Loot

September 18, 2011
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein
 

THE SERMON 

Right out of the headlines - yesterday morning's, to be specific:

There will be riots in the streets: Mayor Bloomberg warns of anarchy if more jobs aren't created soon

Economy added zero net jobs in August - worst showing since September, 2010

Foreclosures increased 33% from July to August

Unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 % for second straight month

Mayor Bloomberg today warned there will be widespread rioting on the streets if more jobs are not created. As it emerged that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits in the U.S. jumped last week to the highest level in three months, the Mayor spoke out, insisting that if nothing is done Americans will start revolting. "'We have a lot of kids graduating college, can't find jobs", he said on his weekly radio show. "That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here."(By Paul Bentley)

That's what happened in London. You don't want those kinds of riots anywhere. The night that the London riots started was my last week there, a Thursday night. I had been to the theatre with another American clergy friend, Rob Gregson. We went to see the musical "Billy Elliott," a story about a 12-year old boy who takes boxing classes in the same community center where ballet classes are held and discovers that he doesn't want to box, but to dance. The story of motherless Billy's struggle to come of age is set against the 1984 coal miner's strike in Durham County, Northeastern England, a strike that his father and older brother are involved in, and that causes bitter division in the family. Billy's extraordinary talent and passion for the dance becomes his way out of the soul-killing poverty and back-breaking work that his father and brother have had to endure. We are left with the hopeful possibility that this kid is going to have the dual blessing of being able to commit his life to something he loves -- and break the generational pattern of privation and suffering through this passion. It was a message that was to resonate with me through the days that followed: when people don't have anything meaningful to do, they lose all self-respect. And when they have no self-respect, they have no respect for what others care about and have worked hard to build and to preserve.

Rob and I had a late dinner and walked through SoHo late that night, watching the kids outside the clubs, seeing a few young girls vomiting in the streets from too much drink (not an uncommon sight in London), and finally hopping on a bus to Hampstead at about 1:30 in the morning. He got off first and I continued on to my stop, getting to bed a bit after 2:00 AM. Meanwhile, riots had begun across the city. They started in a very specific neighborhood, ostensibly as a reaction against the police shooting of a black man. Concern about the violent protests started out low-key, as Brits are famously cool in the face of conflict (remember "Keep Calm and Carry On"?). They were keeping cool and carrying on. I know this for a special fact because I had a curry dinner and went to the theatre that Sunday night, four days into the rioting -- with a London police sergeant. His phone never rang during all the hours we were together, he never checked e-mail or called into HQ, and if he was exhausted or preoccupied at all it was because he had spent all week in special anxiety mode dealing with security at the Libyan Embassy. We did not talk about the rioting much: I asked him what he thought of it all and he said it was basically hooligans taking advantage of the violent reaction to a man's shooting to get a free television. Smash-and-grab on a grand scale. He wasn't nasty about it, just tired. I knew from our other conversations about his work that he spent a lot of time building up relationships in the community, working on the street, gaining the trust of the locals in the Stratford section of London (another rough area) and building coalitions with other community-based organizations, including churches. He had informed me the first night we met that the British police force is an unarmed force. "You Americans are the ones who like to shoot everyone," he joked.

As the riots spread, so did public consternation and fear. Shops closed, and faces were grim all over the city. All day Monday we kept close to home and spoke in somber tones. Londoners were angry and disgusted. "Keep calm and carry on" gave way to "keep calm and condemn". The editorials in all the "papes" were passionate critiques of the police, or the rioters, or of the prime minister, or of the austerity budget and subsequents cuts to social programs. One editorial blamed the looting on bad parenting.

I want to focus on this for a moment because I have learned through political theorist George Lakoff that there is more to this argument about parenting than it seems on the surface. Lakoff can help us make sense of the way we tend to divide in our ways of explaining societal breakdown like the one that happened in London. I have learned from Lakoff that the conservative and liberal worldview -- two opposing viewpoints that are waging war in our own nation -- can be fairly neatly summarized in the concept of the "strict father" versus "the nurturing parent."

According to Lakoff, the conservative worldview is defined, in part, by the notion of the strict father. The strict father raises responsible children who have a strong work ethic and family values (which is consistent with upholding traditional gender roles in the home and society). A key conservative message is that if strict fathers are in place guiding the family, society will be on track. To point to bad parenting, lack of discipline at home, the failure to attend church and receive traditional its moral instruction -- this is a classic conservative reading of the riots in London. Government, according to this perspective, should stand in for the strict father, disciplining the unruly members of the society as a good, responsible father will discipline his children.

The liberal worldview, however, emphasizes the importance of the nurturing parent, who can be of either gender. The nurturant parent is emotionally supportive of their child, encourages them to find their own way and to discover their own truth, and emphasizes self-esteem and personal empowerment rather than discipline as keys to a strong society. So in this view, government should encourage and support all people equally, give them chances to fail and succeed (just as a nurturing parent does for a child), and assume the best of them. The liberal commitment therefore is expensive, program-oriented and leads to conservative accusations of molly-coddling and naivetee. In theological terms, it is the old debate between Calvinism and Universalism: are we an inherently depraved species who desperately need the grace of a strict father God, or are we marvelous creatures made in the image and likeness of a benevolent deity who wishes us every happiness?

If you want to know where I stand, I tend to think we're an inherently depraved species who desperately need a benevolent God who wishes us every happiness. I'm a moderate that way. A moderate Calvinist and a moderate Universalist. By the time I was finalizing my packing for home, sirens were wailing in the distance all day. Rioting broke out in Camdentown, just a few Tube stops away. Golder's Green, just up the road a ways, and the location of another lovely Unitarian chapel, was in trouble. I was frankly grateful to be getting out of the city the next morning. Mobs had burned down family businesses, things like antique shops, not at all representatives of corporate giants who don't care about the community. Generations of hard work and investment up in flames. That's just despicable. That's not protest, it's just rampant destruction. Small business owners aren't to blame for anyone's misery and anger. Stupidity. One small gang of rioters burst into a Michelin 3-star restaurant in London and stole jewels right off of the hands and necks of women diners. One woman, who had her diamond ring ripped right off her finger, wryly remarked that it was the most expensive dinner she had ever had.

In that one story I felt was the heart of the rioting, and the greatest warning to America. As my friend the Rev. Andy Pakula, a London Unitarian minister, wrote on his blog "class divide + materialism = trouble." Let me share with you a fairly lengthy quote by Andy, a Unitarian minister, who I think had a very astute take on the situation:

Modern Britain is a society with an enormous class divide. The disparity between rich and poor is said to be the greatest it has been since the Second World War. The economic climate, the severe cuts to benefits, the increases in the cost of higher education, and the numbers of poor youth growing up in dysfunctional families leads to a sense of hopelessness and lack of ownership. In other words, they feel that they have very little to lose.

People who feel they have nothing to lose are dangerous indeed.

Now add to that picture the fact that everyone is bombarded in nearly every waking moment by the advertising message that "you are what you have." Our value as human beings and our happiness - we are told - depend on having the newest smart phone, the right trainers, the most stylish jeans, a big flat-screen TV and on and on. We begin to learn this message before we can speak. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, the adverts are there to keep that message firmly in place.

When people who have nothing to lose understand that material goods are the only thing worth striving for and have no hope that they can reach a place in life where they can obtain them legally, criminality seems certain to be the response.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one. Materialism is the very basis of our capitalist economy. Unless capitalism falls entirely and something takes its place that nurtures good values rather than materialistic ones, the materialism factor will remain unchanged.

The class divide has grown and continues to grow. The levers of power are preponderantly in the hands of the rich who find rather little motivation to seek greater equality. They can simply build higher walls, invest in more police and prisons and simply keep this untidy little problem under control.

We need change. We need to invest in programmes that will provide real hope and opportunity for those at the bottom. We have now begun to see - once again - the results of neglecting whole swaths of the population. It is time to break down the class oppression that is built-in to our culture.

- Andy Pakula, Throw Yourself Like Seed Blog, "What Do the Riots Mean?" August 10, 2011. http://throwyourselflikeseed.blogspot.com/2011/08/what-do-riots-mean.html

He could be talking about the U.S. As I said to a friend here back at home, "I'm afraid these riots are coming soon to a theatre near you." I am not living in fear of this happening, I am just aware of the possibility. We should all be aware of the possibility. Not in a paranoid way that causes hostility and suspicion, but in a compassionate way that wonders, "How Lord, O Lord, how long?" How long can our society lift up materialism and consumption as the ultimate evidence of an accomplished, meaningful life, feed us all on that spiritual junk food diet, and not expect those who are starving for meaning and excluded from participation in the worship of the retail gods to rise up and demand to be fed? Bread and roses, remember? Food and beauty. The soul needs both, and meaning, and something meaningful to do and to be. This is the food that the church can help offer. Meaning, and a meaningful inner life that feeds the soul. Meaningful relationships. Beauty. Not beauty you can buy or steal, but beauty we can create.

We should all be good enough students of human nature and of history by now to understand that when people feel hopeless, when unemployment stays steady (and high), when there are no jobs to be had, when the rich get richer and rich criminals get away scot free with destroying millions of lives while poor, non-violent criminals get locked up to feed the voracious appetite of the prison industrial complex... all it takes is one match to light that tinder. I don't want to be an alarmist. I just want to be awake. Some would say that the church's job is to provide moral education. Well, sure, of course! But I happen to think that any halfway reasonable adult knows full well that rampaging through the city setting fires, stealing things and smashing property is wrong. I am pretty sure that the church doesn't really need to teach that (maybe we do...?). The rioters in London were a diverse group racially and ethnically, they were male and female, black, white, Indian, Muslim, Christian... who knows what else. What they had in common was that most of them were very young. The church doesn't need to point out to any of these people that it is wrong to destroy property and to steal. What the church does need to do is recognize the power of group passion and harness it for the good before it gets harnessed for the bad, for the destructive.

The church doesn't need to point out the obvious fact that looting and vandalism are reprehensible behavior. What it needs to do is be relentlessly critical of the materialistic culture that tries to convince people -- especially young people -- that their self-worth comes through having cool stuff. In addition to that, the church needs to show up for these people's lives, advocate for them, move beyond sermons and into neighborhoods that aren't necessarily convenient to ours, comfortable for us to be in -- make relationships, break bread, share stories, and BE the value in each other's lives. Be the beauty and the communion in each other's eyes.

[Here I spoke about the how we could do this by getting involved with the programs and ministries of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in Roxbury, an organization for which I serve on the board. www.uuum.org.]

I think of that thief in that swanky restaurant, breaking in there and stealing the diamond ring off the woman diner and I remember the story of the hermit who arrived back at his tiny hillside dwelling after his morning walk to find thieves leaving his home with all his valuables. As they loaded his possessions onto their backs and prepared to leave the man there, he ran after them with one beautiful vase they had missed and left behind. "Here!" he yelled. "This is my most valuable piece! Of all of my possessions to which you are most welcome, you surely don't want to miss this one! And thank you for cleaning my home for me."