St Bride's: Sermons

London Riots

In the evening there is fear, and in the morning they are gone. This is the fate of those who take our goods, and the reward of those who plunder our property.

Isaiah 17:14

croydon_ablaze.jpg

Family Business Ablaze in Croydon

Those Old Testament words began to come true at the end of last week as those involved in looting violence and arson were apprehended by police and had to face up to the consequences. This week has not been a good week for England: It's a week when I felt ashamed to be a Londoner.

There has been no shortage of pundits willing to give their views about the causes of the rioting and its implications for the future.

Predictably the press has divided along right-wing and left-wing lines. The right have deplored the sheer criminality of what has happened, pointing to the mindless violence arson and robbery, and calling for tougher policing and sentencing. The left explain what has happened as the misguided manifestation of social grievance and deprivation, 'being continually dispossessed in a society rich with possessions.'

Between these poles probably lies the truth - that these riots were not the result of a breakdown in race relations; that they were not an expression of anger and anguish by those living in grinding poverty - you can't be that poor if you have computers and smartphones - that they were not a direct result of the government's economic cutbacks and the worldwide financial downturn.

No, what seems to have driven all this is opportunism, a copy cat mentality, greed, a realisation that they could get away with it (in the short term), a lack of engagement with the communities in which they live, and above all, the lack of a moral compass in these young lives.

There has been bewilderment, sheer bewilderment that the sort of things we have seen on TV could actually happen in 21st century Britain. And I think it has been particularly difficult for liberal humanists, on the left and the right, to understand these events and the motivations of the people involved. They want to believe that basically people are good, and that if only the structures of society are ordered for the good of all, then all will flourish.

What we have seen this last week shows that while the structures of Society have weakened, and there are issues that need to be addressed, it is people's basic moral frameworks that have been found wanting or non-existent. Mindless violence and arson, the enjoyment of others' distress and fear, the appalling sight of young people ostensibly going to help a young man who had been attacked but actually robbing him, these acts suggest a frightening lack of personal morality.

Humanists may be puzzled, but Christians should not be because we believe in the reality of sin and the power of evil. We know that we are all fallible, frail human beings and liable to do wrong things (As Saint Paul say 'The good that I would, that I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I do') It's the inner conflict we all face.

We know that we need the power of God's spirit and the support of our Christian faith to keep us on the right track. And that it is only when we take responsibility for our lives and our actions that renewal is possible.

We know that without rules, without boundaries and without personal responsibility, there lies anarchy, an unhealthy victim culture, the collapse of a moral consensus. I hope one of the lasting lessons of this last week is the realisation of the need for people to take responsibility for their own actions and the need to empower parents, teachers, the police and the courts to help them to do so. Otherwise it's Lord of the Flies.

In the final chapter of Lord of the Flies, after the boys stranded on the island have formed rival gangs, committed arson, theft and murder, the author William Golding pulls off one of the great shifts in perspective in literature. From the young savage lying on the beach, we look up and see a crisp, white uniform. Civilisation and authority have arrived in the shape of a naval officer. Suddenly we see the main character not as an all powerful savage, but as a scruffy little boy who needs a good talking to.

Given limitless freedom, and without adults to show them better, children will run riot. That is the lesson of the past few days.

What our young people need is adults to stop abdicating authority. They need police to police, teachers to teach, parents to parent and politicians and clergy to give moral leadership.

By itself these things won't solve all the problems of the last week, but it's a good starting point - the refusal to acquiesce in a victim and entitlement culture, and the willingness to accept personal responsibility for our lives, our actions, our communities.

We began the week feeling shame : thankfully by the end of the week other images filled our TV screens - the heroism of police, fire and ambulance personnel : the kindness of strangers, offering food, clothing and money to those who had lost everything, and the army of local people who turned out to clean up their streets and neighbourhoods. As one of them said "We need to show people that this is what being a Londoner is all about." Or, as another man said "People were posting 'I'm embarrassed to be from London.' I replied 'Well, I am not.' And that's why I'm out here to help clean up".

Ordinary people taking responsibility and making a difference.

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