Monday, August 8th, 2011


It’s uncomfortable reading about (and watching) the riots in England from a distance. It feels wrong to be away when such violation is going on – especially when the violence of a relative few is damaging the lives of the many for a generation.

It’s also unsurprising to hear the riots being used to justify contradictory ways of ‘reading’ the world: blame Coalition cuts, the bankers, liberal spinelessness, right-wing ‘oppression’ of the poor, feminism, social inequalities, unemployment, poor education, wrong education, socialism, the Smurfs… There seems to be a justification for every ‘ism’.

Whenever we read a text we do so through the lens of our contemporary experience. On holiday (having already disposed of one novel) I have just started reading a section each day from a book I picked up at the Kirchentag in Dresden in May this year: Schöne Aussichten- Einlassungen auf biblische Texte, by Dr Fulbert Steffensky.

In his introduction Steffensky describes two ‘imprisonments’ from which people need to be released: (a) the tyranny of the text that authoritatively and self-evidently controls our understanding and experience of the world, regardless of the reality of our experience; and (b) the tyranny of ‘one’s own heart’, the textless individualism that rejects the need for a narrative, a group, a language that opens us up to the world. Both are dehumanising and both wreak havoc with people’s lives.

Steffensky goes on to suggest that ‘texts’ or ‘narratives’ are vital for individuals and groups. That is to say, we all need something beyond our own individual experience and emotion that opens us up to (or confronts us with) a wider, bigger, stranger world that goes beyond our immediate subjectivism. The lack of such a narrative creates people who are rootless and meaningless, casting around to create meaning out of self-interest.

Christians are incorporated into a narrative that is both God’s and ours: “This is his story, this is our song” as the Eucharistic prayer has it. We live in and into the story of God’s generosity we read about in the biblical text – the point being that God’s people should increasingly reflect the nature of the God who gives himself for the world. Hence the injunction by Paul to ‘imitate Christ’.

Other groups and societies have taken other narratives and tried to live within and from them: for example, Communists, existentialists, anarchists, secularists, etc. The point is that we all need some narrative or other which gives a language for and a meaningful shape to our individual and collective lives.

Which brings me to the question through which I am reading Steffensky’s book: which narrative(s) are driving the people now rioting in England? To what stories or accounts of the world do they consciously or unconsciously appeal when burning cars or looting shops? Or do they not have one that transcends the purely functional one of power, narcissism or ‘respect’ – the questioning of which may justify any form of bad behaviour?

We can blame the churches for failing to establish the Christian narrative in our younger people, if we wish, but that won’t offer a solution. Churches cannot compel people to ‘come in’ or ‘own’ a story that is regularly dismissed in public as either irrelevant or embarrassing (usually by people who have never really encountered it). We can blame schools or the media or the shameless individualism of Margaret Thatcher, but none of that will help us repair the damage. Whatever we decide to throw at other people, the urgent need is to discover which narratives dominate and motivate our young people… and then learn to find a language with which to offer a better alternative.

It is no good to condemn what has gone wrong unless we can offer a realistic alternative that makes sense of the world, of our own experience, and links us to a greater community of human lives. Whichever narrative this might be, it will require (in Steffensky’s terms) a text that takes us beyond ourselves. In short, I believe (along with Steffensky) that we need to recover the Bible – not as an incontrovertible text of rules for keeping God happy and us in our place, but as a text to be taken seriously for intellectual curiosity, engagement, argument, imagination, poetic resonance, prophetic power: to offer a narrative in an against which the world might best be understood and lived.

And it needs to have big room for failure.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

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Typical. Nothing happens for weeks (apart from phone hacking, Met Police corruption (alleged), financial crisis in Europe and the USA, Steven Gerrard’s groin strain infection, etc.) and then, the day I leave the country to go on a much-needed holiday, riots break out in London.

I realise there is no causal link between these two events. But, if I was a government minister rather than a bishop, I would probably think it was a conspiracy. If we want good government from good politicians working at their intellectual and mental best, then we must ensure they live healthily, get a good work-life balance, and get proper breaks. Or, at least, allow them to.

Yet – and maybe this is the jaundiced view from afar – we seem to want them to work at their best without recognition of basic human need. We don’t decide well when we are exhausted.

So, Boris Johnson might have to return from holiday. Theresa May already has done. The Prime Minister hasn’t yet, but the Chancellor might be about to. Quite right, too, given what’s going on in the financial world, the political world and the London world; but, when will we insist they compensate for the lack of holiday now? I just wonder how many of their critics in politics and the media will be ditching their holidays this year?

From a distance the riots pose an interesting challenge. For starters, they sound like an orchestrated criminal jamboree rather than a spontaneous outburst of frustration with the lack of something noble. It doesn’t sound quite like 1981 revisited. The challenge, however, is in reportage and interpretation.

Riots and demonstrations in Egypt or Syria (for example) are to be understood as brave and virtuous demands for justice in despotic societies. A riot in London, however, is about criminality. We don’t assume the same motivating factors to the instigators of violence because we don’t do nuance. I was speaking to someone who explained the complexity of motive behind the Egyptian demonstrations: much altruism, much demand for ‘freedom’ (not clearly defined: freedom from bad stuff, but freedom for what?), but also criminality, boredom, frustration, opportunism and a chance of some ‘action’.

I guess the same might be true of London. It still smacks (from a distance) of orchestrated criminality, but the question is still pertinent. It will be interesting to see if ‘spontaneous riots born of anger or frustration’ now follow elsewhere in the country. I hope not. Anyway, I read this in an email from someone in Ethiopia:

“In the parts of Africa I know, people riot when governments steal elections, or the price of food rises to the point they can only afford to eat once a day. In the UK, people seem to riot when their benefits are cut, they are bored or don’t like the police. I know where I’d rather live.”

Interesting comment from a distance.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA