There’s been a lot of talk in the international news of an ‘Arab Spring,’ a term encapsulating the unrest and protest by groups of people in the Middle East, and increasingly elsewhere, against autocratic governments and the burdens they place on citizens. Such ‘springs’ are uprisings by the people for the people, with the aim of creating momentum towards greater freedom and democracy.
The riots experienced here in the UK are nothing like that. Here in Britain we’ve had an uprising of an altogether different nature.
Over the past week or so a number of cities across the UK, beginning in London, have seen hordes of (mainly) youths marauding the streets committing wanton acts of aggression and destruction. Millions of pounds worth of damage has accrued due to vandalism, arson and theft. Shops have been looted and burned to the ground. Businesses built over generations have been lost. There’s even been a fatal shooting. So apparently mindless is the violence that some of the rioters even torched their own homes and neighbourhoods. And so perverse is the anarchic spirit at work, that while innocent victims of these crimes struggle to deal with their losses, rioters can be seen in video footage giggling at their handiwork, while looters have posted pictures of themselves grinning beside their caches of stolen goods. Whatever the underlying factors contributing to such behaviour—you can blame it on poverty or fatherlessness or political alienation—it seems this is less about social or economic deprivation, but something else entirely. Having witnessed a shopping centre ransacked by youngsters, one police chief observed, “This wasn’t an angry crowd, this was a greedy crowd.”
Political uprising is one thing, but what are we to make of this? Writing in The Times, Sarah Vine said that she was all in favour of paying taxes to house and educate those who need it, “but when they turn around and throw it back in our faces like delinquent children denied the latest Xbox, a screw turns dangerously tight in the heart.”
It seems impossible not to share her sentiment. How can one not be angry at the depth of destruction and the shallowness of the mob? What is the Christian response? I’m not sure what the official ‘church’ response has been, but it appears that one appropriate response has already been demonstrated in some of the affected areas by residents of different faiths or no faith. In defiance of the destruction levied on them, residents of Clapham, London, armed themselves with brooms and took to the streets to clean up. The spirit of anarchy has been met by a spirit of resilience and hope. With no outside prompting, people are joining together to repair the damage, and so communities are being strengthened by a shared sense of purpose as opposed to merely a shared postcode.
We can lament the state of western culture when its youth commit crimes in the name of greed and entitlement. We can talk till the cows come home about why and how such a thing has come to pass. But if that screw in our hearts is not to tighten further, we need to find a way of responding that will not darken our own hearts. We needn’t try to feel less angry. Anger is appropriate in this instance. Many of the Psalms exemplify the outpouring of anger and despair. What we need to do is acknowledge our anger yet defy the ways it twists our hearts. That requires meeting the spirit of rebellion with the spirit of resistance: reconciliation not revenge, brooms not bats, community welfare not gang warfare. Such a view is necessarily a long term one. It takes time to rebuild broken walls and forgiveness to repair broken lives. But as I understand it, this is what Christ asked people to do. The man who said “do not repay evil with evil”, and who himself faced plenty, either lacked the courage to get even or he knew what he was talking about.