and young adults, without losing credibility in the streets as an authentic professor of urban poor Black male thought and practice. In his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z expresses the quest for meaningful life in two volumes of the song, “Can I Live”.
[Please place a link here to the songs “Can I Live” and “Can I Live II”. The lyric sheets should be displayed on the screen while the songs play. Thank you]
In both songs Jay-Z describes the image of success that drives Adam’s quest for meaningful life. We find misogyny implicit in the possessive and derogatory names used for them—“chickens” and “hoes”. The latter is particularly reminiscent of Adam’s fascination with prostitution as a framework for social relations. The heavy emphasis on material symbols of monetary gain are present in similar ways as Adam expressed: clothes, cars, houses. There is even a critical analysis on Jay-Z’s part as to the transitory and cosmetic nature of the symbols when he says, “happy to be escaping poverty, however brief”; and again, when he admits, “True this, the streets schooled us to spend our money foolish...[I] recruited lieutenants with ludicrous dreams of getting cream”. Jay-Z uses the term “cream” to refer to money. Interestingly, rap music has transformed the word “cream” into an acronym meaning “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”. While both songs express a version of life filled with the attainment of material possessions through criminal behavior, the title of the song is not declarative, but rather interrogative. In spite of the confident bravado, there lies a deep-seated doubt as to what is being experienced is life at all.
Jay-Z addresses the same two areas as Wright and Ellison in his attempt to explain why Black men turn to criminal behavior in this quest for meaningful life. In the first volume he offers: “Easily explain why we adapt to crime: I’d rather die enormous than live dormant.” In the second volume he confesses, “Yeah, I sold drugs for a living. That’s a given. Why is it? Why don’t y’all try to visit the neighborhoods I live in. My mind bent on hell, my neighborhood is crime central; where cops lock you up more than try to defend you…and all I see is life repeating itself.” In the first volume of the song, Jay-Z highlights the desire to actualize potential in ways that are significant. He explains Black male delinquency as an attempt to matter in the world—to “live enormous”. We recall Adam’s desire to feel the love of the community by becoming a billionaire business man that can provide for the material symbols of power in the community. In the second volume, Jay-Z answers the question about why he sold drugs for a living simply by referring the listener to his neighborhood. Here he takes account of the structural denial of resources and the lack of opportunity that drives young Black men to crime out of what they feel to be necessity. He begins the first volume with a spoken word introduction in which he states, “we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation. Through that desperation, we [be]come addicted.” In the second volume he depicts the environment of the ghetto as a crucible that will inevitably produce more criminal activity when he says, “all I see is life cycles repeatin’ itself.” In these two rap songs, Jay-Z offers a contemporary cultural expression of the quest for meaningful life that, like his literary forefathers, takes account of the personal drive for self-assertion in the face of denial and the structural obstacles that perpetuate negative responses to the existential challenge of poor Black urban young men.
Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology offers us a formulation of the human existential predicament that takes into account the two polarities that we have encountered throughout our discussion of the young Black male quest for meaningful life: freedom and destiny. By framing the young Black male predicament in this way, we can take advantage of Tillich’s method of correlation as a way of constructing a theology that would present the truth of the Gospel message to help them find meaning in life in ways other than the self-destructive criminal life that the young men I work with have engaged in. Such a construction lies beyond the scope of this analysis. However, it is necessary to state the reasons for analyzing the situation in the following way. Because of the interrelated nature of Tillich’s Systematic Theology, we will necessarily draw from ideas that are presented in the part on “Being and God” as well as the part on “Life and the Spirit”. However, the thrust of the interpretation rests on the part on “Existence and the Christ” and Tillich’s existentialist analysis of what it means to exist for humans.
Tillich’s basic definition of existence is “standing out of non-being” (Vol. 2, 21). Tillich complicates his definition, though, by adding that “the metaphor ‘to stand out’ logically implies something like ‘to stand in’. Only that which in some respect stands in can stand out” (Vol. 2, 20). Tillich maintains that nothing stands out of non-being completely. Everything that exists participates in both being and non-being. In the part of the system on “Being and God”, Tillich defined the mixture of being and non-being as “finitude”. This is so because “everything which participates in the power of being…is being in the process of coming from and going toward nonbeing. It is finite” (Vol. 1, 189). The basic characteristic of being is finitude—that state of being on one’s way through being to nonbeing. To be aware of this finitude, according to Tillich, is called anxiety (Vol. 1, 191). Tillich seems to depict all humans as having this awareness automatically, thus making anxiety a basic mental state of humans. I would add that there are experiences in the lives of humans that can either heighten or decrease the level of anxiety, or realization of finitude in people.
Tillich states that humans “would surrender to the annihilating character of time” (Vol. 1, 194) if anxiety were not balanced by a courage to be in the present despite the approach of a future of nonbeing. Yet, this courage can be encouraged or discouraged by the results that it is met with. If in the expression of the courage to be a person is inhibited, that courage suffers damage. Continual denial of that expression means that potential being does not become actual being. A perpetual force enacted against one’s actual being will produce a frustration in the person, diminishing courage and heightening anxiety.
It is my contention that systematically oppressed people live in a state of hyper-anxiety. Oppression involves the denial of self-expression in some form that is considered normative for a culture at large. Additionally, oppression involves exclusion from participation in the life of a society in some way. Oppression involves the dehumanization of one person, or a group of people, through the use of an ‘us-them’ ideological paradigm that systematically perpetuates difference in order to support the exclusion from society and the expression of self. Tillich makes note of the affect of oppression ontologically in his discussion of individualization and participation. Oppression suppresses individualization, which Tillich states is linked to selfhood (Vol. 1, 175), by not granting persons full status of their humanity by law (whether actual law or socially accepted law). The person ceases to be a person altogether I the context of the community. Without participation in the community, individualization is hampered. Likewise, because the individual is unrecognized as such, their participation in the community is out of the question. Thus, systematic oppression fundamentally undermines these two ontological elements of being.
Whenever being is undermined, an awareness of the nonbeing that is in tension with it is increased. In the case of the American slave system, oppression against Black people was sustained through a dehumanization that denied individuality and participation from them. Orlando Patterson has called this process “social death”. His term for the affects of slavery on Black people is appropriate here since it points to the nonbeing that is stressed when the actual being of a people is hampered. The effects of slavery still loom large over contemporary America as evidenced by the dramatic economic inequality that exists between Blacks and Whites (using these terms as defined in the introduction).
Some debate whether the economic impoverishment experienced by many inner-city Blacks is due to race at all. William Julius Wilson addressed this debate in a series of sociological epics. In The Declining Significance of Race (1978) Wilson defined the existence of what he called a Black “underclass” in America that remained perpetually impoverished due largely to economic factors that were created by the history of racial oppression. In When Work Disappears (1996) Wilson clarified his position, affirming once again that racial oppression created the blight of the urban Black poor that is now perpetuated by economic systems. His efforts were not meant to diminish the role of racial oppression in the analysis of the oppression of Black people; rather, Wilson sought to show how the best way to solve the problem currently is to attack poverty itself, not just racism. However, his studies still chronicle the role of racial oppression in the development of the contemporary American economic system. American progress has been won at the expense of Black opportunity for individualization and participation.
The present struggle of young Black men to live meaningful lives is an expression of this systematic oppression. As they seek to live what they believe to be meaningful lives characterized by successful attainment of material goods (whether right or wrong), they are met with the challenges of insufficient access to education, jobs, and the social networks that economically privileged people depend on for their attainment of material goods. If they do not resort to crime, they most likely will stay poor, and in their minds, insignificantly “dormant” (as Jay-Z rapped). Yet, for the young men that I work with, their criminal activity led to capture and punishment under the law. In either case, their attempts to actualize their visions of a meaningful life are met with challenges. This negative experience of their expression of the courage to be leads to a hyper-anxiety, or a hyper-realization of their own finitude. Their contemporary participation in the social death of their slave ancestors represents for them an encounter with the threat of nonbeing which sends them scrambling to either try to resign themselves to the hopelessness of continual anxiety which leads to nihilistic anti-social behavior, or reframe meaningful life in contradistinction to the values of society at large, creating a subculture with different criterion of meaningful life. Either course may still lead to crime. It is important to state that I am well aware that these conditions and choices do not always lead to crime. In fact, I do not believe that they mostly, or even commonly do. However, I am tracking the path that the young men who are the subject of this analysis have taken. For these young Black men, the attacks on their self-actualization, individualization, and participation in what they deem to be meaningful life has led them to commit crimes. Thus, we turn to a theological interpretation of crime as a response to the realization of finitude.
Tillich’s formulation of sin as estrangement is most helpful to us at this point. He derives this formulation from his basic proposition about existence, that humanity’s “existential situation is a state of estrangement from [its] essential nature” (Vol. 2, 25). Tillich asserts this proposition in opposition to Hegel, who proposed that humanity achieved reconciliation between its essential and existential natures in the course of history. Reconciliation on the level of history was the basic human situation for Hegel. Tillich—following Kierkegaard, Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche—disagrees. Tillich responds this way: History is not the divine self-manifestation but a series of unreconciled conflicts, threatening [humanity] with self-destruction. The existence of the individual is filled with anxiety and threatened by meaninglessness” (Vol. 1, 25). If one accepts my contention that oppressed people possess a hyper-anxiety, then the threat of meaninglessness is also heightened for them also. Tillich defends the seemingly pessimistic view of existentialism by pointing out that existentialism, as analysis, does not claim to offer solutions to the problem of existence. People search for their own answers to the problem. For Christians, Tillich continues, the answer is “the Christ”. However, for the young Black men that I work with, their answer has been crime. How can we frame their criminal behavior in theological terms?
Bypassing Tillich’s interpretation of the symbol of the “Fall” and original sin, we will move to an analysis of crime using Tillich’s discussion of estrangement and sin. We have already stated that for Tillich, to exist is to be “estranged from the ground of being, from other beings, and from [one]self” (Vol. 2, 44). The powerful linchpin of Tillich’s argument is his insight that “the profundity of the term ‘estrangement’ lies in the implication that one belongs essentially to that from which one is estranged…[humanity’s] hostility to God proves indisputably that [it] belongs to [God]. Where there is the possibility of hate, there and there alone is the possibility of love” (Vol. 2, 45). If Tillich is right, this powerful little insight becomes a stream of hope for the young Black men that I work with. If crime is sin, or an expression of estrangement, then these young men are connected in deep ways to those things and people whom they are now hostile against: women, family members, authority, discipline, love, themselves, and most importantly, God. Of course, we can only apply Tillich’s insight if we can interpret crime as sin.
The key distinction between “sin” and “estrangement” for Tillich is the connotation of the word “sin” as having to do with “personal responsibility in one’s estrangement” (Vol. 2, 47). Tillich makes sure to note that estrangement is a “matter of both personal freedom and universal destiny” (Vol. 2, 47, italics mine). However, thus far in my analysis, I have stressed the role of universal destiny in the form of structural oppression as a determining factor in the lives of these young Black men. But, Tillich’s theology insists that we take into account the personal freedom (albeit finite) of each individual. So, we use the term “sin” particularly to highlight the free participation of these young men in their own estrangement, the “personal act of turning away”(Vol. 2, 46) from self, world, and God.
Tillich reinterprets two classical manifestations of “sin” and adds a third, leaving us to interpret the life of crime in light of “unbelief”, “hubris”, and “concupiscence”. All three reveal a turning away from a form of the other into oneself in a way that is almost hostile to the other and inappropriately centered on the self. In the case of unbelief, one turns away from God. Tillich calls it “the disruption in [humanity’s] cognitive participation in God” (Vol. 2, 47). If God is the ground being, as Tillich suggests, then the anxiety, or realization of finitude, that sparks the quest for meaningful life in these young men represents a disconnection with God, since we have defined it as an elevation of nonbeing in the awareness of the young men. Thus, any action taken on a part of these young men that leads to further elevation of nonbeing in their conscience represents a turning away from God. Crime, insofar as it is a manifestation of internalized dehumanization (with all its lack of participation and subordination of individualization) represents the turning away from the ground of being, or God.
Hubris, or the turning to one’s self as the center of one’s world, is represented in several elements of criminal behavior. First, hubris is present in the form of the lack of regard for the victims of the crime. Secondly, hubris is present in the form of the lack of respect for authority implicit in the crime, as exemplified by Jay-Z’s lyrics. Finally, concupiscence—the desire for reunion with the whole of the world—manifests itself in the materialism that drives much of the crime in question. I would include in hubris and concupiscence the desire to be loved and respected by all, not as a part of community, but as sole sustainer of it, as articulated by Adam and by Jay-Z (“my game is mature, prefer you call me William”).
We have seen how Tillich’s theology of existence, estrangement, and sin applies to the choice of these young Black men to turn to crime as means of attaining meaningful life in the face of hyper-anxiety. The formulation of crime as sin takes into account the structural affects of oppression as well as the personal responsibility of the young men, the freedom and the destiny imbedded in the ontological structure of being. This allows us to apply Tillich’s insight about the nature of estrangement. The criminal life of these young men, and the estrangement from self, society, and God that it displays, while tragic, is still grounds to hope for possible return to unity with God, self, and the world in a way that gives meaning to life for them.
In Race Matters (1994) Cornel West offers that the most basic issue in Black America is “the nihilistic threat to its very existence (Race Matters, 19). He characterizes the liberal/conservative debate, which divides between the structuralists and the behaviorists, as overly simplistic. West puts his argument this way: “Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine…it is far more the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (23). This understanding of nihilism helps us to understand the aspects of freedom and destiny present in the quest for meaningful life that young Black men are engaged in. Using Tillich’s theology we have analyzed the predicament of one slice of this group, the slice that hs turned to criminal behavior. I hope that in framing their lifestyle theologically, I have made what are the beginning steps of my journey toward a faith-centered solution to their problem.