- Created on Thursday, 01 September 2011 01:00
- Written by Richard Avery
During the second week of August many city streets in England erupted in disorder as children, youths and adults went on tile rampage. One national newspaper said, "The Britain that we knew, the Britain we loved, died on our streets this week. It went in an orgy of mindless wanton murderous violence."
Ten years ago a Cheltenham teacher told me how one day she admired a new coat that an eight year old girl in her class wore to school. Was it a special present? "No, my Mum nicked It", she responded, in completely matter-of-fact way. In her home that's how you got new things.
This August that girl could have been amongst those to walk into a smashed up boutique and help herself to some designer gear. (It wasn't Just lads involved the city riots.) And hearing the comments of some of those involved in the riots you might wonder if they have any grasp of right and wrong. As one young man said, "Why are you going to waste the opportunity to get new stuff?"
Most people looting shops do not have a carefully thought out philosophy to justify their action, yet the lack of morals does fit a strand of 21 st century culture. For many people today right and wrong are not fixed points, they're whatever you want them to be. It's not so much that their moral compass is distorted; rather the whole idea of moral compass outside us is rejected. And this thinking didn't start with today's youngsters. It goes back to my parents' generation and more. One influential American philosopher, Richard Rorty (1931-2007), claimed that humanity creates its own values. There are no moral absolutes. We just invent our chosen categories of right and wrong.
In the 1960s the younger generation questioned their parents' values, sensing that their parents were trying to cling to an old morality at the same time as rejecting the Christian beliefs on which those morals were founded. So we started to say things like: "It's right for me"; "If it feels good do it". Later the big sportswear firm, Nike, unwittingly summed it up in their advertising slogan: "Just do it!". And in summer 2011 they did!
Yet, even though that old sense of right and wrong may have diminished in recent decades, something happened in the heart of the nation when faced with the shocking reports in August. Seeing film of crowds torching shops, or robbing an injured student whilst pretending to help him, then most of the population of this country found a surge of moral revulsion welling up inside: a sense that this is truly wrong. That these people had done more than break parliamentary legislation, they violated a deep moral law.
C. S. Lewis wrote in 'Mere Christianity' that this sense of morality is a clue to the reality of God. Most of us do have a deep intuition that there are true moral values and they are very important. (The Swinging Sixties did not wipe that away!) Lewis went on to show that to defend moral values we need an ultimate moral foundation outside ourselves in which right and wrong are grounded. Lewis suggested that the Christian understanding of God was by far the best explanation for this. And, to refer back to my comments in the last Herald issue, Atheism fails to provide a solid ethical base because it cuts away the external foundation for morality. If our behaviour is no more than the electrical impulses of an animal nervous system, then talk of right and wrong is an illusion.
In the wake of the riots, some have called for better efforts from parents and schools to teach our children right and wrong, to reconstruct their moral compass. But there's more to the problems than a failure to know right from wrong. Some of those who behaved badly in the city streets knew they were doing wrong, but did it anyway. And the problems of recent years involve more than youngsters on the rampage.
We have had politicians who fiddled their expenses claims. Not all of them were ignorant of right and wrong. City traders sold worthless sub-prime mortgages. Not all of them were ignorant of right and wrong. And long ago a man and a woman in the Garden were not ignorant of right and wrong when they picked fruit from the forbidden tree!
The Scriptures both present a moral framework, God-given, right and wrong, and also they tell a story of repeated moral failure that we are all complicit in. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God", as St Paul wrote in Romans 3:23. Whether we've memorised the 10 Commandments or just have what our parents told··us. was right and wrong, there are times when we all fail to do
Jesus was clear that the roots of the problem are deep down inside. We suffer from serious heart disease: "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile you." (Matthew 15: 19,20). The Christian faith gives an understanding of God and ourselves that matches up to our experience of the world -our intuitive grasp of moral law and our failure to live up to it!
Giving kids a better sense of right and wrong will not eradicate bad behaviour. So in society, however good a job we do of education. parenting, and employment opportunities, we still need laws and law enforcement to restrain and contain the trouble that erupts from the human heart!
But the Christian faith also offers hope to those of us who cannot live up to God's best. The comments of Jesus about the condition of the human heart are followed by an account of his encounter with a desperate mother, a foreigner who pleads for help from this Jewish man of God. The Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter It was not because she followed the right and avoided the wrong that Jesus helped her. (She might not have done a good job of parenting). He acted because she put her hope in him. She dared to ask for help for her troubled daughter. Jesus responded "You have great faith. Your request is granted" (Matthew 15: 28)
Maybe we need to cry out to God for the sons and daughters of our land.