Lessons from L.A.

The smoke has cleared over the skies of Los Angeles but the political fires continue to burn. Congress blames President Bush for Administration policies, the President blames Congress for its entitlement programs. But there's a much more fundamental issue at stake--one you won't hear much about in the secular press. Los Angeles demonstrates what will happen to any community when its moral restraints fall away. The riots may have started with the Rodney King case, but they quickly grew into much more than that. The looting and murder we watched on our TV screens was the result of unfettered human depravity--what the Bible calls sin. And when moral restraints break down like that, there can be no civil order. You see, every political order rests on a moral consensus. In order to live as a community, we must all accept certain objective principles--obligations that transcend our personal desires. Without that moral order, there's little government can do to maintain civil order. We could post National Guardsmen on every street corner, and chaos would still erupt. This is the real lesson of L.A.: that a democratic government can not be sustained unless its citizens first practice self-government. When they give in to their impulses, the law of the jungle takes over. But the lesson isn't just for the inner cities. Looting is looting--whether it's done by inner city gang members or by white-collar bankers in three-piece suits. Think of the Savings and Loan fiasco, that's still being sorted out. Instead of smashing windows in the ghettos these men were quietly writing figures in a ledger book. But the moral content of their act was exactly the same: By dipping into other people's savings, they were just as bad as the looters in L.A. robbing their neighbor's shops. Take away the restraints of conscience, and people grab whatever they can. The riots in L.A. reveal in a microcosm what can happen anywhere in America when the moral consensus that holds a free society together breaks down. And that moral consensus depends in turn on a strong religious faith. Our Founders understood this. Two hundred years ago, John Adams said, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other." And historians Will and Ariel Durant, after studying 2000 years of Western civilization, concluded that "there is no significant example in history ... of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." I wish we all had heard one of the black residents of L.A. interviewed on TV. He gestured toward the looters storming the shops and cried out, "This is stealing. Don't these people have any morals? Don't they believe in God?" Those simple questions hit right at the heart of the issue: As our nation turns away from God, we are losing the only sure basis for a moral order in society--an order that applies to all people, black or white, in ghetto neighborhoods or in corporate boardrooms. It's good to see the smoke clearing over Los Angeles and to hear the sound of hammers rebuilding the stores and businesses. But unless we rebuild the bonds of our moral consensus as well, those walls will tumble down again. Not only in L.A. but across the rest of America as well.


Chuck Colson


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