Do Unto Others

At its most radical, Christian teaching is a condemnation of a world exploited by the rich – and an injunction to fight for the liberation of the world's poor and oppressed.

Illustration by Scott Balmer

Christians don’t seem to have much of a place on the left anymore — and those that remain are rarely vocal about their faith. Yet, as Tony Benn frequently pointed out, there is a long history of what he referred to as Christian socialism, a current to which he was deeply sympathetic, despite not identifying as a Christian himself.

And whenever I have spoken about how my own spirituality has informed my politics, many others have come forward to state that they too were inspired to become involved in socialist activism for similar reasons — even if they don’t foreground this aspect of their political identity in activist circles. This tension between the widespread acceptance on the left that the Church is often a regressive force in British society and the deeply held Christian faith of many left activists is a very real one — and I suspect it is a tension that is not confined to my own Anglican Church.

The roots of Tony Benn’s understanding of Christian socialism lie in his identification of the deep divide that has always existed between religious institutions as bastions of the status quo and the revolutionary promise of Christian spirituality — best exemplified in the communistic ways of living practiced by the earliest Christians. Jesus’ teachings were deeply resisted by religious authorities at the time precisely because the idea of radical love that sits at the foundation of Christianity — and indeed most major religions — is an affront to organised religion, which is often more concerned with questions of power.

Christian Conservatism

The Anglican Church is, of course, a bastion of the status quo in British society. The Church of England is the country’s thirteenth largest landowner; it owns over 100,000 acres of land, worth over £2 billion. Justin Welby, the current leader of the Church of England, is an old Etonian and graduate of Cambridge University who spent his early career working in the oil industry. Its head is, of course, the Queen. This is not to say that the Church does no good. Churchgoers are often some of the first volunteers at food centres, youth centres, and homelessness projects. And Welby himself has campaigned on issues such as the link between austerity and foodbank usage, tax avoidance, and migration. But the voluntaristic attitude of the Church prioritises philanthropy and single-issue campaigning over structural reform of the kind that might actually provide some solutions to these challenges.

And there is a great deal of truth to the idea that the Anglican Church is the Conservative Party at prayer. In 2017, 58 per cent of Church of England members voted for the Conservatives. When I was brought to Church as a young person, I often asked how anyone who professed to be a Christian could ever justify voting for the Conservative Party. I was given a variety of half-hearted explanations about the need to keep politics and faith separate, or the difference between practicing love and tolerance in one’s own life and trying to construct a society based on Christian principles, which, in a broken world, would inevitably collapse into totalitarianism.

In the US, where it can be even harder to understand how gun-toting, climate-change-denying Republican voters could ever profess to be Christians, Evangelicals were at the heart of the movement to elect Donald Trump. One of the most important strands of this is the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, which has provided an ideological basis for the religious right in the United States. Its adherents hold that wealth is a blessing from God which can be accrued based on expressions of faith or donations to a given Church, placing great store in the Parable of the Talents found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.

But, while that doctrine might be mostly American, Christian conservatism is far from a US phenomenon. When you speak to churchgoing Christians in the rich world, they are often some of the first to defend the status quo while expressing sympathy for its victims. In such a context, Christian faith becomes, in the words of Tony Benn, a ‘generalised injunction directed to the rich and powerful to express their love by being good and kind; and to the poor to return that love by being patient and submissive’. No wonder people increasingly look at Christianity as a hodgepodge of contradictions and hypocrisy.

Practicing and Preaching

But the hypocrisy of the Church speaks to its dual nature. On the one hand, the Church is an institution that acts as a glorified networking hub for the British elite and, historically, a way for them to demand obedience from the majority of the population on supposedly ethical grounds. But on the other hand, the life and teachings of Jesus encourage us to constantly question arbitrary authority, to prioritise mutual care over competition, and to hold up both nature and human life as sacred against a society that treats it as disposable.

Naked class interest, of course, trumps religion most of the time — in the same way that it also takes precedent over ideology. Ardent liberals frequently sacrifice their alleged commitment to free speech when it comes to clamping down on the activities of trade unions; and wealthy Christians easily forget the Bible passages in which Jesus talks about the corrupting influence of wealth on the human soul.

But the fact that class can trump ideology doesn’t mean that ideology is unimportant. Liberal theory provides a set of standards against which we can judge the achievements of actually-existing liberalism — a comparison that finds the world in which we live deeply wanting. A world of free speech and genuinely free markets would look very different to the one we inhabit, where protest is being criminalised while big business and financial institutions are indemnified for their transgressions.

In the same way, observing that the Christian Church often acts as a bulwark for the status quo should not prevent us from observing the vast gap that exists between the daily practices of the Church and the radical nature of Christian teaching. When I spoke to Dr Cornel West on my podcast A World to Win, we had a lengthy discussion about the role of Christianity in the socialist movement. He spoke about how he always viewed himself as ‘a revolutionary Christian, in the legacy of Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer’. He acknowledged the critique of the Christian Church made by groups such as the Black Panthers, as well as critiques of scripture itself — particularly ‘elements in the Hebrew Bible of genocide and patriarchy’, which he argues should be held at arm’s length from the rest of Jesus’ teachings.

But, Dr West says, the foundation of Christianity is the idea that ‘the highest form of being human is to spread lovingkindness’. This understanding of Christianity as a project of ‘deliverance and liberation’ — of the kind pursued by Moses — requires us to ‘have a profound critique not just of Pharaoh, but the system that held Pharaoh in place.’

And these radical elements can also be found within scripture itself. West points to Jesus’ eviction of the money changers from the temple:

Who are the money changers in the American empire? Wall Street, Pentagon, White House, Congress, Hollywood, all of them in the same place. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all of them in the same place. Jesus runs them all out. And that’s the reason why he’s put on a cross and crucified by the most powerful empire of the day. So in that way, there is what I call a prophetic spark in that Hebrew scripture; from Jesus, from Muhammad in his own prophetic way, that leads toward a Malcolm X, for example.

Such a view of Christianity would have resonated with Tony Benn, who saw the Bible as a story of struggle between ‘the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness.’ ‘This radical interpretation of the message of brotherhood and its clear anti-establishment agitation has,’ he argued, ‘surfaced time and again throughout our history’ from the Peasant’s Revolt, to the Diggers, to the Methodists who helped to form the Labour Party.

Revolutionary Christianity

I am not, of course, arguing that one needs to be a Christian, or indeed to have any faith whatsoever, in order to be a socialist. I agree with Tony Benn that socialists can learn a great deal from Jesus’ teachings, which allows us to hold up a mirror to an elite that wraps itself in the garb of religiosity, while failing even to try to live as Jesus did. Jesus himself did exactly this with the Pharisees who saw him as a threat to their own power and prestige: he used his unparalleled knowledge of Hebrew scripture to tie them in circles, exposing their hypocrisy for all to see.

This is an argument borne out by the message of Dr Martin Luther King Jr himself, whose radical legacy is often ignored by an elite that seeks to co-opt his life. Perhaps the most resonant element of Dr King’s teachings today is his observation that:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. Socialists often face the world with a message of love that pays no heed to the realities of power; and face each other with an orientation towards power that pays no heed to our message of love.

The Christian faith provides both a set of teachings that can expose the hypocrisy of the powerful, and a set of practices to observe in our interactions with the world and with each other. On those grounds alone, it is worth paying some attention to the life and work of Jesus.