Sermon: After the Riots
Preached on 14th August 2011
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
Sermon Matins August 14
Anyone having come to Choral Matins to get away from the anguished aftermath of the riots of the first part of last week is about to be disappointed. The quiet of this Cathedral may seem like another world, but it is not. For here we come to encounter a God not of make-believe but of reality, not of other-worldliness but of this-worldliness. This place is a shrine and a sanctuary but these are not words that signify disengagement but connection.
The Cathedral was built to provide a fitting shrine for St Cuthbert. Many have commented on the ironic contradiction between his simplicity and the grandeur of this place. For many years his tomb was bejewelled and decorated with precious metals. The simple slab which remains feels more fitting. We all agree on that today. But when we nod in approval we perhaps forget that our finer feelings are perhaps implicitly condoning the work of the looters.
The way in which the Cathedral functioned as a sanctuary was that criminals could come here and rest in the protection of the monastic community until given safe passage to the coast to scarper to a new life on a distant shore. We are proud of that tradition but once again we have to recognise that the justice and ethics of the situation is far from straightforward. How many of those who ever sought sanctuary were actually innocent? And if some were guilty of the crimes for which they were sought, then where is the justice in helping them avoid their punishment?
So, what can and should be said from this pulpit after the riots of early last week? Young people should know the difference between right and wrong, we say. And so they should. But mature people should also know that matters of crime and punishment, law and order, justice and mercy, are rarely as simple as they at first seem. Indeed many wise people suspect that they are too subtle to be sermonised about. So maybe it would be better to keep silent.
Silence is a great and spiritual virtue and on the whole we could all do with more of it in our lives. But it seems to me that silence on this subject is not really an option if we to be serious, as I trust we are, about worshipping God in a place which is both shrine and sanctuary.
But if silence is not what is called for then neither is shrillness. There has been plenty of that about this week. So do not look to this pulpit for a diatribe about mindless thugs nor for social explanations which remove responsibility from the individual for their own behaviour. One of the aftershocks of the riot for me is our lack of capacity as a society to get an intellectual grip on this, to have conversations and discussion that generate more light than heat, to hear people talk about this on the media in a way which is not simply looking to allocate blame or identify solutions. We need sober speech here: speech which is sharp but not shrill.
Our hearts and our prayers have been with those who have lost lives and loved ones this week, but also with those who have lost livelihoods and livings. Some people will never really recover from what they have experienced. Gangs running wild in their neighbourhood, smaller and greater conflagrations, shocking scenes of people trying to escape, whether from fire or from predators, and sickening television scenes of young people hammering hard to smash though toughened glass or callously rifling though someone‘s bag to steal anything of value. All these things can trouble and torment us in our waking hours and in our sleep. And that, I suggest is a good thing. We should be disturbed. We should recognise that this is wrong; it is to use a phrase that is both idiomatic and profoundly theological, ‘out of order’. And that takes us heart of the Christian perspective on this which says that while the problem is grievous, the answer is not easily or readily or obviously to hand. The answer to things being out of order is not, in Christian thinking, ‘law’ still less ‘more law’. To explain why that is so risks the preacher launching into sentences which sound as if they were written by St Paul on a bad day. But let me have a go…
Law exists to describe order and to help maintain it by offering a framework to handle the situation when order is violated. The law describes punishments and assigns them. We hope that the experience of punishment may cause some law breakers to change their ways. We also hope that the threat of punishment deters people from breaking the law. But law itself does not have the power to reform a person from being a law breaker to a law keeper. That change happens at a deeper level.
And so it follows that law cannot solve the problem of the break down of order because law and order are so intricately bound up together. If one is broken so too is the other.
In order to move beyond a situation of lawlessness we need something other than law. Healthy society depends not on the enforcement of the law so much as the consent of people to keep the law when unsupervised. If this were not true, society would have to be dominated by surveillance and scrutiny. That might be the way to run a primary school but is it not the way to run a city. The only way you can run a city is by so organising things that people develop the virtues of citizenship and that communities can, by their mutual expectations, elevate the behaviour of individuals.
Civil order, then, has to depend not on the reinforcing of the law but on the development of the habits and virtues of civility. And, without wishing to denigrate our rural cousins, it is in the cities that civility is both most important and most tested. And given that every day more and more of the world’s growing population finds itself living in cities, the question of civility – the capacity to live well in the company of many others – is perhaps one of the most pressing questions of social ethics.
Learning to live together with a great company of different others is the challenge that faces humanity more now than it ever has done in the past. In south London, for instance, the population density is about 8,000 people per square mile. And that includes the leafy suburbs. That means that everyone has very many neighbours, that a lot of people will be close by who are different to you and indifferent to you, and that there may be many people around whom you don’t like or who wind you up.
Cities are risky social experiments. Most city dwellers do not have a clear analysis of why they live in cities and many of the wealthy create quasi rural environments for themselves and escape to the country whenever they can. This, alas, is not the answer. The answer is for human beings somehow to access the grace needed to be good neighbours under circumstances of significant population density and great disparity of both wealth and life chances: in modern cities rich and poor live cheek-by-jowl.
None of this justifies the lawless rioting or looting that we have witnessed this week. It has been a disgrace. An absolute disgrace; evidence of the lack of the very grace that is needed to people to live together in high levels of population where difference is manifest and where the individual imagines that they might find fulfilment not in responsible adult behaviour, but in the anonymity of a crowd.
I don’t know where you were expecting this sermon to end but it has come round to the view that the answer to our problems is not law but grace. Does this mean that the law is dead? Certainly not. We absolutely need the law and there are times when a crisis demands that the forces of law swing into action to contain the damage and to save people from each other but also from themselves. But what this week has taught us is that the law cannot do everything we want it to do. Human beings are far too complicated, intelligent and naughty for that.
But grace does not work like law; it cannot be imposed any more than consent be imposed or love demanded. Grace becomes a force to be reckoned with when people freely open their hearts to their neighbours and to God, when they look to the interests of others rather than their own. And it is precisely that change which needs to take place on a scale never previously imagined if our cities are to be good places for people to live in today and tomorrow.
God is not remote from our concerns any more than we are remote from the forces unleashed in our cities this week. Our faith is that ultimately grace will triumph. Our action must be to do what we can to let grace triumph in our own lives, in our own communities. The question is not, ‘what can the law do to save us’? but ‘how well are we playing our own part in the ongoing spiritual struggle between grace and disgrace?’ It’s a struggle from which no person or community is ever spared and that is why life is so often painful. But since our faith tells us where true victory lies our own struggle is informed by the confidence that, however deep the pain, however terrible the carnage, grace will triumph in the end.