Thursday, 11 August 2011

Original Sin?

Journalist, ex-PR guru, ex-Lambeth spin doctor, priest and dear friend George Pitcher offered Theresa May some advice via Twitter on Tuesday. Stop calling the rioting mindless, he suggested, and ask why it's happening.  Well, no doubt Mrs May has since been asking herself - and perhaps others - that question; and they may well have been asking it of her in return.  Indeed, we are all asking it of each other, and none of us seems to have a convincing answer.  We have a need to explain it or account for it, and we can't. And there's a lurking fear that, even if we could, we probably wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

Yet we seem to have successfully identified what the riots are not about.  First, the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan was undoubtedly the flashpoint, but most commentators (including his partner) believe that it is not the reason.  Secondly, it's agreed that they are not about political protest in the sense that this has hitherto been understood.  There are indeed looming spending cuts (as there are almost everywhere) and some other controversial policies, but there is no poll tax factor, no focus - anyway there is no evidence that these often very young people are seriously politically motivated.  They do not seem to be about race in any serious sense.  They are not about anything.  They are pure "criminality" to quote the current buzz-word.  In other words, it is just badness - what used to be called Original Sin.

In his pastoral letter following a visit to Tottenham and Enfield, my Rt Revd & Rt Hon boss, the Bishop of London, says of the culprits that "they seem to lack the restraint and the moral compass which comes from clear teaching about right and wrong communicated through nourishing relationships. The background to the riots is family breakdown and the absence of strong and positive role models." I am reminded of a recent conversation with a young black man about a school in north London, not 100 miles from Tottenham, many of whose pupils come from very much the sort of background which Bishop Richard describes.  The teaching staff, he told me, are pretty uniformly anti-Coalition; but praised David Cameron to the rafters for his reported view that fathers who run out on their families should be ‘stigmatised’ in the same way as drink-drivers.  They too believe that the absence of [male] role models is behind much of the trouble that afflicts the teenage boys whom they teach.  (Interestingly, they also say that, when they are at school, these young people at least have boundaries.  It's when they are not - particularly during school holidays - that the staff are most fearful of things getting out of control.  I had not considered this until then.  It now seems positively prophetic.)

But if it's true that family breakdown is the underlying cause - how likely are we to be able to do anything about it? How do you go about changing social patterns over which you have no direct control? How do you encourage goodness and discourage badness?  Through a system of reward and punishment?  By exhortation?  I don't know, and apparently I'm in good company.  At the risk of sounding like a revivalist preacher (and that doesn't characterise me, frankly) I merely ask: what is the remedy for Original Sin?

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