The attempt to create a narrative (as the pundits call it) about the recent riots is in full swing. There is one narrative that majors on criminality and another that majors on social deprivation made worse by cuts. It has to be said that neither are entirely convincing.
Both refer to parenting and the Guardian has an excellent piece on that issue today (here). The narratives talk about the inadequacy of parenting or the struggles of parents. And listening to some of the stories emerging from the estates where the overwhelming majority of those involved in the riots came is heart-breaking.
I don't know what the answer is beyond something really obvious that I'll mention in a moment. I'm fairly sure the answer isn't to evict people from their homes because a family member is convicted of involvement in looting. I know that sounds reasonable - why should society provide homes for the ungrateful? But a moment's thought suggests that pushing the poor beyond the reach of services that might be able to help them get their lives together doesn't sound sensible; punishing a whole family because one member was caught up in a night of madness seems guaranteed to increase a sense of not being part of the community we are all so keen to build.
And as a Christian I have to say that it lacks grace. Most of the narratives lack grace. And so most of the narratives envision a society where only the deserving can belong. I struggle with this because we'd all be up to our chests in the brown stuff if God treated us this way and I think we are called to be like God (Matthew 5:48 etc).
So, my simple, obvious thought is this. Let's not rush to set up parenting courses where experts tell the inadequate how to bring up baby (there's a place for classes and courses and groups, but they tend only to reach those who know they've got a 'problem' and are prepared to admit that to at least one other person). Rather, let's get to know parents and offer them the support that comes through a network of friendship.
I know from having a six month baby in the house that being a parent can be demanding and stressful - and our granddaughter has four adults responding her every cry! I also know from our work offering parent and toddler groups through the church that every parent is grateful for help and advice that grows out of friendship. That is part of being community. Lots of my friends are part of a wide network of friends and family who offer support just by being around.
Most of the families where I am cope just fine - mum and dad are together, the home is secure, money is plentiful, life has its stresses but is generally good. But there are some families that are on the edge, living in poor housing, subsisting on benefits or minimum wage, working unsocial hours, lacking the support of an extended family network. How might our friendship help them? What could the offer of a meal or having the children for an hour or two, organising a picnic for a group of families to be together with something organised for the kids for an hour or so do for such families? Who know where it might lead...
I keep coming back to the realisation that what God expects of us is pretty simple - that we love him and we love our neighbour. Such love is essentially very practical and involves offering grace to others as God has offered it to us. And because this is pretty simple, anyone can get involved. It doesn't require a bevy of experts or expensive project apparatus to function. It requires people giving time to forming relationships with those around them - people like them and people very different from them - and so making community that works and is mutually supportive.
Of course, more is needed; of course, some problems are deep and require deep wells of grace, experience and expertise to tackle; of course, some people will be impervious to our offer of friendship; of course, we can find all sorts of reasons to throw our hands up and say 'someone other than me must do something.'
But as Jesus said to the baffled twelve when they were faced by a mob of hungry men, spoiling for a revolution, 'you give them something to eat'. He says the same to us. And we know - because we've read the story in Luke 9 - that Jesus will help us do it once we've knuckled down to attempt the impossible.