Culture for All: Why Religion Matters
Monday, 27 June 2022 23:21

Culture for All: Why Religion Matters

Published in Religion

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about religion, written by James Crossley. 

Why Religion Matters

by James Crossley

Religious ideas have been central to human culture and society for thousands of years. They have been the inspiration behind art, architecture, and epic literature from the Bible to the Qur’an, from Homer’s Odyssey to Icelandic sagas.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with them or not, religious ideas have influenced systems of morality and our very understandings of life and death.

Traditional expressions of religion are still with us. Today, people will experience religious buildings and ceremonies at weddings and funerals—or even when visiting a historic town. But even in twenty-first-century Britain where church attendance is in years long decline, religious-related ideas remain widespread, such as in beliefs in the afterlife, guardian angels, horoscopes, or alternative spiritualities. Many popular sayings in English are from the Bible. Think of ‘eye for an eye’, ‘love thy neighbour’, Good Samaritan, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘cast the first stone’, ‘eat drink and be merry’, ‘writing on the wall’, and many more.

We all know that religion has justified acts of bigotry and even extreme brutality. Even to this day, we only need think of groups like ISIS, American presidents going to war with the enthusiastic backing of Christian fundamentalists, or far right attacks on Muslims on the basis of their religion supposedly being incompatible with the values of a supposedly Christian country.

In this country, the medieval church justified the social hierarchy, class relations, and oppression with reference to God, theology, and the Bible. This has even been updated to be relevant for today’s ruling class—the austerity measures under David Cameron’s governments were justified with reference to a Thatcherite reading of the Bible in favour of charity rather than a strong welfare state. 

Liberatiuon Theology and revolutionary change

But religion has also inspired reactions against the ruling class. Liberation Theology in Latin America emerged in opposition to American imperialism where religion and the interests of workers and peasants has gone hand-in-hand and where priests have even been murdered for taking a stand.

Radical traditions can be found arguably in any religious tradition, particularly when attacking landowners and the wealthy, demanding care for the poorest in society, and providing a community as protection for the individual. These common ideas across religious traditions can be taken not only in reformist directions but used to justify more revolutionary change. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and no doubt many more) have long traditions noting the connections between their teachings and Marxism or socialism—sometimes to the point that they are seen as one and the same thing.

And while religious capitalists preach a gospel of wealth being as a result of hard work and a sign of being blessed by God, religion has simultaneously provided opposition to this fantasy by also being used on the side of the workers. The rise of the labour movement in Britain owed much to Christian and Jewish socialists with their traditions of combatting poverty, homelessness, and deprivation and a hope for a transformed world sometimes labelled a New Jerusalem.

And that religion has been part of the labour movement should be no surprise given our national history where religion has been integral to any number of revolutionary movements. Think, for instance, of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 inspired by ideas from the Bible about social equality and a time when all things would be shared in common. Or think of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the advancements made in democratic thought and visionary ideas of a better future by religious figures from outside the established church.

Religion isn’t automatically good or bad, pro- or anti-worker, revolutionary or reactionary, any more than film or literature are. But it can be all these things because it is an integral part of human culture and society, a shared language.

'Religion is the opium of the people'

Karl Marx got religion right, though maybe not in the way many people think. Marx famously claimed that religion is ‘the opium of the people’. This is popularly understood as an outright attack on religion as manipulation. But if we read the fuller version of the saying we see that Marx knew how complicated religion could be: ‘The wretchedness of religion,’ he stressed, ‘is at once an expression of and protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

This is why even some atheists have embraced the more revolutionary parts of religion as a way of understanding what a better world would look like and how to achieve it. People like William Morris—who had long given up his faith by the time he was active in politics—saw the values of solidarity, community, and pride in work emerging from our shared religious heritage, ideas which should not be lost and could now challenge and help overthrow the uncaring individualism of capitalism. We should not underestimate the appeal of these values in an era when loneliness has thrived as a consequence of contemporary capitalism.

In everyday practices we see the connections made between non-religious and religious people—campaigning on housing, welfare, and poverty regularly involves people from churches and mosques working alongside agnostics and atheists. No matter how their values are personally justified, the reason why such people can work together is that they clearly do have shared beliefs, goals, and concerns about the devastation caused by a class-ridden society.

People from whatever tradition who interpret their religion in such ways—whether committed members of a radical religious community or casual believer—are potentially part of any response to a heartless world as much as agnostics and atheists who likewise want to overturn class oppression. This should not mean accepting any views—reactionary views must be challenged, religious or otherwise. And the labour movement cannot promote this or that religion and will remain central in opposing ongoing imperialist and capitalist versions of religion. But the trade unions and the labour movement are now the main custodians of those inherited and shared values of solidarity and community which will one day transform the world.  

Apocalypticism Now
Monday, 27 June 2022 23:21

Apocalypticism Now

Published in Religion

James Crossley reflects on the dangers and possibilities of the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497-8

Towards the end of March, it was reported that an English hiker returned from a five-day trek in the New Zealand wilds and was surprised to see “three hooded figures, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets.”

His journey coincided with the coronavirus lockdown and his response was that the three figures were like a “post-apocalyptic survivor squad.” Despite his atypical situation, he was not alone in framing these unusual times in such language.

With the rapid public awareness of coronavirus came the ubiquitous language of apocalypticism and End Times, even in an increasingly irreligious Britain. Such language is used ironically, as few really believe that the End Times are upon us or that an era of Walking Dead survivalism is at hand—this is not the US, after all. But hopes of a transformation in the way we live after the crisis are taken more seriously. It seems people overwhelmingly do not want to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. It seems they do prefer cleaner air, a feeling of community and keeping in touch with family members.

There is good reason why people have framed the pandemic in terms of apocalypticism because such language and concepts run deep in our culture. In the US, such ideas are associated with the Christian right. In this country, however, they are much more closely aligned with the left and have a long history. John Ball, the great priest of the 1381 English uprising, employed end-times language from the Bible to understand the predicament of peasants in particular and how a dramatic, violent transformation would be needed before all things would be held in common.

Apocalypticism was an important way for people like Ball to express their discontents in a pre-capitalist society. Socialist and communist movements later provided a different type of opposition to capitalism and absorbed and transformed such language and ideas.

Like other socialists of his time, William Morris worked with the idea of a “religion of socialism.” God may be out of the equation but socialism needed to retain what was important in religion and this included ideas about changing the current social order while being prepared to face defeats and sacrifices. Morris’s reading of Marx also meant he could take seriously the idea that John Ball was a prophet before his time. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris showed that there will always be failures but the message of past struggles must not be lost in new situations. Ball’s vision of a transformed world, Morris argued, was more likely with the rise of socialism but it now needed the example of determined people like Ball to help bring it about.

The darker side of apocalypticism became prominent in the 20th century, with two world wars and the threat of nuclear and then environmental annihilation. But the left did not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world. After VE Day and the rubble of World War II, socialists looked to build a New Jerusalem as the Labour Party created the NHS and developed a welfare state as part of their “new war on hunger, ignorance and want,” as the 1945 manifesto put it.

These ideas have persisted. After decades of leftist defeatism, Rojava showed the possibilities for transformation again. Volunteers could talk about inheriting the earth and bringing about a new world after the ruins. From socialists and communists in the region, as well as the brutal realities of war, volunteers knew the cost of fighting for revolutionary change and the importance of memorialising martyrs. The death of volunteers like Anna Campbell brought this home to a country not used to thinking much beyond the romance of revolution.

It is for good reason that liberals get queasy about the language of dramatic change. Maintaining, or gently tweaking, the status quo is in their interests. But their interests are not workers’ interests. The Financial Times last month gave the game away with an analogy from the 14th century. Its editorial noted that the Black Death has been credited with “transforming labour relations in Europe” as peasants “could bargain for better terms and conditions.” However, it added, “a thankfully much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”

Unfortunate wording? Perhaps. The main concern in the FT editorial may have been about high unemployment but clearly the transformation of labour relations after the lockdown is not what the bosses want. Our interests are the opposite and popular. Workers once taken for granted are now widely appreciated during this pandemic, as they clear away our rubbish, make sure we have food and treat patients in testing circumstances—even to the point of putting their lives on the line.

Their importance and the contrasting uselessness of the likes of Richard Branson have been exposed for us all to see. To paraphrase the popular piece of graffiti, the next battleground will involve making the rich pay for Covid-19. If the aftermath of 2008 and the Corbyn project taught us anything, this is not going to be easy. The government has made noises about paying back what’s owed and we know who will and who won’t bear the brunt of this and who will and won’t be made redundant.

The odds aren’t favourable, with a long-weakened union movement and a Starmer-led Labour Party. But this is not the time for technocratic politics or a gentle tweaking of the system which will only further line the pockets of corporations at the expense of workers. The demands for a new world are getting ever more urgent in the face of climate change. Serious, sustained change will only come through the power of mass collective action with workers’ interests at heart and a vision of what kind of world we want.

Are we up for it? Bob Crow famously said: “If you fight you won't always win. But if you don't fight you will always lose.” That saying turned up in Rojava and it is just as relevant in northern Syria as it will be once this so-called apocalypse ends and the next one hits us hard.

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers
Monday, 27 June 2022 23:21

Singing for Peace and Socialism: Birmingham's Clarion Singers

Published in Music

Graham Stevenson reports on the recent concert.

Birmingham's Clarion Singers, 77 years young this year, recently celebrated with an Autumn Concert with a full programme of songs at All Saints Centre, in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
The 25-strong amateur choir – women dressed in red, men in black – led with Cavalry of the Steppes, a well known song by Lev Knipper, often associated with Cossacks.

With typical aplomb, Clarion has changed the arguably slightly pompous standard final verse into an altogether more subtle refrain, sung with gusto and speed, almost boomingly reverberating around the hall.

Strong in our courage and determination
Never shall invaders take our freedom.

Jane Scott, choir leader, applies seemingly effortless command of the many and varied singers, unquestionably having changed lives by allowing the joy of music into open hearts. Wonderfully, the soundness and sureness of her judgement is clear in the flawless sound that emerges from the ultimate display of collectivity. No special test of skill or prior experience is demanded of new members, no audition. In the spirit of Music for all, Clarion welcomes all into its left-of-centre heartstrings.

An impressive rendering of the Funeral March, immortalising victims of Tsarist repression in 1905, which prompted initial revolutionary stirrings that came back in a dozen years, whilst honouring those who fell as victims as the song intends, sees Clarion view the work as not just for funerals but for life itself. They start in despair, "banners lowered" but end with stirring hope, the message being that death shall not defeat. Our dead live on: our music will always reflect that.

Scarecrow by John Tams is an anti-war song. A solo goes: "I see the line advancing with a steady timeless grace." But it is the repeated refrain that conveys powerful message in its poetry:

Blame it on the generals
Blame it on their guns
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain.

Reconciliation by Irishman, Ron Kavana, to Clarion's own arrangement, tells us that there's a "time to fight and a there's a time for healing". After “the struggle the sweetness comes”, a song about comradeship, with a clear eye on "Fair weather friends".

The Song of John Ball, by Sydney Carter, celebrates the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. It is amazing to think it was written only 40 years ago, as Carter succeeded in making it sound like a mediaeval ballad. It is a clear, lyrical vision of an egalitarian, caring communism, and particularly appropriate as we celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution:

Who'll be the Lady,
Who'll be the Lord,
When we are ruled by the love of one another?

Sydney Carter's piece gave the baritones more work to do and the audience clearly loved the message:

Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning!
For I'll crow like a cock,
I'll carol like a lark,
For the light that is coming in the morning.

Special guests Bournville Brass performed several pieces before the interlude. A long way from former mining villages, Britain's second biggest city has far fewer big brass bands of 28 players that it once did when giant fortresses of labour, hundreds of factories, dominated the skylines.

Five pieces, a tuba, a horn, a cornet or two, and a trombone, effortlessly melded into the distinctive bright, mellow sound one would expect in a larger ensemble – especially when rendering Singin' in the Rain, when a definite jaunty note sauntered into the room. Feet tapping in tune, the audience instinctively began swaying:

Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo...

Surely, that was Gene Kelly I saw getting out his umbrella?

Song of Peace or Finlandia, by Sibelius, in an arrangement for women's voices speaks for itself, but the delivery makes more of the music and words combined.

Quite Early Morning by Pete Seeger is of its time. A time that has reasserted itself, hopefully the second time as farce, if international thermonuclear war could ever be so treated:

Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing.

In 1951, Geoffrey Parsons of Unity Theatre wrote Civilisation, rediscovered in Clarion's archives. Musical Director, Jane Scott, has produced a remarkable four part arrangement.

Tell shopping centres that Ode to Joy is not just for Xmas! And tell the EU that Beethoven integrated Schiller's poem into his 9th Symphony for the brotherhood of humanity, not the Single Market.

The choir, rather sweetly, slipped in an additional song just before their traditional finale. Long standing Clarion members, Jan and Chris, are about to depart for Northern climes, and they were treated to a specially written farewell song (by Annie Banham) to the tune of England Arise! The classic socialist hymn. Not a dry eye in the house:

Shall we shed a tear?
Sheffield's fairly near
An hour and a quarter if you get the train.

Jan and Chris, like Clarion, have

sung it all,
on fire trucks and pavements,
Cradley Heath and Kendal.

Then came, of course, The Internationale, song of the most militant sections of the working class the whole world over.

Clarion Singers are at  https://birminghamclarionsingers.wordpress.com/ and Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/BirminghamClarionSingers/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/ClarionSingers