What is Christian Socialism? Part Three   Leave a comment

The Search for a Christian Social Order:

Although the Nonconformist Churches in cities like Coventry played a major role in the growth of ‘Labour’ politics between the wars, Christian Socialist workshops were weak in organisation and unduly idealistic about the contribution of labour. However, Christian Socialist thinkers within the churches did good work both in securing a better legal framework within which workers’ organisations could develop, and fostered workers’ education.

Within the Church of England, the Christian Socialist ideas of F. D. Maurice had a tremendous influence on Anglican thought about the secular world in the twentieth century. This was partly due to the solid work of the Christian Social Union which had been founded in 1889 with Brooke Foss Westcott, the Cambridge New Testament scholar, later Bishop of Durham, as its first president.

In England this tradition came to its climax in the work of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944. Temple had deep insights into the nature of Christian worship, and a commitment to evangelism; he constantly exercised ‘prophetic judgement’ on the social situation, keeping both this world and the next in equal focus.

003In 1932, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in his first major work, Moral Man and Immoral Society, had reacted strongly against the liberalism, optimistic humanism and moral idealism of the social gospel movement. In doing so, he was echoing the views of the Swiss pastor and theologian Karl Barth. However, he also made use of Marxist ideas in arguing that due to the fundamental evil in both man and human society, Christian political action called not simply for love, but for an attempt to give each group within society enough power to defend itself against exploitation by other groups.  Although relations between individuals might be seen as a matter of ethics, relations between groups were a matter of politics. Niebuhr himself took an active part in American politics, founding the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. In his later work, he criticised both the liberal and Marxist views of human nature equally in The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941-43). He stressed that the final answer to the human condition lay beyond history in the love of God as seen in the cross of Christ. At the same time, he emphasised that Christians must not opt out of the politics and power-struggles of the twentieth century. In Britain, William Temple gave this theology his own, practical cutting-edge:

If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former. But there is no such antithesis… There is no hope of establishing a more Christian social order except through the labour and sacrifice of those in whom the Spirit of Christ is active, and the first necessity for progress is more and better Christians taking full responsibility as citizens for the political, social and economic system under which they and their fellows live.

Roman Catholic doctrine in the 1930s and 1940s was intrinsically and explicitly opposed to socialism, though this opinion was moderated in an encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI on 15 May 1931 Quadragesimo anno. In this, Pius described the major dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism. Pius XI called upon true socialism to distance itself from totalitarian communism as a matter of clarity and also as a matter of principle. Communists were accused of attempting to overthrow all existing civil society, and Christian socialism, if allied to Communism, was deemed to be a contradiction in terms because of this. This attitude hardened during the Cold War, when both Poland and Hungary rebelled against Soviet control, with the support of their primates. In 1957, Pius XI famously wrote at that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist”, yet had clarified that a Catholic was free to vote for the British Labour Party, which was still, at that time, the UK affiliate of the Socialist International. Under Pope John Paul, the official Catholic attitude hardened once more in the 1980s with the Labour Party coming under attack for its failure to come out strongly enough in support of Solidarity, the Polish free trade union movement. More recently, left-wing ideological movements such as liberation theology in South America, from the 1970s, have argued for the compatibility of socialism and Catholicism. Influenced by this as a native of Argentina, Pope Francis has shown sympathy to socialist causes with claims such as that capitalism is “Terrorism against all of Humanity” and that “it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide.” In 2016 the Tradinista! social media group was formed of young Catholics devoted to a synthesis of Marxist and traditional Catholic critiques of political and economic liberalism, and to the promotion of a socialism that would be compatible with Catholic social teaching.

When I went to Bangor University in the mid-1970s, a second generation of Welsh Nationalist leaders had come to the fore, moving away from the pro-fascist politics of Saunders Lewis, its Catholic founder. These included R. Tudur Jones, Principal of the Bala Bangor Theological College, under whom I had the privilege of studying in my first year. His political stance, combined with the Calvinist doctrine of a corpus Christianum, and his deeply-held Christian pacifism, created an integrated vision that was significant to the religious and political life of Christian Wales in the later half of the 20th century. Jones argued that the “state should be a servant, to preserve order and to allow men to live the good life”.

Today, many Calvinistic Methodists, Baptists and Independents have come to accept same-sex marriage on the grounds that it delivers marriage equality in the eyes of the state while still allowing their congregations to follow their own conscience, thus upholding the traditional Biblical teaching on marriage through the separation of church and state. The Calvinist tradition in the Nonconformist churches in Wales and England has also influenced the Labour Party’s commitment to disarmament and nonviolence since the 1930s. I was a founding member of Cymdeithas y Cymod, the Welsh associate of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1974. In Wales, the Christian Pacifist tradition remained strong, influencing the student-led direct action campaigns of the 1970s, which sought to defend and uphold the position of the Welsh Language in society. Throughout Britain, Christian CND grew rapidly in the 1980s, and in 1982 the whole of Wales was declared to be a Nuclear Free Zone when all its local authorities refused to participate in the government’s ‘protect and survive’ scheme. This was an important turning point in the refusal of Christians to countenance a world destroyed by nuclear war and took place at a time of mass rallies and, of course, the Greenham Common protest, in which English Quaker women played a leading role. Church leaders like Bruce Kent were prominent in CND, as well as in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and solidarity campaigns with liberation movements in Latin America.

The Christian Socialist Movement was an amalgamation of the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers and the Socialist Christian League. R. H. Tawney made one of his last public appearances at the Movement’s inaugural meeting on 22 January 1960 (an annual memorial lecture is held in his honour). The Methodist minister and Peace Pledge Union leader, Donald Soper chaired the Movement until becoming its President in 1975. In August 2013 it announced that following a consultation with its members it would be changing its name to Christians on the Left.

I was one of those who opposed the change in name for two reasons. Firstly, because I felt that the new name was purely descriptive of a vague and continually shifting perspective on a purely secular spectrum as contrasted with a continuous spiritual tradition dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Secondly, it seems to lack the sense of action and interaction contained in the word ‘movement’. This seems to be underlined by the very recent success of ‘Momentum’ within the Labour Party. Its founders, perhaps wisely, did not describe themselves by their ‘ultra-left’ polar position, but by their bid for ‘power’ within the party. Christians are naturally reticent to talk about bidding for power for fear of being associated with ‘a love of power’. In 1974, Philip Potter, the then General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, gave the Alex Wood Memorial Lecture in London, entitling his talk, The Love of Power, or the Power of Love? In it, he referred to random examples from around the world to illustrate what he called ‘the tragic separation which grips the ‘oikoumene’, the whole inhabited earth.’ These included Ethiopia, Southern Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. To these he added ‘the tragic irony of Eastern Europe where a revolutionary effort at overcoming these separations has led to new forms of separation and oppression… the experience of the Socialist states has encouraged people to throw up their hands in despair and opt out of the struggle for change, because of the lack of a human face to socialism, as officially practised in those countries’.

Fifteen years later, that ‘practice’ was brought to an end, and one form of separation in Europe was brought to an end, and with it those in Southern Africa. Living in Hungary for twelve out of the last twenty-eight years, I have become increasingly wary of describing myself as any kind of socialist. By doing so, I now believe that we have allowed new divisions to take their place in twenty-first century European societies, leading to the decline of social democracy and the rise of populism and nationalism.

In Britain, we have abandoned the task of developing a form of human socialism, solidly rooted in the forms of Christian socialism of modern Britain, but with a broad appeal to those of all faiths and none. In the Labour Party, in particular, we are still set on repeating the ideological divisions of the past, especially of denigrating the importance of the ordinary individual in favour of the personality cult of ‘the leader’ of the mass movement. As Christians in politics in general, we are still beset by tribalism.  As a result, Potter’s conclusion is as fresh and challenging for me now as when I first read it in the FoR pamphlet:

It is this newness, this overcoming of separation, which is the summons to love with overwhelming power. And this love is a political act, it is the life of the ‘polis’, the city, which consists in listening, giving and forgiving… Its gates are never shut, and all the wealth and splendour of the nations in all their variety are brought into it. No more is the ‘oikoumene’ divided by closed walls. The very leaves of the trees are for the healing of broken humanity. Significantly, only two kinds of people are excluded from that city… those who either, in self-protecting cowardice, avoid involving themselves in the struggle against separation and disunity; or those who ruthlessly distort, exploit and destroy, exploit and destroy human beings, thus strengthening the walls of separation. A clear alternative is placed before us – the rejection of the love of power which produces and maintains separation, leading to death; or the power of love, which travails for the breaking down of separation and for the reunion of the ‘oikoumene’… that we may all share the endless life of the open city. The power of love is hope in action – action founded on the divine promise: ‘Behold I am making all things new’.

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