James Crossley writes about Jeremy Corbyn's Christmas message.
Christmas is a rare time when politicians can, without too much embarrassment, openly talk about issues relating to popular understandings of religion. As I’ve argued in detail elsewhere, Christmas functions as a soft authority for various political ideologies and a particularly good indicator of the kinds of acceptable—or competing—ideas about politics and religion.
Since he became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s Christmas messages have been an indicator that socialism has returned to mainstream political discourse. In his first Christmas message as leader, Corbyn spoke openly (and, then, strikingly) about his socialism and presented it through the prism of English or British radicalism which has often referenced the Bible to make socialism palatable. As Corbyn put it, ‘the Christmas story holds up a mirror to us all. “Do unto others as you would have done to you”—that is the essence of my socialism, summed up in the word— “solidarity”.’ Indeed, Corbyn referenced a famous socialist saying that could, depending on tastes, be attributed to Marx or the Bible (or both) but here was carefully presented as a ‘maxim that inspired our party’: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs’ (Acts of the Apostles 4.32-35).
Corbyn’s 2018 Christmas message is striking because he explicitly referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37). This parable, said Corbyn, was one that particularly moved him and which he liked to think about at Christmas. Corbyn even narrated the contents, something not so typical in English political discourse where anything smacking of too much religion is usually deemed problematic (by voters and politicians alike).
In the past, Corbyn has typically alluded to the parable (rather than naming it, or indeed mentioning that it comes from the Bible) with reference to not ‘walking by on the other side’. He has done so regularly and consistently to promote welfare and social housing and to criticise the rise in homelessness. His comments made during his first speech as Labour leader are typical: ‘we want to live in 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.’
In the case of his Christmas message this year, there was a slight shift in focus. Certainly, the themes are typical of Corbyn’s Christmas messages and biblical allusions: homeless shelters, foodbanks, and refugees. However, the focus is now on people and communities providing support where the state has failed, hence people helping in homeless shelters, those supplying foodbanks, and volunteers aiding refugees. As Corbyn put it: ‘These are people who will not “walk by on the other side”. They do what’s become so necessary in a system that’s failing to provide people’s basic needs. They embody what’s best and most compassionate in all of us.’
This use of the Good Samaritan should be seen as part of a wider debate about the role of the state in the provision of welfare. Corbyn has re-popularised the role of the state against a dominant neoliberal position which became increasingly popular among political leaders since Thatcher. Where, for Corbyn, the role of heroic individuals and communities is a good thing because of the failings of the neoliberal state, for Thatcher and her followers, outsourcing the state was a sign of success, that welfare was not so important for national wellbeing. Thatcher famously claimed that charitable giving was crucial and that ‘no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’. By the time David Cameron was leader, this sort of thinking was deeply embedded in mainstream political discourse. Cameron too thought related sentiments like ‘love thy neighbour’ (also used in the relation to the parable of the Good Samaritan—Luke 10.27-29, 36) involved helping in homeless shelters and in soup kitchens, as he claimed in his 2014 Easter message. But whereas Corbyn’s emphasis was on general societal support, Cameron focused more on churches, including his praise of vicars canoeing to help victims of the 2014 storms. This was because Cameron wanted to promote his own particular take on outsourcing the state—Big Society (remember that?). Indeed, Cameron even claimed the highest authority for his brand of neoliberalism: ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago, I just want to see more of it and encourage as much of it as possible.’
For Corbyn, and some in the contemporary labour movement, building a kind of cultural socialism to prepare the way for support for socialism in power underpins the counterargument to Thatcherite neoliberalism. As Corbyn put it in his latest message, such people ‘make me certain that we can build a fairer society which works for everyone.’ This is also a sentiment tied up with the history of the English left. In his 2014 memoirs Sailing Close to the Wind, Corbyn’s close ally, Dennis Skinner, argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not about individualist improvement (‘a load of crap’) but rather collective good of the sort he saw in pit communities (‘solidarity and struggle’) and in trade unionism. This parable, Skinner claimed, was about helping ‘someone in need’ and was an example of ‘a socialist story’. A little blunter than Corbyn perhaps, but Skinner likewise developed these sorts of ideas in order to confront capitalism for the ‘transformation of Britain’ in the interests of working people and their families, and for public ownership of electricity companies, rail, and the whole of the National Health Service.
However, there is also a third reading of the Good Samaritan at play. Corbyn’s reference to ‘raising money for refugees who’ve been forced to flee war, oppression and devastation’ continues his stress on tackling the material causes of migration but also an implicit counter to the uses of the Good Samaritan to support military intervention and North Africa. Cameron tried to justify his own take on military intervention by focusing on ISIS as a deviation from a purer, democratic Islam (a typical construction of Islam in English political discourse) and thus in need of the assistance of benign violence. And he did so with reference to a more physical Good Samaritan: ‘we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’.
Back in December 2015, Hilary Benn was a high-profile Labour frontbencher who was hostile to Corbyn’s agenda and he too used the parable in a similar way to Cameron, albeit with the twist reminiscent of the right of the Labour party. As Tony Blair took and changed the language of radical societal transformation (as used, for instance, in the founding of the NHS) to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Hilary Benn appropriated the leftist mythology of the International Brigades to justify military intervention in Syria and to essentially make the same point as Cameron. To this we might add that Hilary Benn was (consciously or not) also trying to fight Corbyn for the legacy of the Good Samaritan and the Labour Party. ‘As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism,’ claimed Benn, and ‘We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road.’
The British media did their duty and sentimentally promoted this pro-war speech and the militarized Good Samaritan. But seemingly against the odds and working with relentless hostility from the British media, Corbyn’s reading of the Good Samaritan is one that presently dominates on the Left. And that is no less than a little Christmas miracle.
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at MF Oslo, and the Academic Director of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. He writes mainly on religion in English political history and on the historical Jesus.