Building a Christian Left? 20 February 2014
The recent renaming of the Christian Socialist Movement offers hope for a resurgence of left wing voices in the Christian faith and Christian voices on the left of politics.
Labels are a powerful rhetorical device. If you want to dismiss people on the left of politics, give them a dirty label. Call them “socialists” when they believe that it isn’t fair for bankers to earn bonuses of several millions while there are people in the country (many of whom are working) who are barely staying afloat; or call them “Marxists” if they suggest that freezing energy prices might actually be a welcome and sensible policy at a time when people are worried about heating their homes in the winter.
The use of these labels by those on the right (including David Cameron, as well as Margaret Thatcher in the past, and Rush Limbaugh in his recent comments on Pope Francis) is a clever device because it effectively both taps into negative connotations of these terms and misrepresents the views and policies of many of those on the left. Many of those who vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or even Green do not want to see capitalism completely overturned, or to see the streets of Britain dominated by revolution, but do want to see a government which supports people in times of difficulty, regulation to help ensure that economic inequality does not become out of control, and greater international cooperation to boost the global economy, maintain peace as far as possible, and help protect people from gross injustices.
For this reason, the historic ‘Christian Socialist Movement’ (founded in 1960) has recently changed its name to ‘Christians on the Left’, attempting to recognise that many Christians who sympathise with the views of left-wing parties would not define their views as socialist. This move is crucial for representing more fully the range of perspectives among those who are more likely to vote red, yellow or green than they are to vote blue. And such representation is crucial, for both the Church and the left wing of politics.
For many Conservatives, the influence of the left on Christianity is nothing short of toxic. Their views are articulated well by the right-wing theological blogger ‘The Ghost of Archbishop Cranmer’, who complained in October that the Church of England is dominated by bishops who are politically left-wing: “the vast majority of CofE bishops are paid up (or very sympathetic ex-) members of the Christian Socialist Movement who pore over The Guardian every morning with their mint tea and muesli and intercede fervently for the amelioration of the fortunes of Ed Miliband.”
Leaving aside the fact that both mint tea and muesli are actually rather enjoyable, Cranmer’s caricature does not accurately reflect the experience of a lot of Christians. In many churches, rather than preaching on the needs of the poor and the Christian calling to serve those in need, or our obligation to be responsible with the finite resources of creation (and other such strange, unbiblical concerns!), ministers and lay preachers wax lyrical about the crisis in the nation’s morality because of the ‘redefinition’ of marriage, the inadequacy of our punishment system (and our refusal to execute criminals), and the apocalyptic implications of the EU and UN. This is not to mention the enormous rise of the ‘Christian Right’ in America, a country dominated by the gun-loving, white Jesus who was more concerned with the right of the rich to retain their wealth than with the lazy, irresponsible poor.
To prevent the voices of those who prefer instead to seek the Christ who exhorted the rich man to give away his possessions, and implored his disciples to visit the prisoner and feed the hungry person, from being drowned out, movements like Christians on the Left are clearly necessary. It’s somewhat baffling that when clergy attempt to speak out for the poor (as they, not absurdly, believe is required of them in the teaching of Christ), they are almost accused of being part of something like a left-wing conspiracy to take over the church. Far from trying to sneak their politics into theology, an opposition to policies which hurt the poor is, for many, simply a corollary of their understanding of Jesus Christ.
Beyond this, many causes of the left, such as addressing economic inequality, are shared by Christians across the theological spectrum, and can therefore serve the important role of maintaining unity in shared values when the church is otherwise divided over debates on leadership or sexuality. Promoting higher pay for public sector employees, financial support for those who are sick or struggling to find work, or increased environmental responsibility, are policies that can be (and indeed are) supported by Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Progressive or Liberal Christians alike. The promotion of social justice is not exclusive to any theological perspective.
But it is not just that the Church needs left-wing political views: the two are mutually reinforcing. Given the seemingly widespread assumption that those who are truly on the left must reject religion as an oppressive force, it is crucial that those whose politics are informed, if not driven, by their faith, have their voice.
Those in this category may seem to be an increasingly obscure bunch, but faith has been fundamental to the growth of the left. Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party who was motivated after experiencing the unfairness of wealthy aristocrats exploiting underpaid factory workers, once remarked that “the impetus which drove me first of all to the Labour movement…has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined”.
That inspiration has remained strong throughout centuries of the Labour Party, and the left in general, and those who still feel it – who feel that God calls them to speak out for the voiceless and promote a just community in which the equal worth of all human beings is recognised, and the flourishing of all is promoted – may find a source of strength and solidarity in this movement.
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