About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London Riots

Apart from a nine-month spell during 2001, I have lived in south London for the past thirteen years; since 1 June 1998, to be exact; and so a third of my life. And because of my near-obsession with London Transport, an obsession fuelled now by my similarly obsessed three-year-old son, I have travelled around the area a lot and am pretty familiar with most of the places that have hit the news in the last few days. This isn’t to say that I’m unconcerned with the disturbances that plagued Bristol, Liverpool and other cities last night; but as an adopted south Londoner, seeing places such as Peckham (where I married), Brixton (where my wife works), Lewisham, and especially Croydon (a mere ten minutes’ train ride away) being trashed is bound to catch my attention more. My prayers go out to my friends who live in or very near the affected areas, just as my prayers are directed towards those areas so far directly unaffected.

And so what of God in a situation like this? As you can imagine, I don’t think that these riots or civil unrest are part of a divinely ordained plan; nor do I think that God has established their social causes. These riots, as far as I understand them, are violence perpetrated by those who for whatever reason feel angry at the status quo. Sure, there’s bound to be some thrill-seekers and opportunists getting involved, but the shooting of Mark Duggan on 4 August was, to my mind, undoubtedly a catalyst to unleash community feelings of resentment and oppression on an unsuspecting wider community. When communal anger is continually brushed under the carpet of political platitudes and vote-winning empty promises, eventually the powers-that-be will trip over the bump in the rug. This doesn’t excuse the violence, but we must always try to understand the causes of anger that lead to violence. Sometimes anger is justified, even if the expression of that anger isn’t.

It is here that the Church should make the presence of God felt. If the presence of God in Christ is made clear in each and every local community through and as the Body of Christ, then it should become apparent that God is here among us within our communities. What is the Church – what is each local church – doing to help people deal with their empty lives, resist the consumerism that insists one is nothing without the latest gadgets or a fat wad of cash (hence the looting), and show the love and peace of Christ to those who have nothing in their lives but hatred and unrest? I’m not pointing the finger at individuals (though if I did, I’d definitely have to point it at my angry and consumerist self), but at local churches. Are we so obsessed with evangelism, soul-saving and the latest worship styles that aiming to give people a reason to live now is pointless compared to our current ecstasy and the bless├ęd hope to come?

But perhaps churches feel powerless to help; I know I do. It’s very easy to pontificate, wag the finger and mutter, “Down with this sort of thing,” as though one is the living embodiment of the Daily Mail. So what can be done to make God’s providential presence felt in this situation?

Pray. This is a pretty obvious thing for a Christian, and there are a number of online hubs focussing prayers for London. But what should we pray? For those who have been directly affected, I dare say that it’s tempting to pray for retribution – perhaps the psalms of lament should be prayed, given that they’re a divinely inspired focus for communal sorrow and anger. But in this situation, there’s a fine line between rightfully praying peace for the victims and ill-advisedly praying judgement for the perpetrator. Christians are to love all, including those who wish harm on others. My own preference – if preference is the right word to use in this context – is to pray for the peace of Christ to be made present, but this is, I’ll admit, a little vague. Of course, as we pray, we may find that the Spirit is showing us some very definite ways in which we can assist in the situation – which leads me to my next comment.

Get involved. There are various clean-up operations that are taking place across the capital today. It’s good to get involved and help the local councils to clean up the areas that have been affected. There’s the hope, of course, that the presence of local people in the clean-up operations will show those involved in the riots that public feeling is against their actions (please, God, not against them – that’s the last thing anyone needs). And getting involved isn’t just about cleaning up; it’s about being active in the community to ensure that the pain of all people is felt and their cries of anguish heard. Each local church can play a part here.

Finally, don’t panic! Who knows if there’ll be more unrest tonight? Personally, I think it’s quite likely that there will at least be some, probably in areas that haven’t been targeted just yet. But being alarmist won’t help. God hasn’t caused these riots, but by the Spirit of Christ, God will bring peace to the situation and order chaos. There is no need to panic, and every need to trust.

These are my rather simplistic thoughts on the matter; I’d be interested to hear yours.

Update: I've just found this prayer on the Church of England website.

Gracious God,
We pray for peace in our communities this day.
We commit to you all who work for peace and an end to tensions,
And those who work to uphold law and justice.
We pray for an end to fear,
For comfort and support to those who suffer.
For calm in our streets and cities,
That people may go about their lives in safety and peace.
In your mercy, hear our prayers,
now and always. Amen


  1. This reminds me massively of the Brixton riots in the 80's when I saw police cars set on fire in Acre Lane. I think the main point for me with these riots is that most of the rioters have nothing to lose and they know it. What are the Police going to do? At least with riots, they have power, they have the attention of the media and the knowledge that the police won't be able to stop them.
    I think that we need to pray that God provides them with self worth (love one another as God has loved us).

  2. Hi Terry
    really like the prayer.
    Agree with your points re churches, but have to disagree with the part where you say

    "..violence perpetrated by those who for whatever reason feel angry at the status quo. Sure, there’s bound to be some thrill-seekers and opportunists getting involved, but the shooting of Mark Duggan on 4 August was, to my mind, undoubtedly a catalyst to unleash community feelings of resentment and oppression on an unsuspecting wider community. When communal anger is brushed under the carpet"..

    because what I saw yester wasn't comunal anger it was thuggery, greed and what human nature can sink to when it has anonymity plus numbers minus conscience. I don't think many of those folk in Croydon last night even knew Mark Duggan's name. Did you hear the clip of two girls boasting on the BBC website? They didn't have a cause, they just enjoyed creating mayhem. Sure, you can argue that's a result of alienation but for once I don't see any place for middle class hand-wringing about oppression and I'm usually a bleeding heart liberal!

  3. I saw that clip, Rosie, but what stood out to me was their claim that they were targetting 'the rich' (though most shopkeepers are hardly 'the rich') and that they were showing them what they can do.

    The thing with anger is, as I said, that while it is often legitimate, its expression often isn't. In a consumerist society, perhaps the best way to protest against one's social oppression isn't to slam the government but to slam those who make the economy the most important aspect of life.


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