Society’s dystopian trends and the church’s response

Apr 10, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Last week Britain was confronted with a series of headlines about out-of-control violence on the streets of London. While most of the killers and their victims are young, and knives are the weapons of choice, a drive-by shooting of a teenage girl on Easter Monday showed an escalation that needs priority attention. Reuters reported that for the first time ever, there are more murders per month in London than in New York.

The horrific killings are the tip of the iceberg as far as violent crime is concerned. Attacks using acid, and brazen theft using weapons to threaten, are on the increase. What are the causes, and what can be done about it? From the left comes the accusation that cuts to police, education and social services by the Conservative government have had a negative effect (started, most tellingly, when Teresa May was Home Secretary). But attempts to politicise the problem have been undermined by things getting considerably worse under the Labour Mayor of London. To his credit, the mayor himself has said that while more money from government to deal with the crisis would be appreciated, poverty is not an excuse for violent criminal behaviour, and other factors are at work.

If the blame can’t be laid at the door of deprivation, what about social media? Certainly it adds to the complexity of the environment; minor incidents, reprisals and the need for young men to avenge perceived slights can be immediately magnified with deadly results.

For solutions: some say it’s not necessarily about the amount of money available, but the quality of the youth and community programmes and the people delivering them. Other commentators have pointed out the huge divisions in London as affluent middle class families live in quiet streets close to rough council estates that have long been breeding grounds for crime and violence. And should police should focus on particular communities where gang violence is so endemic, such as recent immigrants from the horn of Africa, and adopt a zero tolerance approach – or is this unacceptable ‘racial profiling’ and blaming ‘the other’? Is the reality that crime and violence using weapons is now found increasingly among all racial groups? And how would a crackdown work when our prisons are already full?

Where is the church in this? While the disturbing wave of aggression has reached the headlines of most media, it doesn’t seem to be a concern of Christians: certainly by the end of last week, violence in London had not been mentioned at all on the popular websites Christian Today (where there seems to be more celebrity news from the US than comment on the UK scene), or Premier. Nor on the Church of England website, or in the Church Times, or, the Diocese of London site. And I confess that I’m only thinking about it now, as English Christianity of which I’m a part is predominantly white middle class, not affected by a scourge primarily of different ethnic groups in places where the likes of ‘us’ don’t go, let alone try to establish church communities.


Here are some urgent questions which need to be asked in the light of this developing social breakdown. Firstly, however we interpret these symptoms in terms of our ‘big picture’ analysis of society, do we care about the individuals who are affected? A spate of knife murders can be looked at as an issue, but each case involves pain and distress for individuals, families and friends. It was good that at our church on Sunday this was brought before the Lord in corporate prayer, and I’m sure many churches in London are not only praying, but also involved in caring for those affected.

But secondly, the big picture: what does such a rise in vicious attacks say about our country? Should the trend be separated from other recent depressing news about the rapid decline in Christian belief and the exponential increase in mental health problems and general unhappiness among young people? Or is there a link between the brave new world of relative affluence, new instant forms of mass communication; family, sex and gender chaos, and a sense of meaninglessness on one hand, and on the other, what could be the stirrings of a return to values of the dark ages, where men achieve a sense of significance through membership of gangs, and violence?

And then, an issue like this gives an opportunity for the church to define and evaluate its mission. The church may see itself as a voice for social justice in the public square, an agent of healing and community-building on the ground. In this model, church leaders articulate a vision for a better Britain, as Archbishop Justin Welby has done in his recent book, and call on the government to release more financial resources for the less well-off, while at the same time showing examples of effective pastoral ministry and community engagement carried out in parishes.

Another, very different approach is to see politics and concern about general social and moral issues in society as outside the remit of the church’s task, which is to preach the Gospel, make disciples, grow the Christian community and plant new churches. This might have a secondary effect of shining a light in the secular darkness and even turning things around if enough people are converted. But according to this view, when getting a local church to hold its own is difficult enough, critiquing trends in society and thinking about how to bring about change on a national level is unrealistic – and probably not biblical.

Martin Davie’s review of Archbishop Welby’s book shows the limitations of the social justice approach – it ends up being not radical enough (what Davie calls ‘modest proposals’ for tinkering with the existing system), and not explicitly Christian enough. While concern for social justice, and action to help the poor motivated by compassion, is a part of authentic Christian faith, a church which prioritises alignment with mainstream liberal thought can shy away from any prophetic critique of destructive aspects of secularism. And is anyone listening? As the church faces regular headlines about its rapid numerical decline and its association with protecting paedophiles, the views of its leaders on the nation are in danger of seeming increasingly irrelevant.

The second model of church-based mission favoured by conservative evangelicals receives a strong critique from Joe Boot of Christian Concern. Boot describes the weaknesses of a pietistic ‘churchianity’, which produces “immature believers… with little or no conception of the scope and grandeur of the gospel or the transforming power of the kingdom of God for all of life.” He asks “is it really a full-orbed and robustly biblical Christianity?” suggesting that it derives from a dualistic idea of church and religion being ‘holy’ , and the things of the world being unworthy of attention.

Boot also demonstrates the weaknesses of the social justice model, where the church “becomes a handmaiden of the state and an advocate of liberal progressivism…rather than biblical righteousness”. He favours the development of a vision for a culture in which Christ is recognised as Lord, an idea which he develops more fully in his books, but which many who agree with his diagnosis of the problem might not agree is achievable.

The debate among Christians about the nature of the church’s mission, and how best to carry it out given the realities of our culture, will continue, and are brought into sharper focus the more serious our national social problems become apparent.

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