Summer, 2011. A teenager, encased in a hood/mask combo to hide his identity, carries a large HD television above his head. He (we assume it’s a he) has ripped it from the shelf of an electrical store, as confirmed by the futile ringing of an alarm behind him. Calmly he carries the TV away, as scores of other looters pour in to the store to follow suit. This scene is no isolated incident; it repeats, dozens of times over, across London, and in a handful of other towns and cities around England.
That picture – of the young thug carrying off expensive stolen goods – became the symbol of August’s disturbing wave of violence and theft. So where truly does the problem lie in that image? In the weeks following the riots, the finger was pointed at the teenager – at his greed, at his lack of morality, at the inability of his parents to raise him properly. Peter Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mail, described the scene at a courtroom a few days later with the words: ‘their defence lawyers read out the usual garbage about how this or that loping, chippy troll is turning his life round, is in the midst of a hairdressing course or has responded well to youth workers’.
Back to the picture I’ve described: I don’t believe that the problem is with the young person; at least, not entirely. I believe that a large part of the problem is represented by the HD television he’s carrying. Regular readers of this column might have a sense of déjà vu at that point. I wrote two months ago of Western culture’s obsession with gluttonous consumerism, and it is this trend which fuelled the summer riots.
Aside from the initial clashes which kickstarted events (around the killing by police of suspect Mark Duggan), these weren’t even violent protests. For a few days, England was simply in the grip of a craze for violent theft; this wasn’t about the pursuit of justice or even anarchy, but the pursuit of things. When the ‘Arab Spring’ saw young people take to the streets of Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, they marched for freedom and a better future. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, they rioted for MP3 players and Gucci shoes.
What was driving that behaviour? Not ideology, but opportunism. Not anger, but greed. These people, many of them undeniably teenagers and even children, saw a chance to acquire more ‘stuff’. In historical terms, they were perhaps the most depressing riots ever seen; the consumerism riots. Only in a culture that has a seriously twisted perspective on material things could such a thing take place.
Successive governments have talked about the importance of ‘citizenship’ education: raising good young participants in British life. Yet the nature of our culture means that what that really equates to is growing young consumers. Though I may be coming over like a Socialist Worker columnist here, the truth is that the whole of our society is set up around the spending of money and the possessing of things. The dominant orthodoxy in capitalist economics suggests (quite nonsensically) that businesses and nations can grow year after year ad infinitum, and requires that we all spend more money on more things this year than we did last. So as we raise young people, we give them aspirations to earn (giving them ambitions of highly paid jobs), and aspirations to spend (my daughter, at age 3, is already seen in terms of being a ‘target market’ for consumer goods – in her case, plastic ponies).
This is what British society has given young people to live for; this is the dream – to earn and spend money. And so when a recession hits, when grants and benefits are cut and cancelled, where the credit that was previously offered so freely is now suddenly scarce, what is the implication for those young people?
A Role to Play
I am not suggesting that consumerism is the only factor in play. Of course unemployment, upbringing, gang involvement and hundreds of other factors are relevant here. Yet as we seek to prevent such events from happening again, as we look for positive, proactive approaches to engaging with young people as a society and as a Church, this point is crucial.
Britain’s young people need new dreams; something else to aim for which isn’t about financial reward or material gain. This, of course, is where the Church comes in – we actually do have something to offer; a picture that is bigger than ourselves. When we’re at our best, we stand for community, peace, transformation and regeneration. We offer what Barack Obama termed the audacity of hope – the idea that tomorrow might be brighter, even though to the rest of the world it seems bleaker.
Practically, what does that look like? Employing youth workers and releasing them beyond the borders of our churches is important, as is supporting the work of front line Christian youth initiatives such as XLP and The Message Trust. For all of us, though, whether we have a hands-on interest in youth work or not, there is a role to play. The old African proverb holds that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and there is a vital place for every Christian – whatever their age or level of connection with teenagers – in raising the teenagers in their community. That might range from praying for them, to offering to act as a mentor, to financially supporting the hands-on youth work of others. But unless we take young people seriously, not just as a generation lost to the Church but also to society as a whole, then we will doubtless see August’s sad scenes replayed in steady recurring waves.
A Big Challenge
Moreover, if the Church is truly going to talk to young people about aspirations beyond the financial, then there is another huge implication. We must put our money where our mouth is. It is not enough to say that we do not value material things; we have to demonstrate that this is an authentic belief. That’s potentially a big challenge for a Church where growing, ‘successful’ congregations are often those with consumer-friendly worship and teaching, impressive new building projects and a healthy bank balance. As the people who claim to have something else to live for, the Church Martin Saunders is an author, screenwriter and editor of Youthwork magazine. Follow him at twitter.com/martinsaunders cannot become known as builders of ‘financial security’. We need to be known for our generosity, for sharing, like that Church in Acts 2, so that no one went without.
After a heavy police presence was realised, and fast-tracked sentences for looters publicised, the ‘riots’ subsided. The looters’ sense of entitlement was outweighed by the fear of getting caught. And if that’s the only reason that it’s not happening again, then we find ourselves in a dangerous place. The widespread acknowledgement that consumerism is flawed has created a wonderful opportunity for a new world view to take root in our young people. We must now believe that our hope can be theirs – sharing that good news should perhaps become the key priority for a Church ideally placed to pick up society’s broken pieces. Yet the faith we share with them must be a two-way street. We can give young people something to believe in only because we can first say that we – unlike the Peter Hitchens’ of this world – still believe in them.
This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.