Healing society—the ethics of desire

The recent rioting and looting on the streets of England have triggered an avalanche of comment from politicians of all persuasions, peppered with phrases such as ‘social deprivation’, ‘the breakdown of family values’, ‘no stake in society’, and so on. Deep conversations try to fathom why, within certain localities, there is an inbuilt desire for self-destruction — the social equivalent of a disturbed teenager slashing her wrists with a kitchen knife. Some have even tried to paint a Dickensian picture of social stratification, equating today’s looters with those that, until not so long ago, were hung for stealing a loaf of bread. The solution — according to this analysis — is simply to pump more money into deprived housing estates, presumably so the kids can go out and buy their own designer clothes without the trouble of stealing them.

Looting of values

It is curious that few have the courage (or conviction?) to speak about the true nature of the society that we have created in the last 50 or so years. Values which used to underpin most developed cultures have been systematically eroded and rejected — even legislated against — so it seems somewhat hollow for learned commentators to lament the ‘breakdown of family life’ for example, having presided over the dismantling of many social institutions that supported that life or — in the case of a good number of MP’s — blame ‘delinquents’ for looting, having themselves used generous expense accounts to milk the system effectively stealing from those of us with lesser means.

Whatever your religious convictions, it cannot be denied that mainstream faith-groups of all creeds and colours have, as core values, the honouring of parents and a commitment to family life and — more fundamentally — treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself. So those in power that bleat about the erosion of core values (politicians and journalists in particular) have arguably contributed more to the erosion of those values than any other group in society by routinely deriding and ridiculing ‘religion’ and undermining any sense of moral norms (and, as we shall see later, promoting the core value of ‘desire’ in a post-materialistic society). It was notable this week that the most powerful call for moderation came from a Muslim father who had lost sons in the violence: his dignity and poise in the midst of bereavement gave me hope once more.


From my side of Lessing’s Ditch a few things seem painfully obvious that no-one seems to want to talk about. For example, the issue of desire. Boz Scaggs, one of my favourite artists, has a song called Desire (from the album Dig) which in my view hits the nail right on the head:

So much desire in the world today
So much of everything you can’t give it away
You could be happy but you’re feeling so bad
About what you never have
Because you can’t look at nothing without wanting it
And you know that’s the truth
There’s always some scene you think you got to break into
Or a new sensation to intoxicate you
Ain’t it a drag
Staring through the glass at something doesn’t touch you really
Or bring you laughter or roses or stroke your hair so tenderly
Stealing you away from me
You’re living in a dream
Is getting the best of you.

Or, in the words of David Bentley Hart:

Contrary to the frequent but unreflective characterization of the ethos of the market as simple ‘materialism,’ modern consumer culture subsists most essentially upon the etherialization of desire, a diversion from the concrete to the symbolic.1

It is this diversion from the concrete to the symbolic (that I need an Blackberry, not because of its functionality, but because its a cool Blackberry) that leads to a perverse kind of idealism that destroys the fabric of its own reality — that eats itself like a cancer. The kids on the street have not realised that the carpet warehouse burned down in Croydon contributes to the economy that provides them with (stolen) Blackberries. But this is no mere misunderstanding of economics, it is a deep deception flourishing in an ideology that has promoted the lie that desire can be satisfied by symbols, rather like telling the man dying of hunger to imagine a great meal. Unless there is genuine satisfaction for the innate human desire for meaning in this puzzling world, we are, sadly, destined for many more nights of unrest, and the unravelling of this fragile ‘economy’.


It was not so long ago that objects or commodities were valued because of their intrinsic worth: flour had value because you could use it to make bread; a coat had value because it could keep you warm. A shift occurred as objects began to have a perceived value beyond their immediate worth: objects with specific beauty or uniqueness were collected, bartered or exchanged for what they represented in the way of value. The third and final shift in the ‘market’ was a move away from even the perceived exchange value of an object towards the ethos or ideal that that object represented beyond itself. It is this final shift towards an ephemeral mirage, a false transcendence, that the market would have us embrace for in doing so we embark on an insatiable lust for ‘things’ that are incapable of fulfilling the desire they create: our acquisition of ‘things’ becomes a daily sacrifice to the market-god, yet the more we sacrifice, the more we fuel his appetite and the less he is appeased. The looter who desecrates her own community is to be pitied, for she is trapped into making eternal sacrifice to an idol who is never satisfied, an idol that will eventually claim her life.

All this to say that we live in a society where positive values such as commitment to family and community have been traded for the worship of insatiable desire, where, to put in bluntly, designer jeans are valued more than human life. Is it any wonder we are reaping the consequences? ‘Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’

If you want to win your life…

So what will help us to move forward? In recent weeks I have been considering those paradoxical words of Jesus: ‘If you want to win your life, you must lose it.’ It is, sadly, a lesson that many of the misguided kids who looted shops last week will learn to their cost. A moment of ‘life-winning’ self-centred opportunistic madness, fuelled by the heat of crowd passion, has landed many behind bars, and left many parents distraught and heartbroken. But how should we interpret these words of Jesus?

Often within Christian thought there is a strong emphasis on the denial of self, of ‘taking up one’s cross’, and for many years I thought that Jesus was primarily arguing for self-denial bordering on self-flagellation — a call to suppress ‘the flesh’ and its deadly appetites. And suppression of the ‘flesh’ can all too easily slip into a rejection of human society. But now I view these words more as a positive call to connect with others — to recognise, with Donne, that I am not an island psyche but that I am an integral and interconnected member of the wider human family. Again, in Christian though this connectedness has often emphasised the connection with the Christian family (‘discerning the body’) at the expense of connection with the wider human family, all of whom (at least according to my Bible) are made in the image of God. And so this week I found myself connected in a profound way with my Muslim brother calling for peace on the streets of Birmingham.

So what can we do practically? For me, the key lies in yet more often-misunderstood words of Jesus: ‘Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15). So often these words have resulted in a rejection of physical reality or human society, forgetting that ‘God so loved the world…’. Instead, we must understand these words as a call not to love the values or the ways of the world — particularly the promotion of self at the expense of others and the embrace of ‘desire’. So I want to try not to sacrifice to the god of desire: not to automatically go for the next mobile phone upgrade, nor yearn for a foreign holiday. But, more positively, I want to be free to give what little I have to others, to serve the community in my village as best I can, to give to my family, and to live knowing that every human brother or sister that I meet is made in the image of God — to express love for all of the human family to which I am connected.

Perhaps if enough of us choose to reject desire and embrace others, our society will be healed.

Notes and references

  1. Hart, David Bentley, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2004) p. 436.