London is burning: the common refrain from newscasters and newspapers in the first week of August. Not since the World War II blitz has London seen these kinds of fires. Sparked by a fatal shooting by police, the protest turned into a riot in the workingclass, multi-ethnic section of Tottenham in North London on August 6. Over the next four days, London was in chaos as looters torched businesses and homes, smashed through windows, robbed stores, and attacked the police, who attempted in vain to stop the violence, which soon spread to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and even wealthier sections of London, like Clapham.
Some described the violence as the worst in living memory. Commentators and editorialists took to the airwaves and newspapers to discuss the cause of the violence. The right blamed the failed social welfare programs of the liberal elite for creating a culture of dependency, and the left blamed conservatives for cutting social welfare programs and not creating enough jobs for the poor and working class. Some blamed the breakdown of the family and others the greed of bankers and the wealthy. There was plenty of blame to go around.
As I followed the unfolding story, having just returned from a year in the U.K. and Europe, living and working as a writer, I was not surprised by the blame game. Everyone wants a scapegoat in times like this. But what I found interesting is how most of the reasons given for the riots were economic: in the eyes of many, this was just about money. If the rioters had just had jobs and more material goods, everything would be fine. If they had jobs, they would not riot. The right tells the young rioters to work harder, and the left says that the government needs to provide more jobs and social welfare. And around and around it goes.
But no one was talking about the big picture— that life is more than just the material, the quest for more and more consumer goods. Life is about more than having a piece of the economic pie.
It’s not that jobs and material goods are not important. But life is more than these. And just having them does not make us nice people, or happy people. Wealthy bankers can still crave more, and be willing to step on people or break the law to get more.
There are bigger questions at stake—and few post-riot discussions are asking them. For example: what is the good society? What is a meaningful life? What is the basis for human rights, respecting others’ property, treating others the way you want to be treated? What is the basis for a healthy community and a just government?
The reason no one is asking them is because in the liberal, secular West, these questions about ends, the good life, and the foundation of human rights are off limits. We are not allowed to discuss them—unless the answer is secular. All other answers—particularly if they are religious— are out of bounds.
But can we really have a respect for law and order without religion? Can we really give our children a meaningful life, one that is about more than just material goods, without the telos provided by the God of the Bible? Can we really produce strong, healthy marriages and vibrant, secure children without realizing that there is a horizon in life that must be able to cross our wills when we no longer feel like being committed to our marriage partner, or when we don’t want to obey any authority—parents, police, or God?
And what about the age-old doctrine of sin? What becomes of a culture in which every aberrant behavior is labelled with psychological or economic terms? What happens when we can no longer say that, not only were these young people breaking the law, but they were sinning against their neighbours, themselves, and God? Or that the structures of society may be unjust and are offensive to God because they harm people?
During the riots, Leana Hosea of the BBC interviewed two young women who had participated in the destruction the night before. “Why are you rioting?” she asked the teenagers.
“Bit of a celebration,” one said. “It is great fun, and we got free stuff,” the other said. Appearing to need more justification for that fun, one added that they were “showing the police we can do what we want . . . and now we have.”
“But why target your own people?” Hosea asked.
“It is the rich people who have businesses. We are showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
“Oh really?” I said to myself as I listened. I wanted to ask, “So because you feel harmed by the rich, it is okay to torch their businesses? How would you feel if they took revenge and torched your houses in return?” Where would it end? And what kind of society would be created if everyone treated the “other” this way?
Not a very good one. And this is increasingly the problem in large sections of London and cities across North America: lawlessness, crime, family disintegration, drugs, unemployment, dependency, and loss of hope. Isn’t the solution to these more than economic—whether it is the economics of the right or the left? Isn’t the good society more than just the economy, as important as it is?
Lessons from the past
Last June, as I was walked around Paris’s Place de Concorde, I thought of the irony of the name. Concord means peace, unity, the ability to live together in harmony. But the square itself was the site of thousands of beheadings during the early days of the French Revolution. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1789, the French attempted to build a totally secular state, free from all religion. They even turned the Notre Dame Cathedral into a temple of reason. But without a higher law, human rights disappeared and people were murdered for being on the wrong political side. Justice came out the barrel of a gun, as Mao would one day say—in this case, justice came from those who controlled the guillotine.
This scenario was repeated over and over again in the twentieth century, as those who were repressed rose up and repressed the repressors. Since there was no higher law to guide them but their own self-interest, justice and human rights had no foundation and was easily compromised for revenge, power, and control.
Over the past sixty years, the West has seen secularism dismantle all forms of authority—the authority of parents, schools, the courts, and most importantly, God. The results have not been good. Without these legitimate authorities in individuals’ lives to govern their consciences, they are not able to cross their wills in order to live with character. So they just don’t see what is wrong with destroying someone’s business, stealing goods, or pelting police with rocks. It is just all good, clean fun—”a bit of celebrating.” Or they don’t see the problem with creating structures in society that are not just, that only protect the interests of the rich or keep the underclass in situations of dependency.
But as soon as someone argues in favour of more authority, whether in society or by God, there are cries of fascism: You want to take away my freedom. You are a fundamentalist. You want a theocracy. You want to legislate morality, particularly my sexual morality. You want to force me to pray.
In The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, John Witte captures well the thought of a modern secularist. In their view, “The blood of thousands is at the doors of our churches, temples, and mosques. The bludgeons of pogroms, crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and ostracisms have been used to devastating effect within and among these faiths.”
In fact, to the secularist, the only chance the world has for protecting human rights is to divest it of any and all religions. Religion, as this thinking goes, must be kept out of the public square. In fact, it would be better for all people if it just went away entirely. Since the French Revolution, Europeans have convinced themselves that in order to be modern and free, they must be radically secular. For this reason, Europe has committed to a view of human rights with “neutrality toward worldviews.”
A few days after my stroll through the Place de Concorde, we took our kids to Les Invalides, Napoleon’s military hospital that now houses the mausoleum of the dictator. It is actually a shrine that glorifies one of the most famous war criminals in the history of the world—a dictator who caused the death of over five million people in France and across Europe.
British historian Paul Johnson claims that Napoleon was the by-product of the French Revolution—that the flip side of anarchy (total freedom, both personal and political) is the need for the swing back to order, and that when secularism creates a tremendous vacuum of order, it creates the opportunity for a tyrant to step in, sometimes even with the people clamouring for it. Johnson further claims that it was Napoleon who laid the groundwork for the totalitarianism and fascism of the 20th century.
Secularism and the loss of freedom
It was another French man, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that the great danger for democracies like the United States (and, I would add, Great Britain) was not militaristic dictators who would seize power in times of chaos, but what he called the “benign dictators” of the elected. According to Tocqueville, the more the individual gained independence from family, town, local government, and God, the more this freedom would scare him. When a personal crisis hit, the lonely individual would have no place to turn and would be more than willing to trade some of his freedom back to the State in exchange for economic security. Over the years, the lonely individual would exchange more and more of his freedom with the State and before he knows it, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, he would be completely dependent on the State and its welfare programs. From cradle to grave. Isn’t this what we have in large segments of our population today, both in the middle class and our underclass?
What is the result? Not only are people no longer free—instead being dependent—they have bought into a completely incorrect view of what human flourishing is. We are not just material beings who copulate. We are made for so much more. But until we can ask big questions about human flourishing, human rights, and obligations— the source of justice and the good life— Western culture will remain impoverished in more ways than one. And we will continue to miss the real reason behind the rioting, and what a meaningful solution would be.
A short time after our visit to Napoleon’s shrine, I made a trip to Amsterdam. Standing one afternoon in front of a beautiful row house, I read a sign telling tourists that this was the house that John Adams lived in when he was the U.S. ambassador to Holland. When I turned around, I noticed something. Right across the canal was the neo-gothic Keizersgrachtkerk or Dolerende Kerk, one of the largest Reformed churches in Amsterdam, once pastored by Abraham Kuyper, who went on to become the Prime Minister of Holland in 1901. I wondered if Kuyper knew that Adams had lived there. Was this the spark that got him interested in the founding documents of the United States?
I had come to Amsterdam to investigate Kuyper because he was a vocal critic of the secularism of the French Revolution. He rejected the popular sovereignty of the French because it threw off the sovereignty of God in the process. He believed that this could only lead to dire consequences— as it did. But this secularism was starting to impinge on the Dutch, and Kuyper wanted to warn his people. It would not bring freedom but slavery, dependence, and a weakened society.
However, though he rejected popular sovereignty, Kuyper was not in favour of State sovereignty. A hundred years before Johnson connected the French Revolution with Napoleon, Kuyper had seen the relationship. He was not calling for more state control—just the opposite. He had read Tocqueville and he knew that secular freedom would lead to what he called monism, or what Tocqueville called benign dictator. No, Kuyper was calling for more freedom, but a freedom rooted in the divine order. He wanted what Adams and the other authors of the Federalist Papers called “Ordered Liberty”—a true third way that recognized that true freedom, human flourishing, real community, and substantial human rights took place in the context of horizons or a transcendent order.
Charles Taylor says the same in a way that Kuyper would approve of: “Because the notion of self-determining freedom, pushed to the limit, doesn’t recognize any boundaries, anything given that I have to respect in my exercise of self-determining choice . . . it can easily tip over into the most extreme form of anthropocentrism.” Isn’t this what we saw in the riots? Isn’t this what we see in the liberal establishment’s efforts to quickly restore order and ensure that the wealthy’s property will be safe? “In the end,” says Taylor, “authenticity can’t, shouldn’t, go all the way to self-determining freedom. It undercuts itself.”
Interestingly, for the secular elite of Europe (and increasing in the United States, too), it is this view of authenticity, free from all outside authority, that is supposed to the be the basis of multiculturalism. Let everyone, the doctrine says, live their own lives as they see fit, let each person discover their own ends, be tolerant of everyone’s opinions even if they differ, keep all discussion of the good life and human flourishing in the private realm, and we will have a society of tolerance and good will. One where true community results. Where people will truly get along. But is this the case?
The answer from the riots is a resounding no. As James Meeks wrote on the London Review of Books blog on August 8:
This is the reality of multicultural London. It is not a melting pot. It is a set of groups that are rigidly self-separated by race, language, religion, class, money, education and age group, who have not only come to an unspoken agreement that they will not mix, but have become complacent that this agreement will not and need not be challenged.
Meeks goes on to mention the book Violence, by Slavoj Žižek:
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other . . . My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his tolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society . . . is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.
Meeks, anticipating the objections, writes, “Bring on your exceptions. Bring them on by the thousand, by the ten thousand. But the truth holds: this is not the mixing city its liberal inhabitants would like to think it is. Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it. The yuppies don’t go to the white working-class pubs, and the white working class doesn’t go to the yuppie pubs. The Muslims don’t go to the pub at all and the post-Christians don’t go to the mosque or the church. The young don’t mix with the old. You don’t marry outside your income and education group. Parents segregate their school-age children by class and race.”
Exactly—which is why London is now so upset. The poor, unemployed youth who rioted broke this agreement of liberal tolerance and “the right to remain at a safe distance.” They did not leave the rich alone. They did not stay on their side of town. They even had the gall to bring the riots to the well-heeled parts of town. They “mingled” with the rich. That is a no-no.
But what is missing in this debate is a real discussion of the good society, how people of different nationalities and worldviews live together. If secular liberal tolerance has failed, what is the answer?
The Way Forward
We need to rediscover what “ordered liberty” is, and what its foundations are. Only this can bring lasting and meaningful multiculturalism, freedom, and human flourishing.
The first step, it seems to me, is establishing the foundation for human rights and obligations. As I walked around Amsterdam, I thought of an interesting chapter on Kuyper in The Reformation of Rights in which John Witte explains the progression of secularism . First, “without religion, many rights are cut from their roots.” Then, “without religion, the regime of human rights becomes infinitely expandable.” Religion connects our rights to our duties and responsibilities, and therefore limits their expansion: though they are important, they must be hemmed in by duties to others. But, “without religion, the state is given an exaggerated role to play as the guarantor of human rights.” There is no mediating structure or higher law to stand between the state and the individual, to buffer the individual and groups, against the all-consuming power of the state.
And this, says Witte as he summarizes Kuyper, is what leads to tyranny and despotism. To drive home his point, Witte quotes Tocqueville: “America’s freedom regards religion as the guardian angel of its struggle and victory, as the cradle of her early days, the divine source of her law.”
Kuyper agreed. He thought the genius of the American system was that it realized that religion, God, was necessary to guard our freedom and rights and promote human flourishing. But this is exactly what is missing in the secular West, where God has been pushed out of schools, courts, and government. Yet we can’t have true human rights and obligations, real ordered liberty, without the divine lawgiver protecting and safeguarding human rights from the powers that would run roughshod over them.
Because of this, we need to recognize, with Harvard professor Michael Sandel, that all justice is judgmental, and that we need to get beyond our fear of discussing our different views of justice, whether religious or not, because these discussions are important. As sociologist Christian Smith says, we all live by some moral order. As moral animals, we cannot live without a horizon. So let’s stop claiming that secularism does not have a moral order, and begin to discuss which moral order is better for building the good society: one of order and freedom, one that protects and promotes justice, one that supports and encourages healthy human flourishing and one that provides the basis for vibrant human community where people of all races and nationalities live and share lives together.
The secularism of the West has proven itself incapable of building this kind of community and human flourishing. The post-1948 discussion on human rights, without appealing to the image of God, has no way to back up views on human rights and dignity, and cultural relativism makes it difficult for secularists to stand for human rights across all societies. But without this, there is no way to protect those being abused by the powerful. If there is no higher standard for human rights, then the abusers have just as much right to decide what is just as anyone. There is no “just” and “unjust,” but only preference. So then, who decides for the society? The one with the most power. The secularist is at this impasse, and people can’t—and don’t want to—live this way.
Once we have rooted human rights and obligations in a divine lawgiver that safeguards them against tyranny—whether of popular sovereignty or state sovereignty—we realize that a big part of human rights is rooted in the image of God in people. Because each person has been stamped, as the Bible says, with the image of God, we are to see the “other” not as someone to avoid, hurt, or wipe out, but as someone with value because he or she was created by God. When we see others rightly, we understand that the good society is about more than getting our own rights; it is also about ensuring that others are taken care of too, and that along with rights come obligations. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his book Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and the World, “A consequence of the fact that each human being mirrors God is that we as human beings exist in profound unity with each other: to see another human being is to see another creature who delights God by mirroring God. No more profound kinship among God’s creatures can exist than this.”
Furthermore, this image of God not only engenders obligations, but tells us what true human flourishing looks like (living in ordered liberty) and the kind of life it produces (an authentic one).
Finally, the third foundation of this third way, this ordered liberty, is true multiculturalism—true diversity. When there is ordered liberty not only in the individual’s life but also in society, people of different cultures can begin to live together. My space is too limited here to explore Toqueville’s views on associations or Kuyper’s view on sphere sovereignty. But Kuyper believed that when people who live and are involved in the different spheres of life are given the freedom by society and the government, under God’s kind rule, to organize and live out life, they would—to the extent that they lived their freedom the way God intended, serving and loving God and one other—experience what the Hebrew Bible calls shalom. For the Hebrews, this shalom is a fourfold peace—with God, with themselves, with others, and with the created order. And according to Wolterstorff, one of the ways we know that the good society has created shalom is the presence of delight for all members of the community living side by side, organizing life together, working toward justice for all, raising families, educating children, and enjoying their cities—not simply avoiding the other, but living life together.
As I sat and watched the Sky News debate about the causes of the riots, I was struck by one thing: how unhappy the participants were, how angry they all were with each other, and how much distrust there was between the different segments of London. Weren’t the programs of social welfare over the past 60 years supposed to change all this? Wasn’t multiculturalism the solution? I realized right then that Great Britain, or for that matter, much of the West, has not become a society characterized by shalom, spiritually, culturally, and materially.
How do I know? Because in our societies, there is a profound lack of delight. Maybe it is time to start asking some different questions and propose some different solutions—ones that may lead to delight. If we don’t, more of our cities may burn.