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.