“Rioting”—which is to say, looting, rampaging, vandalizing, engaging in wanton mayhem and violence, and generally acting very badly—”can be, literally, an ecstatic spiritual experience.” So says the is-he Right Reverend Peter Price, a man who is no less than the Bishop of Bath and Wells. (Note the Bish’s use of literally. PDF of report.)
Price’s comments have been widely reported, with opinion coalescing around the idea that Price has, literally, lost his mind. But this is unfair, because, literally, Price was merely quoting another churchman, one Father Austin Smith, who made his ecstatic comments after the Toxteth riots in the 1980s. In that feast of spirituality, “468 police officers had been injured, 500 people arrested and at least 70 buildings demolished.”
Anyway, Price continued, “Something is released in the [riot] participants which takes them out of themselves as a kind of spiritual escape.” Out of themselves and into shoe shops, where “participants” gleefully stole as many “trainers” as they could lay their thieving mitts on. Which shows that “participants” are not only immoral lawbreakers but that they also have appalling taste in footwear. (This is known in statistics as a correlation.)
“The tragedy,” Price says, is that
we have a large population of young people who are desperate to escape from the constrained lives to which they feel and appear to be condemned. Where hope has been killed off and with no prospect of escape, is it surprising that their energies erupt in antisocial and violent actions? In a consumer society, is it surprising that lusting after high-status goods is seen as a way to find meaning?
There is some truth here. And it is this: there is always somebody willing to excuse the repugnant behavior of one person as the fault of the political enemies of the excuser. Price’s enemies are—wait for it—rich people, “austerity measures,” and “social tensions”.
These culpable entities even caused innocent citizens who had just “come out to see what was happening” to become “quickly caught up in the thrill of the moment.” To excuse why these bystanders engaged in theft, Price hypothesizes that they were “just picking up things that had been discarded on the streets.” And keeping them and bringing them home. Just like dear old mom did not, we hope, teach them.
Now most of Price’s report is dull, written in pseudo-academese and contains phrases like “coveting is a big issue” and “The mobile nature of the events makes a locational analysis problematic in relation to those involved, and particularly those arrested.” It reads as if a cluster of senior clergy were sitting around the pub on wet afternoon when one suddenly announced, “Our duty is to issue a report”—and then they actually wrote it!
Because it’s in the nature of these documents, Price could not help himself from theorizing. The real cause of the riots was something called “structural sin which recognises how people on all sides of conflicts can face moral choices that are not between what is clearly right and clearly wrong but which are necessitated by circumstances in response to situations where much has gone wrong already.” In other words, pocketing an item dropped by a fleeing looter is not clearly right nor clearly wrong. Even lighting a shop on fire to watch it burn can be considered morally ambiguous if much has gone wrong already.
Price was not speaking gibberish, however. The idea of “structural sin” is well known and was developed inside something called “liberation theology,” which is often read as a codeword for theological Marxism (and if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, nothing is).
Structural sin is shared sin. Because of “unjust” economic, political situations, and “discriminatory lending practices,” the man who ecstatically wields the club upside the shopkeeper’s head is guilty of structural sin, but so are you who sat at home guilty because you contributed to the circumstances which caused the man to swing the club. Why, if it weren’t for you dutifully going to work each day and paying your taxes, these riots would never have occurred! Price says “flawed social structures” are responsible for “creating the conditions for sin to manifest itself.”
Sin seen in this way is like a gas which leaks out individuals and seeps through a community, concentrating here and there due to vagaries of wind. The only recourse is to bottle sin up by reinvigorating the welfare state and making risky loans. Indeed, if “austerity” is left in place, Price sees the possibility of future riots. “Nothing is inevitable — but the auguries are not reassuring.”