A great challenge before the Christian Church is the awful and terrifying blight of juvenile delinquency. In the last several years over 1,250,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17, on an average per year, have come to the attention of the police, and approximately half of these appear before juvenile courts. The pace of juvenile crime is increasing at a tremendously rapid rate and J. Edgar Hoover estimates that by 1962 one million of our teenagers will be arrested each year if the present rate continues. In the eight-year period from 1948 through 1956, juvenile court cases more than doubled, while the child population of that age group increased only 19 per cent. Out of this amazing harvest of youthful offenders against the law, society will continue to reap for years to come a bigger and tougher crop of adult criminals. The cost to society in money, moral degeneracy, and violence defies the imagination. Yet the Christian Church pays little more attention to morally sick youth than the priest and Levite did to the wounded man in the story Jesus used to define the concept of neighbor.
The popular concept that delinquent conduct is limited to slum areas or places on the “wrong side of the tracks” is not true. Juvenile delinquency has had its greatest rate of increase in rural areas. This perhaps is due to the penetration of mass media. But economically well-to-do communities are also producing many delinquents, and the reason is often that parents have wealth. These children do not appear before juvenile courts, but are sent quietly to private psychiatrists or boarding schools. Even children from Christian families have not escaped wrongdoing.
A distressed and perplexed society is seeking a scapegoat on which to place the blame for all this. Sin in the human heart and a decadent culture are certainly the basic causes of lawless conduct on the part of the young. Nevertheless many other factors enter into the dark picture. Progressive education, lack of discipline, horror and obscene comics, pornographic literature, TV programs, movies of violence and sex, excessive drinking, broken homes, delinquent parents, stringent labor laws, materialism—these are all further factors that contribute to the moral downfall of children. Society has had a tendency of alternately blaming one or several of these for influencing behavior for evil. Each, however, has been in some measure responsible for the terrible situation of our day. Whatever evil lies within these factors must be fought if our youth is to be saved.
The public, of course, is anxious to find some panacea that would eradicate the problem. Society has already indicated that it is willing to spend huge sums of money to find and apply the cure. Slum elimination, recreation facilities, bigger and better schools, teenage clubs, stricter police action and more drastic punishment, summer camps, and work projects are some of the things that have been suggested and tried. Why is it then that juvenile delinquency is on the increase? A materialistic society has sought material means to eliminate the problem. While these things are good and necessary in some instances, they are not the answer to the grave problem confronting the nation.
Sin within the human heart is the basic cause. Man’s sinful nature is susceptible to many influences from within and without. Sin can either be restrained or awakened to greater activity. If society is to be saved, means must be sought to control juvenile crime; and whatever is feeding the sin of youth must, if at all possible, be eliminated.
The potential delinquent child is especially vulnerable to the materialistic, violent, and immoral climate around him. The rapid increase of youthful offenders reflects a lowering of standards in adult society. This is actually the distressing index of a deteriorating community. Progressive decadence in adult society is paralleled by a progressive delinquency among teenagers. Impressionable youth becomes victim to the “fashion” of dissolute living manifested in excessive drinking, gambling, racketeering, bribery, violence, dishonesty in business and public life, prurient entertainment and other evils daily publicized. These are communicable diseases that are more apt to corrupt impressionable youth.
A more subtle corrupting influence is the constant pressure upon youth to give themselves at the altar of materialism. Almost from infancy, children are threatened by mass manipulators of the mind and imagination who steer young people to believe that material luxury is the summum bonum of life. Advertisers are not above using children as instruments in commanding parents to buy what may be beyond their means. They have created a materialistic Eden of false values wherein the child feels he must enter to really live, and in order to gain entrance he may have to commit crime. A powerful impression is stamped upon the soul of youth that this materialistic “American way of life” is his rightful inheritance, and if his family cannot provide the luxuries to which he feels entitled, then frustration, dissatisfaction, and covetousness possess his soul. He is tempted to obtain what he wants by unlawful means, and this brings him in conflict with the law.
Sin, evil environment, and materialism must be combated by the Church—the only institution, above all others, which the Lord has established as the preserving salt of the community. One cannot expect an unregenerate and pleasure-mad adult society to be moved to change its evil ways for the sake of the oncoming generation. Rather, the Church must gird herself for a major assault on the evils prevalent in society. The first area to be assailed in public conscience which has lost feeling and sensibility is the sphere of morality. Our nation’s conscience is in need of lashing and scourging by the preaching of God’s law. Men must be made sensitive to the fact that prevalent immorality not only contributes to the degenerate state of many juveniles but also is an affront to a righteous and holy God. Only after the conscience has been thoroughly aroused and quickened will the public be ready for the message of forgiveness and healing that is found only in Christ. The pulpit must forget its moral lectures and political pronouncements and get down to its main task of smiting the conscience through the law and saving the soul through the Gospel.
The Church herself has yielded to materialism and secularism and must reform before she can hope to change the damaging climate that engulfs our young people. The Church should have bowed her head in shame at the rebuking Easter editorial in Life magazine. In raising the question why God was not real to Americans, the editorial answered, “partly because of the blight of secularism in the churches, which have become just another valued branch of American democratic culture instead of its center. What used to be the minister’s study is now his office, and as a busy agent of the social gospel he is less a spokesman of God than a useful citizen, making East Overshoe ‘a better place to live.’ ” The terrible tragedy of the social gospel is that in its major concern for better environment, it has forgotten the soul of man. And what shall it profit the Church before God if she gain the riches of the world for man but lets him lose his soul?
Better wages, better working and living conditions, better housing, better recreational facilities—these are the cardinal doctrines of the social gospelers. They have exchanged an “other worldly” religion for a “this worldly” one, little realizing that secularism is the belief that this world is all there is, or all there need be, and forgetting that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). They have not heeded the Lord’s admonition that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15). We cannot imagine these advocates using for a text John the Baptist’s admonition to greedy soldiers, “be content with your wages.” They emphasize the peripheral or by-product of the Gospel, and in so doing have helped to create a secular climate that blights the souls of children who place not the Kingdom first but “what shall we eat? or drink? or, where withal shall we be clothed?” Without the restraint of the Gospel this secularism has devolved on the part of some children into theft, vandalism, violence, sadism, murder, drug addiction, adultery, rape, and sodomy.
The Church, then, must rid herself of secularism and the one-sided social gospel that has produced it. Returning again to the preaching of the Gospel as defined by Christ and the Apostles, she must create a spiritual climate in which the young may move and have their being. J. Edgar Hoover lists as a major step in the prevention of juvenile delinquency a restoration of the firm moral precepts of our forefathers. These moral precepts were not snatched out of the air but were obtained from the written revelation of God and activated in regenerate lives.
The disorganized family is another major contributing factor to the increase of juvenile lawlessness. It is the incubator of emotional insecurity and stress that incline a child to delinquent behavior. The working mother, the irresponsible father, the home broken by internal strife, divorce or desertion, drunkenness, promiscuity and marital discord—all these have their part in inciting youth to rebel against the decent laws of society. Flaunted rules of conduct by parents are emulated by children. Only in sound and happy family living does one find the genuine preventive of juvenile misconduct. This truth has been stated frequently but very little has been done to correct unhealthy homes.
Scripture places the responsibility for moral training of the child upon the parent, but this responsibility must be further inculcated by the Church. Those that have oversight in the Church should see that parents fulfill their God-given duties in respect to the training of the young, even admonishing parents as did Paul in the Ephesian church. Further, the Church should instruct children to have proper respect for parental authority. Upon the Fifth Commandment is based all proper and healthy social relationships, and the teaching of it needs to be impressed on the mind and heart of the child. Where there is no respect for parental control, there will be no respect for any duly constituted authority.
Next to the influence of Church and family is that of the school. The tragic breakdown in family discipline is little counteracted in school life. The late Reverend Canon Bernard Iddings Bell wrote this once to Senator Estes Kefauver: “Let it suffice for me to say that our educational system breeds moral irresponsibility—the result of intellectual responsibility. Our schools create in many of their students, perhaps most of them, a sense that the world belongs to them without necessary preliminary labor. Those brought up in such a system learn to regard themselves as entitled to everything that they can lay their hands upon without doing any real work in order to get it. You can scarcely wonder that people brought up to think in this fashion … seldom develop into responsible citizens.
One of the first symptoms of delinquency is truancy among school children. This has often gone on without punishment; and as the student feels that he can flaunt school regulations with impunity, he is the more likely to violate laws of society. The full weight of the school’s authority should be invoked upon truant youngsters that they may learn that breaking laws brings punishment. Rather than depending, as some do, on psychiatrists and social workers to remedy the moral breakdown of children, each schoolteacher should claim the job of moral strengthening as her own.
The increase of illegitimate births, rape, and sexual deviancy among teenagers may be attributed to much of the mass communication media that exploits sex. Law enforcement agencies contend that juvenile delinquency stems in measurable part from obscenity conveyed through books, comics, magazines, newspaper stories, advertising, movies, and television shows. It is an almost insurmountable problem to control pornographic literature, for it pervades practically all mass media. Even the New York Times, which boasts that it prints all the news decent to print, allows its advertising department to arouse prurient interest with lurid statements like these: “Undertones of emotional masochism as well as a curious intertwining of paternal with sexual love”; “Easily the peep-showiest of all Bardot pictures”; “the heat and humanity are oppressive and sex is rampant and raw”; “Steaming with tropical heat, sizzling sex, violence and passion”; “The super-heated carnal scenes are sufficiently passionate to deserve an exclamation point!; astonishing frankness! As though the camera were aimed through a key hole!” (New York Times, May 15, 1959).
One measure of control is that of censorship which undoubtedly will invoke anguished cries from those who see a danger to the freedom of the press. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that obscenity is not protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. In a recent address Arthur E. Summerfield, Postmaster General of the United States, said, concerning purveyers of filth: “They are also experts at raising a hue and cry about ‘censorship,’ ‘freedom of the press,’ and ‘civil liberties.’ And all too often they are able to find willing pawns to take up their cry and carry on their slimy battle for them. This, of course, is utter nonsense. I would only ask any such misguided person these questions: Is it a violation of civil liberties to deny the sale of liquor to a ten-year-old boy? Is it censorship to prosecute those who sell narcotics to junior high schoolgirls? Are we abridging civil liberties when we do not permit children to drive a car?” We have laws prohibiting the sale of products that harm the body, and the public gives no cry of protest. Cannot the nation prohibit the sale of pornographic material that poisons the souls of our youth?
Alcohol And Switchblades
The subcommittee on juvenile delinquency of the United States Senate has found a definite connection between juvenile drinking and acts of delinquency. There was also discovered a direct relationship between the vigor with which liquor laws were enforced and the amount of drinking among juveniles. For instance, beer parties have led to sex orgies and acts of vandalism and theft. In spite of this recognized relationship, liquor interests continue to bombard our youth with their vivid propaganda. Neither the public nor our legislators seem to be sufficiently aroused to combat this corrupting influence. A bill to limit alcohol advertising over radio and television has never been able to come out of the committee stage in either the House or the Senate. Yet a law was passed with great speed against the manufacture of switchblade knives. No one would seriously argue that switchblades constitute a greater incentive to acts of violence than alcohol. One wonders at the rapidity that the manufacture of switchblades was eliminated by law and the inactivity in regard to the influence of liquor advertising.
Conflict With Labor
Society is beginning to recognize that young people who are jobless, idle, and without funds are vulnerable to delinquency. Because of stringent labor laws teenagers are being prevented from gainful employment. Young people, who are no longer in school, are unable to obtain jobs in the present labor market. One cannot doubt that there have been far-reaching benefits from child labor legislation; however, conditions have changed so radically in past decades that much of that legislation could be liberalized in the greater benefit of youth. One Washington, D. C., leader in the field of youth employment asserted that the proponents of child labor legislation, anxious to correct the abuses of the past, have sometimes taken an overprotective, even emotional attitude about changes in legislation. Nonetheless, the time is certainly at hand for legislators to review and amend labor laws that affect our youth. Work is one of the most stabilizing influences in people’s lives, and there are children, physically strong and mentally alert, who are being deprived of an outlet for their energies. An anomaly of the present situation is that the mother who is needed in the home is working to provide for teenagers whose energies are being absorbed in antisocial deeds.
Attack On All Fronts
The most pressing problem in our fight against juvenile delinquency is purifying the environment in which our youth live. The material emphasis of the social gospel has accomplished little in restraining the tide of teenage crime. What is needed are the spiritual weapons found in the dynamic Gospel of historic Christianity. Youth cannot live by the bread of materialism alone, “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” A proper spiritual and moral climate can only be brought about by a Church that feels a keen responsibility in creating happy families in which children are brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Delinquency will never be curbed and eliminated until parental responsibility and filial obedience are firmly inculcated in the minds of our people.
The Church must also sensitize the public conscience to the evil factors that demoralize youth. An apathetic public is a major obstacle to the removing of pornographic business that corrupts the minds of children with filth and smut. An indifferent public allows the liquor industry liberty to use mass media to entice teenagers in drinking. An aroused public, on the other hand, sees to it that bills curbing interstate advertising of alcohol would come before Congress and not be allowed to die in committees. This would be a tremendous help in the battle against delinquency.
The factors that contribute to the moral downfall of youth are many and varied. Their elimination demands all the effort, skill, and leadership that the Church can provide. To save our youth is a tremendous task. It is a work to which the Church has been called by her Lord. May she be found in the vanguard of combat!
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