Civil Unrest and the City of God

The events of the past week have sparked a remarkable amount of knee-jerk reactions and condemnations over the civil unrest across major cities in England.  Few of them hold up to close scrutiny, leaving us to wonder: how then do we understand what is happening, and how then should we live?

For some, government austerity measures have proved the last straw for the poor and marginalised, meaning the "riot is the voice of the unheard," to use Martin Luther King's phrase.  Such a line of thought argues that, in effect, rioters and looters are exculpated from moral guilt even if they are criminally liable; instead, they themselves are victims of class prejudice and ideological games within the economic policies of government.  Such commentators condemn the government and the police for brutal policies and tactics.  Yet, the sight of looters targeting and wantonly destroying local businesses and local lives makes the idea of moral freedom an impossible one to maintain.  The violence of the mob has been turned on innocent lives.  Unlike the riots over, say the poll tax in the 1990s, or the change to student fees more recently, these riots spread through criminal intent and opportunism unbridled by political interest or care for the local community.  The riots did not express the voice of the unheard; they expressed the voice of unbridled criminality, a tendency that cut across social and economic demographics.  These actions were not the exclusive domain of a social underclass, but rather express cynicism about society and responsibility as much as economic alienation and disaffection.

For other commentators, therefore, the riots reveal that parts of society are what the Prime Minister labels "sick" since they show "a complete lack of responsibility" and feel that "the world owes them something."  The real problem, according to Cameron, is "a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper ethics, a lack of proper morals."  As I have looked at comments attached to news stories, Facebook statuses, tweets, and blogs, I have been staggered by the common sentiment that the government would be justified in using extreme violence, forced evictions from homes, and mandatory national service to counter and punish the pockets of rioters and looters.  'Hurt me and I will hurt you back more, and hurt your family too,' the gist of the message seems to be.  'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' might be a more popular, biblical idiom to express the same sentiment.  The problem with all of this kind of commentary is, however, that it is just as reductionist as its counterpart.  Government and society are responsible for its citizens, even when those citizens fall from good standing.  Such responsibility involves both proportionate punishment and rehabilitation.  The latter remains impossible without understanding the individual and what will transform him or her.  If parts of society are sick, then the whole is too and the whole has responsibility for both the blame and the cure.

Commentary within the Church of England has at times had a mix of the above voices.  Thankfully, there are also voices which understand the nuance of the times.  The most eloquent and to-the-point voice has proved to come from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  He has not exonerated the looters: "those who have been involved have achieved nothing but to intensify the cycle of deprivation and vulnerability."  Yet, neither does Williams call for ostracising the looters and their communities.  Williams instead gives a stirring call for commitment to community:

"That being said, we now have a major question to address, which is how to combat the deep alienation we have seen, the alienation and cynicism that leads to reckless destruction. The Government has insisted on the priority of creating stronger, better‑resourced local communities. This priority is now a matter of extreme urgency. We need to see initiatives that will address anxieties and provide some hope of long‑term stability in community services, especially for the young. Meanwhile the Church will maintain its commitment to all communities at risk, and is ready to offer its help and solidarity in every possible way."

Williams' call is, of course, thoroughly Augustinian.  In Augustine's De Civitate Dei, there are two cities: the Earthly City, marked by sin and self-destructiveness, and the City of God, marked by the regenerating activity of God in believers.  The latter is not a distinct physical city.  Instead, much like Jesus' parable of the wheat and the tares, it exists within the former, fully visible only to God alone.  Its citizens are those who, having experienced the grace of God, know how to love God and neighbour.  When Rowan Williams talks of how the Church "will maintain its commitment to all communities at risk," he expresses the co-operation of believers with the grace of God working to draw and transform the broken Earthly City into the City of God.

The sight of people volunteering in their hundreds to clean-up their communities, the news of churches open for healing prayers, and the call of our Archbishop to let God's light shine in the gloom of hard times.  These things are what Christianity is all about.

A prayer for peace in our communities
Gracious God,
We pray for peace in our communities this day.
We commit to you all who work for peace and an end to tensions,
And those who work to uphold law and justice.
We pray for an end to fear,
For comfort and support to those who suffer.
For calm in our streets and cities,
That people may go about their lives in safety and peace.
In your mercy, hear our prayers,
now and always. Amen