'Why I am a Christian and on the Left'
This article has taken me a long time to produce. I confess I somewhat struggle with the title. Does it need to be written? Some Christians are political and some are not, some are on the left, in the centre and on the right. Does it matter? Aren’t ‘left and right’ notions and legacies from the modernist/enlightenment era anyway?
Indeed if we reflect on John Milbank’s analysis, traditional references to left and right are pretty much redundant or even deceptive.
‘We’re now at a crossroads. Politics has become a shadow play. In reality, economic and cultural liberalism go together and increase together. The left has won the cultural war, and the right has won the economic war. But of course, they are really both on the same side’
(Three Questions on Modern Atheism: An Interview with John Milbank
by Ben Suriano)
In essence, I want to offer a personal account of my background, Christian journey and how that has formed my political outlook. I am now 39, grew up in a small town in the midlands, in a close family, privileged to be within walking distance of both sets of Grandparents and by the age of twelve had become interested in politics. A friend at University once said that my life could be summed up as ‘God, West Bromwich Albion and the Labour Party’ and this does accurately reflect my key passions. This essay unpacks two of these dimensions to my personhood, that I am a Christian on the left.
Bertrand Russell wrote a famous essay ‘Why I am not a Christian’ and now, more recently William Connolly has written an article saying ‘Why I am not a Secularist’. So, I will attempt to explain why I am a Christian and on the left, or more pertinently how that shapes my politics.
So, let us begin the journey. I became a Christian when I was fourteen, not too long after I had become politically aware. Essentially, my Christian and political journeys both began roughly at the same time. The faith element has always been my primary passion, yet my politics (flowing out from this commitment) is also something I have felt strongly about. Over the past twenty four years, since I embarked upon the Christian journey, I have explored my Christian life whilst also being involved and active in centre-left politics. On the basis of the past twenty-four years I expect to be on this journey for the rest of my natural life.
Sometimes, the connection between my faith and politics feels natural, sometimes there are tensions. I hope it does not contain contradictions but it does embrace paradox.
I believe Christianity is true, it has solid intellectual foundations and is experientally dynamic and vital. I believe in the loving God of the Bible who revealed himself through his son Jesus Christ. I believe that followers of Jesus are to seek the Kingdom and build the church. We are (Matthew 6v33) to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. That is where our true heart and passion is, and this is to precede any other allegiance, political tribe, football team, career or even family.
Thus, as a Christian I should seek to view the world (and political sphere) through a biblical and theological lens and not to view Christianity through a worldly or secular lens.
Pledging our allegiance to the Kingdom of God
Bob Ekblad, a US Christian activist wrote a book called ‘Pledging our allegiance to the Kingdom of God - a new Christian Manifesto’. This is not about politics but I find the title challenging. It helps me to focus on where my heart should be and I try and pray that I will pledge my allegiance to the Kingdom of God. This is because in politics ideologies and worldview’s can (no matter how notionally attractive) prove to be idolatrous or ultimately worse.
This allegiance does not infer withdrawal from the world. Our commitment to Christ and his church is realised and lived out in a broken world, fatally loaded against fairness and justice. Man has wrecked social relationships and the environment. We see in Scripture that God’s heart is for the poor, (Isaiah 61) even to the point of ‘bias’ as David Sheppard said.
The Poverty and Justice Bible affirms that over 2000 biblical verses relate to matters of justice and poverty. This is central to the gospel and not a ‘bolt-on’ or after thought. Tim Keller has explained clearly, simply and beautifully that God is a God of ‘generous justice’.
‘…It is the generosity of God, the freeness of his salvation, that lays the foundation for the society of justice for all. Even in the seemingly boring rules and regulations of tabernacle rituals, we see that God cares about the poor, that his laws make provision for the disadvantaged. God’s concern for justice permeated every part of Israel’s life. It should also permeate our lives’
(p40, ‘Generous Justice - How God’s Grace Makes us Just’, Timothy Keller).
Justification of the sinner leads to seeking justice in God’s world. They are linked and not separate.
Thus, in the light of the nature of God and the incarnation of his son, we are not bystanders and observers in this world, God has revealed his passion and will and our commitment is to the King and his Kingdom.
Jesus showed compassion for the broken, God is passionate about justice and stands against injustice (Isaiah 58). In Acts 2 we see the early church practising an authentic and radical form of community. Resources are shared and needs met in a profoundly counter-cultural manner. We catch a glimpse of a common life that a society founded on humanistic principles might be able to mirror but not match.
This emphasis of being on the side of the poor, and seeking justice are important to me as a Christian. I am wholly imperfect in what I have actually done based on this disposition but I would say to a degree they inform my political worldview. They are in my DNA.
The beauty of paradox
Despite laying out my starting point and perspectives a number of questions are immediately generated. Does being a Christian and valuing justice and caring for the poor make one automatically left-wing? Does this judge others who attach themselves to different political traditions? Clearly it does not.
The problem is, life is not so simple. Are all on the left caring and compassionate? Are all on the right indifferent to injustice and the poor? Clearly not, I cannot help but admire what Iain Duncan-Smith has done to restore the Conservative case for standing up for the poor. His work in establishing the Centre for Social Justice has, I believe, provided a challenge to the Labour Party on matters of social justice. A cause that it seemed to believe was its domain. In doing so, IDS, stands in a long and noble tradition of compassionate Conservatism including such luminaries as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury.
I would, however, critique the noble ‘one-nation’ Conservative tradition. It is one strand within the broader Conservative tradition, other elements of Toryism I find slightly unsavoury and alien.
So, I acknowledge there are facts, tensions and paradoxes. Yet, I am still a Christian who is drawn to the left side of politics. Yet, this statement is made when perhaps we are seeing slight but certain changes in the assumptions that underpin UK politics. As Phillip Blond recently wrote:
‘Perhaps for the first time in thirty years politics is changing. The old orthodoxies of left and right are still dominant, but they are no longer hegemonic. Beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting; boundaries are blurring, and ideologies are returning to first principles, creating a new terrain that is slowly beginning to emerge.’
In ‘A new Political Settlement’ in ‘Changing the debate, the new ideas re-defining Britain’ (Respublica)
So, I acknowledge that there are facts, tensions and sense of paradox that rightfully counsels against some of the points I am making. Yet, I am still happy to describe myself as a Christian drawn to the left-side of the political spectrum.
I will continue to explore and explain this journey, please bear with me.
What is means to be a Christian and involved in politics has been something that I have been reflecting upon much more in the past six years. Initially, I took the view that being involved in the political realm was important as an act of citizenship. I still think this is the case. Although my initial articulation of this was a little superficial.
The following quote from Theodore Roosevelt reminded me of the importance of being involved in politics. It contains a warning not to merely observe and perhaps be, inadvertently, judgmental from the sidelines.
‘It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
"Citizenship in a Republic,"
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
There is something in Roosevelt’s wise words and perhaps I am importing them into a different context but I have found this helpful. Of course, it is not the last word in Christian analysis. For example, a prophetic voice might be seen as critical. Thus, at one level we should not endorse a view that says we must have no truck with criticism where it is rooted in the right motives and expressed in a loving spirit. Christians are at times called to take a critical or rather prophetic stance, this might take place ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the system.
The home for many Christians on the left has been the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM). Last year CSM celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Through the work of RH Tawney and Donald Soper and other pioneers there is a tradition of Christian Socialism that is recognised within the Labour movement. I am now happy to say I am a ‘Christian Socialist’, in that order as well.
For me it is Christian Socialism that needs to be further defined in this era. For it hold within its traditions treasures and perspectives that Labour sorely needs. The need for values, the championing of the common good, a response to commodification of relationships, ‘secular capitalism’ and consumerism are all urgently required. The affirmation of the role of faith in public life, the politics of relationships and the primacy of family life must form the bedrock of a Christian Socialist contribution to Labour’s necessary renewal.
This tradition is distinct from progressivism and liberalism that seem to be dominant in important sections of Labour’s architecture. I will expand on what I mean later.
Building the common good or seeking progress?
The notion of the Common Good is deeply associated with the Christian Socialist tradition and the phrase has become more familiar across the political piece. Rooted with Catholic social teaching (a vital source for the Christian left) it talks of a form of politics that eschews individualism and conceptions of the self detached from our true humanity.
The ‘common good’ posits a notion of human flourishing rooted in our commitment to the well-being of others. It is a vision of the good society that is far preferable to liberal abstractions, a political settlement that transcends selfish individualism. To use a contemporary example, did the closure of Roman Catholic adoption agencies due to their ‘failure’ to conform to notions of equality achieve the common good? The closure of many of these agencies and the loss of loving support to vulnerable children suggests to me that this decision was not in accord with a politics of the common good. I chose a controversial example but it was the first one to cross my mind.
It would seem that the common good does not necessarily accord with a certain form of liberalism which is rooted in individualism and an enlightenment conception of the self. Neither does it perfectly match the narrative of progress, which espouses certain nostrums in search of perfect future yet can have unhelpful impacts on ordinary people in the here and now. In general, whilst the environment is fundamentally important, ‘environmentalism’ appears, inadvertently, to produce policies that fall disproportionately on the working-class. This need not be the case. Conservation and creation care are of course Christian responsibilities.
Thus, the espousal of Christian Socialism and the politics of the ‘common good’ is a helpful and historically fecund starting point. This tradition needs to be strengthened because the alternative narrative on the left liberal progressivism is problematic for a number of reasons.
Yet, critiquing ‘Liberalism’ does not mean I am adopting a Conservative tradition as conventionally understood. Alasdair MacIntyre accurately sums this up this position as follows:
‘This critique of Liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary Conservatism. That Conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. And, where Liberalism by permissive legal enactments has tried to use the power of the modern state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactments now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes’
(p Xiii, Prologue to the Third Edition,’ After Virtue’, Alasdair MacIntyre’)
Let us unpack liberal progressivism a little. For, critique liberalism we must, as its hegemony is almost unquestioned. It has become synonymous with being ‘good’. I would say liberalism now has reached its limits and has ‘morphed’ into something distinct from the original post English Civil War liberalism with which I have sympathy.
In contrast, progressivism has less of a heritage, is shallow and taken to its logical conclusion is dangerous and anti-Christian. In that is seeks ‘heaven on earth’ by man’s means. I do not believe I have ever heard the word progressive, or many other words used by the political class by a voter. It talks of a future day that may never come, pursuing long-term idealistic goals whose effect is to cause pain now (unwittingly) and mitigates against the common good and in fact common sense. It reflects the paucity and drift within UK left thinking.
It is understandable how these phrases become the ‘lingua franca’ of the centre-left. Understandable but not helpful. To my mind when Labour become less certain of the relevance of Socialism or Democratic Socialism, the use of the term ‘progressive’ crept in. It was an attempt to define someone who is on the left and not Conservative. The problem is that even now some Conservatives of a liberal bent might call themselves ‘progressive’ so it is a kind of complex matter, as complex as some of the points I alluded to earlier. As I said, one needs to be compassionate and not shrill about this discourse. For, it should be a good thing that one looks to the future with hope and seeks to move things forward. Christianity is a message of hope and faith and redemption. The problem is that very few people can define what it means to be ‘progressive’. It is also problematic from a Christian perspective. I don’t believe we are progressing towards a perfect, humanistic utopia in this life. In fact attempts to do so are potentially disastrous. I sense that much of the ‘liberal progressive’ agenda is rooted in a secular humanist view of the world. So, the scope for a Christian engagement with this phenomenon has limits. Hence, I feel a far healthier path lies in applying a biblically rooted Christian theology to the public challenges of today and also in defining what we mean by the common good.
Surprised by Hope
My belief is in a hope rooted in God’s ‘inaugurated’ Kingdom, which was ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One day this Kingdom will be realised forever. That is where history, I believe, is heading. God is concerned in this real hope, found in Christ transforming and shaping people’s lives, their families and communities. Thus, true progress can only be linked to an understanding and belief in God’s purposes for mankind. We are called not to be gloomy and defeatist but to work with this God of hope that his purposes may be established. Yet, this is different from an abstract ideology looking for secular humanistic solutions to the intractable problems faced by the human race.
The kind of hope we are talking about leads to involvement in the real stuff of people’s lives, bringing love and God’s presence to the broken. Engagement in politics can be an expression of this Kingdom activity. Yet, it is only a small part of it and of course is not the sole preserve of one political party or movement. Seeking the common good and connecting with the real issues of people’s lives should be what we are about. It is about being human and therefore abstraction is a distraction. Talking about ‘things getting better’, raising expectations through vast public expenditure programmes that mean little to people and hinting at ‘jam tomorrow’ and what the Tories would cut are no longer an option for Labour. It needs to be straight with the electorate and re-orientate the party in the experience and language of ordinary people. So are we about the common good or progress? Do we promise ‘jam tomorrow’? Or do we promote flourishing now and seek community and contentment? For if seems to me rather than the mantra of ‘things can only get better’ some things will get better, some things will get worse and some will stay the same. My football team finished 11th in the Premier League last season, next year might be better, it might be worse. I don’t know. We can speak of a world of love, relationships and beauty or condemn people to the disenchanted world of utilitarianism, rationalism and managerialism.
Rooted in Reality – ‘Bloke Labour’
In my teens I used to work with a labouring company ran by a chap from my local church. I worked with local men, many of whom, had experienced unemployment at some point. The vast majority of them were not materialistic or greedy or necessarily aspirational. Of course they were not perfect but they were decent. Their expectations were not unrealistic or fancy, but were content with a steady job, the ability to take their family out for a pub meal every month and having one or two family holidays a year. Not a lot to ask for. Furthermore, I would add to that list of expectations the presence of good healthcare and half-decent local schools and I think you are near what a lot of people are content with. Pretending we can build utopia or that one Government is vastly better than another one is not credible. That is not the starting point with some of the blokes I am referring to and Labour needs to appeal to them, we need ‘Bloke Labour’.
Identity and Place
Being a Christian Socialist also demands that I reflect on who I am and where I am from. Now, here is a paradox. I have largely and still largely believe that as a Christian I am slightly suspicious of national or any other local identity. Indeed, I believe this to be my disposition. I aim to identify with God’s kingdom and his worldwide, beautiful and diverse church as a primary attachment. However, the paradox is I am from somewhere, I was born in the English Midlands, and I now live in south-east London. One on level, I relate to these identities. Surely, the fact that God became incarnate in Christ, in a real place to some degree reflects God’s commitment to people and places. I recently listened to an interview with N.T. Wright in which he referred to a ‘theology of place’.
My natural inclination to eschew local identity as parochial is now being challenged. Place is important, for example, parish churches have names and contexts. I am from a small town called Aldridge that used to be in Staffordshire but moved into the newly formed West Midlands in 1974. For years I would use the address Aldridge, Staffordshire and not West Midlands. I have spent a significant part of my life identifying with where I come from, I don’t like people running it down or running any other area down or judging other people’s accents. I am from somewhere.
For we are not free floating, rational beings ripped out of context. In the era of rapid ‘globalisation’ and ‘world culture’ the pace of change threatens traditional identities and sense of rootedness. Identity is important.
I am a Christian, from the Midlands, with an Irish surname and some Scottish blood. Yet, I am English and am intrigued by the reference to the need for the specific Labour tradition in England to be developed. This English tradition of virtue as referred to by Jon Cruddas MP and Maurice Glasman is worthy of an essay on its own. It is a tradition of liberty, justice and virtue. One of Labour’s overlooked and misunderstood leaders, George Lansbury perhaps embodies this tradition. It is a politics marked by romance as much as by rationalism.
In a speech in May 2011 at a service commemorating the life of Lansbury Jon Cruddas said:
‘I believe the significance of George Lansbury was his ordinariness; he was embedded in the common people. That is why he was so loved and adored. Dylan Thomas once said that the Labour movement at its best is both “magical” and “parochial”. That perfectly describes Labour’s greatest leader, George Lansbury – “good old george” - his humanity is both magical and parochial. It is timeless. Tragically, he gave more to us than we gave to him. He deserved so much more’
(‘George Lansbury:The unsung Father of Blue Labour’ by Jon Cruddas MP, CSM website)
Labour’s forgotten leader, George Lansbury, an English working-class leader of Labour deserves to be honoured. He was a Christian, Eastender, a champion of the poor and many unfashionable causes. History has been unkind to him. Yet, here was an individual Labour should look to; he was romantic, Christian, principled and lived among the people. The English tradition of virtue will be needed as Labour faces an uncertain future. What matters is not what works (ultimately does anything really work in politics and life?) what matters is what is right, virtuous and true. Give me one dreamer over a thousand rationalists any day.
Note Lansbury was a Christian Socialist, the radical English tradition has a strong religious flavour. Tony Benn seemed to understand that the Labour tradition is located within a radical stream that has flowed through English history, from Tyndale giving the Bible to the English, the Diggers, Levellers, Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists. If we have lost his then we need to revive it.
The Primacy of Family Life
I have been married for three years and two sons. I am enthralled literally every day with the joy, focus and responsibility that fatherhood can bring. In the past year I have felt the profound difference that family has meant to me.
When I was unemployed for five months in 2010 it wasn’t the state, my trade union or the Labour Party that helped me, it was my family, friends and my church. Recently, it has been family and the church that has proved immeasurably supportive as our family has expanded.
Families should not be a political football, nor single-mothers demonised. Yet, families are centrally important to society. This issue cannot be ignored when we are looking at the promotion of the common good. If politics really is the ‘right ordering of our relational priorities’ this must mean affirming family life. In political terms the left needs a positive narrative on the family. It is a social justice issue.
Yet, for some reason, the left seem to be nervous about the family and marriage. Well, to me there is nothing wrong with expressing the truism that children need to be raised in environments of love, fidelity, security and ideally with two parents. This situation is ideal and normative. This is not to alienate or be ungenerous to other approaches. Yet, this is a social justice issue and is too important to ignore.
When we reflect on the riots that erupted on our streets last August, it seems that, amidst other factors, issues of family and fatherhood cannot be overlooked. In an article reflecting on the disorder, Jon Kuhrt identifies consumerism, a breakdown in moral authority and the collapse of the family as factors potentially fuelling the disturbances.
‘What we are seeing is the massive impact of broken and dysfunctional families. Where are the dads stopping their kids from going out and rioting? Too often it is left to mums struggling alone who cannot physically stop their children. A cocktail of poverty, amoral attitudes, both parents having to work and the loss of any sense of personal responsibility means that the traditional barriers to poor behaviour simply don’t exist. We have been too scared to talk about family breakdown for fear of being judgemental but it is the biggest cause of poverty, exclusion and violence in the UK today.’
(‘The unpredicted tinderbox - 3 factors which fuelled the riots’ by Jon Kuhrt on Resistance and Renewal, http://jonkuhrt.wordpress.com/, 9 August 2011)
This is not a dividing line between the right and the left, Labour should be more relaxed about affirming family life and marriage. It may well be that the state can do little to promote marriage and family life (the state is not neutral). However, my heart drops when I see the over-reaction of Labour colleagues to David Cameron’s proposal (as yet unfulfilled) to recognise marriage in the tax system. It strikes me that this policy is not about the extra £3 a month, it is about a positive affirmation of marriage. I welcome that.
Labour cedes the ground of marriage and families to its peril. After all, as John Harris seems to be alluding to, it should be natural territory for the left, a no-brainer.
‘More fundamentally, what about the family? Sometimes, perhaps, it's best to prise apart the words "liberal" and "left", and realise that if you claim to base your politics on such ideas as mutual concern, you'd better start with the institution in which most of us first learn what it means (and yes, that entails a long-overdue conversation about the importance of fathers).’
(John Harris, The Guardian 15 March 2010)
For me, John Harris is saying what I want to convey, he is more concise.
Being Unguarded – Being a ‘loser’
I have started to chart my journey thus far and insights gained. I suggest some themes where I believe the Christian faith could speak into the renewal of Labour.
I am attempting to be honest and offer my perspectives about the tensions that attend being a Christian involved in the politics; oftentimes a sense of disappointment and failure can characterise this path.
As I alluded to earlier my faith is primary, yet finds an expression politically. Do I get this right all the time? Not at all. Indeed, I find that in these times of flux, the challenge of applying my faith to a certain political position becomes ever more complex. For example I like the ‘Red Tory’ thesis as I also support ‘Blue Labour’. My aim is to be a Christian first and foremost, I have Conservative friends, I feel much in common with some of them, but I am attached to the centre-left and the Labour tradition. This is all part of the beauty of life but perhaps in the final analysis it proves how fragile notional political identities are or have become. My key intention is to seek allegiance to the Kingdom of God.
My life has a simplistic attachment and a complex blend of values and experiences, a tribal element and a sense of place, are we not all configured in a complex fashion? There is the simplistic and the complex, the tribal and the rational.
In positing a paradox perhaps there is an element of doubt within the points I am seeking to make. Perhaps, the complexity that I acknowledge makes a mockery of my own title - are ‘left’ and ‘right’ shallow vestiges of a failed and crumbling apparatus?
In the final analysis as a Christian I will aim to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God’ (Matthew 6v33) and find my identity there. Yes, indeed one does need to be suspicious of all other competing and even idolatrous identities. Yet, mature faith leads to engagement and love for God’s world. Politics is ‘missional’ and can be an element of Christian discipleship. The content and tone of that area of discipleship will vary considerably.
Engaging ‘Secular Capitalism’
Having stated my journey, convictions and reflected upon an apparent paradox there is one area that I feel is of defining importance. I refer to the sphere where I am perhaps most at ‘home’ with identifying with a left-sided worldview is on economics or political economy as it is described.
The last four years of credit-crunch, recession, exposure of the financial system and debt-laden economies had clearly asked questions about the architecture and foundations of the economic system - both in the UK and abroad.
We need to ask serious questions about the assumptions and values that the economy has been built upon. Of late I have felt myself moving more to the left on this issue. Why? A personal experience of unemployment left me feeling like a commodity and it was difficult. I am fortunate for all the supports and anchors that I cited earlier. Please don’t tell me that personal experience does not inform political economy. I suspect that there aren’t many Keynesians in Surrey or an abundance of affiliates to the Chicago School in the Rhondda.
This experience, I hope, has not made me cynical (not a helpful state of mind for the people of hope) but combined with the evidence we all see of the economic dysfunction begs important questions. Should Christians in the West be more critical of capitalism? Should Labour develop a clearer narrative on globalisation and capitalism? (Recent calls by Ed Miliband for a more responsible Capitalism may well herald an encouraging step in the right direction) I believe the answer to both these questions is yes and the answer may well lie within Christian Socialist traditions of ethically rooted notions, not in secular Marxism. In seeking to explore this possibility and constructive and loving manner R.H.Tawney and others provide a rich seam from which we may mine.
I submit that Christians in the West, need to be more pro-enterprise, supportive of small businesses, in favour of the fostering of craft skills, commerce and trading activity and yet more critical of the ‘secular’ capitalist system. This is not a contradictory position, we just have conflated enterprise and capitalism and they don’t necessarily go together.
One of the significant elements of the ‘Blue Labour’ contribution to renewal on the left has been the re-visiting of the work of Karl Polyani. The Hungarian economist in his ‘Great Transformation’ accounted for the development of the market society in England after the industrial revolution. Land and Labour became mere ‘commodities’ at the hands of the market, representing a radical and corrosive break from previous social and economic norms. The ‘commodification’ thesis rings true in the contemporary situation in the UK. We witness exploitation and the reach of the market penetrating seemingly every section of the socio-economic infrastructure and public discourse. It has become the dominant paradigm to the level of idolatry. Both the market and the state can treat people in ways that de-humanise.
Perhaps, now is an opportune time to draw upon Polyani in understanding the challenge we are presented with.
‘It is also important now to re-read carefully Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, arguably the most important work of political economy written in the last century.’
(‘Three Questions on Modern Atheism: An Interview with John Milbank’)
by Ben Suriano)
In the aforementioned interview Milbank even alludes to the tendency of Capitalism to be no respecter of the sacred.
‘Again Polanyi clearly saw that capitalist ‘primary accumulation’ is always also an act of desacralisation.’
If this analysis is correct, what is our response? Perhaps it should be a response to the pressures of the market (and the state) based on the sacred. Human beings are endowed with a sacred worth and relationships have primacy. These are not to be subordinated to the whim of the market or the agenda of the state. So a Christian perspective is essential to assessing the impact of the market or state on human relationships.
The oft-cited example of the work of London Citizens rightfully points to the power of faith communities working together to affirm the dignity of labour. The ‘London Living Wage’ is a living breathing witness to the fact that relational power can transform capital’s interaction with labour for the common good. It has recently been adopted as a key campaigning objective by Labour Students. Good for them, because there is much to do in this campaign to drive exploitative wages out of our nation for good. Importantly, the Christian church cannot accept the ‘God’ of the market as a given. It may need to be prepared at times to challenge the hegemony and logic of ‘big business’. As I have already inferred, it is helpful to differentiate between enterprise which is a good thing and systemic, de-regulated capitalism which is not always so good.
It appears that there is something now deeply secular about Capitalism and that is truly frightening. Adrian Pabst’s analysis is helpful in explaining why we need to reflect on the underlying ‘secular logic’ to Capitalism.
‘The underlying logic is secular, on at least two grounds. First, it subordinates the sanctity of life land to the sacrality of state and market. By contrast with the idea that life and land have a sacred dimension, the modern state and the modern market—and democracy and capitalism—operate as quasi-religions (Walter Benjamin). Second, it departs from religions and other ethical traditions that consider human and social arrangements as somehow mirroring a cosmic, transcendent, and possibly divine order.’
(‘Moralizing the Market? Economies of Gift in an Age of Global Finance’ by Adrian Pabst)
Was there once an era when an ethos of trust and virtue ensured that markets were embedded in some semblance of decency? If such a time did exist, I would now submit that we are no longer enjoying the fruits of such a settlement. Contemporary Capitalism appears to be deeply secular, even nihilistic and capable of inadvertently doing profound damage to many things that Christians hold dear. We need to be prepared to expose this tendency to serious theological critique and where necessary ‘resist’ the tendency of Capitalism to dominate with all its deleterious consequences.
We need to be biblical, prayerful and rigorous in our analysis. Indeed how can we suspend our critical faculties and a Theological perspective when reflecting on economic activity?
“”That is why theology is so important - so indispensable, a believer would say…..It recalls us to the idea that what makes humanity human is completely independent of anyone’s judgments of failure or success, profit or loss. It is sheer gift - sheer love, in Christian terms. And if the universe itself is founded on this, there will no sustainable human society for long if this goes unrecognised”
(p33-34, ‘Knowing our Limits’, Rowan Williams in ‘Crisis and Recovery -Ethics, Economics and Justice, Williams and Elliot, 2010)
This strikes me that theology and the Christian concept of humanity are at odds with the reality of secular Capitalism. They inhabit profoundly different spaces. Note also that Rowan Williams’ comment contains a warning about the future of human society.
Indeed, questions about the virtue of Capitalism are being asked by thoughtful, mainstream thinkers such as Michael Schluter. In ‘Is Capitalism morally bankrupt? Five moral flaws and their social consequences’ (Cambridge Papers, Volume 18, Number Three, September 2009) he questions the moral basis of Capitalism, suggesting that Christians need to seek a new economic order based on biblical principles.
In unpacking his analysis Schluter specifically suggests that Capitalism is ’exclusively materialistic’, offers ‘reward without responsibility’ and he queries the morality of the principle of ‘limited liability of shareholders’. He infers it disconnects ‘people from place’. This is a ‘Blue Labour argument’ and it refers to the historic injustice of the enclosure movement. Schluter also criticises Capitalism’s ‘lack of social safeguards’. These flaws result in family and community breakdown and the growth both of state and corporate power.
In concluding his paper, Schluter seems to suggest that Christians must face the need to address the destructive inadequacies of Capitalism in the name of the gospel.
‘If Corporate Capitalism is contributing significantly to the moral bankruptcy of Western societies, can Christians nevertheless accept it as part of their cultural context and concentrate just on personal evangelism and meeting individual need? The prophets thought it was necessary for God’s people to tackle the causes, not just the symptoms, of social breakdown and injustice. So did Jesus himself. How, then, can Christians avoid the urgent call to reform Capitalism radically?’
According to Adrian Pabst, Christianity ushered in a peaceful end to the Cold war, and it can also address the failure of secular Capitalism:
‘There is now a unique opportunity to enact a new socio-economic settlement centred on human relationships, families and communities rather than the binary, secular logic of the individual and the collective’
(‘Christianity ended the cold war peacefully’, Adrian Pabst, The Guardian, 11 November 2009)
The Primacy of Civil Society
We are witnessing a debate on the ‘Big Society’ agenda and renewal of localism. We are now at a fascinating juncture in British politics and one that could provide for the renewal of the left, yet this is a big ‘if’.
It is uncertain when we will see Labour re-elected. My sense is Labour might be in for a considerable period of opposition. There are many variables for and against this proposition and I cannot elucidate upon this possibility here. Yet, whenever a future Labour government does form, it surely must re-gain the trust of the people on the basis that it will control public spending and not adopt an overt statist posture. For too many people, Labour are seen as the party that ushered in the current economic malaise (fair or not, the deficit was wracked up on Labour’s watch) and was seen as too intrusive and too bossy. This applies to Labour’s record on religious liberty as well as the criticisms on civil liberties.
A Christian Socialist agenda should be one that is sceptical of the state being the default instrument through which Labour achieves its aims. There is much that can be achieved in seeking a renewal of civic society (Big Society or Good Society, I care not) and an ability to propose solutions on a local level. This is not to argue for a minimal state but to seek possibilities for the common good and human flourishing without the bureaucracy of the state. I have referred earlier to the example of London Citizens working in the civic space, powerfully energised by faith communities. Community organising needs to develop and the institution of ‘Movement for Change’, operating within the Labour Party, is a recognition of that.
My heart would be warmed if in future the Labour Party is identified with a relational politics at a local level, local banks and small businesses and dynamic partnerships with faith communities, and for many people that means the Christian church.
In my area of south-east London a Labour MP called Alfred Salter, with a strong religious faith, virtually built the Labour Party on a foundation of ethical good works and municipal socialism. Allegedly, one in four people in Bermondsey where members of the Labour Party in his day. This may have been a different era but it stands as an inspiration of what Labour can be and once was. It was a real, transformative presence in local people’s lives, year in year out, associated with an authentic and virtuous local leadership.
Years of hope
Christian involvement in politics can be a vexed affair; the fear of compromise, disastrous models of engagement and domination abound, co-option and idolatry remain clear and present dangers.
I would never say that Christianity should ever be associated with one party or political philosophy. In fact Christian engagement can practised across a spectrum of modes as Kenneth Leech alludes to. It will manifest slightly differently in each context.
It will manifest slightly differently in each context.
Yet, God is a God of incarnation, involvement and redemption. He does not want us to stand far off merely chucking rocks at flawed social institutions and our equally flawed political leaders. Some of us will be called to seek the Kingdom of God and find our place in this messy ‘jungle’ called politics.
I would encourage Christian engagement with all modes of public life and all parties. I humbly submit why I find myself identifying with engaging and agitating within the Labour tradition. In this paper I have tried to explore the rationale for that and hopefully be unguarded about the questions and contradictions it generates. I hope too that I have suggested some questions and themes that might inform a renewed Christian Socialist agenda that might renew the Labour Party.
I have tried to be honest about where I and Labour have got it wrong and I expect my journey of paradox to continue. I think Labour faces some profound challenges, electoral and existential. But there is hope, there is always hope.
‘There are great times ahead for the Labour party.’
(‘Maurice Glasman: my Blue Labour vision can defeat the coalition’, The Observer, 24 April 2011)
pp214-219,Through our Long Exile’, Kenneth Leech, 2001