The last few months have witnessed a great deal of unrest in the Arab world, beginning with the uprising in Egypt that led to a change of government there and sweeping across a number of other Arab countries where, in some cases, protesters were met with brutal and repressive responses. This week, most of us were surprised, I think, to hear news of riots breaking out in London and then spreading to other cities in Britain. In one sense, the violence in England is not at all like the uprisings in the Arab world. Clearly, Britain is a modern democracy and not a repressive regime. While the Arab Spring has had a revolutionary dynamic, that is not the case among those rioting in Britain.
In another sense, however, perhaps there is a connection. While some of those participating in the London riots have been described as hooligans and thugs who have just taken advantage of the situation, observers have suggested that at least a part of the violence is attributable to anger and frustration among the unemployed and underemployed and people who feel increasingly alienated from the mainstream of society. These are people who feel increasingly powerless and sense that government is less and less responsive to their needs and more and more at the service of the wealthy and powerful, whether those be individuals or corporations.
We would like to think, of course, that such things will not happen in America, the land of freedom and opportunity. However, more and more people in our own society don’t find their freedom that much of a consolation as they spiral downward into poverty. And as they spend hours looking for jobs that are not there, America seems rather short on opportunity. Recently, I read that 2.3 million Americans are in prison – more than any other country in the world. Even more disturbing is the fact that about 30% of Americans are living in what might be described as functional poverty: that is, they don’t have income adequate to cover the costs of housing, food, transportation, child care, health care and the like (and they are NOT spending money on entertainment, Internet and “luxuries” like that). The official poverty rate is about 14%; but there are many people above the official poverty line who cannot make ends meet. That’s almost a third of the American people. And recent studies have shown us that the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in this country is growing.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward justice.” Justice, indeed, is claimed by the Bible to be one of the primary concerns of God. In fact, there is far more about justice in the Bible than just about anything else. As followers of Jesus, we have an obligation to concern ourselves with the poor and the disadvantaged and to represent their interests before the powerful and wealthy in society.
But if the exhortations of the Bible, the teaching of Jesus and the call of the Spirit are not enough for us, the uprisings in the Arab world and particularly those in Britain should remind us that those who are left behind by society, for whom there is no opportunity and only increasing hardship, will become more and more alienated from the rest of us. That alienation can erupt in violence and anger when people feel that no one is speaking for them or representing their interests and that they have nothing more to lose.
St. Paul, in speaking about the church, uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). He points out that everyone in the church is a part of that body, and that for the body to function properly every part needs to understand and feel its value. The same is true of any society. It works because all the parts feel and understand their value, have their needs met and are then able to work together for the good of the whole. We allow increasing numbers of people in our society to feel discounted, as if they were not a part of the body, at our own peril. Not to mention that to do so betrays the dream of God, the teaching of Jesus and what it means to be one of his disciples.