How to have a riot

The search by pundits and politicians for the cause of deadly riots in London this month has produced a series of revealing statements. According to the Associated Press, over 900 people have been charged with crimes connected to the four days of rioting that left five people dead and unknown millions of dollars in damages. Police are still investigating and intend to arrest more suspects.

Prime Minister David Cameron blames a lax society of unearned rewards, unpunished crime and even incentivizing the “worst aspects of human nature.” Those on the left propose that more entitlement programs could prevent such violence—the rioters, we may then infer, had a just cause but got carried away. The mayor of London has suggested that convicted rioters may lose the right to ride public transportation without cost. Oh, dear.

The memorable riots in our own nation were more deadly than the London riots. The Los Angeles Rodney King and Watts riots were sparked by a perceived offense—police misconduct. The demonstrations turned into arson, murder, rape and looting against victims far beyond the LAPD. In one case, firefighters trying to protect buildings in poor neighborhoods were fired on by snipers who apparently wanted their own neighborhood to burn. They did, leaving thousands homeless and destitute. A large crowd in the street overwhelms anyone’s ability to keep order and then lawless people join the crowd to do what they want to do. The camp followers of the riot come for free laptops and TV sets, totally mindless of the spark that first brought people to the streets. People behave differently when they believe they will face no consequences. The demonstration’s organizers rarely foresee what comes next and have no ability to restore any focus to the mob. It may be simplistic but it is accurate to say that people commit murder, arson, and theft because they are thieves, arsonists, and murderers, not because “the man” has let them down.

So Mr. Cameron is right in a way. Character, the character of individuals that make up the character of a nation, is revealed when people feel free to let their passions run wild. Politicians can build more jails. A wise politician can unwind the various hindrances that prevent the rebuilding of the most basic institutions of human community, marriages and families; but no policy, law, or entitlement can effectively address the issue of character.

Some say the answer is a sincerely held religion, but that any religion will do so long as the person believes that his god will hold him accountable for even hidden deeds. Man-made religion is not much more compelling than man-made law, though. The merely human does not change a man’s heart, it can only sporadically impact his behavior. A changed heart does not search for some way to justify evil behavior. Only Christianity has the power to conform an evil heart so that it desires the righteousness of God. A culture, in this case Western culture, that only honors the one true God and his worship as a cultural oddity or historical note, has no answer to the problem of declining character among its citizens. They are plastering over a termite-eaten frame.

How do you ensure a riot-prone culture?

  • Ridicule the righteous: For how long have you heard the term “church ladies” or imagined Sunday School and tithing and sobriety and kindness in the realm of grandmothers? It’s a common stereotype fostered with a kind of “bless your irrelevant heart” way. Those who stay married, get married, don’t cheat, keep close track of their kids, and consider “right” to be an objective thing beyond their own opinions are novel, rarely honored among our culture’s nobility. The relentless message leaves a mark, lowers our nation’s esteem of morality.
  • Treat the nuclear family with contempt: One observer claimed that 50 percent of children in England are born to single mothers—that fatherlessness contributes to lawlessness. The U.S. is close behind; our number is only 41 percent. Is it really the failure of a government to create jobs that forces young men to murder, burn, and rape? If we position government institutions to free parents from responsibility, if we make divorce simple and no-fault, if we disdain fathers in nearly every expression of culture and entertainment, what in the wide world of sports do we expect will happen? 
  • Blame others: One young man who heard the British PM speak blamed Cameron for not doing his job. His view is apparently that those who feel put upon are justified in burning the city and beating their neighbors to death. Other rioters blamed the police for being too harsh with criminals and too few to keep order. Newspapers and leaders who claim that bad behavior is caused by poverty (not starvation, mind you) and unemployment are nurturing the belief that others are to blame for an individual’s behavior.
  • Twist religious liberty into religious equivalence: The constant drumbeat of “all moderate religions are good; all fundamentalist religions are evil” greatly discourages anything uniquely Christian about what Christian churches do. Part of the current discussion of Rick Perry’s presidential campaign is focused on his faith (George W. Bush on steroids, one pundit says). The fact that Gov. Perry speaks of Jesus as though he really is the Savior is portrayed as threatening, at least zany. Fairness and liberty do not require ridiculing the religion of the many in order even to affirm the religion of the few. I think many Western countries, including our own, have done a lot of that since 9/11. Moderately held Christian faith is no threat precisely because it has no transforming power; it is merely another vaguely good humanitarian opinion. Not all religion is the same in its intent or effect. Neither is religion simply a neutral commodity that can used when convenient and put away when it’s not.     
  • Encourage preachers to abandon timeless truth: Churches that trade that “irrelevant” old-time religion for something more user friendly, be it environmentalism or social justice, are praised in our culture. Churches that preach that God still hates divorce and that Jesus is still the only way, truth and life are lumped in with fundamentalist groups that blow stuff up. In England, the PM and even newspaper columnists have responded to the riots by preaching against broken families, absentee parents and a culture that coddles bad behavior while church leaders moan about how the rioters were compelled to crime by inadequately funded entitlement programs. This is a sad role reversal. Churches should be conversant with long-term spiritual solutions to community problems rather than just the talking points of the liberal agenda du jour. Maybe it’s not Mr. Cameron who’s asleep at his desk.

I’m frustrated by this whole discussion. We’re headed toward the rocks, full speed ahead, but we’re debating what will certainly amount to tiny course corrections. Our nation sees the example of our European neighbors and thinks we can walk the same path with impunity. We will not likely rue the decisions of this decade or the last, relating to the character of the children we disciple, until we’ve hit the rocks. That’s the way people are in nearly every case.

Until we corporately cry out to the Lord, in the aftermath of some societal tragedy, we’ll decry crime, we’ll lament the loss of strong families, and we’ll pass laws that are essentially more of the same-old, same-old. Our nation may regret the outcomes of some decisions, though we can agree neither on what’s happening nor on who did what wrong, but are not nearly desperate enough to seek help.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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