Lest We Forget:
The murder of James Bulger

Some chickens come home to roost

by Stephen May


The 1993 murder of two-year old James Bulger by two schoolchildren in Liverpool has been in the New Zealand headlines recently for two main reasons: firstly, because of the suggestion that New Zealand might be asked to 'host' the newly-released murderers, and, secondly, because of the threats of revenge by vigilantes, infuriated by their release.

Stephen May, living in Britain at the time, was horrified by the reaction to James' murder. Very recently returned to England where he is living some thirty miles from Liverpool as Vicar of a local Anglican Church and some nine miles from Oldham, where race riots recently occurred (and where the National Front candidate has just gained 5,000 votes in the General Election), Stephen revisits the case.


The story of the abduction, torture and murder of two year old James Bulger by two ten year old Liverpool schoolboys has not lost its power to shock. A news report just the other day described the act as "too evil to comprehend".

At the time it horrified not only Britain, but the world - the announcement of their conviction, and intended incarceration for twenty years or so at Her Majesty's Pleasure, was the lead item on the television news in the United States.

Details of the actual slaying were too terrible to conceive. Policemen involved in the interviewing of the responsible boys were reportedly traumatised, frequently being seen in tears. Meanwhile, the apologists who "cry peace, peace, when there is no peace" were out in force.

For one child psychologist interviewed on the BBC World Service at the time, the murder was an act of bullying that "got out of control", "a tragic accident". For her, the children involved must have been emotionally deprived of support, with the parents being largely responsible. In the meantime, she advised, the nation should not fall into a state of "moral panic".

Elsewhere, however, the media were talking about radical evil. Which response is more correct?


For many, the news of such a murder brought not just unbelievable horror but also guilt. What had society come to that this sort of thing could happen? At the time I regarded this reaction as a healthy sign - I still do. If acts like this come to be expected, in a way they also become acceptable.

There has been much discussion of the possible role of video nasties in the murder of James Bulger. Some argue that there is no evidence that they played a significant role in the shaping of the children's minds.

Yet, in a broader sense, we have to note that this is a culture full of dehumanisation. We go to films in which human beings are destroyed in various unpleasant ways and then we are expected to go home and sleep. We watch endless acts of sexual intercourse in which the human body is used only as an object and then we are supposed to respect people.

As Robin Gill commented in the Church Times of 12 November 1993, "Moral inconsistencies abound in western culture today, yet they go largely unchallenged". This is a society which exhorts self-gratification, but also acts surprised when people act ruthlessly and selfishly.

I am reminded of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: Ivan who has declared that "As soon as all men have denied God - and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass - the old conception of the universe will fall of itself . . . and what's more the old morality, and everything will begin anew," is horrified when he learns that Smerdyakov has taken him seriously, and following his motto "when God does not exist, anything is permitted", has killed Ivan's father.


We are supposed to exist at a constant level of sophistication wherein we can differentiate between: on the one hand, the dehumanisation shown constantly in the media (above all on the television screen); and on the other hand, morality in our personal lives. Can we blame two ten year olds for being so confused? Is not the moral outrage that shook Britain over-delayed, rather than an excessive over-reaction?

Robin Gill wrote: "We are constantly told today that it should be for the individual alone to decide between right and wrong. Society at large should not moralise . . . . Matters of right and wrong are always relative. We cannot instruct others in morality. Everyone must work out their morality on their own. In the next breath we are told that (certain things) are self-evidently wrong." Is it any wonder that people are confused?

Robin Gill pointed to the Pope's Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor - which was damned in advance for its attitude to contraception. For Gill, however, what was more significant was its critique of relativism, and the implications of that for truth and morality.

We have largely abandoned the conception of objective morality, and are paying the price.


There are other issues relating to this appalling deed as well. Most (unlike the child psychologist quoted above) - acknowledged their incomprehension at the deed itself. That is good. To label the act as 'evil' acknowledges the depth of its seriousness, as well as its incomprehensibility. Evil is not comprehensible. It is a mystery. To attempt to explain it is to trivialise it.

At the same time, adults are guilty of some hypocrisy in this matter. For them, it is incomprehensible that 'innocent' children should do such a thing.

I have commented above on the way in which our modern society tends to make moral action itself uncertain. Yet is there an assumption here that if the brutal murder were committed by adults, it would somehow be more understandable - or acceptable?

Adults are the ones who are supposed to be mature, grown up, with a developed moral understanding! Would the vigilantism that is now threatened be practised on adults who had committed this act? In some ways the boys, now eighteen year olds, have become scapegoats for their society.

Much moral outrage continues to be directed at the perpetrators of the act. One British tabloid headline asked at the time of their sentencing, "What does it feel like now, you little bastards?" Here we see an anger which is consonant with the act itself.

Similarly, in the scenes shown on television of the children being taken to the trial, we saw hundreds of jeering spectators - crowds full of ugly faces - some of them not too dissimilar in age from the accused. The solution, it seems, has the same nature as the crime.

Threatened vigilantism now would be as ugly as the deed then - but it would masquerade as justice. After all, what would it do to these eighteen-year olds if they were locked away for the rest of their lives? What has happened to their moral awareness, their consciences already? Is it really too late to say that there is no chance of change in them?


Christianity has a lot to say about murderers. One of the duties in the early Church was to visit people in prison. This was because the church recognised there was a close affinity between Christian believers and those who had been convicted for their misdoings.

Christianity was not for the holy, but for forgiven sinners. This was neither piety nor sentiment. Rather it was a recognition of our joint identity in sin.

This is not to say that many of us would necessarily commit such a crime as these two boys did, any more than the Jews Paul addressed in Romans 2:1 were guilty of homosexual sin. But, as in that case, critics show that idolatry is at work where people dare to stand in judgement, to usurp God's role as Judge, and to take for granted his loving mercy to them.

In addition, at the most fundamental level, we are joined together in the common murder by humanity of Jesus Christ. We are, according to Christian doctrine, all murderers. There is no basic difference between us. We cannot engage in a hate campaign against these children as if they belonged to an alien race. They and we alike are in the same boat: sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ.

This is not exculpation of their deeds: it is recognition of our complicity in them. We have to thank God that we are forgiven, that God offers us hope from our mess. Here radical evil is met by its conqueror: the radical love of the Cross that goes even deeper.


Meanwhile, the problem of our society remains. Dehumanisation proceeds afoot. There is an opportunity to turn back for a moment the relentless bombardment of our senses, of the images that annihilate our moral sense and personal being.

And yet more than this remains to be done. We have to abandon all self-righteousness, even as we engage in a wholesale critique of our society, and oppose with all our might the moral relativism which it espouses and the search for self gratification which it exalts.


Stephen May has resigned his post as Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St John's College, Auckland and is returning to the United Kingdom in July to take up a post as a Church of England Vicar in the North of England (St Paul's Norden and St James' Ashworth). He has expressed willingness, if required, to pass on news from that distant land!

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