Mrs. Greene’s Neighborhood

A colleague of mine who grew up in a racially mixed, big-city neighborhood likes to talk about one of his neighbors—a woman named Mrs. Greene. She was one of those people who minded everybody else’s business. All the neighborhood kids hated her. But as my colleague now acknowledges, "It was Mrs. Greene, more than any other factor, that kept my neighborhood safe." Researchers from elite universities are now confirming my colleague’s belief: Studies show that it’s the Mrs. Greenes of this world who keep crime at bay. Mrs. Greene had three children of her own, but she considered everyone else’s kids her business, too. "If she saw you doing something stupid or dangerous, she wouldn’t hesitate to call you on it," my colleague recalls. "Even worse, you could count on her telling your parents. It was almost impossible to get away with anything when Mrs. Greene was around." As a child, my colleague found Mrs. Greene annoying. But her presence also made him feel perfectly safe, despite living in an inner-city neighborhood. Why? Because he knew Mrs. Greene wouldn’t let neighborhood problems get out of hand. Apparently a lot of other Mrs. Greenes have the same effect. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Chicago recently conducted the largest study ever undertaken of the causes of crime and delinquency, publishing their conclusions in Science. They studied 343 Chicago neighborhoods of tremendous racial, ethnic, social, and economic diversity. When the researchers examined rates of violent crime, they found that some of the very poorest black neighborhoods also had very low crime rates. This meant that both race and poverty could be eliminated as causes of crime—notwithstanding conventional wisdom. The researchers concluded that by far the largest predictor of the violent crime rate was what they called collective efficacy—shorthand for a sense of trust, common values, and cohesion in neighborhoods. The more cohesion, the less crime. Robert Sampson, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study, emphasized that cohesion is the product of "a shared vision, if you will, a fusion of a shared willingness of residents to intervene… a sense of engagement and ownership of public space." Or as the Boston Globe put it, the study proved that "the level of violence in a neighborhood is influenced by such things as being willing to look after other people’s children and mind other people’s business." In other words, crime is most effectively combated by people like Mrs. Greene—adults who intervene when they see kids cutting classes, spray-painting graffiti, or loitering on street corners. What these researchers have rediscovered is a profound Christian truth: Crime is not merely the violation of a penal code. It’s also an offense against the peace and good order—what the Bible calls the shalom of community. Augustine called it the tranquillis ordinance—the tranquil order God has ordained. Preventing crime—as opposed to punishing it—requires two things: a moral vision of what is required to maintain shalom and the willingness to work at it. If we’re going to make our streets safe for our kids again, we’re going to have to recover the biblical truth that shalom requires. Like Mrs. Greene, my friend’s alert and caring neighbor, we must all become our brothers’ keepers.


Chuck Colson


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