Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Riots, rolexes and reasons

I have deliberately exercised restraint by not writing too quickly in the aftermath of the recent riots because I wanted to avoid the kind of knee-jerk reactions that have been all too evident in the press and from the Government. These include blame: it was the police's fault, the government's fault, the banker's fault or single parent families; and instant solutions - taking away the benefits of those found guilty, zero-tolerance sentencing  and threats from councils of eviction from council housing.

Okay on the one hand these responses are an expression of justified revulsion and a heeding of the cry for justice from those whose hard-earned livelihoods were taken away from them or, in one notable case, burnt to the ground. And the four murders and two attempted murders certainly horrified large sections of the population who could not believe that a wealthy, civilised country, could desplay such willful violence and destruction. But to respond too quickly or too heavy-handedly can, I believe, generate more heat than light and what we need now, perhaps more than ever, is light shed on the causes of what took place.

First, I have to say that blaming single mothers is grossly unfair. As a Christian I believe that marriage is an essential building block for a stable and well ordered society, and that a faithul, loving marriage is the best environment in which to bring up children. But many many mothers - and in some cases fathers - do a superb job in very difficult and trying circumstances. Just remember that they have no partner to share the load with and often work all hours providing for their children with very little respite and on low incomes. To villify such people is unhelpful and unfair. They need encouragement and support for what they are doing.

Second, we must be careful in applying justice so quickly that we end up being seen to be the opposite. For example the sentencing of a mother who slept through the riots and was jailed for 5-6 months for receiving stolen goods despite having no previous record of wrong-doing is surely over the top and is calculated to impress the public that something is being done rather than administering a fair sentence. True receiving stolen goods is wrong but the sentencing was rather heavy handed and the perception was one of injustice rather than justice.

Third, singling out any one reason is overly simplistic as the causes, I believe, are much more complex. Besides I am always wary of playing the blame game because it can, in some circumstances, be a subtle way of getting certain people off the hook, a kind of projecting of blame onto someone else. One thing we should quickly come to some agreement on is that in some ways we are all part of the problem because we are all part of the same society. "No man is an island" wrote John Donne, "..we are all part of the main."  To accuse others of greed and covertousness is surely to accuse ourselves too.

Fourth, if society is broken or in some parts 'sick' - to quote the Prime Minister - the way to fix it is not through tougher sentencing or greater numbers of police, but through looking at the roots and causes of the problem. You can't take a top-down approach to this, you must come alongside the people and communites from which those responsible are coming from. Do Prime Ministers and MP's, often well-educated, privileged and wealthy, really understand the problems or relate to those from wholly different backgrounds and upbringings to their own?

And fifthly, and here I am putting my Christian hat on, isn't part of the problem the absence of a universal set of principles and values at least partly to blame for this? If, in our secularised society, we reject the notion of absolutes, then is it no wonder that right and wrong is so individual and in many cases contradictory? You can't take away guiding principles, removing positive examples and expecting people to be moral by instinct alone. In relation to this I came across the following quote from one Christian, J.John, who has over the past several years or more, been travelling up and down the country teaching the importance of the Ten Commandments. He writes:

"My own diagnosis is that the nation has lost the Christian faith that, in a quiet and unnoticed way, acted as the glue that has held the British social fabric together. For two generations it has been fashionable to sneer at Christianity and to consider it unnecessary for a modern civilised society. The result has been a moral vacuum and amongst the noise of sirens and breaking glass many people heard the sound of chickens coming home to roost."

He continues: "These terrible events have simply strengthened my own belief that Britain desperately needs to go back to the Maker's instructions, the Ten Commandments. It is God who encourages the poor to work hard and, whatever the injustices, to obey the law. It is God who challenges those in power to govern honestly and to give all they can to those in poverty. It is God who encourages love and care between individuals and in doing so, creates bonds between potential social divides. It is God who gives people the power to resist the temptation to go on a rampage ‘for kicks’."

Changing the analogy, as a bricklayer I learnt quite quickly the importance of cement in building strong and stable walls. Stacking bricks on top of one another can only take you so high before it begins to lean and topple over. What or where is the cement that we are using to build up a stable and strong society? Whatever your belief or unbelief, to have one unifying set of moral and ethical principles founded on a person of undoubted love, compassion and wisdom, is surely a positive and inspiring focus for learning and example. Who are our examples today? Rich footballers of dubious character and pop idols who are as frail and fallen as the rest of us.

In rejecting the Christian message wholesale past governments have singularly failed to provide any kind of clear alternative that will act as a cement to build a stable and moral society. I don't subscribe to the belief that wealth creation for the richest will have a drip down effect on the rest of society - it only makes the rich richer and the rest more envious. I don't believe that education in and of itself is the solution either if it has no core set of values that are centred on the principle of "do to others as they would do to you" or "love your neighbour as you love yourself", teachings that have never been bettered. I don't believe that any political ideology can provide the solution either because these are founded on flawed and imperfect human ideas that have no real proven record of providing the answer to the deep questions about how to deal with our twisted and fallen human nature.

It's time to face facts. Christianity at it's most authentic - we all know the false versions - has consistently held out to the world, and particularly the West, a clear model of what humanity should look like at its very best. We need something to aspire to, and someone to look up too. If we have neither of these then we should not be surprised at the things that have been happening recently.

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