THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 139
The direction of society
[please see the Archives for past articles]
Please address any comments to [email protected]
It is all too easy, as one reads the newspaper in the morning, to notice all the bad things. The woman mugged outside her own front door. The man killed by teenagers outside his own house. The number of illegitimate babies to teenagers. The number of convictions for rape etc. The list goes on and on. The number of people who have had their pension plans ruined. The number of unlicensed vehicles on the road. The number of bankruptcies. The number of fines for dropping litter. The number of illegal immigrants and so on.
There seems to be no end to the list of the deficiencies in our society and the daily press manages to focus successfully on new ones each day. But the television news also is discouraging a lot of the time. Rarely do we hear good news - mostly it is depressing!
Noticing all of this, I fell to ruminating the other day as to where it is all going. Maybe this impression that the country is in a bad state is just a figment of our imagination; perhaps society is in fine shape and things are getting better. The general opinion seems to be that our society is suffering from more violence and that there are more yobs around. In this article I want to try to outline how I see the future, and what I see as possible consequences.
There is always a tendency for things to slowly drift, and for the rate of change to be so gradual from day to day, month to month, that those of us living in the society hardly notice what is happening. It can all creep up on one, and we need to stand aside every so often and take stock.
It is my impression - and you are fully entitled to take the opposite view - that things generally are getting worse in our society. Maybe not everywhere at a uniform rate - but overall and generally our society is deteriorating in its quality of life.
One indicator of this is that our prisons are full - more men behind bars than ever before. Another indicator may be to look at what the Police are doing. If they are more active, if they have more problems keeping civil order, if there are more convictions - then surely we are entitled to assume that our society is running into trouble?
So what is the situation with the Police? Well, certainly they have their hands full - they complain of not having enough people on the force. They seem to be running behind in monitoring crime and catching criminals. It appears that an ordinary burglary is of no interest to them these days - they are too busy trying to catch more important criminals.
If we look at the state of society we do see a lot of discontent by ordinary people - another indicator of trouble. There seems to be more crime on the streets. There is more violent crime everywhere. There is more lawlessness around - from drunken crowds of young people in our City Centres on a Friday night to graffiti everywhere. And I am not talking statistics here - statistics can mislead, and are not necessarily to be trusted.
If we accept for a moment that there is more crime, more violent crime, more lawlessness around, can we discern any general reason for this? What is my own purely subjective view?
As a Christian I think I can discern one reason among others. It seems to me that over the last fifty years there has been both a steady reduction in adherence to religion and in moral standards in the country. Against that some might say that there has been increased concern for social issues such as slums and one parent families some of whom live in poverty. That may be true, but I would assess the overall position as little improved in the last fifty years. In fact in some ways (such as general lawlessness) I think it is worse.
When you have a society that has lost its way in religious terms - as our society obviously has - and when you have many millions of people who appear to be living without any religious commitment - a commitment that would instil spiritual and moral ideals - then you have a society that will have to depend on law and order more and more to keep its excesses and selfishness in order.
To give a tiny example. I am told that recently on the radio there was an interview with a young man who was accustomed to playing what I would call his ghetto-blaster very loudly in his car as he drove around. When stopped and warned by Police he meekly turned it off - and went round the corner and turned it on again, and carried on his way happily engulfed in the raucous noise.
I see in that is a perfect example that demonstrates that, once the internal moral and spiritual motivation is turned off, the law has to step in to try to control actions. The law and the threat of punishment becomes the only deterrent - and the law as deterrent is not very successful. Unless the moral will is there in each of us, our actions will need to be controlled by the law as deterrent. The threat of punishment is what then motivates people not to be anti-social.
So is there any evidence that the threat of legal punishment is growing these days in our society? It certainly is more evident! The clearest evidence is that over the last decade there has been a vast increase in the number of new laws against which we may offend.
Take the move to install hundreds of speed cameras. What these signify is that the ordinary motorist is assumed to want to break the law - unless he is being watched and monitored by cameras all the time. If he knows he is being watched then he may keep to the limits - most of the time.
Or take the cameras that spy on us in all the public places in Britain these days. There was a time - but a few decades ago when the very suggestion of these would have caused an uproar of protest. Instead, we now have the CCTV everywhere, and the public don’t object because the public has recognised that there is so much lawlessness (including terrorists) around that CCTVs are necessary for the Police to maintain order and as a deterrent. People don’t like being watched and spied on all the time, and having their history recorded - of course they don’t. But they like terrorists even less. And they feel (perhaps wrongly!) that CCTV cameras in the market place may deter criminals, from terrorists right down to the louts trying to mug them as they walk home at night.
I think that what we are seeing is, in part, a natural consequence of the collapse of moral and spiritual motivation in the general mass of the people. There are of course other reasons, but many folk only have vague memories of Christianity and of church going. They are largely ignorant of the Christian fundamentals. They are no longer trying to live up to Christian standards. As a society we are coasting on the momentum of what they were taught as youngsters. What they picked up from their schools and in their early days in such places as church clubs and various groups other groups.
This is not a pleasant idea to accept. People will object that most of the general public have standards. Of course they do! No one is suggesting otherwise. But what I am suggesting is that the general standards current today - which cannot be called truly ‘Christian’ - have sunk to a point where they are insufficient to stop the selfishness and lawlessness prevalent throughout today’s society.
So what is to be done? It is perhaps a fallacy that something must always ‘be done’! Or indeed, that it is always possible to ‘do’ anything. In the present situation my own diagnosis is quite radical and the only cure is for a return to Christian values. I see no prospect of a major shift happening in my lifetime. But of course I may be wrong!
What needs to happen is for people to find moral and spiritual principles in their lives - principles to which they commit themselves and which are powerful enough to motivate them to live sufficiently unselfishly that society can get along without the excessive Police presence and control that is becoming so evident - and so necessary - in today’s society.
However false the values of society fifty years ago - and however much they were a legacy of Victorian morality - the fact is that our society did not need the level of Police control that we now consider necessary.
So how are we going to find the glue to hold society together without all the controls and deterrents we now see being adopted? In realistic terms, what needs to happen?
Firstly, I think we must accept that it is highly unlikely that there will be a return to the Christian Churches in my lifetime. The churches are too buried in a past era. They are out of tune with life today. The whole homosexuality tragedy shows that. I call it a tragedy because hundreds of thousands of gay people - especially young people - have looked at the attitude of the churches towards homosexuality and decided that they cannot be part of such an old organisation - one that is apparently blind to the naturalness and acceptability of homosexuality.
How then can there be a return to moral and spiritual values? I don’t know! Maybe it will be through some massive outside threat - causing people to return to the old values. A war? A pandemic? Maybe it will come through Islam? Maybe through sheer exasperation with the way society is going? Maybe the spiritual need that every man woman and child has, inbuilt into them, will create a desire for a new kind of Christian fellowship. Maybe there will arise some prophet who will somehow stir people and we shall see a return to religion? Maybe a revival? Maybe… maybe… Who knows? I certainly don’t. But the need is there and growing more glaringly obvious every day.
Maybe the Police control will have to increase unremittingly (as I think it will have to) in order to control the forces of chaos - until there comes a time when all the ordinary people rebel and say enough is enough. Maybe on the other hand we shall slowly actually drift into being a Police state - and that seems to be the direction at the moment. That, however, would be a very dangerous place to be because if any future government becomes at all undemocratic it will then have immense powers over every citizen. What price democracy then!
The post modern society is essentially one thing: a society that has thrown over the ideas and ideals of modernism. If the purifying salt of the Christian religion is also abandoned, then society is just drifting, until another idea or principle grips it’s people or it collapses through weakness. The evidence of decadence - a turning away from religion and even from humanism - is everywhere. It is in our society - writ large all over our everyday lives. It is to be seen in the fact that the Police need to so increase their powers to control the situation. It is evident in our art and our advertisements. It is evident in our television and our newspapers. It is evident in our politicians and our laws. Everywhere we see the evidence of a Christian society that has lost its Christianity. We see a society that is drifting, without moral and spiritual bearings.
No doubt there will be many who disagree with my diagnosis. But there will be many more, I think, who agree. I think the evidence is before our eyes. We are a society searching for a reason for living that is above pleasure and indulgence. Surely many people are now satiated with pleasure and indulgence? With sexual excess and sheer materialism? Surely they cannot go on for ever selling everything from cars to breakfast cereals by showing sexy young women (and men!)? Surely there will come a time when many people will turn away from the hedonistic society we see around us and look for a deeper motivation. That may not be soon. And before it comes Christians may find themselves not only deeply unpopular but actually persecuted. But if we are truly living the Christian life we shall be prepared to pay the price. The blood of the martyrs is always the seed of the Church.
God is still God, and whatever byways our country goes down, the eternal verities stand secure. Meanwhile, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have to learn to humbly ask God’s forgiveness for our own egocentricity and in the quietness listen for his voice to give us direction on how we can help our society find its way back to the road marked out for it by God.