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Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Giles Fraser

Canon Dr Giles Fraser

On Monday night I sat on the roof of my house and listened to the sound of helicopters buzzing overhead and police cars racing though the streets. Last night London itself was quieter, but the violence has spread elsewhere. How on earth will all this stupid destruction come to an end?

One way of addressing this question may be to look a little closer at how violence perpetuates itself though imitation. For many of these riots, now extending out to Manchester and the West Midlands, have been rightly labelled ‘copy-cat riots’, acts of imitation of last Saturday’s initial outbreak. And this imitation is not just limited to rioters being schooled by each other. For the anger of the innocent – a legitimate anger at the way in which ordinary people are being attacked and livelihoods destroyed - can also be expressed as a form of violence, as if the only way our imaginations can think of to put out the fire is with more of the same. And despite the fact that my sympathies are overwhelmingly with the police, it is nonetheless the case that, no doubt out of necessity, the police answer violence with more violence. They may have no other choice: but even so, the real winner always seems to be violence itself.

In what may be his most famous moral injunction, Jesus challenges people to recognise that even when we are in the right, we may be copying the violent. Not, he says, an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. In other words, resist the powerful instinct to respond in kind. Forget the philosophy of tit-for-tat. For if you follow the violent you will end up looking more and more like them. The instinct for revenge, says Jesus, turns us into the very person we least want to be.

All of which underlines how much of our moral life is mimetic, all about copying. No doubt the increasing significance of social media sites like Twitter has boosted this mimetic quality. And, it ought to be said, not always for the worse. For as of this morning, the Twitter tag @riotcleanup has notched up over 90,000 followers, with new versions for Manchester and Wolverhampton already springing up. This illustrates that a great many people have been doing a very different sort of copying - getting out onto the streets to clear up the debris and lend a helping hand to those who have been so badly affected by the chaos. The lesson in all of this for me is that violence is ultimately defeated not by more violence, but by the imitation of generous service to other people. Yes, the police may well have to use violence to protect the lives of the innocent. But ultimately, it won’t be this muscle that brings a sustained calm to our streets. Peace is achieved though the widespread imitation of simple kindness and loving service. Violence is defeated when enough people engage in right sort of copying.

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