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Why Christianity matters for socialism

Many socialist campaigns, from the Chartists to the Greenham women, have common traditions with Christianity, says JAMES CROSSLEY

ON becoming leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn envisaged a society “where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. 

“Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.”

Ever since that historic victory, Corbyn has repeatedly used the language of “not passing by on the other side.” 

It is an allusion to the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel which is popular among politicians. 

While David Cameron, Hilary Benn and others have used the parable to promote military intervention in north Africa and the Middle East (think the Good Samaritan violently beating the robbers), Corbyn — unusually for a contemporary politician — has used the parable to attack the scandal of increased homelessness, rough sleeping and the housing crisis.

These contradictory interpretations of a parable attributed to a figure like Jesus are not unusual: revolutionary and reactionary tendencies have always been part of Christianity, a tension perhaps present in Jesus’s prediction of an imminent theocracy. 

Christianity itself would of course become integral to the Roman empire. Some of this was due to changing religious affiliations in the empire and Christianity adapting to Roman power.

However, Jesus and his earliest followers’ hope for a new divine empire was tied in with polemics aimed at inequality and wealth, some of which were brought into sharper focus by major building projects and land displacements in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. 

He gave a message revealing some awareness of the structural nature of wealth, poverty, and even disability. 

Jesus seems to have formed an alternative community in a context where traditional households had been uprooted by aristocratic demand for greater surplus. 

The Acts of the Apostles suggests that these revolutionary impulses were kept alive in a community of shared goods, a practice that would later inspire Tony Benn in his defence of public ownership against the attacks from New Labour. 

We should understand Jesus’s teachings in terms of Marx’s famous understanding of religion as “an expression of and protest against real wretchedness.” 

In a world where wealth was concentrated among a small aristocratic elite, Jesus was remembered as saying the rich would burn or be excluded from the coming kingdom while the poor would be blessed. 

But warning signs of this future were enacted in the present. People overcharging for sacrificial animals were the focus of Jesus’s ire as he was remembered for overturning the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers.

The tension between reaction and revolution has continued throughout the history of Christianity and has been analysed extensively by Roland Boer in a free series of booklets for the Culture Matters website. 

Clashes between elite power and the desire for radical democratic transformation and wealth redistribution simmered and occasionally boiled over in the history of English Christianity, leaving us with a long radical history, from the Peasants’ Revolt through the 17th-century radicals to the growth of the labour movement and Keir Hardie’s desire to “stir up a divine discontent with wrong,” a saying referenced by Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in 2015. 

The language of radical social transformation from this tradition was employed in the founding of the NHS and the successful Labour manifesto of 1945. 

Thanks to countless dedicated socialists from the Greenham Common women’s peace camp to revolutionaries travelling to Rojava, this was also a tradition whose language would remain alive on the English left. 

The story of Jesus and the moneychangers was a prominent one in challenging “the 1 per cent” at Occupy London Stock Exchange where St Paul’s Cathedral itself epitomised the tension: certain church leaders were uncomfortable with protesters while the grounds were simultaneously a readily available space for a sustained protest.

We now find ourselves in a place unusual for the left: close to power. There have been encouraging discussions among Momentum and union activists about growing a working-class socialist culture “from below,” where social events, sports clubs, foodbanks etc become part of building a mass movement. 

Historically, this socialism from below has had strong overlaps with Christian traditions. The impulses of Christianity which tackle poverty continue today, such as the Trussell Trust, whose role in foodbanks has made sure that Iain Duncan Smith did not forget Jesus’s words about poverty. 

Yet recent studies show that there is evidence that much of the public does not like politicians explicitly invoking religion, Christianity and the Bible, particularly for grandiose claims about Christianity being the source of parliamentary democracy or free markets, as Cameron claimed.  

However, there does not appear to be widespread hatred of Christianity per se, not even beyond the pockets where church attendance remains relatively high. 

For instance, the same recent studies give some indication that there is support for the Bible as a general moral code for helping others. 

This is something that should not be ignored by socialists. And Corbyn’s allusion to the Good Samaritan is precisely what is palatable for much of the British public: pithy, vague, but full of basic human decency.    

But there is also evidence that Christianity can be associated with national identity. One recent study found that nearly a quarter of people view being Christian in ethnic terms, a signifier of being English or British. And this despite the sharp decrease in church attendance in recent decades and the accompanying rise in those identifying with non-belief. 

This can, of course, be dangerous for the left and fertile ground for the right. Theresa May and Nigel Farage have both tried to capitalise on this ethno-nationalist understanding of Christianity. 

Uncomfortable though it may be, it should not be ignored by the English left where the struggle over national identity has been a difficult one. 

Here, we can turn to the radical English tradition which has informed the contemporary left, including Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn. 

In fact, Labour has recognised this potential in the fight against Ukip and the Tories. Sam Tarry, co-director of Corbyn’s re-election campaign, talked about the importance of an English labour movement promoting “the Peasants’ Revolt, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists and the suffragettes and others” as a “socialist vision” which is also a “patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many, not the few.” 

As will be familiar to regular readers of the Morning Star, religion can be a divisive issue on the left because of its well-known reactionary traditions. 

But Christianity (or any other religion) does not always have to be reactionary, and socialist Christians won’t cease to be socialists because some of their co-travellers are not. 

Left-wing Christianity has been central to English and British socialism and its legacy remains important to this day, whether in fighting poverty, keeping radicalism alive, providing ready-made community networks, or influencing the general language we use. 

None of this means, of course, that we all convert to Christianity or attend church on a Sunday morning. But if we want to transform this world, this particular socialist tradition will prove to be an important resource.

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