The riots which spread across England earlier this month stunned the world, writes Sue Farrow. TV news channels around the globe regaled their viewers with scenes of violence, arson and looting unprecedented on England’s streets.
For some, the events which began in the north London suburb of Tottenham, and spread to many other areas, were to prove devastating. Loved ones lost, serious injuries sustained, homes and businesses destroyed. In short, lives changed forever.
Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent a recurrence of behaviour which brought death, destruction and lawlessness of a kind never before seen in peacetime England?
David Hopkins, SNU minister and co-author of The Philosophy of Spiritualism and The Religion of Spiritualism, takes an in-depth look at those events from a Spiritualist perspective and asks the all-important question – what can be learned from them?
Graphic pictures on our screens: horror and fear on people’s faces; burning buildings; homes destroyed; smashed windows; people (mainly young) running off from looted stores with armfuls of clothes or struggling with TV sets or the latest electronic equipment; youths hurling stones and petrol-bombs; images of the use of guns by rioters; thousands of police in riot gear; claims and counterclaims; criticism of police, politicians, the young, the old, the media; courts handing down severe penalties; reasons, excuses, justifications; death, anger, revenge, pain and suffering – that was the perception of August 2011 in the UK.
These last few weeks are of real and immediate concern to most people. Any and every event is part of our life experience and also a learning opportunity. What can we learn from the recent events in some of our major cities?
Perhaps the first point to be made is that to encompass every individual and every event under one heading is short-sighted. Each individual case has to be considered on its own merits. Theft, we all agree, is wrong – yet would the mother who steals to feed her starving child be worthy of condemnation? So – no ‘black and white’ answers; the solutions will be in the area between simplistic concepts of right and wrong. Were these rioters/looters/protestors evil people (gang members, thieves, crooks), opportunists, easy-led, deprived, depraved, misguided, foolish, expressing (even if not in what most would say was the best way) real concerns about social welfare, modern life, a greedy society, law enforcement, segregation, intolerance, poverty and lack of respect?
Every one of those involved in any way is a spiritual being, whether or not each would accept that assertion. Every one is a creation of God. Each is therefore an expression of the God-force – the ‘good force’. ‘Evil’ does not come into it – there is no such thing. If this God we talk about is the all-powerful and all-embracing being we claim to accept It to be, then there can be nothing outside or beyond It. Essentially, everything and everyone which exists, has existed or will exist, emanates from God/good. There is one Ultimate Power; there is no on-going battle between God and Devil: Good and Evil are points on the same scale.
Clearly the lives of participants in recent events have not panned out as was planned (by them or in the bigger scheme of things); we need to ask ‘why?’ Whilst Personal Responsibility is a right we demand and proclaim, it is a qualified concept. We cannot be held responsible for that over which we have limited or no control. I’m not getting into the issue of re-incarnation, karma and allied concepts, and how these might impact upon our topic.
These last six months – the ‘Arab Spring’ – have seen popular uprisings across several countries. Ordinary people have decided that ‘enough is enough’ and taken to the streets in their thousands to bring about revolution in their own countries and a complete transformation to the political and social map of North Africa and the Middle East. Even as I write, Libya seems to be on the brink of freedom after 42 years of dictatorship. Then there is Syria and what might follow the violent suppression of public opinion. Do events in the UK reflect to any extent the scenes our media have graphically shown us, proclaiming such events as ‘people power’?
There is so much violence, real and virtual, on our TV screens and in the ‘games’ the younger generation play, often for hours on end. Cloistered in their rooms, away from family and friends, their ‘reality’ is to see how many they can kill in the shortest time to gain the highest score. These ‘games of death’ are the yardsticks by which many young people measure success and enjoyment. Even our comedy has aggression and anger. Surely our media have a responsibility for what they present, be it news, fiction, ‘reality TV’, documentaries or anything else?
‘We are what we eat’ is an old adage. Yet what are we eating? Food that is not just ‘junk’ but actually harmful because of some of its ingredients. Several years ago a well-known nutritionist worked in a prison with violent offenders; almost as soon as he had their diet changed there were great changes in their behaviour. We cannot dismiss this as ‘fad-ish’ – what goes into our bodies, through our mouths, our eyes and our ears, comes out in our attitudes and our behaviour.
The greed of bankers and politicians; corruption across the world; bribery that is often an accepted part of commercial activity; the gap between rich and poor getting larger – these are all elements in the backdrop of events in London and other cities.
What of sport, sometimes seen as a great leveller? Again, money dominates. One player is ‘sold’ for £10,000,000, another for £20,000,000 or more; wages of hundreds of thousands of pounds are paid – not per year but per week! Kicking a ball well or standing on a stage to sing may get you an income of millions a year, whilst a nurse or a teacher or refuse collector sees incomes held down or reduced though the bankers still get their enormous bonuses. Services for the elderly, the young, the sick, the disadvantaged get slashed and politicians talk of reducing taxes for the most wealthy. Prices rise from profiteering across the world and currency and commodity markets artificially push up costs.
All these form part of the background to the riots we have seen. No, they don’t excuse them, nor the damage and pain and destruction of life and property the participants have caused. We make moral judgements and demand tough sentences for these perpetrators yet others can spend thousands on lawyers and accountants to ‘avoid’ taxes and, even after the latest arrangements, still keep millions in their Swiss bank accounts. There is, clearly, ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’.
The concept of the First Principle of Spiritualism – The Fatherhood of God – has been shown to encompass all the rioters and protestors. Personal Responsibility is of great importance but has its limitations. Growing up where violence is the norm, where carrying a knife is accepted or even expected, where drugs control actions and decisions, where deprivation is the standard endured, then is it surprising that those are the values inculcated in the young? Yes, anyone has the potential to rise above such situations but it almost always needs a catalyst.
So what of the Principle of Brotherhood? “Well, I’m only going to have the nice people as my brothers” doesn’t work. Every one of those rioters is our brother or sister and whilst we may not be our brother’s keeper, nonetheless we cannot wash our hands of him or her when the going gets difficult. We all bear a measure (larger or smaller) of responsibility in the background circumstances, the actions and the thinking of these despised individuals. The Seven Principles are not always easy to comprehend and certainly not always easy to follow when we really try to practise what we preach.
And what of Compensation and Retribution? Well, we are certainly hearing cries for retribution! Six times the normal rate of people held on remand; stiff (some would say harsh) sentences being handed out; lives blighted and not always through malice but sometimes simply by momentary stupidity.
And the Compensation? As with every tragedy, the higher human qualities manifest themselves. A father pleading for calm and sense just hours after the death of his son – who could say they were not moved by such dignity and compassion? People in their hundreds, many of them of the same generation as the rioters, coming together with brooms and elbow grease to clean and clear the streets in their cities – what more positive a response could there be? Every situation and event is a learning opportunity and August has certainly presented its fair share of such opportunities!
When the dust has settled, the anger dissipated, the pain numbed by the passing of time, will we individually and as a society have learned any positive lessons? Yes, I really do believe we will have. Our young people need to be challenged; would not ‘sentencing’ them to repair the homes and communities they have wrecked do more long-term good than locking them up? Even in tough economic times, there need to be priorities. Developing opportunities for our young people to get together to play sports and other activities, to build and create and generally learn how to use their energy and vitality positively is essential. Maintaining youth workers and other social services is hardly false economy. Allowing decision-making to be shared with those affected and not just kept in the hands of those whose lives and circumstances may be limited but will not be devastated, will nurture a sense of responsibility and community.
Yes, I am a ‘glass half-full’ person. ‘Every man is my brother, every woman my sister, every child my child’ is not just a platitude; it must be the yardstick by which we live, accepting our own eternal nature and that of every living being.
Let us not brand a generation because of the actions of a very small minority. Perhaps August 2011 can be important as the beginning of a new chapter in British life, being the time when we start to re-evaluate our priorities and, in the words of John Lennon, ‘give peace a chance’.
Without entering the recent on-line discussion on ‘religion’ or ‘way of life’ (personally I don’t understand why Spiritualism cannot be both!) surely we all agree that Spiritualism should affect and influence every aspect of life, the ‘ordinary’ not just the so-called spiritual. If it doesn’t, then what point does it have? Spiritualism is not a one-day-a-week philosophy that deals only with my ‘spiritual’ nature. Spiritualist philosophy is reflected in my daily life, my politics, my morality, my values, my hopes, my ambitions – in everything.
Let us not damn these young people; let us roll up our sleeves and help them. Let us not condemn but offer the hand of friendship and companionship and be prepared to give wise counsel. Above all, let us not judge. ‘Unless we have worn their shoes…’ you know the rest. In time each will judge him- or herself. Let us help them to learn from what they have done, decide not to make the same mistakes and then move on.
It’s called ‘Eternal Progression ’- and it is open to us all.