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a traffic cone embedded in a shop window in the recent looting
 
Looters: them or us?

Mike Ovey

I spoke on the phone yesterday with a south London vicar whose parish had been hit by rioters. Actually, "rioters" is not quite the word. The disorders straight after the death of Mark Duggan may have been riots with the associations of protest that brings, but by now a better word than rioters is looters, because the focus seems so strongly on violent theft.


Reading round the web, this is widely felt. You do get different analyses of why people are looting, and what should be done about it. So for some, this is the disadvantaged youth underclass levelling the score a bit, and the real fault lies with the parents, police, schools, racists, politicians – take your pick – who have alienated them. For others, this is urban feral youth who are enemies of civilised society, and should be treated as such. For some, the remedy is high cost investment creating jobs, while others think the best remedy is live ammunition on the streets.

But there are four things I find quite revealing about the responses to the looters. First, by and large, whether the columnist is a bleeding-heart liberal or a flog-'em diehard, there's a sense that the looters are profoundly "other", different, alien. So the liberal chat turns on words such as alienated or disaffected. The diehards use words such as enemy, feral or savages. But the liberal and the diehard both seem to see the looters as profoundly other, patronisingly in the one case, demonisingly in the other. The thought is that the looters are not like us.

Secondly, the vehemence of the responses and the strength of the blame game ("where's the PM?", "Boris should do something", "lock up the parents"), often seem to speak of real anger. I would guess many Christians feel that too. I do.

Thirdly, the responses are not just anger, but also bewilderment and incredulity. The looting is something people can't get their heads round. I've just listened to one BBC reporter who simply doesn't get why a small business in Croydon is being ripped off before her eyes.

Fourthly, it is clear that Christians are not being looked to for answers. I've come across accounts of godly ministers working to calm, soothe and persuade. All credit to them, but I think Christian truth has even more to offer here, by way of explanation as well as by way of picking up the pieces.

A Christian explanation could begin with one of the more sensible secular comments. These are "consumer society riots", says Dr Paul Bagguley, who is a sociologist at Leeds. This is very perceptive. It points clearly to the consumerist, acquisitive nature of the looting, and it hints that these are the kind of riots that a consumer society (and let's not forget, that's all of us) has. It hints that this is the kind of riot you expect from members of a consumer society, not from those who refuse to be part of it. That does not allow me to say the looters are totally alien or other, or even "enemies of society" in a straightforward way. The looters are committed to the consumer society. They're "us", not simply "them".

After all, the unspoken but powerful message of a consumer society is "the one with the most toys wins", and possessing stuff is what someone is measured on rather than the way they acquire it. Further, the public face of acquiring wealth doesn't stress that wealth should be acquired in socially responsible ways: think of the bonuses and pay-offs for bankers. They don't look as though they're sharing the pain of recession. As for honouring positions of trust, think of the MPs' expenses scandal. The smartphones and trainers that a looter snatches aren't in the same league financially as some of the MPs.

A Christian response to that needs to touch on four themes.

First, we must recall what the Bible teaches about wealth. Luke's gospel in particular highlights the dangers of wealth. Wealth, not God, is the real love of the Pharisees (Luke 16:14) and Jesus goes on immediately to comment that the Pharisees are those who justify themselves in the sight of others (Luke 16:15). But then, deep down, isn't that what a consumer society believes? Justification by wealth alone? That wealth sets you right before others, as you impress them with your new yacht (if you're a banker), or your new smartphone (if you're a looter). Wealth is seductive because it lets you think you don't need God but are your own master.

One girl answered the question of "Why riot?" in terms of showing the police and the rich that "we can do what we want", which takes us straight back to the sinful autonomy that wealth promises. That's why Agur's prayer of Proverbs 30:8 is not to have wealth. He's not just refusing to pray for wealth, he's praying not to have a wealth that could lead him to deny God. He prays not to be led into temptation in this area.

Don't misunderstand me. Having wealth is not sinful in itself. But being wealthy brings profound temptations, and while I'm delighted that we hear about the need to love our neighbours in practical ways (see for example James 2:16), I wonder how much we hear the questions in our churches: "Are we too wealthy?" "How much wealth can we safely handle spiritually?" A consumer society can't ask that question, because it rewards excess.

The second theme is envy. One response to what the Bible says about wealth is that the looters are not wealthy in the banker-bonus sense. I suspect another would be that the discussion about wealth just puts the looter on the same footing as the junk-bond banker. Not quite. Because another consumer society factor is at work here: the resentment and envy one feels towards those who have more toys. Put another way, the looting is not just defying the commandment "Do not steal"; just as importantly, it breaks the commandment "Do not covet".

Envy is a very cruel sin, because ultimately it is not content with raising itself up. Others must also be cast down. Is that why shops are burned and destroyed once they've been looted? Hence the Pharisees are not content with their own self-justification, there are also those whom they despise (e.g. Luke 18:9). And envy lies close to the sins of pride that Adam and Eve commit in Genesis 3, while the antithesis of envy is the way Jesus the eternal Son does not grasp after equality with God, but humbles himself (Philippians 2:6). In this way, perhaps, envy is the most important sin to name here, as well as something that a consumer society finds hardest to name. For how can envy be a sin in a consumer society?

The third theme, naturally, comes from Romans 13:1-7, which is about civil disobedience. Quite rightly, commentators have pointed to the looters' crimes (I would say sins) against shopkeepers and businessmen. But I haven't heard much which acknowledges that the police have been wronged and sinned against. The logic of Romans 13 is not confined only to Christians: civil disobedience of this kind is sinful. But a consumer society operating justification by wealth has no ground for saying that, I fear.

The fourth theme is the great biblical theme running from Genesis 3, through the Exile along to Judas' suicide: sin doesn't work. Consumer societies love the bottom line, and I wonder if some of the intensity the looting has provoked doesn't betray an unease just there. The consumer society has bought the lie of justification by wealth: and it's about time it heard the truth.
 
mike ovey  
Mike Ovey is the Principal of Oak Hill College.  
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