The media storm which continues around this incident, is by turns petty and important. On the petty side the rail evictee has made multiple protests in mainstream media of his innocence and his experience of being a victim of assault. The individual who videoed events had a slot on BBC breakfast, and a collective 15 minutes of fame has followed for the main protagonists. The man who evicted the youth from the train, Alan Pollock, has not courted the media attention, but then again he may endure media attention in court, should calls for his prosecution for assault find a good hearing.
Media moguls, former police officers and Scotrail spokesmen have raised their individual voices, either in protest or approbation at what befell the ticket dodger. There is a sense in which people have grasped the parabolic nature of the video's transmission, speaking as it does to some of the bigger issues which we face as a society. What does this event say about social disaffection, approaches to authority, and legitimate force? When is it right for members of the public to intervene, or to take the law into their own hands? What does all of this say about social media and publication of what twenty years ago would have been isolated and unrecorded incidents? All of these are valid and complex questions.
For me the most fascinating facet of the whole affray has been the promotion of the evicted student from perpetrator to victim. Here is a young, educated person who shows willful defiance to an official on a train - a man well advanced in years. He feels justified in raining abusive words down on the conductor, clearly in the presence of young families and children. He feels no sense of responsibility that he is delaying everyone else's journey or causing difficulties for others. In true toddler fashion he wants to have his tantrum, and cares little for a single consequence.
In short he is an icon of the golden age of the victim, the offended against offender who will defend his rights vocally and treat his responsibility shabbily. In this YouTube parable, he holds up before us the face of a society which shirks its sense of duty, which asserts its sense of entitlement, and will flex the muscles of state to keep its steady state defiance. He falls in with the line up from the summer riots, concerned to do what they want and incredulous when that most rare of things follows - an unpleasant consequence.
Such features do not bode well for Britain. What do we do with now multiple generations who demote authentic authority and promote their pretended authority? What happens to a society where rights are on the rampage and responsibility is in retreat? What does this say about how we bring the Gospel into these circumstances? If the authority of a visible, physically present teacher/conductor/riot squad serves as no deterrent to willful rebellion, how can we hope to so teach about God's authority over all people, when he cannot be physically seen or sensed?
To me the answer lies in a couple of areas, one which we can control and one which is in the control of Another. On the side of activism, we can teach our children about the nature of authority, and how that we all must submit ourselves to it. Romans 13 gives me a tremendous framework from which to teach my children about the nature of authority as instituted by God, or rulers who rightly hold terror for the troublemaker, of even secular and sinful governments serving God's purpose of ensuring law and order.
My three year old and I had a fascinating conversation about this recently. She felt the car slowing down as we approached a 30mph zone and asked me what would happen if I didn't obey the law. I told her that the police would have the right to stop me, to scold me and to punish me. The sense of disbelief on her face that one of the two main authority figures in her life might be subject to another, external authority spoke volumes.
The other answer lies in the optimistic realism that the Bible affords us. We can look at our world and lament the traits of human behaviour which we see in ourselves and others. We can take an honest look at our morally moribund Western culture, and with candour confess that things are a mess. But we also believe that this is the tinder which God can still set alight in His grace, by His Spirit, for His glory. Arnold Dallimore's two volume biography of George Whitefield is full of the good news of what God did through His servant in 18th century England - but all of that was set against the bad news of a culture adrift from God, from His Word, and from the behaviours which it proscribes. God can move in the darkness of our age with the brightness of His grace, and we bear the privilege and responsibility of humbling ourselves and beseeching God to restore us and our world.
The fable of the freeloading student is packed with powerful reflective points for us all. But a belief in a God who intersects our society with His sufficiency gives us grounds for hope and motivation for prayer.