London & Kigali: whose responsibiity, what response?

(sorry it’s long, but needed to get it out!)

Parliament is recalled and the blame-game begins. The shrill public voices of those with power or profile pronounce judgement on who is at fault and what should be done. Parents, police, education, political policy and even ‘feral criminality’ (seems tough on ferrets!), all get a mention.

But noticibly absent from the responsibility question is ‘us’. By which I mean the law abiding (more or less) majority who did not ‘riot’. ‘We’ are styled as the victims, the innocent communities left to clean up. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ description makes for easy analysis. ‘Us’, the upright and innocent, need protection and deserve safety. ‘Them’, the chaotic and immoral, must be punished and excluded. Cheap headlines, easy policy, job done.

But have you noticed how this time the ‘them’ resist our neat categories? Yes, of course, there are a good number of hoodied youths being rounded up, satisfying our need for an obvious enemy. But what about the mums and dads (some even took the kids along for the ride), the classroom assistants, the high-achieving scholar, the trainee social workers? They all feature in the court lists. Different races, backgrounds, ages and locations. Suddenly the old definitions blur. ‘They’ begin to look a bit like ‘us’. Reality is uncomfortably complex and perplexing.

So how might we understand the ‘us’ and ‘them’? Perhaps part of the answer lies in relating those two categories more closely. Let me explain.

Four weeks ago, on a warm Saturday in Kigali, I sat with a Rwandan bishop discussing diocesan strategy. He’s been in office about 6 months and I asked him about future plans. ‘It’s all about discipleship, because it must have been partly our fault’. He went onto explain that he believed the genocide, where almost 1 million people were slaughtered, must have been, in a majority Christian country, in part a failure of discipleship. In his analysis Christians who truly lived like Jesus would not murder one another. It had an inescapable logic and is a bold plan. It was a deeply humbling conversation.

Now clearly London and Kigali are miles apart. The 1994 Genocide and the 2011 rioting are absolutely different. But the central insight here is that society is connected, the ‘us’ affects the ‘them’. And on one level the bishop is rightly describing their Rwandan relationship.

Ancient Chrisian wisdom agrees by saying that the moral capacity of people is enabled, strengthened and shaped by the choices and example of those around them. Private parenting, public policy and general culture are the nurturing context for us all, with or without a hoodie, for good or ill.

So perhaps there are some firm starting points for the future of our communitues:

1. We cannot start by assuming ‘us’ and ‘them’ are unrelated. Of course individual moral responsiblity is important, but ‘satisfaction’, cheap pronouncements or quick justice must not ride roughshod over listening and understanding. This is not a liberal cop-out, but a hard human essential. Whilst not a coherent protest, some of these events nevertheless have a point (decemated youth provision, socially divisive education expenses, hopeless dissengagemnt & dissafection, gangs et. al.).

2. A society which enthrones individualism and consumerism as its twin Gods through universal media presence, and makes unrestrained choice as its prime mechanism is self-destructive. It will always diminish the capacity of people to make positive moral choices for the common good at all levels of society. In the 24/7 online ‘twitterverse’, we immediately reap what everyone sows (expenses, super-injuctions, Murdoch, riots et. al.).

Whilst the second is hard to address, the first is essential for the survival of society. We must address widening social innequality. We must get beyond those who claim to speak for the young and somehow engage young people directly. We must honour and value all ages, races and communities.

Of course, for those of us in the Christian community the Bishop’s point goes deeper. Is there any connection between our discipleship and recent events? If Churches were so embedded in, and connected to, our communities (over 40 in Walthamstow alone), was there nothing we could have done? Do our lives really offer transformng grace and our communuties structural salvation for all? Or is it all just words and hymns? Are we an exclusive, disconneced religious enclave, even when we think we’re doing well, too distant from the grassroots and too distant from where Jesus is today?

The blame-game (which this is not), is easy. The wake-up call is harder and more complex. To me the questions of Kigali seem quite close to London. Uncomfortably so?

Location:Dungarvon St,Wanaka,New Zealand


5 responses to “London & Kigali: whose responsibiity, what response?

  1. Glad you made this link between the two events. I remembered the following vaguely and then had to resort to Wikipedia:

    When The Times invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton’s contribution took the form of a letter:

    Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton

  2. I’ve read a lot of articles over the last few days pointing out similarities between the ‘lowest’ of our society – looters / vandals and the ‘highest’ – politicians guilty of expenses frauds, bankers etc. Very few have even mentioned the responsibility of the middle majority. The state of those of us who think of ourselves as ‘ordinary’ seems generally to be one of self-satisfaction and outrage in all directions. I think it will be difficult to convince the vast majority of this country that they may be something rotten at the core. The idea that just because we can afford something it is, therefore, our right to own it has been proven to be stronger than the idea that people should receive a fair wage for their labour. The idea that because we can afford something we should go ahead and buy it even if that money could save a life. We’re so embedded in this culture it’s so hard to feel there’s anything wrong with it. As Christians so many of us wonder around with iphones, expensive clothes, laptops etc. how can we expect the rest of society to understand there may be more important things in life? (p.s. written by a guilty one.)

    • i guess part of the issue here is that we are cakled to b. a prophetic community and by definition we will not be the majority or popular. but i am constantly encouraged by small groups and communities wh ‘punch abve their weight’ because of the power of living and acting differently. In one sense pehaps we have to bet what we can (sacrificing lifestyle, focussing on the impotant stuff), wih no garuntee of the outcome other than he rightness of our action. I think the rest is up to God. Increasingly I think we need to simly live our lives responsibly before God and not worry too much if herest change or get worse….but that s so muc easier to say than do. Must think more n this. Thanks for your stimulating response Jo, really enjoyed it.

  3. Only just catching up on emails and long blogs(!) after a rather busy fortnight (what was that about a quiet August?).
    It’s been fascinating to watch both church and non-church people’s response to the both the “disturbances” and the community response (via the Respite Centre). Because of Twitter being the main publicity medium, the majority of volunteers weren’t church people. And because we were swamped with help and supplies, we didn’t need to use the church email lists. After the Sunday, when the Centre was publicised, there was a steady trickle of elderly parishioners arriving with cake, and comments around “why weren’t we told earlier?”.
    I’m afraid I’m glad it was such a community-led event – as a result a lot of good connections have been made between “them” and “us”, hopefully helping to counteract the assumption that “we” church people have a monopoly on doing good, and giving generously, while “them” non-church people are all part of the problem.
    Now the challenge is to build on the connections made – hopefully without assumptions being made about the hoardes of “them” who will now flock to church on Sundays!

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