Posted by: rogermitchell | August 21, 2011

The riots and economics at the end of Christendom

The riots caused me to interrupt my discussion of economics at the end of Christendom. It is, however, impossible to divorce the riots from the consequences of our contemporary economic system, despite the determination of the British coalition government and others to do so. David Cameron has taken the line that they are the sign of a social sickness and brokenness that merely goes back a few decades (he has to make it pre-Thatcher of course). Voices within the party political wing of the Movement for Christian Democracy, the Christian Peoples’ AllianceĀ  ( attempt to explain the rioting in terms of the results of secularisation and look back nostalgically to some more ‘Christian’ sociocultural past. But, as I see it, if we set the riots in the context of economics at the end of Christendom, we can get a broader perspective that sheds light on the source of the anger that lent a kind of legitimacy to the looting.

This takes us back to the discussion of the centrality of power and purchase to the politics of the modern West. For if the underlying economic structure is based on the idea that individual and corporate power is what life is about, and that possessions are the sign and expression of that power, then it is only to be expected that in due course the multitude of those disadvantaged or excluded from the system will take power in their own hands to turns the tables in their direction. In fact, as the figure of speech I have used indicates, there is some affinity between what Jesus did when he turned the tables in the temple, and the rioters’ actions. For although, of course, most, if not all of them, unlike Jesus, were motivated by angry selfishness and not by love, their actions are, like his, a sign against the pervading hegemony of the status quo.

The problem, in fact, is that their actions failed to go anything like far enough, for their looting was, as I emphasised in the previous post but one, in the same spirit as the recent behaviour of the majority of bankers, politicians and media moguls that represent the Western system. While someone may protest that none of those took to the streets or used violence to support their activities, it must be pointed out that they already held and maintained power, not simply by virtue of the vote, but by a security system covertly undergirded and angled to their power and interest and ultimately vouchsafed by the nation state, the military and the agreement of the leading nuclear powers. In the final analysis, the rioters and the systemic looters of the city, parliament and Fleet Street, are all a sign that an economics produced by the partnership of church and empire that is Western Christendom is inexorably unravelling at last.

This makes even more relevant my call for a new politics based on the cross and resurrection of Jesus, which is all about the life-laying down authority of love and the practice of gift, not payment. So it is to this non-violent revolutionary politics of love and peace that the coming posts will return.



  1. Roger:

    Certainly, there were secular writers with analyses similar to yours and who made the connection between the looting at the top of society and the looting at the bottom. I’ve been completely dismayed with the government’s response. They appear to have taken a totally authoritarian approach with longer than normal jail sentences (see the analysis on the Guardian). As I understand it, basic research has shown that most of the looters are poor, undereducated, unemployed young males. Exactly who we would have expected to engage in testosterone fueled violent behaviour. No surprises there. So this authoritarian response is disheartening. The result of putting such people in jail for any length of time will be what? To educate them as criminals, to leave them poor and jobless when they get out, and without any better future in sight. It is totally self-defeating if your intent is to build a safer society. Its completely wrong headed.

    I was reminded this week of healing circles. They are an aboriginal approach to deeds that harm the community. The offender meets, sometimes regularly, with members of the community to work through the issues that surround the offense and any reparations deemed necessary. The goal is to restore the offender to the community in a healthy way. It is a method that works. So instead of carting these kids off to jail why not have them go right back into the communities they damaged and do community work, engage in physical restoration of what they destroyed, work with fellow community members to bring more life to the community? It seems to me, in the long term, for the sake of the offender and the community that would be a much better approach. I am appalled at the government’s apparent lack of imagination or perhaps of any kind of care for the offenders and communities. The government seems intent of bringing the system down around their ears.

    So yes, we need to get that Jesus approach up and running, grounded, visible, sorted out – ASAP!

  2. There is also this approach Cheryl Although it is still prison it has a redemptive value to it which aims to send people out in a better state than when they arrived, which is surely what we need, even if the desire is for some kind of retribution.

    I was intrigued by Tony Blairs take on the riots. He said that to claim there has been a moral degradation in society is to tarnish everyone and brings all society down, instead of recognising that these young men and women are on the edge of society and not representative of the whole. In fact he believes that younger people today are on the whole much more moral than his generation.

  3. An excellent article today by Monbiot that indeed asserts that we are at the end of this kind of economics. c.

  4. Some thoughts today on economics. . .

    The sources of my thinking:
    1. I read an article today in a Canadian newspaper that talked about the difference between the visions of the opposition leader who just died and our current prime minister – the difference in vision between progressives and conservatives. In essence, the article said, it is the difference between a collective vision of a better country (progressive) and a vision that emphasizes the private and individual (conservative).

    2. I read an article online today that was an interview with an American historian about why the political left has never really taken off in the US. He put it down to a couple of things but at root was this: most Americans still buy into the myth of the individual making it on his/her own and therefore are unwilling to invest the time and energy to organize against the corporations that actually control the politics of the country. In other words, the private trumps the collective.

    So that got me thinking. Why is it that religion (evangelical and fundamentalist particularly) is associated with the conservative, individualist, private vision rather than with that of the collective working together with common ownership of at least some things? How did that come to be especially when we can look to Acts 2 and see the opposite?

    Seems to me that christians need to do some hard thinking about the idea of private rights. I think of something like private property. It is an idea that is almost deified in some christian circles. Something not to be tampered with like my gun that I hold to protect it. How did this happen, that christians unthinkingly, unquestionly accept and promote private property and the primary role of the individual in decision making? Seems totally backwards.

    That led me into thinking about the Canadian Tar Sands. I am glad that Americans have been protesting the pipeline that would bring the oil from northern Alberta to the Gult of Mexico. That has to be a bizarre fantasy birthed in some oil executive’s head (TransCanada is the company promoting this and the Obama admin is set to approve it.). But here’s the thing. Does the land that is currently being destroyed (and no, it can’t be fixed really afterwards) belong to the various companies involved or to all of us? The Boreal forest of Canada is one of the major ‘lungs’ of the planet. As we destroy it we destroy ourselves. Seems to me it might belong to all 7 billion of us. And perhaps Canada’s call is to protect it as a collective commons rather than rake in tax dollars from corporations as they destroy it.

    But where does that leave most christians? We need to think seriously about a theology of the commons and about how we view the various resources of this planet that everyone needs for life.

  5. To say that anger “lent a kind of legitimacy to the looting” is as bad as (but no worse than) saying that materialism lent legitimacy to the bankers’ excesses. There is no legitimacy for ruining other people’s livelihoods. The victims of the riots included people of all levels of society, including the residents of flats above shops (often the very cheapest of places) and the staff of ruined businesses, as well as the owners of the businesses. The owners of the businesses, while not poor, were not the fat bankers that people can rationally blame for our country’s troubles.
    And the rioters were not all poor marginalised people, but included people with no reason at all to feel angry and excluded.
    The government’s responce is hardly going to help though. No-one has explained to me why a crime committed during a riot is worse than one committed at a more peaceful time, deserving a harsher sentance.
    When I looked at the riots and wondered what Jesus’ response was, or what he wants my response to be, I remembered that he felt pity for crowds which had no leader, and he sent his disciples out into the “white harvest fields”. Is his message to us any different?.

    • Hi Richard, thanks for the contribution. It’s good to hear from the church community I grew up in half a century ago!
      When I use the phrase ‘lent a kind of legitimacy’ in respect to the anger behind the riots I do not mean to imply that I think them legitimate myself, any more than I do the materialism behind the behaviour of bankers that you, I think rightly, compare it with. I agree that the riots affected all levels of society and that those responsible were not only from the economic margins. I think you are right too when you say that there is no legitimacy for ruining other people’s livelihoods. But my whole point in attempting to interpret the riots from the perspective of economics at the end of Christendom is that the Western system itself legitimates the ruin of the livelihoods of millions of the world’s poor, and that the church has been complicit in it despite its evangelism and social care. So our compassion on the multitudes and our relationship to the harvest fields has to go much deeper than it generally has up until now

  6. (Note that this is a reply to Roger’s reply to my comment. It’s not really part of the thread, but I’m not techy enough to find another way of replying)
    Hi Roger,
    you deserve an explanation from me. My wife recently read a book by Ronald Sider, Bread of Life, which mentioned you in connection with Ichthus in London, and this prompted us to ask Pris what you were doing these days. And that’s how I came to be looking at your blog.
    I’m not sure if we’ve met in person. Do you ever come back to South Hill?

    • Ronald Sider writes some good stuff. I used to come to speak at South Hill from time to time, went through a phase of doing a little consulting for the leaders for a while, but think the last time I visited was for my Dad’s funeral in 1999. I’m in Hemel every few weeks visiting Mum, but not generally on Sundays.

  7. I never thought of it that way, well put!

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