frgavin on August 14th, 2011

Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden
August 2011

There have been reactions of course this week to the riots in the UK. How should they be understood?

Vinay Samuel watched the story unfold on television, including seeing the flats where someone close to their family lived being destroyed.

Disorder or criminality

The Archbishop of Canterbury said in the House of Lords that this behaviour was criminality. That is a start from a Christian point of view. It must be said because for many observers, including the police, this was only disorder. And it is tempting to collude in the analysis of disorder.

Disorder is part of a discourse where society is defined solely by law and contract, where people think in terms only of their legal rights. Law is what the state lays down and what you are held to agree to. But you may not agree to it and you have a right in a democracy to register your disagreement. That disagreement is part of an ongoing negotiation about what is and is not acceptable. So a little bit of political pressure here, an embarrassing court case for the police there and matters shift. Nothing is given or permanent. Thus we are told that the police stood and watched in Clapham as the parish of St Mark’s Battersea Rise was ransacked because they were concerned that they might be involved in violence if they confronted the rioters. Compared with a person being injured or killed, police or member of the public, what does it matter if a shop is looted or torched? They can always pursue the rioters afterwards.

It is a beguiling case. But look where it leads – to society being a matter of a balance of power. The young people could see that those who were powerful (including according to them the rich owners of shops) were not accountable and could get away with looting the banking system, or fiddling their expenses, or hacking into mobile phones, or being sexually promiscuous. “If those people can get away with it, why should we not get away with what we can.” They knew the police would not do anything so they took their chance and in great numbers looted their cities. Paul Perkin in Battersea assessed the police action purely in terms of balance of power.

London has been brought under control purely by trebling the police force in the balance of power. And other elements of the power ratio have been brought in – water cannon and rubber bullets. A further resort will be the army.

The Home Secretary has said that Britain has never been policed this way but by community consensus. But, though an Anglican churchgoer, she has not said why this has been the case. It has been the case because policing has not been based on the notion of a power struggle in society.

It has been based on the notion of a self-ordering population which is founded on a sense of right and wrong which is to a certain extent self-policing in this regard.

A sense of right and wrong

The Archbishop of Canterbury went a bit further and said: “a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.”

The Chief Rabbi went further in the Times of August 12 and said : ” Where to put it bluntly, was the sense of right and wrong. …..For some time our culture has been sending out a tacit message that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps and that the sole command is: “Thou shalt not be found out.”

Here is the rub. It is all very well to point out the need for character and virtue and for a sense of right and wrong. But this does not grow on trees. It must be rooted in something that individually and collectively people see as objective to them, not dependent on inner feelings, or on the power of a dominant group, but to which all are accountable. Rowan Williams does not explore that. Rabbi Sachs speaks of inculcating in young people a sense of responsibility. But to what?

Young people have been told that any form of moral order, any form of objective morality is purely an exercise of power by a socially dominant group. The Bishop of Copenhagen preaching at the General Synod service at York Minister said: “Not for one second do I believe that there is any point in going back and finding cover behind the thick walls of dogmatic church teachings. Nor can we further any understanding of faith or the church by hiding behind an anxious defence of the Bible, and outdated view of gender roles or an unrealistic view of freer sexual morals.”

The calling for the church

The church has been complicit in accepting the undermining of the moral order in education, at schools and in the academy, in its total emphasis on justifying itself by its service of the underprivileged, and in failing to teach clearly about the sanctity of marriage and virginity until marriage.

The state and politicians have systematically undermined the contribution of religion to public life and moral order, stigmatizing religion as oppressive and exclusive and tolerable only in a very limited personal space.

Right and wrong must be embedded in a moral order. We can contribute a secure foundation for such an order. We do not need to claim that the Christian religion is the only foundation for such an order, but we may properly contribute our view.

Rev Ray Skinner, a rector in South London, writes: “as long as the State, with the encouragement of liberal clergy, undermines the nurture of children by the parents that conceived them, our children will increasingly turn into feral rats (as one lady described the youngsters who had destroyed her livelihood in the city riots of this week). As a first step, please may our Archbishops direct all Anglican clergy to read the 10 commandments in their principal service each week (for convenience the longer two may be abbreviated). Embodied there, are no less than three directives for stable families – including of course covetousness, whether of one’s neighbours’ wife or his goods.”

But there is even more to say as Dr. Mike Ovey has written:

“This is the kind of riot you expect from members of a consumer society, not from those who refuse to be part of it. That does not allow me to say the looters are totally alien or other, or even “enemies of society” in a straightforward way. The looters are committed to the consumer society. They’re “us”, not simply “them”.

The old fashioned approach of teaching the law of God, teaching that we all fall short of that law in what the Bible calls sin, and that we all need to be and can be redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus points to the ongoing work of the churches in contributing to a free, self ordering society, not based on power but on an objective moral order which is enforced with policing by consent.

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