This has been a terrifying week for many of us, and for many others even more directly caught up in the violence that has emerged onto our streets. It serves as a reminder – one that we could all do without – that our civilisation is not as rock steady as we might like it to be. We have been aware (some of us more intimately than others) of the turmoil that has rocked the financial world over the last few years. More of us are aware of the cuts being made to public services – either through seeing our own jobs disappear, or the services we’ve become used to being cut back. But all of us walk these streets; this is our space. Stoke Newington itself has been spared – perhaps particularly because of the vibrant community spirit of the Turkish shopkeepers and their baseball bats, perhaps because of the police station. But that is small consolation to us, and none to the neighbouring communities who have seen disorder out of control on their doorsteps.
Is God really our refuge and strength? It’s when there is real danger that we find ourselves tested as to whether we really believe those words. It’s easy to believe all sorts of great things about God if actually the police will do the job anyway. But when it’s not so clear that anyone else can keep us safe – what do we believe about God then? What might the psalmist have believed, whoever it was that wrote those words?
The psalms contain within them the hugest variation of experiences of God and responses to God. One of the most extreme s Psalm 89, the first half of which is a song of praise to God for establishing David’s kingly line for ever and ever with an iron cast guarantee. The second half begins ’But now you have rejected and spurned him; you are full of wrath against your anointed – and continues in that vein – one of the biggest turnarounds you can imagine. An expression of absolute faith by the psalmist can’t necessarily be taken at full value as a statement of historical fact. There are all sorts of things that happen, some of which encourage faith and some which seem to deny it – the psalmist has the lot.
But even with that warning, this psalm, Psalm 46, does express a deep faith that God will look after the chosen people – that he will take away all the world’s violence – as the BCP Psalter puts it, ‘He maketh wars to cease in all the world; he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder’. Now we know what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean what it says. God did not then, and has not since, intervened to prevent wars from happening. The people of Israel fought plenty of wars and went into exile when they finally lost one too many.
It’s only in the light of Jesus that we can make sense of either the Bible, or our own experience. Jesus transforms what it means to overcome violence, what it means to bring peace. He overcomes not through more and better violence but by ending the cycle, by changing the game. That’s why a Christian attitude towards the events of the last week must stand against the insanity of mob violence – and the calculated, orchestrated violence of looters. But we must also point to the fact that the re-assertion of state power – which is a better sort of violence, violence controlled by law – isn’t the same as restoring peace. Peace is what we hope for which lies beyond the realm of all violence: it’s the life of the kingdom of heaven which the resurrection reveals to us. Our attitude to what has happened shouldn’t be shaped by our instant and emotional responses, natural as they are. The Spirit in us enables us to see all violence in the light of this hope and conviction – that violence itself will end
So as Christian people we don’t just take sides. We know that we still need state-sanctioned and controlled violence – that’s why police forces should still be called that. They are society’s recognition that the use of force is necessary to preserve society in being. But we are also aware that violence begets violence – it was police violence – possibly completely justified, we can’t judge that now – which lit the fuse. Let me be clear: the police are in no way responsible for the explosion that followed; it’s part of the dynamic of violence itself.
So even while looking to see order restored, we’re looking beyond that for something even better. Because of that greater promise which goes beyond this world we’re able to engage with this one. God is our refuge and strength – a refuge which is in the promised future of the resurrection. In that strength, we are able to be God’s hands and heart in our situation.
One of the articles commenting on the events of the last week reflected on the Turkish shopkeepers taking action – and quoted an ironic tweet, ‘”Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” – while the article’s writer admitted she was sitting at home trying to distinguish the sound of helicopters on the TV from the ones overhead, dealing with riots just around the corner.
I’m very glad there were people who were brave enough; our calling is to be just as brave, to get out there and to be part of our wider community, to defend, nurture and build it, and not only at times of crisis. A time of crisis is a time of judgement – that’s what the Greek word means. Times of crisis demonstrate whether we have the faith that makes us strong enough to strengthen others, to help rebuild shattered lives. One of the saddest things I saw on the TV was the shopkeeper who refused help from people clearing up – they might just steal more. Rebuilding faith, hope and love is our job now.