First published 16 August 2011
A lot of articles have been written trying to come to terms with the recent riots and looting in England (August 2011). Most people I spoke to while it was going on were asking “Why?”
In fact, just stating the fact that the incidents occurred in England says a lot. Nothing of note happened in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. So there were no sectarian undertones involved. There may initially have been a hint of racial disgruntlement, but this was actually expressed peacefully and was not part of the violence. The attacks were mainly on property, rather than people. People who got hurt were almost invariably protecting property. No organisation, as far as I can tell, played any part in encouraging or organising violence.
But why? Few of those involved can really give a reason or purpose that anyone else can understand or believe. Many people have attempted explanations based on political agendas. Some point to the withdrawal of community services because of cost cutting, and the social exclusion of the lower classes. Others point to the dismantling of the fabric of society (e.g. the attack on the traditional family) by the “liberal intelligentsia” and the previous socialist government. Others cite the “entitlement culture” which encourages people to feel they should expect to be provided for, whether they work hard or not.
We’ve heard the offenders spoken of as “feral rats”. I’ve heard people I know rant about them, saying they should be packed off to Afghanistan to see what it’s like at the sharp end. Some have ranted that they should be lined up and shot, or that they don’t deserve any place in our society.
So there has been widespread condemnation of the rioters and thieves, and a whole lot of finger pointing as we try to understand the reasons. And on top of that there was criticism of the police for not preventing it all.
The Prime Minister spoke of pockets of society being, “not just broken, but sick.” In the Daily Mail article by columnist Melanie Phillips (11 August 2011), she begins her lengthy analysis by saying that these events were the, “all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.” She goes on later to say that, “What has been fuelling all this is not poverty, as has so predictably been claimed, but moral collapse… We are not merely up against feral children, but feral parents.”
She brings her article to a close by saying that, “Repairing this terrible damage also means, dare I say it, a return to the energetic transmission of Biblical morality… When church leaders stop prattling like soft-headed social workers and start preaching, once again, the moral concepts that underlie our civilisation, and when our political leaders decide to oppose the culture war that has been waged against that civilisation rather than supinely acquiescing in its destruction, then – and only then – will we start to get to grips with this terrible problem.”
And lest I be misunderstood in what I am about to say, I believe that Melanie Phillips has some very perceptive observations. I too have been concerned through the New Labour years at the attempt to break down the family, but I think if we’re honest the rot started a lot further back than 1997. And it wasn’t 1979 either, when the socialists say that we all became materialist through the work of the Thatcher government. It was probably also further back than the “permissive society” that boomed in the 1960s (before I was born).
I also think it is right to track down lawbreakers and see that they face justice – that should go without saying. People who do wrong things should be punished for their wrongdoing.
So what is my take on it all… for what it’s worth!?
I tried to think of where Jesus might have focussed his attention. Did He condemn the rioters, fraudsters and thieves of His day? Did He condemn the lone-parent families, the prostitutes and the drunks? Who were His harshest words reserved for?
The conclusion I came to was that Jesus reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious traditionalists, who thought they were above everyone else because they kept the law. They looked down on the tax collectors (fraudsters), prostitutes, the adulterous, the irreligious. They would have been the ones wringing their hands over the collapse of the moral fabric of society. They were morally upright and perfectionist down into the fine detail.
But why did Jesus condemn them? Why did He call them “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27)?
Basically it was because they thought they were better than everyone else. They thought that their morality and uprightness made them more acceptable to God than the ordinary Jew, and certainly a cut above the tax collector and sinner. They followed the letter of God’s law, and even embellished it, but they did not understand what God’s law was all about.
And that’s what I think we see today too. We see non-religious Pharisees, the respectable middle-classes, the Daily Mail readers… those who spit blood as they talk about lone parents on benefits, immigrants, youths outside Tesco Express, the language of young people today. We think we are so much better than the looter, the rioter, the inarticulate gangster (“init bruv”!), the heroin addict, the binge drinker, the uneducated. In contrast we are respectable, we are upright, we give to charities, we are on the school PTA, we discipline our children, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, we don’t have too many children and we are polite to our neighbours.
I think it would be just as much a shock now as it was then for the Pharisees to hear Jesus call us sinners, as much sinners as the rioter. Perhaps Melanie Phillips might be shocked (although I don’t know her, so I shouldn’t personalise my point) to be called a sinner alongside the looter and the liberals and Harriet Harman.
The truth is that Jesus calls us all to repent of our sin, and to turn to Him. If we “return to the energetic transmission of Biblical morality” – and we should – it should be to serve the energetic transmission of the good news of salvation for all sinners. Truly Biblical morality, of the kind that Jesus preached, is the kind that calls us all sinners, all under the judgment of God, and all heading for Hell. But the Christian gospel is the good news that all are called to repentance and faith, and all are offered eternal life through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And I could leave it there. But I think this opens a bit of a can of worms. You see, whilst the Jewish Pharisees of Jesus’ day at least believed in God and knew what sin was, we middle-class Pharisees of the 21st Century do not even comprehend the word sin. We do not see why God shouldn’t accept us. In our own eyes we are not bad people. I remember many years ago bringing an unbelieving friend along to a Sunday morning church service at which Lindsay Brown (of IFES and Lausanne) was speaking. Lindsay spoke very strongly of the need for repentance. My friend was extremely offended and fumed quietly afterwards that he had no need to repent because he had done nothing wrong. Many of us these days think like that.
So I’m going to spend a few more articles reflecting on Christian belief about sin and morality, how we should talk about it as Christians, and how it contrasts rationally with the non-religious worldviews of 21st Century Britain. I hope and pray that it will be useful.