We've all seen the images from the riots in England: burning cars, buses and shops; 'feral' youth rampaging across high streets, breaking into shops and stealing anything they can get their hands on; policemen and women struggling to catch offenders who are more mobile and tech-savvy than they are; a grandmother courageously railing against the nihilism of the rioters; an Asian student being mugged even as his muggers pretend to help him; a heartbroken father calling for peace between communities at risk of racial war. British society is engaged in its deepest examination of conscience in a while.
Elsewhere, I've written about my experience of events as they unfolded. But now that the violence is past, the post-mortem is in full flow. Newspapers and websites dissect the violence of the riots and the motives of the youngsters involved. Many focus their attention on the socioeconomic inequalities experienced by the majority of offenders, their isolation from their communities and society, their poor experience of authority figures and the police. Just as many have pointed out the lack of justifiable cause on the part of the offenders, their opportunism and lack of conscience. Some have implicitly, and cautiously, blamed the government's cuts. Many others have asked, 'Where are the parents?'
It is not polite to speak of spiritual causes in a secular age where spirituality, if it is admitted at all, is more of a private vice than a matter of public concern. A few spiritual perspectives have been offered – see here, here and here. Watching the 24/7 stream of images, I was reminded of some of the lessons from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).
As the name suggests, the Spiritual Exercises (SpExx) is a programme of spiritual renewal and transformation, a kind of spiritual 'boot camp', that an exercitant engages in, usually over a one-month residential retreat. The SpExx are divided into four 'weeks' or stages of renewal. The First Week focuses on the inner transformation away from sin to God; the Second on discipleship under Jesus Christ; the Third on uniting oneself with the Passion, the suffering and death of Jesus; the Fourth on becoming aware of the presence of the Risen Christ among us.
Early in the Exercises, in the First Week, the exercitant prays for the grace of 'shame and confusion' (SpEx ) in the face of sin. Shame and confusion has certainly been the theme of the week in the country. Why did 'they' do what they did? How could they be so cynical? What drives a 11-year-old into breaking, entering and stealing from an electronics store? Why did a middle-class white university student simply take what did not belong to her?
For Ignatius, shame and confusion is being prayed for as a moment of 'grace'. If we looked at the events of this week as a moment of grace, we would see in it an opportunity to renew ourselves: as individuals, families, communities and as a society. We can see that we are fortunate in some ways – many societies have not had this opportunity to examine themselves deeply before a greater loss of life, limb and liberty. We didn't realise it – but something was deeply wrong with us before. And now we have the opportunity to set things right, as far as possible.
In the Exercises, the exercitant who desires to turn away from a life of sin and darkness is presented, in the first meditation of the Second Week, with a meditation on what Ignatius called 'The Call of the King' (SpEx [91-100]). This is a reflection on role-models – who we choose to imitate and who we choose to follow in our lives.
When youth broke into Footlocker, JD Stores, Curry's and other electronics stores – who were they trying to imitate? Who have we, as a society, taught them to emulate? If the bankers and financiers who brought the world to its knees just three years back walk away with 'golden handshakes' and bonuses, how can we blame the young for thinking that crime does pay? When parents and educators are engaged in the pursuit of material prosperity, how can we blame the young for wanting more 'stuff', especially if they get it for 'free'? Have we ever taught them to save, to work hard, to earn the 'stuff' they get?
A few days in the Second Week, the exercitant performs what is another famous Ignatian exercise – the meditation on the Two Standards (SpEx [136-148]). Here, Ignatius invites us to meditate deeply into the process of sin – how decent, well-meaning people are lured into increasingly incomprehensible acts of deceit, cowardice and, yes, evil.
In the Two Standards meditation, the exercitant imagines the forces of good and evil arrayed across each other as though on a battlefield. She then listens to the two 'commanders' – the Devil and Christ – outline their 'strategies'.
For the Devil, the strategy is threefold: tempt people to desire wealth and material prosperity; then cause them to value honour and praise from a secular materialistic world; and finally to come to pride – the king of all sins. All three – greed, praise, pride – are characteristic of our society today. How can we blame the youth for simply taking what they want when we have been buying things we don't need with money we don't have for years? How can we blame the youth for desiring the esteem and 'respect', a key street word, from their peers when we ourselves have been chasing praise and regard, seeking to be ever more attractive and desirable in the eyes of ours? And finally, how can we blame the youth for saying, 'I can do what I want' when we ourselves have been saying, 'No one, no authority, even no God, can tell me what I can and cannot do'?
The strategy of the commander of goodness is the diametric opposite. In place of material wealth, he tries to attract people to a simplicity of life and purpose. The call is to consider needs instead of simply wants. In place of praise, he calls people to value opposition and unpopularity in the cause of the good. The end result of this is humility, instead of pride. Humility is the mother of all other virtues.
Perhaps the wake-up call we have received this week can help Britain along the path to simplicity and humility, as St. Ignatius encourages us.