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British church leader identifies cause of riots

August 11, 2011 No Comment

Fire fighters and riot police survey the area as fire rages through a building in Tottenham, north London on Aug. 7, 2011. A demonstration against the death of a local man turned violent and cars and shops were set ablaze. (Lewis Whyld/PA/AP)

by Reginald Quirk

Dramatic television pictures leave the impression Britain’s capital is ablaze in a re-enactment of the Great Fire of London. The incidents, although unsettling and awful, are  isolated. Beginning with a peaceful demonstration hijacked by rioters  in North London last week, on subsequent nights imitations of the arson, engaging in conflict the police, and looting of shops spread to other city suburbs on subsequent evenings and then to a few other major cities. Apparently the targets were orchestrated via social media, through the ubiquitous mobile phones. Finally normality has returned, we hope permanently, as a higher power achieved what no amount of police planning and government policy could:  God sent rain, and that discouraged the hooligans.

The events defy simple explanation. At first they recalled events in the 1980s which were (mistakenly in my view) labelled race riots. But this current unrest has not been the preserve of any ethnic group.  Some suggest the problems result from a disconnected underclass, those whose deprivations exclude them from meeting aspirations, or of having any stake in society.  However, as the identities of those arrested come to light, it is clear they are not confined to a single social stratum. 

Some politicians initially pointed to cuts in public spending as a catalyst, but it has become difficult to see any possible causal relationship between reductions in services and the robbery of jewellery shops and sports wear stores. 

Traditional accusations that heavy-handed policing provoke or inflame such incidents have no credibility since on this occasion the police are instead charged with doing too little to engage the rioters. One can understand their approach, because watching the coverage of the rampages has been like seeing a game that has grown out of hand, a game that may lose its appeal if the other side won’t play.

The situation has forced people to look more deeply for possible causes. The breakdown of family life seems one likely suspect. Uncertain and unsupported discipline in schools is another. But I find it interesting that politicians are straining towards a new vocabulary—or rather driven back to an old way of speaking that has drifted out of vogue. 

The Prime Minister describes it as a sickness in society.  If he wanted to express it more colourfully, he could do worse than to borrow St. Paul’s description of creation “groaning in travail.” Another politician coined the term “yobbery” which would serve as a good translation of St. James’ expression usually rendered as “rampant wickedness.”

There is a shift in thinking:  evil is seen as an explanation rather than an as something to be explained. A far better word for it is “sin.” Perhaps as a society we are on our way to reclaiming recognition of that reality.

Yet, it’s not all bad news from Britain. What may be less reported than the violence is the response of the affected communities.  On the following mornings, the same social media that brought rioters together brought hundreds of willing volunteers to the scene to clear up. In adversity this nation pulls together like no other on earth.  And where politicians fear to tread, clerical collars have been much in evidence, the church offering comfort and assistance wherever she can. One hopes these bizarre events are coming to an end, having run their course. Please join us in praying that it is so, as we pray also that God would equip us to respond to the underlying malady with the healing Gospel.

Rev. Dr. Reginald Quirk is former chairman of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, a partner church of Lutheran Church–Canada, and is currently preceptor of the ELCE’s seminary at Westfield House and pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Cambridge.