Perhaps particularly on the Monday night of the disturbances in London, the word "lawlessness" was a ready descriptor of the situation on the streets of some areas of the city. Since the events, there has been an emphasis, from both the police and politicians, on making arrests and bringing perpetrators before the courts. There is in connection with the riots an existential question about the rule of law; and some comment has observed that the riots indicate how little it took for the rule of law to break down, how thin was that rule in our society.
Nationally it is reported that somewhere around 21% of those appearing in court after the riots are aged under eighteen. A debate has taken place about the role of parents with regard to their children, in one form expressed by the slogan "what were their parents doing" letting their children out on the streets and in another form expressed in a debate about family breakdown.
Continuing the theme of the evangelical counsels, and the idea that they represent something that the Church can offer to the common good, these aspects of the recent events prompts a reflection on the virture of obedience.
Can. 601 The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ obedient unto death, requires the submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God, when they command according to the proper constitutions.There are a number of different situations in society where there are "legitimate superiors" who can rightly command obedience. Parents can rightly expect obedience from their children, teachers can expect pupils to obey instructions, an employer can expect an employee to fulfil the terms of their employment contract, and we are all expected to obey the law of the land. It is clear that in each of these situations that exercise of obedience is not, and cannot, be arbitrary. Each situation has its framework that defines the appropriate exercise of authority and therefore of obedience - parents exercise authority towards the good of the upbringing of their children, teachers ask pupils to behave well towards the purposes of learning and within the rules of the school, an employer exercises authority only within the terms and conditions of employment and not beyond.
Just as an exercise of authority is not arbitrary, so a genuine act of obedience is not arbitrary. As the Code of Canon Law suggests, it involves an engagement of the will of the one who obeys, an active choice to obey, and not just a passive "doing what I am told". That is not to say that some particular instances will not be experienced as "do what you're told", but it is to say that such instances are part of a wider and more willed choice to obey. This means that the one who obeys needs to have some understanding of the framework within which authority is being exercised towards them, and to recognise their stake in that framework. The more those who obey can recognise a common purpose with those who command, the more successful will be the exercise of authority and obedience.
One of the lessons about a well lived obedience is that, though it does have an element of enforcement, reliance on the enforcement alone is not sufficient. An education for obedience is also needed, so that those who are the object of commands are already disposed to obey them. An education to respect for law is a question of culture and it needs to include the small things as well as the large. The age profile of those coming before the courts in England at the moment suggests that this is not just a question for young people but for all ages in society.
[At one time the idea that rulers ruled by a "divine right" and were therefore representative of God's authority on earth held a certain sway. The Code of Canon Law refers to religious superiors as representing the will of God. I think it is reasonable to argue that, though a parent, a teacher or an employer do not represent God in any way in the life of those who need to obey them, nevertheless it is true that, under providence, they happen to be the ones placed in authority.]
A contribution that the Church can make to the debate about the riots is:
(1) to offer the example of obedience as lived by religious in our own cities, to talk about this in the media and to encourage its visibility in the life of parishes and dioceses
(2) to show how obedience is, when well lived, a positive contribution to community life
(3) to promote in parishes and schools the idea of obedience, and how this should be lived in a mature way that reaches beyond enforcement and that fully engages the will of the one who obeys
(4) not to be shy of offering the example of an obedience that is explicitly religious in its inspiration, as a contribution to a common good for which others in society also work, recognising that those of no religious faith will adopt the concept in an analagous manner.