UK riots: the erosion of morality is responsible, says the Bishop of Manchester

By The Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, bishop of Manchester

7:30AM BST 14 Aug 2011, The Telegraph

I shall never forget the scenes of destruction I saw in Manchester on Wednesday morning. Not even Northern determination to get things back to normal could disguise the thuggery of the night before. For hours I talked with shopkeepers, met councillors and police officers, engaged with young people, and prayed.

I was impressed by the stoic reactions of people whose property had been violated and their livelihoods threatened by criminal vandalism and targeted theft. A shopkeeper, poignantly bringing some order to the chaos, spoke in sadness rather than anger about the selfish, grasping greed of young looters who had wrecked so much. Other cities suffered worse, with vicious malice shown towards police and, tragically, murder.

Why? What has happened to bring us to this crisis point? Whatever the reasons, they cannot be excuses. Justice must be done, and be seen to be done. But the problem will not be solved by court sentences alone.

The proper avoidance of knee-jerk reactions and simplistic answers this past week points to the complex reasons that lie behind the riots.

It would be facile to blame deprivation and cuts. As some of those who were in Hulme and Moss Side during the last riots said to me, this was different. For many who took part it was just a smash-and-grab spree.

The symptoms of something badly wrong are obvious. But what are we to do about it? Some of the answers may emerge from political, economic and social debate. But within those conversations I suspect there may be little recognition of the relentless erosion of Christian values in this country that has taken place during the lifetime of successive governments.

The result has been a moral deficit in private and public life that has spawned acquisitiveness and dishonesty. It is evident among all levels of our society. The riots are not the only recent example of theft and greed. The Salford man, whose son had been arrested, was not far off the mark when he quoted Jesus: “Let he who is sinless cast the first stone.”

The moral aspects, and the political, economic and social issues, are all deeply interrelated – or should be. One of the biggest mistakes of our present culture is the attempt to remove the link between public and private morality. How we behave is evidence of the sort of character we have. To create a false division between what we do in public and how we are in private is fraught with problems of credibility.

Perhaps it is not surprising that a moral vacuum in some parts of our society seems to have prompted a me-first, ultra-consumerist culture, in which the quest for possession of things overrides a caring concern for others.

Over the past few decades, we have nurtured confusion among people of all ages and backgrounds over what is right and what is wrong. This week we had an unpleasant glimpse of the default position to which society inevitably returns when its moral imperatives have been sidelined.

So how do we remedy the problem? Shrill demands for the Ten Commandments to be taught are unlikely to be heeded, even though no other moral code has had such widespread influence.

A more subtle but robust approach needs to be taken, not least in our schools, to build up strength of character, encourage a sense of purpose in life and inculcate the values that lead to a healthy society.

No government has been able to put forward a credible non-religious moral framework. That is not to say you have to be religious to be moral. Of course that is not true. But where are the systematic building blocks for life that can replace the Beatitudes and the New Testament’s teaching about the values of love, peacefulness, compassion and care for one’s neighbour? To sideline religion in nurture and education is foolhardy.

Theological insights about justice and respect, exercising discipline with mercy, and the knowledge that everyone is redeemable, are of proven worth and pertinent to any intelligent exploration about how we can become a better society.

Meanwhile, we reap the rewards of young people out of work with no positive outlet for channelling natural aggression. Too many children miss adequate guidance from parents.

I grew up as an only child without a father, so I know how important it is to find a good male role model and have quality relationships. The absence of that is why gang leaders can have such a beguiling influence. For many youngsters, the gang provides the best sense of family and community.

But on Wednesday morning I saw hundreds of young people with their brushes and shovels cleaning up the mess.

It was a heart-warming sign of hope from young people putting service before self.

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