Just a week ago, we noted with concern that trouble had taken place in Tottenham the previous night. We could not have imagined then what would have come next.
Over the past week, we have seen rioting and looting in our own city – in the places we live – in the places we shop – too very close for comfort. And we have seen that unrest spread to other cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, Leicester…
During and in the aftermath to the trouble, I have listened to and read the responses of many, many people. I have heard their words on buses, on the street, and in my office. I have read them in the Guardian, in the Daily Mail, and in an enormous number of tweets and status updates in social media.
And you know – everyone agrees.
Everyone says “this has got to stop.”
Which is nice, except for the fact that they don’t agree at all about what it is that should stop.
On 12 March, 1968, less than a month before he was shot and killed, Martin Luther King visited a wealthy suburban town in the state of Michigan. Here is – in part – what he said about the unrest then afflicting many urban areas of the US:“I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
This has got to stop.
For some of us, the riots have been terrifying and we have been thrown by the insecurity that comes from feeling we can not safely go out of our front doors – and that we may even be in danger inside our own homes.
Some of us – including me – live in posh middle class neighbourhoods that were virtually untouched by the turmoil. We certainly feel less terror than those living on the front line. We may yet feel insecure.
Depending on where we live and our circumstances, our perspectives will vary.
At a time like this, our emotions are probably in as much turmoil as the streets themselves. We may feel fear and exhilaration and a sense of vindication and hope and despair and disgust - all in a single day.
Wherever we have been and however the recent trouble has affected us, we have probably all felt angry. We have all probably looked around for people to blame - and whatever we focused on, we said “this has got to stop!”
There are plenty of potential targets for our anger: Some blame the rioters themselves – for their greed, self-centredness and lack of concern for others.
Some blame the police for their disrespectful treatment of the poor in our society, suggesting that this official behaviour led to a feeling of anger and disenfranchisement among the rioters. Treating people like criminals can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Some blame the police for not being harsh enough – they should have used dogs more, had the water cannons out, smashed more heads, used tear gas, fired plastic bullets at the looters.
Some blame past governments for creating an atmosphere of permissiveness or entitlement where people feel the right to have whatever they want.
Some blame the current government for cutting benefits and youth programmes and making it more expensive to get a university education.
Some blame the City bankers whose actions brought our economy into crisis and still take home millions a year or the politicians who happily had tax payers pick up the costs of home entertainment equipment and – most sensationally – for the maintenance of moats. They suggest that this is looting in a business suit, and that it sets the tone for the rest of us.
There are more than enough places and faces where we might direct our blame.
But we will not fix the situation that caused rioting and looting by blaming. Blame – while it might be the first thing that comes to our minds in a crisis – had better not be the last thing in our minds.
What we need now is blameless analysis, not Tories blaming Labour blaming Lib Dems blaming the poor blaming the rich blaming the police blaming the parents blaming the schools and on and on.
The turmoil of the past week revealed a deep illness in our society. We don’t yet know exactly what the causes are – we have seen the symptoms raging in fire, theft, and violence.
We don’t need blame. What we do need instead is a process that does not try to score political points or polarize us, but helps us to get to the heart of the disease. What we need is to listen to one another across the great divides of class and wealth and education and race and ethnicity and language.
[Singing Sing Your Faith 222 Building Bridges]
When we bring ourselves to listen across our divisions, listening and asking questions and listening still more can begin to bring out the deeper truths beneath the surface.
You tell me that the looters themselves should bear all the blame? Tell me, why is it that they looted and you did not?
It is greed? How did they develop that greed?
Poor parenting? Why did their parents do such a poor job?
Too much permissiveness in out society? Why did your own parents not succumb to that permissiveness?
Are we missing something?
Deeper and deeper into the complex reality we must delve. As simple as the immediate responses from both right and left may appear, the truth is not nearly so simple.
I want to talk for a moment about the role of religion in society. Some would say that religion should stay completely out of public or political issues.
I could not disagree more. While religion should not control politics nor should politics control religion, we have a crucial role to play.
Politics is simply and sadly about doing whatever gets your party elected – whether it is what is best for the country or not – whether it furthers the cause of justice or not – whether it promotes freedom or not – whether it creates more happiness or not – whether it is in the long-term interest of our nation or not.
Politics does what is popular. If people committed to something more than instant gratification do not speak out, then all will truly be lost.
Someone must speak out for the oppressed.
Someone must speak out for what is unpopular.
Someone must speak out for justice.
And someone must speak out for the simple values that are now easily dismissed as trite: love, understanding, and peace.
The turmoil that has engulfed our city is a symptom of a deeper sickness. “This has got to stop.” It is time that we stopped simply treating the symptoms. What must stop is the underlying disease. That is what must stop.
Let us be people who do not stop at easy answers. Let us be people who do not stop speaking out. Let us be people who do not forget the illness once the symptoms are suppressed.
This is the hard faith we have chosen.
There can be no lasting peace without justice. Let us be people who do not stop speaking out before there is justice.
[Singing Sing Your Faith 198 We'll build a land]