After the riots (4)... love thy neighbour

First published 19th September 2011

In the fourth of our "After the riots" series of articles, Simon Bale, one of the Diocese's Social Responsibility Officers who is part of the ISR team, argues for the role of the Church in healing our neighbourhoods.

I was in France on holiday when Bristol rioted. The first I knew about it was a text from my son assuring me that he was not involved in any rioting.

"What rioting?" I hastily replied.

I could only get news of home two days late via the English newspapers on my camp site, and this was rather like watching TV through a letter box. By the time I returned home the dust was beginning to settle and since then, Colonel Gaddafi and other events have more than eclipsed the media obsession with the riots.

And yet, the fact remains, the riots happened and they happened suddenly.

Regardless of those rioters who seemed to buck the social prejudices and who caused such surprise because they had jobs and even prospects, in Bristol at least, the neighbourhoods that experienced the riots could easily be described as less than affluent. The usual suspects? I am not sure what that means, but in Bristol some areas have a reputation that derives from years of neglect and exclusion. Of course, the rioting was clearly not simply about social exclusion, but it raises important questions that arguments about avarice do not completely resolve.

There have been yards and yards of column inches devoted to the individualism and greed that "permitted" the riots to happen, and it cannot be ignored that, as David Starkey observed, this was a kind of "shopping with violence".

The talk was initially about how to punish those individuals who had looted. Their sentences were to be hard, and some worried they were too harsh. But, when all have been convicted and served their time, what will we be left with in our neighbourhoods? How does a neighbourhood respond to such behaviour? If, as we have been told, the riots indicate a broken society, how can we, Christian and concerned, be part of the process of healing, not just outside our door, but across areas of society?

If we break our leg we support it while it heals. If a cup handle breaks we might glue it back on, but again, we support it while the glue sets. With a broken society, how can we support it while it heals? How can we be the healed society?

We need to be ready to engage and witness locally as communities of wholeness, reaching out and showing God's love through positive and creative action in our neighbourhoods. We need to seek out and participate in the neighbourhood partnerships that already exist. This is the localist agenda that churches are perfectly placed to influence. We meet weekly, and in numbers that (even though we may not realise it) are more substantial than any other neighbourhood or community organisation. We believe in a moral and spiritual point of view that actively seeks wholeness and healing, and yet we often ignore our potential to stand up and act.

We may already be involved as individuals in local neighbourhood initiatives; but society needs to see the Christianity that lies beneath, within, around our actions in order that everyone can appreciate the transforming opportunities that a Kingdom of love and mercy, grace and hope brings to the situation.

Getting involved in local neighbourhood politics is not everyone's natural action, but if we believe that Christ's message of wholeness and unity is worth praying for, we should also consider how it is worth acting for. There are local neighbourhood partnerships and organisations across Bristol. Churches need to engage with them in order to support the healing. ISR is here as a resource to local churches and we would be happy to help advise and support such engagement.

Simon Bale

Social Responsibility Officer

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