Why Christianity matters to socialism
Sunday, 16 December 2018 17:43

Why Christianity matters to socialism

Published in Religion

James Crossley argues for the importance of the radical Christian tradition as an important resource for the revolutionary transformation of the world. 

On becoming leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn envisaged living a society “where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.”

Every since that historic victory, Corbyn has repeatedly used the language of “not passing by on the other side.” It is an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel and one popular among politicians. While David Cameron, Hilary Benn and others have used the parable to promote military intervention in North Africa and the Middle East (think the Good Samaritan violently beating the robbers), Corbyn, unusually for a contemporary politician, has used the parable to attack the scandal of increased homelessness, rough sleeping and the housing crisis.

JC Helping the homeless

These contradictory interpretations of a parable attributed to a figure like Jesus are not unusual: revolutionary and reactionary tendencies have always been part of Christianity, perhaps even present in the message of Jesus. The earliest traditions about Jesus have him predicting an imminent theocracy, not all of which would necessarily look progressive to us. It was likely to have been understood as a violent intervention in history, with new hierarchies established and subservient nations put in their place.

Christianity itself would later become integral to the Roman Empire. Some of this was due to changing religious affiliations in the Empire and Christianity adapting itself to Roman power. But it was not entirely alien to a theocratic message present from the beginning.

However, Jesus and his earliest followers’ hope for a new divine empire was tied in with stark attacks on the inequality and wealth, some of which were brought into sharper focus by the major building projects and land displacements in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some indication as to what this would have looked like in the case of one such building project, the town of Tiberias:

The new settlers were a promiscuous rabble, no small contingent being Galilean, with such as were drafted from territory subject to him [Herod Antipas] and brought forcibly to the new foundation. Some of these were magistrates. Herod accepted as participants even poor men who were brought in to join the others from any and all places of origin. It was in question whether some were even free beyond cavil. These latter he often and in large bodies liberated and benefited imposing the condition that they should not quit the city, by equipping houses at his own expense and adding new gifts of land. For he knew that this settlement was contrary to the law and tradition of the Jews because Tiberias was built on the site of tombs that had been obliterated, of which there were many there. And our law declares that such settlers are unclean for seven days. - Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.36-38

Jesus seems to have formed an alternative community to one where traditional households had been uprooted by aristocratic demand for greater surplus with a message revealing some awareness of the structural nature of poverty and wealth. The Acts of the Apostles suggests that these revolutionary impulses were kept alive in a community of shared goods that would later inspire Tony Benn in his defence of public ownership against the attacks from New Labour.

We should understand Jesus’ teachings in terms of Marx’s famous understanding of religion as “an expression of and protest against real wretchedness.” In a world where wealth was concentrated among a small aristocratic elite, Jesus was remembered as saying the rich would burn or be excluded from the coming kingdom while the poor would be blessed.

Parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus (where the rich man burns for being rich and the poor man Lazarus is rewarded because he was poor) and sayings such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” are in line with other expectations that the wealthy will eventually be overthrown and punished, at least if they did not give up their extreme wealth to those in need.

JC Anonymous Rich man and Lazarus ca. 1610

Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck, Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, 1610

This was to be, as the Acts of the Apostles note in a different context, turning the world upside down. But warning signs of this future were enacted in the present. People overcharging for sacrificial animals were the focus of Jesus’ ire as he was remembered for overturning the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers which would lead to his execution as a seditious threat.

The tension between reaction and revolution has continued throughout the history of Christianity. Clashes between elite power and the desire for radical democratic transformation or wealth redistribution simmered and occasionally boiled over in the history of English Christianity, leaving us with a long radical history, from the Peasants’ Revolt through the seventeenth-century radicals to the growth of the Labour movement and Keir Hardie’s desire to “stir up a divine discontent with wrong,” a saying referenced by Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in 2015. The language of this tradition was employed in the founding of the NHS and the successful Labour manifesto of 1945.

Thanks to countless dedicated socialists from the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp to revolutionaries travelling to Rojava, this was a tradition whose language would remain alive on the English left. The story of Jesus and the moneychangers was a prominent one in challenging “the one percent” at Occupy London Stock Exchange where St Paul’s Cathedral itself epitomised the tension: church leaders were uncomfortable with protesters while the grounds were simultaneously a readily available space for a sustained protest.

JC jesus and moneychangers

We now find ourselves in the position unusual for the Left: close to power. There have been encouraging discussions among Momentum and union activists about growing a working-class socialist culture “from below,” where social events, sports clubs, foodbanks, etc. become part of building a mass movement, see http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home.

Historically, this socialism from below has had strong overlaps with Christian traditions. The impulses of Christianity which tackle poverty continue today, as in work of the Trussell Trust, whose role in foodbanks has made sure that Iain Duncan Smith does not forget Jesus’ words about poverty.

Yet, as I have discussed in a forthcoming book (Cults, Martyrs, and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse [Pluto, 2018]) there is evidence that much of the public does not like politicians explicitly invoking religion, Christianity and the Bible, particularly for grandiose claims about Christianity being the source of parliamentary democracy or free markets, as David Cameron claimed.

However, there does not appear to be widespread hatred of Christianity per se, not even beyond the pockets where church attendance remains relatively high. There is some indication that there is support for the Bible as a general moral code for helping others. This is something that should not be ignored by socialists. And Corbyn’s allusion to the Good Samaritan is precisely what is palatable for much of the British public: pithy, vague, but full of basic human decency.  

But there is also evidence that Christianity can be associated with national identity. One recent study found that nearly a quarter of people viewed being Christian in ethnic terms, i.e. a signifier of being English or British despite the sharp decrease in church attendance in recent decades and the accompanying rise in those identifying with non-belief.

This can, of course, be dangerous for the left and fertile ground for the right. Theresa May and Nigel Farage have both tried to capitalise on this ethnonationalist understanding of Christianity. For example, when asked in Parliament about the respecting between Christmas of “mainstream Britain” and “minority traditions” of Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, May responded, “We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.”

May, like Farage, was attempting to appeal partly to a certain kind of working-class voter in the light of the EU Referendum. Uncomfortable though it may be, these issues should not be ignored by the English left where the struggle over national identity has been a difficult one. Here we can turn to the radical English tradition which has informed the contemporary left, including Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn.

In fact, Labour have recognised this potential in the fight against UKIP and the Tories. Sam Tarry, co-director of Corbyn’s re-election campaign, talked about the importance of an English Labour movement promoting “the Peasants’ Revolt, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, and the suffragettes and others” as a “socialist vision” which is also a “patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few.”

There is, of course, no doubt that religion can be a divisive issue on the left because of its well-known reactionary traditions. But Christianity (or any other religion) does not always have to be reactionary and socialist Christians won’t cease to be socialists because some of their co-travellers are not.

Left-wing Christianity has been central to English and British socialism and its legacy remains important to this day, whether in fighting poverty, keeping radicalism alive, providing ready-made community networks, or influencing the general language we use. None of this means, of course, that we all convert to Christianity or attend church on a Sunday morning. But if we want to transform this world, this radical tradition will prove to be an important resource.

religion

A picket mounted by the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common, 1982.
Sunday, 16 December 2018 17:43

The persistence of protest: the preventative photography of Edward Barber

Published in Visual Arts

A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

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CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.

Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.

die in

Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.

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A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.

There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.

Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.

women linked round fence

'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”

The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.

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Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.

And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.

Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.