A social scientist, James Q. Wilson was perhaps best known for his “broken windows” theory of law enforcement which laid the groundwork for crime-reduction programs in cities throughout the nation, beginning with New York.
In the 1980's, New York City was in the grip of one of the worst crime epidemics in its history. But then, suddenly and without warning, from a high in 1990, the crime rate went into a dramatic decline. Murders dropped by two-thirds. Felonies were cut in half.
They followed Wilson’s theory.
Wilson argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.
The idea is that crime is contagious. It can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community. Which means that what matters are the little things; what become critical are small stands against the spread of crime.
Which is exactly how New York City addressed the problem.
The war was waged on broken windows and graffiti, focusing on the subways. The cleanup took from 1984 to 1990. It soon spread to the entire city. Seemingly inconsequential enforcements, such as turnstile-jumping on the subways, the "squeegee men" who came up to drivers at intersections, public drunkenness, and littering, were targeted. To the surprise of all, crime began to fall in the city.
In Serious Times, I used Wilson’s theory to argue a point about how Christians can make a difference with their life.
When we live in such a way that we influence as “salt” and “light” (Mt. 5:13-16), with lives infused by Christ, it impacts the world around us in disproportionate measure. We become the mended windows and the scrubbed-off graffiti. The key to making a difference is not often a massive program, but what some have called the “monastic option” – humble, deliberate acts of cultural preservation. This is precisely what a deepened soul, with a developed mind, following God’s call, rooted in a church, accomplishes. Small, individual acts of living like, and for, Christ in relation to those who do not.
Henri Nouwen writes of a church building site where monks were working closely together with some good-natured, but good-cursing workers. He wondered how the monks would react. He knew how he would react. He would not say anything at first, but slowly get angry until he finally exploded to say, “Don’t you know you are not supposed to curse!” Then everyone would be angry, the air would be tense, and charity would be hard to find. While Nouwen contemplated such things, a monk by the name of Anthony did respond. After having heard the name of Jesus used “in vain” several times over from one particular man, Anthony walked quietly to the man, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “Hey, you know – this is a monastery – and we love that man here.” The man looked up at him, smiled, and said, “To tell you the truth – I do too.” And they both had a good laugh.
And from that simple exchange, everything changed.
A broken window had been repaired.
James Q. Wilson died on Friday. He was 80.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
For a good introduction to Wilson’s theory, and specifically the New York experiment, see Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
On the idea of the monastic option, see Morris Berman, Twilight of American Culture, as well as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery .
Sampling of obituaries on Wilson’s life: “James Q. Wilson dies at 80; pioneer in 'broken windows' approach to improve policing,” Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2012, read online; “James Q. Wilson, scholar identified with ‘broken-windows’ theory of crime prevention, dies at 80,” Matt Schudel, The Washington Post, March 2, 2012, read online; “James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012, Originated ‘Broken Windows’ Policing Strategy,” Bruce Weber, New York Times, March 2, 2012, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.