Broken Britain in need of a saviour
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight says the recent riots in London were not unexpected in a society where Christian virtues are diminishing.
I have to confess, the recent riots and looting on the city streets didn't come as much of a surprise to me - I saw similar behaviour in New Orleans (after the hurricane) and in Iraq (in the midst of bombing). Obviously what the rioters did in London and other cities in England was reprehensible, but one must try to understand what it must be like to feel hopelessly undervalued, alienated, and be known for little more than being illiterate, unemployed, uneducated, with no future, and with a 'nothing to lose' mentality. It's what Evelyn Waugh called 'The concealed malice of the underdog' - only not so concealed at present. And, of course, it's very rich of MPs to pontificate from the moral high ground given their thefts from the taxpayers in the expenses scandal.
It's certainly true that the louts are emulating the greed and acquisitiveness of the wealthy. What happened is that various people react in different ways to the fact that society isn't fair - some make the best of a bad situation whereas others let themselves down by turning down wrong paths. But that said, I think the looting gives us a glimpse of what humanity really is like and shows us why we shouldn't expect too much from people. You may be familiar with maxim 'Virtue untested is no virtue at all'. Well, one of the first profferings of this came from John Milton - in his Areopagitica he wrote:
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for."
Think of this in terms of what we see in London or Iraq or New Orleans. What is being implied is something quite acutely perceptive – it is fairly easy for most people to behave quite decently when they are under no pressure, or when fear of the law curbs their instincts for misbehaving. It is much harder, and much more commendable when we face with the toughest challenges yet still come away exhibiting goodness and kindness. History shows clearly that tightly enforced laws do act as a deterrent, however bad they are for the individual psychologically. And there is reason to believe that we are to be very thankful for the human assent towards the Social Contract and for the fact that it is in human interests to be lawful. Milton was right, without the illusion that we are really quite decent and a thin 'contract' fibril keeping us just about united in our aims, we would be looting and rioting a lot more than we do.
One need only look at our earliest historical civilisations (Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas) to see that there was rule of men through despotism and that killing and exploiting each other was rife in every part of the world. I won’t deviate from my purpose here by presenting a detailed comparison of the civilizations, nor will I claim that the people of Mesopotamia produced qualitatively better material because they had God on their side (as per the material in the Old Testament). But I think one thing stands out a mile – the Mesopotamian civilisation that rose up had an effect on the future of humanity that was astronomically greater and more significant than any other civilisation. If you doubt this, think of any other ancient civilisation (even the other biggest and most developed ones like the Chinese and the Egyptian) and check its worldwide impact on humanity. – you’ll see that compared with the writings of the Hebrews they do not match up at all.
Thank God for the social contract and for the fact that it is in human interests to be lawful. Milton was right, without the illusion that we are really quite decent, and without a thin 'contract' fibril keeping us just about united in our aims, we would be looting and rioting a lot more than we do.
The point of this in relation to Christianity is as follows; it must be remembered that in relation to human history, the love and grace of Christ didn't begin with the New Testament - it began with first strokes of pen in the Old Testament. This has vital significance for one main reason – when it comes to the Old Testament what many have thought to be a harsh book deserving of our condemnation is in fact a gloriously advanced book that is worthy of our praise and astonishment. The Old was introduced precisely because we were a barbaric group of people who needed law and societal structure and stability from which to progress.
Pretend for a moment that we could get away with a night of crime tonight - we may be a patchwork of evolutionary ineptitudes, but we are something far more profound and glorious than my previous descriptions did justice – we seem to behave as though we were made in the image of something or someone far greater than ourselves. This is the primary sense in which it ought to be noticed that we are not free, and nor would we want to be. If freedom is having the ability to follow our appetites at any one time then that would only make us slaves to our own desires. So in that sense we are not free because we cannot escape the constraints of obligation. As lawlessness shows, the freer a man is from the constraints of obligation the more reprehensible he would be. If I really were to picture a ‘freedom’ in which I could simply act however I pleased, and paid no lip service to obligation or any social contract, then my most instinctive assent would be towards a hedonism unconstrained by any need to curb it
Ironically the British atheists think that the diminution of Christianity in the UK has brought about a more positive society. I think they are walking around with their eyes closed. I think one pattern seems quite evident – since the abortive attempt to foster a liberal Britain where many of the Christian virtues have been replaced with a tolerance for acting however one likes so long as it is within the ambit of the law, there has been a diminution in assenting to the things for which we used to have high regard. The trouble is in modern times (as the drug and gang culture shows) the law isn’t a very good motivating force for good when one feels marginalised in a tangibly class-imbued society. It’s not realistic to identify a precise turning point, but the permissive society inaugurated in the sixties gave us the beginning of a radical shift in thinking which was a huge contributing factor in changing the mindset of a post-war Britain that had in many cases had its faith shaken by the two World Wars. This was the beginning of a slippery slide towards an increasing nihilism, made worse by the fact that for those who embraced it most fervently it was seen as a very exciting and liberating escape route convulsion from the traditional Christian values that had bootstrapped our morality for centuries. Questions of theodicy loomed large after the tragic assault on our emotions during the two World Wars, but what followed from the sixties was something altogether worse for Christianity. The permissive liberal agenda that fell upon Britain during the 1960s with its sexual, political, cultural, artistic and moral revolutions is, I would say, at the root of much of modern ills – and is hugely responsible for a change of attitude in going some way to destroying hierarchy, patriarchy, respect for authority, perhaps even attitudes towards morality itself, that had kept this nation together for hundreds of years.
Much of our youth today seem to feel imprisoned by their circumstances; many of them live in depressing neighbourhoods, are addicted to drugs, find their identity in gangs, and perhaps more importantly, feel excluded and unwanted in society, leading to crime and anti-social behaviour as well as poor education and feeling of hopelessness. Many others suffering from similar feelings of purposeless make fame and the celebrity culture their central goal in life; others strive for career successes and financial acquisition at the expense of anything deep and meaningful. Many others have become so acquisitive and career oriented that they have made gods of material things and the pursuit of prestige through material and vocational achievement. Finally, many others have got caught up in a world of superficiality – binge drinking, recreational drugs, casual sex, and other ways of life that ultimately leave them empty inside.
Given the foregoing it hardly seems surprising that Britain is broken - imagine how much worse ancient Babylon was, and how necessary God's intervention was there. The upshot is, we are a nation that is suffering from the diminution of Christianity - and the more we see of how humanity behaves once the mask is off, the more we can see why God saw fit to provide us with a saviour.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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