Following on from my recent piece considering the Archbishop of Canterbury’s thoughts on the riots in England last summer, I received a comment that criticized it for not focusing enough on the need for justice and not sufficiently condemning the criminals who took part and their vandalism and destruction. One of the aims of this blog was the hope that it would get people discussing current political and cultural issues and trying to see them through God’s eyes. I would love to be able to see right into God’s heart and know what the best answer is at all times, but God doesn’t have a habit of giving things to us on a plate. He loves it when we seek His will, but it’s a two way relationship and He wants us to dig deep and work things through with Him.
The comment was a fair one, in that my piece did not address this issue to a great extent. I was looking to reflect on Rowan William’s article and this was not one of the main themes contained within it. I generally feel it is best not to cover too many topics in a single post as either the subject matter tends to get glossed over or the post potentially becomes too long to maintain the reader’s attention. Now seems an appropriate time to address this matter.
It would be extremely difficult to argue that anyone involved in the summer riots does not deserve to be fully punished for their crimes under the law. A stable and just society cannot allow chaos and anarchy to be tolerated. One of the biggest themes in the Bible is justice. God hates evil and the actions it causes. Right from the story of Adam and Eve this becomes apparent. In Isaiah 61:8 God says, “I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks plainly about the consequences of choosing to do good or evil:
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:5-8)
And further on:
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:2-5)
These verses at face value are clear enough. Those who choose to ignore the law should expect to feel its full force and deserve to be punished (I don’t believe that Paul is legitimising oppressive regimes and dictatorships in this passage, because no earthly authority is above God’s laws). It also is stating that each individual will be held accountable for their own actions. We cannot blame others for our own actions and thoughts. Unfortunately reading some of the interviews with those involved with the riots, this is exactly what was happening in their minds. The blame is put on the police, government, the rich, even in one case the Olympics is mentioned as an excuse. 73% of those who have appeared in court at the last count have previous criminal convictions and yet the police are seen as victimising and harassing them rather than trying to maintain the law and preventing criminal behaviour. When someone through their experiences and worldview considers themself to be a victim, then blame becomes easy and can quickly become entrenched. 58% of those appearing in court live in the 20% most deprived areas in England. 35% of the adults were claiming-out-of work benefits and 42% of children were claiming free school meals. All of these are considerably higher than the nation averages. The looting was frequently blamed on not being able to afford to buy the products being stolen. Poverty combined with a materialistic lifestyle is a dangerous combination. Resentment and jealously develops quickly when your sense of worth comes primarily from what you possess and you feel you deserve to have what you perceive the majority has but you cannot afford. This mentality is born out in Paul’s letter to Timothy:
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
Until this victim mentality is broken, it is unlikely that these people will change their lifestyle significantly. Even receiving benefits and state support can be seen as a right and expectation, rather than essentially a gift from the state to stop people from falling into dire poverty when they are unable to provide an income for themselves. The only passage in the Bible that I am aware of that refers to a benefits system is from the same letter from Paul to Timothy where in chapter 5 he talks about how money to poor widows should be handed out. Widows with no family support at that time were regularly some of the poorest in society.
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list… they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. (1Timothy 5:9-13)
It would be poor judgement to base a whole benefits system on a few verses of the Bible, but the principles can certainly be applied: Give support to those who really need it, those receiving support should give something back to the community and continually giving to those who should be capable of supporting themselves will lead to them becoming lazy and getting into trouble (young widows would have been expected to be cared for by their families until they found a new husband). I doubt that many people would say the current benefits system in this country meets these principles fully, which, I suspect, accounts for much of the increasing resentment toward those on long term benefits. The current government’s drive to change the system to make having a job always preferential to being on benefits should hopefully begin to address this imbalance and reduce the appeal of a life on benefits for those who can work. Of course if someone is unable to find a job then support should be provided, but the principles remain.
The introduction of the new Universal credit appears to be a sign of a return towards these principles and in my opinion should be welcomed. The current Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith is a recognised Christian and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank set up by him in 2004, has heavily influenced government policy in this area. The CSJ is known to have many Christians working for it and biblical values can be clearly seen in much of the work they carry out.
Having said all of this, it could be quite easy to reject those who can be seen as the underclass of our society, showing scant regard for its values. I remember one business owner describing the rioters in the summer as ‘feral rats’ and I am sure many of those hearing her would have agreed. They have become enemies of our society in many people’s eyes. However Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 to “love your enemies”. One of the great themes of the Bible is justice, but another is mercy. If you start treating a section of your society as sub-human then persecution is likely to follow and with persecution comes injustice. The reason Jesus came to earth was to give sinners (that is all of us) a way back to God and his love. We must not give up on those who hurt our society. There must always be a way back for those who wish to change and we should continue to look for solutions to the issues rather than write whole groups of society off. Paul again in his letter to the Romans sums this up well:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)