Beverley Clack is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford Brookes University. Her books include Freud on the Couch (2013).
1. Which came first for you: a commitment to Christianity, or to Socialism? Were the two connected?
If I look back on my growing up, ideas of what it meant to be a Christian and a Socialist were strongly intertwined. I attended the local Methodist Church. My sense of what it meant to be religious was shaped by prayer, reflection, and song, and also by the strong sense of community present in that church. The youth group played a crucial part. It was led by a member of the church who wanted us to think critically about matters of faith and to never take anything on face value.
A not-dissimilar attitude shaped my politics. My first political lesson came from my mother during one of the miners’ strikes of the early 1970s. I was moaning about a power cut, saying the government should ‘force the miners back to work.’ Her response was to tell me they did a dangerous, hard job, and deserved wages which reflected that. Her comments challenged me, as well as making me think about the nature of work, and how through working together it is possible to change things.
My much-loved grandad was also a crucial figure in shaping my ideas about socialism. He was a trade unionist - an engineer -, and I remember vividly the one piece of advice he ever gave me: ‘Be good at your job, and be a member of a trade union.’ He also taught me to resist unthinkingly following others. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that, while he felt his political views had never changed, he’d gone from being described as a ‘dangerous radical’ in the 1930s to a ‘right-wing Labour man’ in the 1970s. What stayed constant was his grounded view of what socialism involved. It was about service, community and commitment, and this fitted really well with my views on what it meant to live out the claim that you were ‘a Christian’.
It was that sense of the importance of community that brought me back to the church after some years out of it. I was a Labour councillor from 2012-2016, and that experience convinced me that individualistic liberalism would never achieve a just society. It was no good thinking of oneself as an isolated unit. To be a socialist meant getting one’s hands dirty; taking a stand and working with others to build a better community, with all the compromise, messiness and frustration that inevitably involves. I see being a Christian in a similar way. We are called to be the Body of Christ in the world, and that means working with others to achieve the Kingdom of God. For me, socialism and Christianity aren’t that far apart.
2. Name a biblical passage that’s important to you. How do you understand it?
The Magnificat. Mary’s relationship with God is intimate and joyful, but not insular. God and world are connected: God is not to be found with the powerful, the rich, or the self-satisfied. God is with those who are powerless, poor, humble. It’s an intensely political message, just as it urges the listener to align themselves with this divine perspective. God ‘has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.’ The Kingdom of God is not some nebulous ideal, but is something that can be created here and now. We are called as Christians to do that work of building a society that reflects the desires of the creator for the creation, and that means addressing and correcting economic and social injustice. As the Labour Party struggles to determine its future in the wake of the devastating electoral defeat of December 2019, we could do worse than think about the kind of practical vision of the Kingdom that is laid out in the message of Christ’s coming.
3. Are there any Christian figures apart from biblical writers (and Jesus!) who are important to you in thinking about social justice?
The figure who resonates for me was the focus of my doctoral thesis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I recently revisited his message to his fellow members of the German resistance - ‘After Ten Years’ - and there is so much there that is inspiring and challenging. The section ‘On Folly’ offers reflections that have much to offer when considering today’s populism: reason, Bonhoeffer says, won’t convince the fool who shapes their politics according to slogans and catchphrases that they are wrong; only ‘an act of liberation’ will. I’m still thinking about quite what he means by this and what, exactly, an act of liberation might look like in our times! But perhaps it is the best we can hope and work for in the uncertain political landscape of 2020.
Michael Calderbank is a Co-Editor of Red Pepper magazine, and is Co-Director of “Solidarity Conuslting”, a Parliamentary consultancy for trade unions and socially progressive campaigns.
Which came first for you: commitment to Christianity, or Socialism?
Well, in the sense that I was baptised as an infant into the Roman Catholic Church - I guess Christianity. My Dad’s family were very observant (my grandad’s sister took holy orders as a nun, taking the name Sister Francis, after St Francis of Assisi), but my Mum was Protestant and he soon lapsed. I didn’t go to a Catholic school or receive any religious instruction - but would occasionally go to mass and visit the convent. I suppose I had a sort of Christian-inflected ethical outlook, which pre-disposed me towards the socialism of Tony Benn.
By sixth form and as an undergraduate I was a pretty strident atheist and started reading Marx, and had an understanding of materialism which was pretty crude. My thinking developed as a postgrad at Manchester studying Cultural Criticism, where I went to lectures by Terry Eagleton. His Gifford Lectures on the “God debate” (a polemical attack on the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) were enormously influential on me, as I could see that I’d bought by dismissal of Christian theology on the cheap.
My PhD thesis - on Psychoanlaysis and the Frankfurt School - whilst wholly secular in outlook nevertheless opened up to certain Judeo-Christain themes: the idea of the Subject as inherently wounded; suffering as connected to the redemptive and the need to bear witness; the utopian anticipation of messianism, an apophatic approach to discounting positive substitutes for God, and above all a critique of instrumental rationality and “scientistic” rejection of metaphysical questions.
I did not become a practising Catholic until the Pontificate of Pope Francis, whose pastoral emphasis on mercy and the joy of the gospel I found an encouragement to reconsider the claims of Christianity. I guess I felt an inexplicable, persistent (and at first not entirely welcome!) draw towards the Church, based both on my reading, my esteem for what I learned about the Catholic intellectual tradition, and also on my increasing home-grown fascination with the martyrs of the English mission in the Sixteenth Century (many of whom came from, or visited, my native Lancashire).
Name a biblical passage that’s important to you. How do you interpret it?
I find the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 - 32) very important - both in spiritual and political terms. It’s amongst other things a warning against the squandering of an inheritance, and therefore is open to a radical ecological reading. It’s also about the dangers of our culture of immediate gratification, of destructive, self-centred consumption which ultimately leaves us unfulfilled. We need the courage to turn from our behaviour and seek forgiveness and reconciliation, which is never out of reach. I could go on and on!
Are there any Christian thinkers apart from the biblical writers who are important to you in thinking about social justice (or: politics and society)?
Most obviously and immediately, Pope Francis himself, for example his account of “integral ecology” in the encyclical Laudato Si. But that critique of instrumental reason and the limits of the methodology of the natural sciences have a longer pedigree - in Romano Guardini and Johann Baptist Metz, for example. It certainly there in the thinking of someone like Bishop Robert Barron (one of the internet’s most followed Catholic advocates), who draws heavily on the thought of Aquinas.
Other key thinkers would be people like Dom Helder Camara from Brazil, and all those at Aparecida who held that the gospel message was above all one of liberation of the poor and oppressed. I’m less interested in “liberation theology” where it empties out the specificity of Christian thinking for a generic Marxian sociology, and keen when precisely radical politics emerges from the immanent development of Christian orthodoxy.
The Dominican Herbert McCabe somewhere wrote that “the problem with Marxism is that it isn’t revolutionary enough!”.
Do you think Christianity entails Socialism, or is there a more complex relationship?
Well, empirically it simply hasn’t meant that, for most Christians for most of the time. The early Apostolic Church seems to have been governed by a primitive communistic ethos. But socialism implies an alternative form of realising the claims of modernity. So criticising pre-modern or early modern societies for not being socialist kind of misses the point.
The noisiest factions of the Church today tend either argue that Christian Truth is antithetical to modernity - and hence adopt full on anti-modernist perspectives which swiftly become extremely reactionary (the conservatives, especially in the US), or else they swim with the tide of captailst modernity and adapt themselves to it (the liberals), leaving no standpoint or purchase of critique. It becomes compatible with “neoliberal progressivism”.
For me, the distinctively Christian message of fundamental solidarity with poor and oppressed requires a form of politics which breaks with both contemporary conservative and (neo-)liberal factions within the Church. As such, it opens out into a comprehensive social, cultural and economic critique which has a lot in common with an ecologically-conscious socialist critique of our neoliberal situation.
Tim Gorringe is Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter. He has written several books, including The World Made Otherwise (2018).
I was born in 1946, the first of 7 children, born within ten years. My father worked six days a week and the older ones of us were sent to Sunday school so that my parents could get some peace and quiet on Sunday afternoons. From Sunday school I was recruited into the choir and had a ‘call’ to be a missionary when I was 6 – a call which I really never really looked back on. My father voted Labour (until 1979), my mother was a dyed in the wool working class Tory. They took the Daily Mail and the News of the World. I failed my 11 plus, and went to a bottom of the stack Secondary Modern. In the history of the school one boy had gone to University – his picture was framed along the main corridor. This was the best possible education for socialism.
I remember a young Army officer (a Rees Mogg soundalike) addressing the school in a recruiting drive, explaining that of course we would not be officers but that we would be needed for the ranks. I remember the patient derision of the careers advisor when I told him I was going to be ordained, telling me I needed to think realistically about carpentry. I saw the joke even then. My conversion to socialism came on a kibbutz in Israel in 1965, during a three or four hour conversation with a Welsh Jew called Douglas. I remember coming out and looking at the night sky and realizing that it had all fallen in to place. A good knowledge of Scripture, courtesy of an old fashioned Sunday school, informed my now clarified socialist convictions. Hosea, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah were my first socialist teachers; later Deuteronomy and Leviticus played their part. I understood the kingdom of God through them. I read (past tense), and continue to read, the whole of Scripture as witnessing to God’s solidarity pact with the poor (as Aloysius Pieris calls it), as concerned with justice, peace and mercy. When I came to study theology I discovered Ambrose, Chrysostom, the Cappadocians; I read Norman Cohn; English history had already introduced me to the Levellers and Diggers. E.P.Thompson, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, E.J.Hobsbawm, were the historians of my undergraduate years. After I was ordained I read Karl Barth to make sense of what on earth I was doing. I learned German to read the left wing Barthians, F.W.Marquardt, H.Gollwitzer, D.Schellong and others, who made sense of his work. Later I met and became friends with Ulrich Duchrow. Liberation Theology arrived. I was grateful to some of its number – especially Gutierrez and Sobrino – but it contained no real surprises. In India, under the guidance of Bas Wielenga, I first read Marx seriously and thoroughly.
Does Christianity require socialism? It requires a passion for both peace and justice. The Incarnation affirms that every human being is a sister and brother of the Human One. This means radical equality which has implications for housing, for education, for health, for international relations. This in turn has huge implications for how we structure both what we call the economy and for political structures. There is a (sub) Christian tradition which begins with 1 Kings 8 and the royal psalms, picked up by Eusebius, ontologised by Dionysus the Areopagite, embraced by many theologians, written in to the Book of Common Prayer, stated clearly by Filmer, Burke and today by Rees Mogg and the current political establishment – which believes that reality is hierarchical and that to be conformed to that is to know one’s place and that ‘God’ sits atop a hierarchy which includes the class structure. This view is heretical to its deepest roots, which is why the use of the BCP is profoundly mischievous. It endorses inequality and therefore the different life outcomes which that always brings. It has therefore to be combated as an option incompatible with the church’s life which, as Herbert McCabe taught us, is what a ‘heresy’ is.
The Messianic Writings (aka the New Testament) make clear that faith without works is dead. What would discipleship which ignored the commitment to peace and justice mean? It is to make a mockery of faith in the Word made flesh. Christian discipleship necessarily means working for these things, following the prayer: May your kingly rule come on earth as in the world you intend (‘in heaven’). This does not mean our political work ‘brings in the kingdom’. ‘Original sin’ means, as Schleiermacher said, that sin, or brokenness, is ‘in all the work of each and in each the work of all’. Every attempt at justice or righteousness is marred in some way, especially by self righteousness. At the same time the great theme of Scripture, which Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ is our lodestar. That guides us in every policy and every decision.
Speaking for myself I would say that, as Eliot remarks, every piece of work is a new kind of failure. Every sermon, every class, every book, each time I work with the sheep, fix a gate, mend a fence, sit through a committee meeting, try to help in political meetings ( I joined the Green Party in revulsion at ‘New Labour’) I botch things. Nothing is perfect. But I am completely clear as to my goal, which today, with supreme urgency, includes intergenerational justice, trying to see that a civilised world is possible for my grandchildren and all the grandchildren. Climate justice is impossible without social justice, which is impossible without economic justice, which is impossible without democracy ( which is not what happens in first past the post elections). I tried to argue this in The World Made Otherwise (Cascade 2018) and now through Word and Silence, a book on Christian doctrine working its way through hostile or uncomprehending referees (my fault of course, not theirs). Different kinds of failure. But the goal is absolutely clear and the great cloud of witnesses, some of whom I have mentioned, cheer us on. Personally I speak of commitment to socialism, but I know that all ‘ism’s are tainted; my flag is nailed to the mast of what Jesus called ‘God’s kingly rule’. For that, certainly, if necessary, I will go to the stake.
Patricia Kelly is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Divinity, St Andrews. Her Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook will be published by T&T Clark in 2020.
What came first for you, Christianity or Socialism?
I grew up in Hastings Banda’s Malawi, and we spent leave in north-east Scotland. I was baptized and although we didn’t go to church regularly, unless we were staying with my Fraserburgh granny, or she was staying with us, Christianity was certainly there in the background. I went to Sunday school and the parents of a number of my closest friends were heavily involved in the church. By contrast, political discussion was completely absent in Malawi! As a teenager in the UK I was more politically aware – terrified by the threat of nuclear war; boycotting South African produce; recycling; trying to understand why Thatcher hated unions so much. I went to Sunderland University which exposed me to the devastation Thatcher’s neo-liberalism had wrought, and that was the point at which I became committed to both Christianity and Socialism.
Do you have any favourite books or passages from the Bible?
My favourite Gospels are Matthew and John – Matthew for his fulfilling of prophecy, and John for his mystical approach. In the Old Testament, I love the book of Isaiah. I also love the wonderful and very funny fable of Jonah and the books of Judith and Esther (fuller in Catholic bibles), whose strong, resourceful, courageous heroines save their people. My favourite however is the book of Ruth, which tells the story of the stranger determined to support her widowed mother-in-law, and ends up becoming the ancestor of King David and of Jesus.
Have any figures from the tradition other than the biblical authors (or Jesus!) been an influence on you?
There are so many to choose from! Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum, although far from perfect, was widely read and hugely influential when it was published, as was Quadragesimo Anno, published by Pius XI in 1931 to mark the 40th anniversary of Rerum novarum. Both call for the just wage, for decent working conditions, and express outrage at inequality. I also think of Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, who recognised that the destitute need the hand of friendship as well as food and shelter; Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers; and Lord Longford whose work with prisoners was so desperately needed.
Does Christianity require socialism, or vice-versa, or is it more complicated?
Such a difficult question! My own reading of the Bible leads me to some fundamental tenets in the Judaeo-Christian tradition which draw me to a Socialist perspective. First, all human persons are created equal in the divine image; second, we are required to respect the whole of God’s creation; finally, we honour God through our care for his creation and most of all for the vulnerable: the widow, the stranger, the orphan.
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Politics and Culture. His most recent book is Cults, Martyrs and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse (Pluto, 2018). He is currently writing a book about John Ball.
1 Which came first for you: an interest in Christianity, or in socialism? Were the two connected?
I’m not sure which came first. I’ve been interested in politics and religion generally since almost as long as I can remember, though I mostly kept both interests hidden when I was young for obvious and correct reasons. But they were always connected for me. Partly this was because of the usual youthful attempts at understanding the world. I also secretly read the Bible beginning to end around the same time as Thatcher apparently read the Old Testament beginning to end. Whatever realities of the Thatcher anecdote (I’m reciting it from memory), there’s good reason why I remember that. By 19 or 20 I was much more specially interested in the Bible and Christianity in relation to questions of history, socialism and capitalism which interest me to this day.
2 Are there any Christian figures apart from biblical writers (and Jesus!) who are important to you in thinking about social justice?
I’m glad you asked me that question. Yes, a few. I’ve been working on the priest John Ball—in many ways, the voice of the 1381 English uprisings (aka Peasants’ Revolt)—and his reception. Ball recognised that the hierarchies of his day represented their own material interests and that the alternative to them required more than passive opposition. Failures though they might have been, Ball and the rebels exploited weaknesses in aristocratic power through their discipline, popularity and numbers.
What is important about Ball is that we recognise a simple point: he used the language, concepts and actions available to him to represent the material interests of his supporters that are different to ours. Unlike some of the decaffeinated receptions of Ball, William Morris properly acknowledged Ball’s apocalpyticism and failure to bring about a new world but saw that the example of Ball’s desire for historical change should be remembered, embraced and updated.
In this sense, here in the British Isles we should not be embarrassed about the importance of remembering past martyrs, as those who have volunteered in Rojava have shown us. There will be more failures in the battle for a better world and, if anything, such stories are a reminder that the Left will have to be tough and resilient. If you think the relentless smear campaign against Corbyn has been off-the-chart, what do you think will happen if the Left were in a position to push for more? But change has happened before, and bigger changes can still happen. Left-wing melancholia was never that helpful because we should know that history is a series of defeats and victories and that winning is always hard.
3 Do you think Christianity requires Socialism, or is there a more complex relationship?
Both. Clearly, Christianity has been tied up with both reactionary and revolutionary tendencies. But the basic point of Christianity being dominant for centuries (not to mention its stories of socio-economic reversals) means that it should be no surprise that the emergence of Socialism was tied up with Christian language and ideas. This hasn’t gone away, even if not as pronounced as even a few decades ago. The primary example is of how Corbyn has openly combined the language of Socialism and Christianity. That a political leader could use this combination was almost unthinkable five years ago because ‘socialism’ was still a dirty word in mainstream political discourse and Christianity had to be invoked lightly and liberally. But it is telling that Corbyn made such a combination because it is a combination that still commands some broader respect partly due to its influential history.
4 Is your work on the Bible and Christianity related to your commitment to Socialism, and how?
Yes. My approach to history is in the tradition of historical materialism, broadly understood. I am (e.g.) interested in the emergence of the Jesus movement in Galilee in the sense that it expressed social agitation and utopianism in ways that are often alien to both capitalist Britain and organised opposition to capitalism. Nevertheless, I am not simply interested in the Jesus movement as a quaint example of history from below but rather in how it contributes to our understanding of historical change. I am ultimately concerned with longer-term explanations about how Christianity would become involved in, and a resource for reaction against, changing modes of production. And I’m interested in contemporary uses of the Bible English political discourse, partly to bring this analysis up-to-date.
To bring things back to the question: this is why I reject the simplistic line of some leftists that religion should be opposed because it is supposedly always on the side of the oppressors or whatever. Not only is this historically incorrect but it limits an opposition to capitalism that needs the flexibility to include some contradictory views necessary to make it a significant force for future historical change. Socialists have far more in common with Christian socialists than liberal atheists and, pragmatically speaking, there is some evidence that some ideas associated with the Christian Left have broader social appeal beyond niche socialist groups.
Mother Carrie Thompson is vicar of Forton in Hampshire.
(1.) What came first for you, commitment to Christianity or to socialism? Were the two connected?
Christianity, definitely. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but I ended up in Church by mistake at the age of six, and just never left. Coming from a somewhat turbulent background, Church was a real ‘bread and roses’ thing for me. It was a place I was safe, fed and looked after, but it also offered beauty, mystery and the permission to dream and hope for a better world. So, as I grew up, all the stuff I heard and sang in Church about justice and liberation just seemed … well, obvious. Who wouldn’t want a world where the poor are fed and the powerful are dragged down from their thrones? It wasn’t until I went to University that I realised that not everyone thought the same way I did, and that the views that I held as a Christian and a human being made other people label me as a leftie.
At the risk of sounding a bit like Tony Blair, I’m still not overly comfortable with calling myself a Socialist; I believe in fair wages and decent housing and environmental responsibility and all the rest of it because they just seem self-evidently right, not because I’ve read the Communist Manifesto. (I haven’t.) But apparently, if you take the Magnificat seriously, that places you as a socialist on the political spectrum; so here I am. And, at a time when so much public Christian discourse is racist, homophobic, misogynistic, self-serving or just plain nasty, I’m content to plant my flag at the red end of the wedge.
(2.) Which biblical books are important to you and why?
Whatever I’m reading at the time! The thing I love most about Scripture is drilling down into it, pulling it apart and looking at the pieces, so I tend to fall in love with whatever I’m studying. Bizarrely, that often means that the passages I love are the ones that make other people feel a bit sick: the “texts of terror” that have been used to clobber women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA folk and non-human animals. Why? Because when you take the time to read them in context, look at commentaries, unpick the original languages and think about what’s being whispered between the words, often those texts turn out to be liberative rather than oppressive. So I love Genesis 1:27 (“male and female he created humankind”) because it’s actually amazingly queer-positive. I even have time for all the “Wives, submit to your husbands” stuff in I Peter 3, because I think you can read it as a secret manifesto for surviving patriarchal violence. But if you really pinned me down, my absolute favourite bit of Bible is Isaiah’s description of the peaceable Kingdom. To misquote a famous phrase, if I can’t dance with a lion and a lamb, I don’t want to be part of the divine revolution!
(3.) Are there any Christian thinkers apart from the biblical writers who are important to youin thinking about social justice (or: politics and society)?Too many to mention! I’m often too unfocused to read whole books (let alone the whole corpus of any one person), so, as with the Bible, I have a bit of a patchwork approach to theologians and thinkers. The Patristic writers were often pretty kickass about social justice, and I often go back to those early writings when I am in need of a theological caffeine hit. I have a secret soft spot for the Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer (who, among other things, invented the rainbow flag), and big love for Sojourner Truth and her Gospel-based intersectionality (and the way she once silenced a heckler by flashing her tits).
Increasingly, I believe that there can be no social justice without justice for the whole of creation, so I am more and more drawn to thinkers who include non-human animals and the environment in their theology; although I’m not really a fan of his, Richard Rohr has a couple of nuggets of wisdom in this area which have really made me stop and think. Unsurprisingly, St Francis of Assisi is very important to me, not just for his rabbit-cuddling escapades (though, kudos), but for his thoroughly vernacular approach to theology, liturgy and spirituality. He was somebody who innately understood and passionately believed that every person, every animal and every part of creation is good – and I think without that basic underpinning, you can’t have Christianity or Socialism or social justice.
(4.) Do you think Christianity entails Socialism, or is there a more complex relationship?
I guess it depends how you define Socialism (and Christianity!). For me, the Gospel all boils down to Jesus’s phrase “life in abundance” (John 10:10), and that’s probably how I’d define (my) socialism too: it’s a commitment that life should be abundant, fulfilling and joyful for everyone in equal measure. I think it’s possible for Christians to disagree with integrity about how exactly we can reach that goal (the finer points of taxation or public spending policy, for instance) – so I don’t think Christianity necessarily entails that you have to vote a certain way or sign up to a particular political -ism. But I do wonder how anyone can have any kind of encounter with the living Christ and not be moved to work and struggle for justice, peace and the flourishing of all creation. If your Christianity doesn’t cause you to have some sense of anger and anguish about the cries of the oppressed, then I’m not sure it’s really Christianity.
(5.) Is there anything else you would like to have been asked?
Well, it’s more because I’d like to see how other people answer it, but maybe there’s an important question around how someone’s particular background, identity and experience (gender, ethnicity, class, disability, etc.) informs and influences their theology and politics. There’s nothing inherently wrong with straight, white, cis men, but over the years they’ve done an awful lot of talking in Christian and Socialist circles, and not nearly enough listening. If we truly believe in the social Gospel and a bias for the underdog, then we desperately need to start privileging and amplifying the voices and experiences of those who have too often been ignored.
Tasia Scrutton is a philosopher of religion in Leeds. Her book Christianity and Depression is forthcoming in 2020.
1. Tasia, which came first for you: a commitment to Christianity, or to Socialism? Were the two connected?
Christianity came first for me, and my socialism came from Christianity. I became actively committed to Christianity when I was around fifteen. The priest at the time set up a Justice and Peace group, made up mostly of Catholics, Quakers, URC members and a strident atheist. We were involved in social activism, such as campaigning against the arms trade.
A commitment to social justice seemed natural given the Gospel, and part and parcel of being a Christian. I later left Christianity and came back to it, but remained a socialist throughout. Three things, all of which I’d got from Christianity, remained important to me. One was a deep-rooted sense of the value of all people, including people our society regards as valueless and/or undesirable, on account of their value in God’s eyes. The second was a conviction that we meet Christ in the poor. The third was a sense of outrage that some people make others poor in order to make themselves richer, and a conviction that things are not supposed to be, and need not be, that way. ‘He shall put down the mighty from their seats’. Although I became agnostic for a while, an underlying sense of those things remained in a way that surprised me. Having seen them, I couldn’t un-see them.
2. Which biblical books are important to you, and why?
The Gospels, especially Luke, the prophets and the Psalms. I’m also going to put in a bid for Tobit, which is in the Catholic but not the Protestant Bible.
For those who don’t know it, Tobit is quite a fun story about a Jewish family living in exile. Tobit (the dad) gives fellow Jews who have been murdered a proper burial – something that’s a religious obligation, but banned by the state. One day Tobit burys a murdered Jew and falls asleep under a tree, and a sparrow poos in his eye and he goes blind. Since he can’t work, the family become very poor, so Tobit’s son, Tobias, sets off on a journey to request back some money from a distant, now wealthy, relative, whom Tobit had lent money to long ago. Tobias takes with him his dog, and a mysterious stranger called Azariah whom they hire as a guide. On the way, a fish tries to eat Tobias, but Tobias captures it, and Azariah tells Tobias to keep its heart, liver and gall bladder. When they arrive at their destination, Tobias meets a distant cousin called Sarah, who is distressed because she has got married seven times, but each time a lustful and jealous demon, Asmodeus, kills her husband on their wedding night. Tobias and Sarah nevertheless fall in love and marry, and Azariah tells Tobias to burn the fish’s heart and liver on the wedding night to drive away the demon (it must have smelled terrible). Unknown to Tobias and Sarah, when Asmodeus flies away, Azariah turns into his true form – the angel Raphael – and binds the demon. After the wedding feast, Tobias, Sarah, Azariah and the dog return to Tobit and his wife triumphant and joyful. Lastly, Azariah restores old Tobit’s sight by rubbing the fish liver on his eyes, then reveals he is really an angel, and flies off to heaven.
Tobit is a simple folk story, and it’s often compared unfavourably to philosophically sophisticated books like Job. But I love it because it shows that God is on the side of those who are poor and who suffer. Having thought about and taught the problem of evil (the question: why would God allow evil?) for many years, this is, I think, the only thing Christians can and should say in the face of suffering. In addition, Tobit breaks the law in order to live faithfully – the state is not always on the side of right. And as well as this, Tobit also tells us that, while suffering might be part of life and sometimes a consequence of living faithfully, this is not what God wants for us ultimately: God wants us to flourish and to live full lives. Thus Sarah is freed from the lustful and murderous demon, and Tobit is given back his sight.
In addition to these things, Tobit is a good story and has a dog in it, so it can’t be bad.
3. Are there any Christian figures apart from biblical writers (and Jesus!) who are important to you in thinking about social justice?
Yes, the writings of saints like Augustine and Teresa of Avila – and stories about saints’ lives which show us God’s love and solidarity with the poor - St Francis and Oscar Romero for example.
Also people I know or have known who I suspect are saints who haven’t died yet – people who reveal God through their humility and their kindness and gentleness to others, and/or through their courage in standing up to people in authority. I won’t name any here because at least some of them will read and contribute to this blog! But sometimes people we encounter can show us rather than tell us among God’s love, just by their way of being. The philosopher Raimond Gaita makes this kind of point when he recounts different people he meets when working on a psychiatric ward:
"The patients were judged to be incurable and they appeared to have irretrievably lost everything which gives meaning to our lives. They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we connect that with self-esteem; or, none which could be based on qualities or achievements for which we could admire or congratulate them without condescension. . . . A small number of psychiatrists did, however, work devotedly to improve their conditions. They spoke, against all appearances, of the inalienable dignity of even those patients. I admired them enormously . . . One day a nun came to the ward. In her middle years, only her vivacity made an impression on me until she talked to the patients. Then everything in her demeanour towards them – the way she spoke towards them, her facial expressions, the inflexions of her body – contrasted with and showed up the behaviour of those noble psychiatrists. She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. She thereby revealed that even such patients were, as the psychiatrists and Ihad sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this."
Gaita’s point is not about being condemning of the psychiatrists who do their best to believe in the dignity of the patients, and who work for their well-being. Rather, it is to highlight that sometimes we meet people whose humility allows them to reveal God’s love. By seeing things ‘through God’s eyes’, they allow us to glimpse people’s real value, including the value of people not valuable by fallen human – and especially capitalist – criteria.
4. Do you see current political and social action as related to the Kingdom of God or ultimate destiny of creation? If so, how?
I see current political and social action as helping to bring about the Kingdom of God, not just as an intermediate religious obligation that is ultimately irrelevant to the Kingdom. At the same time, I don’t think the Kingdom is reducible to current political and social action – the Kingdom isn’t a human-only (even a grace-infused human-only) affair. I suppose the details are a bit vague. I do see everyday things people do – things like showing hospitality, or visiting people who are isolated, or voting in an election for a left-wing party (to take an entirely arbitrary example) as part and parcel of bringing about the Kingdom.
R. Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2000), pp. 17–19
Our first interview is by Simon Hewitt, Lay Dominican, philosopher at the University of Leeds, and author of Christianity and Marxism (forthcoming, 2020).
(1.) Simon, what came first for you, commitment to Christianity or to socialism? Were the two connected?
I was baptised as a baby and brought up attending church, so Christianity came first! And for as long as I can remember, I have taken it for granted that being a Christian involves wanting (and, at least somehow, making) a better world. But the details of my socialism came from elsewhere. My family were generally left-wing, and Margaret Thatcher was a figure of intense dislike at teatimes accompanied by the radio news. There was politics in the air as I was growing up in the 1980s: the Miners' Strike, apartheid, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the situation in Ireland, and so on. As I became aware of these things, I sided with the left and gradually informed myself, getting books on politics out of the local library. So I'm an autodidactic socialist - albeit not without family influence - I suppose that process of learning gave me a sense of how the world needed to be improved, whereas my Christianity told me that the world needed to be improved.
(2.) Which biblical books are important to you and why?
The easy answer is Luke - familiar to Catholics from our liturgy (as a Lay Dominican, I say daily the words of the Magnificat, 'he has put down the mighty from their seats'; words which, if taken seriously, would be banned by every government, as it has been by some). The almost-as-easy-as-that answer is the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, especially Amos and Micah, well-used as they are on the Christian Left. But I want to put a word in for Paul, who for generations has been unfairly tarnished as some kind of proto-conservative or ecclesiastical reactionary. It is in Paul that we get a sense of the cosmic nature of salvation ('creation groans'), and in Paul that we get an insistence on the importance of the body. Paul thinks that what God has done in Christ has broken down barriers between people: slave and free, woman and man, Jew and Gentile. He thinks that living this new reality will involve us in struggle, and in particular that Christianity is pitted against Empire. I'd like to see Christians on the political left engaging more with the Pauline material, perhaps through engaging with the so-called New Perspective on Paul (which, in the form of NT Wright's books, is easily accessible to non-specialist readers).
(3.) Are there any Christian thinkers apart from the biblical writers who are important to you in thinking about social justice (or: politics and society)?
As a Dominican I'm almost duty bound to name-check Thomas Aquinas at this point, and I'm going to! But there are dangers here. I don't think that it is to Aquinas' thought on politics that we ought to look for inspiration. Here I take issue with a frankly reactionary strand in Aquinas-studies. Thomas lived in a feudal society, and the idea that we can export from him a blueprint for organising an advanced industrial society is absurd. Rather there are two themes in Thomas that I think are of enduring political significance. First he has a picture of human beings not as purely spiritual beings but as (in Alistair MacIntyre's phrase) dependent rational animals. Second, he stresses the mystery of God and cautions us against idolatry (a phenomenon that, if we take a biblical picture seriously, is complicit in political oppression). The Anglo-Irish Dominican Herbert McCabe developed these themes from Thomas towards the end of the last century, and was a committed socialist. He too is a big influence on me.
(4.) Do you think Christianity entails Socialism, or is there a more complex relationship?
McCabe wrote that he wanted his fellow Catholics to be socialists not because he was a Catholic but because he was a socialist. That's my position too. I think that Christianity teaches that God has made a definitive commitment to humankind and wills our flourishing. It also suggests that God does this in a particular way through identification with those on the underside of history, the tax-collectors and prostitutes if you like. But it is dangerous to try to read off a manifesto from the Bible, or even from the teachings of Popes or councils; that becomes a form of what Marx called idealism, an attempt to understand and change history without doing the hard work of engaging directly with historical processes and struggles. We need to be attentive to the 'signs of the times'. It is only in this way that we can genuinely begin to imagine what a better future might look like.
(5.) Is there anything else you would like to have been asked?
Whether it's difficult being religious and being on the Left. The answer is 'yes'. And that is a problem, because it limits the scope and appeal of socialist politics. I'm not even thinking primarily of Christians here - it's incredible to me how marginal the Muslim presence is in, say, many constituency Labour parties where you might expect things to be otherwise, especially given the politicisation of young Muslims around the systematic Islamophobia committed under the auspices of the war on Terror. We religious people have a job to do of bridge-building and reassuring. But secular leftists need to do their part too: there are far too many assumptions made about religious people, too much parroting of daft New Atheist nonsense, and not enough cultural competence.