I have no answers to the problems, nor probably much of an insight into the causes of the riots but I offer here just a few thoughts that I have had.
I do not think that we should try to deal with these events as if they were entirely unconnected to other events in our society. These riots did not occur in a vacuum. They have a context. And the context in which they occur is our modern society.
If we are to understand what happened we will need to understand our culture and the way it is formed and shaped. We need to know what has been affecting our society over the past months and years.
Things like the economic crisis facing the world has made people anxious about their financial security and their jobs. The anger over bankers' bonuses in the aftermath of the failure of the banks and banking system makes people cynical about the people who are running the economy – it makes us ask questions about whether they have the interests of the nation at heart or are only in it for what they can get.
The crisis in public life over MPs' expenses will have affected the way we feel about authority – although a few have been prosecuted and been sentenced to imprisonment there is still a feeling, right or wrong, that many “got away with it.” The coalition government is making many people anxious about their prosperity and security – especially those who are dependent on benefits, young people who might wish to go to university and their parents. Many communities are losing facilities or funding for projects on which they have come to depend. Youth centres have closed, charities have stopped some of their work, services have been cut back in many areas.
Factors such as these will surely have led some to feel that those with power and in positions of authority have legitimised activities which have allowed them to enrich themselves while the relatively poor appear to be carrying the brunt of the cutbacks.
Now none of this justifies the atrocious behaviour we witnessed last week – indeed there can be no justification for such conduct.
The Christian gospel has a good deal to say about sinfulness, wrongdoing and responsibility for our actions. It also has much to say about repentance, forgiveness and judgement.
It is all too easy to condemn those who rioted and call for harsh sentences – and indeed we are seeing some very harsh sentences handed out for what would normally be considered minor crimes. There is a case to be made for swift justice which sends out a clear message that behaviour such as this is unacceptable in our society, but justice is only just when it is proportionate and consistent. I suspect that there will be many appeals in the next few months the success of which are likely to show the initial response to have been too severe.
As Christians we will surely want to condemn the actions of the rioters and the looters, but we will also want to call for a right response to these events. We will want to encourage government to take seriously the social issues that lie behind the rioters; we will want to encourage society to take stock of our shared moral values; we will want to ensure that justice is applied without vengeance or favour; we will want to move our society forward to a point where we can forgive; we will want to ensure that everybody, from all strata of society have real opportunities to succeed in life.
The riots have shown some real problems in society and we need to take the chance we have to make our world a better place where everybody can feel they belong and are valued, where everyone can thrive economically and socially and where everybody's contribution is valued and appreciated. We need to make everyone feel that they belong.