Justice, Love & Grace: A christian response to the England riots

I started writing this about a week ago, but have been ridiculously busy with work lately, but I hope it is still relevant.

Though I touched on this in another recent post, I thought I would expand a little on some of the reactions coming out of different sections of the christian community in this country in response to the riots. It seems to me that there has been a distinct left/right divide that has exhibited itself. Those that know me are aware I am unashamedly liberal in my outlook. Here, I will provide the reasons for my views, which will include some lengthy Bible quotes. So if that isn’t your cup of tea, you may wish to skip the rest.

I was ashamed to see so many people who profess to be christians speaking so much intolerance in relation to the recent spate of violence in some of England’s largest cities. In my earlier post, I included some quotes. Below are a few more that I have copied from facebook:

“Dear police, if you do feel the need to shoot anyone looting or rioting whilst on duty this evening, please feel free, we don’t mind. Dear fire brigade, if you want to shoot the miserable scum with your high powered water hoses whilst they are preventing you from doing your job, that’s absolutely fine. Dear ambulance service, if you get any phone calls from injured/dying or bleeding rioters, stay at home and watch corrie.”

“I hereby give my consent to curfews, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and the army on the street to sort the rioting and the looting on Britain’s streets.”

“Human rights?! Surely these idiots lose their rights once they start being as stupid and reckless as they are now!”

Whenever I have sought to point out how wrong this thinking is and pointing people to relevant scripture passages, all I got back was hatred. They didn’t want to listen to sound teaching and correction. One comment I got was “when they ask for forgiveness, I’ll consider it.” I know I’m not the brightest button around, but did Jesus wait for us to ask for forgiveness before he was executed? No. In Mark 2:1-12, did the paralysed man ask for forgiveness before it was offered by Jesus? No. Jesus is a very counter-intuitive figure, and while it may be gut instinct (or sinful nature, depending on your favourite terminology) to put the onus on those we perceive to be perpetrators, we should be the ones to take the first step, even if it hurts our pride.

There is an oft-quoted incident whose veracity may be questionable, but whose sentiment is pertinent. It regards the Inklings, who were discussing comparative religion. They were trying to work out the characteristics that distinguished one from another. After having come to an impasse with relation to Christianity, C.S. Lewis arrived late and replied along the lines of, “That’s easy: grace.” Although I am not an expert at comparative religions, I am not aware of any evidence that contradicts this view. Justice is common, but grace is uniquely christian. It is one of the central themes of the gospel, and if you take it away, the gospel you would be left with would not be worth keeping.

From what I have seen in the news the most vocal advocate of well-reasoned grace came not from a christian, but from a Muslim: Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the men who were murdered in Birmingham during the unrest. When I see the above words of hate I have quoted and compare that to the gentle answer from Jahan, turning away wrath, I wonder what perception those outside of the church receive of our worldview. How is it differentiated from that of any other person?

To my way of thinking, if grace is what we have been shown by God, then that is what we ought to show to the rest of the world as a means of our witness aboutGod. But grace is an action that stems from a root cause: love. Paul describes what happens when our outward actions are not motivated by love:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

It’s when I think of the above scripture that it saddens me at how poor a witness is being given by some christians. If, as a community, we speak what is in our hearts (c.f. James 3:9-12, Mark 7:20-23), then to speak words of intolerance & hate is to testify that Jesus was a man of intolerance & hate. But this is not a Jesus that I recognise. It is a false impression, distorted by a failure to remember the love that has been shown to us:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him ten thousand talents.He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sistersfrom your heart.” Matt 18:21-35

When I read that, I fail to understand how anyone can claim to be a christian and yet hold a grudge. Of course, christians aren’t the finished article. We are all works-in-progress, liable to slip up. Nor am I saying that those who spew forth words of hate and condemnation aren’t christians. I simply say I do not understand how they reconcile such right-wing views with the grace of God.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:38-42

To the modern reader, this may sound trivial; but when you apply it to the violence and looting that we have seen on the streets of England, you can begin to get an idea of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he talked about “costly grace.” To give someone a blessing, when convention tells us they deserve the opposite, requires real strength of character and self-sacrifice.

I think it is right that as christians we should call for justice in the world. At the same time we need to show the world grace. It is not always easy to get the balance right, and I am sure I’ve got it wrong plenty of times myself. I do not set myself up and “better” than anyone else in this, or any other matter.But we have to understand where our notion of justice comes from. Too much of what I have read seems to come more from the Daily Mail than from critical reasoning, based on what is found in the Bible. If you take the words of Jesus seriously, then you may well agree with Gandhi in his paraphrase: “An eye for an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It is also written (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30) “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

My interpretation of that is that it is not for us to meat out any form of retribution. We need to understand that there is a difference between divine justice and the secular rule of law that is needed to govern this, and any other country. I am not an advocate of theocracy as a form of government, as it inevitably leads to people being in charge and hence it is no less susceptible to corruption and greed than any other form of government. So I’ll happily stick to democracy.

Please do misunderstand me; I am not condoning or encouraging violence, theft or any other form of criminality. I am here merely looking at the reactions of individuals and communities in response to these actions.While I agree with the response from some sections of the christian community, I am not convinced that other parts of the witness given has been either unified or dignified.

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One response to “Justice, Love & Grace: A christian response to the England riots

  1. A good, relevant post, although I think the mention of right wing views a little unusual. I don't think political stance has too much to do with intolerance and hatred (unless we're talking about the extremes in which case I kind of see your point). I don't think we can particularly categorise right or left aligning with Christian views though as elements of both sides conflict in different areas. All the same I agree, love and mercy are key and we must show compassion in order to bring restoration. As a friend recently mentioned 'Jesus loved me when I was still His enemy'.