Social commentary

Taken over by The Fear: the spiritual roots of the riots

Many of the people I have spoken to in recent days, whether religious or not, acknowledge that there is something spiritual about the destructive chaos that we have seen unleashed.  The meaninglessness of the riots speak of problems with deeper roots than just material need: an underlying lostness in our culture around issues of identity and relationships. 

This culture is brilliantly captured by Lily Allen in her song, The Fear:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuck loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
Cuz everyone knows that’s how you get famous
I’ll look at The Sun and I’ll look in the Mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m on to a winner

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cuz I’m being taken over by The Fear

Life’s about film stars and less about mothers
It’s all about fast cars concussing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
and that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic

And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And its not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function
Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything’s cool as long as I’m gettin’ thinner

Allen’s song is more than just witty, ironic commentary about the state of our culture. It’s title The Fear shows an understanding of the end result of all this consumerism, self-interest and greed.  They offer satisfaction but actually result in a deep form of anxiety.  Our moral compasses no longer point towards the values that make us truly human: contentment, relationships, compassion and a commitment to others.  As a society, too many don’t know what’s right or what’s real anymore.

The relational nature of human beings means the more we concentrate simply on what we want and what feels right for us, the less happy we are.  This is why many of the people of all ages who have been rioting this week will see themselves as victims – because they have been deprived of committed relationships and a secure identity.  Too many have had too much of what they want and not nearly enough of what they need.

We are seeing an unveiling of the kind of poverty that is the real problem in urban Britain, a cocktail of material, relational and an inner poverty of identity (this 3-fold analysis is based on Jim Wallis’ thinking in Faith Works published by SPCK)  All of these are interconnected:

Material poverty and inequality is the cause of many problems – but its not the full story. 

Interconnected is the growing poverty of relationships, where children born outside of any commitment, dysfunctional families and absent fathers are the norm. 

Our fear of being judgmental has developed into a deep negligence of the importance of the family and a deeply immature approach to marriage.  Liberal acceptance has morphed into a libertarian denial of what is so obviously important.  

Underlying both of these is a deep seated poverty of identity which is manifested in the epidemic of mental health problems, self harm and drug misuse.  Children need boundaries, structure and guidance – it gives them a confidence and security so that they can grow up with proper reference to the world around them. 

These were the forms of poverty that I saw when I was manager of a hostel for young homeless people in Soho.  Everyday young people would come in deeply damaged by these forms of poverty.  We tried our best to treat the symptoms of these issues but dealing with the underlying causes is a far harder task. 

And this is where without being able to talk about deeper spiritual lostness, both Right and Left wings of the political debate get into the kind of sterile arguments we have seen this week about whether to blame individuals or blame the government.  We need to recognise the deep roots of our problems as a society.  Values such as justice, commitment and the importance of family and of care for neighbours do not simply appear by themselves.  I believe these values grow best from an understanding of God’s love and grace.

Today, my family and I will be heading off to a field in Devon at Lee Abbey to help run a Christian Camp where over 200 teenagers will be coming.  For many people this might be the last place they want to be – especially after the events of this week.  But for us it is the highlight of the year – because in amongst the fun, the games, the silliness – the Christian message provides a focus and a deep meaning behind it all.  It’s a focus and a meaning that I hope that those who have been rioting can find – and in doing so have a stronger basis for a truly fulfilled life.

13 thoughts on “Taken over by The Fear: the spiritual roots of the riots”

  1. Absolutely spot on Jon. Interesting how Lily Allen’s song so cleverly puts a finger on what people feel. I also like the way that you have identified that the inability of polical parties to talk about spiritual issues makes their arguments sterile. Life only really makes sense when we acknowledge how God’s Grace has changed our lives through Jesus.


  2. There are 3 vital factors here which you aren’t being taken into acoount.
    The first that for many black people, when their forebears were slaves, fathers were forced to show no interest or attachment to their offspring, or that was used as a means to control and to hurt them! After generations of being forced to keep away from their loved ones for fear of their love and attention being used as a weapon against them and their loved ones, who can blame the young people of today for still following the pattern that was learnt and honed as a survival measure against the cruelty and abuse their white masters used against them in the past! If there are any judgemental statements to be made here then they should be in acknowledgement of our part in this sad legacy and in sincere apology and repentence for our crimes against other races! Only when we can truly acknowledge our faults and repent the past mistakes can we move forward and help these poor young people to overcome their abused heritage.
    The second factor is the current benefit system in the UK: which penalises couples who want to marry or live together in mutual love and support, which as a result forces people to consider reducing their poverty levels through maintaining single parent status just to survive! Again as with the previous factor, an example of the enforced damaging behaviour and life choices that many would judge being merely a matter of survival for the poorest in our society, and once again brought about by their masters, our leaders!
    Thirdly, ‘poverty of identity’ is not just a matter of a lack of ‘boundaries, structure and guidance’, much as they of course do help; it goes much deeper than that. We are quick to write of whole sections of our young people as hoodies and wasters, whilst failing them by not giving them the neccessary support they need to develop their full potential and find their true identities. (The recent removal of support for the youth centres and the third sector organisations that have traditionally helped them is a particular case in point). The young people cannot feel a sense of identity and inclusion in a society which displays such hostility towards them and a total disregard for their health and wellbeing! When we have statistics such as young black people being 9(!) times more likely to be stopped and searched by police and over 330 of their deaths in police custody over the past decade, without anyone ever being held responsible, we cannot say that ‘boundaries, structure and guidance’ will solve the problem. We have to acknowledge that the problem is a problem of societies making and can only be resolved through educating society to elliminate the institutional racism which is forcing our young people to be labelled as criminals and thus giving them no choice but to identify with the criminal underworld just because they belong to the underclass that society has created for them!


    1. thanks for your thoughtful contribution – whilst I think you have to bear in mind these historical/social factors, I think things have gone too far and there has to be a time when you say that personal responsibility within the family has to be emphasised. I know loads of black/carribbean families who are doing a brilliant job of being parents and I think its very dubious to use factors like slavery in this kind of way. In some ways it continues the problem – by keeping them shackled by low expectations. Movements like the Civil Right struggle in the US show that despite unjust laws and racism, black people have showed a moral example to the whole world.

      We should never write anyone off – at the moment I am on a camp where we are integrating together kids from all kinds of backgrounds – but I think a dangerous way of writing people off is to have low expectations of them – to excuse and politicise their behaviour when actually boundaries and guidance are what is needed. I have seen the dangers of this in work with homeless people all the time when vulnerable are not helped by people who continually paint them as victims rather than doing all they can to empower and challenge them to change their lives.


  3. Sorry Mary-Ellen: nice try, but there are thousands – tens of thousands – of black teenagers who presumably suffer the same “institutional racism” by virtue of their colour, who manage to study hard, look after their families, provide for themselves, and who do NOT identify with the criminal underworld, nor participate in the sort of behaviour seen in these riots. What makes them different?


  4. Oh Mary-Ellen..

    Have a look at this news report
    How many of these convicted rioters are black Youth?

    If you want to pursue the absent fathers / dysfunctional families explanation you need to include whites from poor communities, youths who were sent away from home to public schools, and think about Muslim youngsters who often face poverty and exclusion, tend to have stable extended families, close communities with tight social control who end up taking a variety of different paths..postive and negative..

    I have come across few single parents who have considered the economics of lone parenthood.. it certainly isn’t very favourable.. While there are some who so seem to feel a sense of entitlement to benefits and a free home after child bearing.. the usual reason for not wanting a guy around is that the guys involved are irresposnsible, immature in relationships, often controlling and abusive, and not very interested in their kids…

    But yes you are right that youth has been neglected.. not supported.. demonised..harshly policed, failed by a sausage machine education system.. and that it is black and poor white boys who have come off worse.. Of course there is still racism at work…. but it doesn’t explain half of whats happening..


  5. Jim’s 3 touchstones of poverty may be good starting points for discussion about causes from where the poor live – and your touching upon the christian message as cure possibly from where you live

    I like Jim’s questioning and concern about justice and I’m chuffed to hear of your sincere thinking and caring about looted and looters – but I think analysis is too abstract and so agents and actors involved are disempowered

    jesus new economy is one which puts the poorest at the centre of the british economy in 2011, where land; its polity, its promise, its goods and its middle class god (they hear about on tv) – belongs to them too – it is to be shared among every person and to begin this process of bringing about gods economy (kingdom) : all toxic debt is to be cancelled…

    this is good news to the poor – not pink blancmange of abstract sophistry to the poor – this is what british middle class christians eat week in week out – while the poor starve.

    It defaults to – responsibility of poor (response -ability) – fix marraige and fix identity- marraige, yes, identity – how do you fix poverty identity with the gospel in a class system held in place by vested interests of the church and those who lead it itself

    in a country during the adventure of empire where 86% land now is owned by a handful and the rest of us fight over the crumbs – stability held because the deal was..

    the poorest still had 3 trad. ladders of mobility (ways to recover land looted from them in the past) – education, religion and unions (linked to trad industries)- all kicked away by the powers that be from the left and the right of political spectrum. Only 1 left:


    and the kids are not stupid- they know it – hence x-factor and the tears and suicides and yes riots

    we need to tell them another story and model an imaginative resistance which 1. cultivates outrage, 2. challenges inevitability and 3. opens up other futures

    here is story … first of the backdrop to acting out god’s economy (cure) in these islands in 2011

    british empire and class system- its violence and looting via class system to keep the economy flowing into the hands of the 1%. is its core aim, from home and overseas – and history of how we got here and effects on health and addiction and violence and mood of class organised relations that rule us

    under the hood of the empire economy: how empire has colonised of all our institutions, parties and spheres and media inc. christianity in these islands – into social organisations that serves itself first – not poor first (as jesus modelled and taught, as no1 rule of his economy)

    control and fear: how the powers keep control via Fear and shame- the shaming tactics of powers on the poorest are well known – but lesser understood, they are not aimed at the poor -it’s aimed at the middle classes (do as we say or your next! 3 months of pay from being out on the streets – pay your taxes and shut up or else we will get you too)

    media literacy and protection- how the political/corporate powers that be – use arts and media in controlling and spinning the narrative of their version of the story of this land 24-7 via the media in order to rationalise support for their need for increasing control (in order to secure long term looting of peoples, land, resources)

    most of all- how the colonisation of christianity has affected britain – using even god and jesus as cover for looting at home and abroad – has made christianity toxic to britain’s health by cutting it off from the influence of the poor and their stories of truth and prophetic witness

    cure: enter jesus, not as a paid worker, or professional activist –

    as one of us – we follow in his steps and do likewise

    he tells the poor, the rioters, the beaten up, the demonised underclass who crave what the nice religious people have: God is here to HELP US – defeat the powers dominating and controlling our lives – yes! and the poor are at the heart of this jubilee rescue of loot and land and people and their dignity; that they are god’s offspring: producers and fellow creators of the good city from below not consumers of the city’s goods from above, but, grins jesus – let’s try doing it non-violently, comically, with dignity..

    this was what Blake, when he penned ‘jerusalem’ – to challenge and stir the elect of the 18C in england, blancmanging the god inspired resistance of englands’ poor- to stop it, and tell the poor the land is theirs!!! take back what has been looted, share it , and cancel debts between one another – in a riot of love..


  6. Just discovered your blog, and appreciate your thoughtfulness and wisdom, born out of experience and commitment to people, and an active and real faith. Thanks for writing, God bless. Kevin


      1. I’m good thanks, great to catch up again, I will stalk you for a bit now and see if you really are a whole lot more interesting than I thought.

        And I already thought you were pretty interesting.


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