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.