Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)

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