On Christianity & Social Justice

Karl Marx famously viewed religion as the “opium of the masses”, an attitude which has remained prevalent on the left for over a century. But site editor Jonathan Rimmer argues the powerful factor of personal faith shouldn't be overlooked when discussing class issues and that radicalism is born the most unlikely places...

It's depressingly typical that the once radical concept of social justice, discussed and theorised upon since the days of Ancient Greece, now has negative connotations due to a controversy surrounding video games. The term 'social justice warrior' is increasingly being used pejoratively on all sides of the political spectrum on a range of issues, but right wing journalist David A. French specifically identifies proponents' aims as being opposed to those of the American Christian right.

You'd think that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gustavo Gutierrez, Dorothy Day and countless others (including Jesus Christ himself) all being renowned crusaders for social justice exposes a slight hole in this argument. But in the culture war that has sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic, self-categorisation and sweeping generalisations are useful political tactics for elites who seek to divide our society along the lines of perceived values. Conveniently, it diametrically opposes two forces who are largely driven by moral conviction.

This development has always seemed curious to me as someone who comes from a Christian background. On one hand, it makes eminent sense: Christianity was the religion of the British empire, and our country's history of 'evangelism' is inextricably linked with its history of brutal oppression and colonialism. Of course, it's natural that many on the left hold religious ties from their childhood, while others assert it's something they've “outgrown” or “seen for what it is”.

But community justice and redistributive politics have long been deeply embedded features of both Presbyterian and Catholic churches in Scotland. It would of course be wildly ahistorical to suggest these institutions were inspired by Marxist doctrine, or indeed that the Red Clydesiders of the early 20th century were primarily invigorated by a religious backbone. But it's notable that Scottish leaders of the Labour Party, from Keir Hardie to John Smith to Gordon Brown, have all spoken of how their left-leaning political ethos was informed by their faith.

There are people more qualified to write on Catholic immigrants to Scotland's radical traditions and social institutions, just as there are those who are more qualified to write on the Church of Scotland's institutional suspicion of those who perceive rank and greed as virtues – an attitude stretching back to John Knox himself.

There are numerous examples beyond our shores, too – Noam Chomsky speaks eloquently on the role liberation theology played in South America, for example. But I'm more interested in the mismatch between Christian teaching and militantly conservative evangelicalism, as well as why the weaponisation of faith issues has reinforced such antipathy on the left here and abroad.

Unlike most of my friends, I was brought up in a radically Christian household – my parents were, and still are, Pentecostal. We didn't sing many hymns because the churches I went to had live worship bands and gospel singers. After I started drumming for punk bands in my late teens, my friends would laugh when I told them I'd originally learned to play in a church.

For all Christianity is seen as being tied up with systemic privilege, I felt like my family were outsiders. I would hide being Christian for fear of being picked on. In my youth, I moved between Scotland, England and Wales due to my father's ministry. If I had any sense of class solidarity, it was with the congregations of people my family befriended. One year, a Nigerian couple from the Church were made homeless at Christmas by an aggressive landlord – my mother invited them around because “Christians always help others in need”.

My parents won't mind me saying that they've always leaned to the left politically. That might seem unsurprising given my father's family are predominantly from Merseyside, but to them it has as much to do with faith. My father often speaks admirably of the late socialist MP Tony Benn, who regarded “the basic teachings of Jesus of having a very, very radical political importance”. I was brought up to help those in need, be compassionate for others and reject materialism – funnily enough, the value of free markets didn't crop up very much.

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As an adult, my views have changed somewhat. I still hold a degree of faith – which is entirely private and personal – but I'm unambiguously pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights, and I have many issues with aspects of biblical teaching. I also naturally believe it's paramount we challenge bigotry and prejudice whether it's perpetuated by Christians or any other religious group.

But I often find the belligerent tone many socialists adopt when talking about Christians and Christianity in general is worryingly misguided at best and maliciously ignorant at worst. Critiquing the misrepresentation of Christian teaching is not the same as becoming an apologist for the entire belief system. The leading American conservative William Buckley argued socialism v capitalism and atheism v Christianity boiled down to the same struggle. Many leftists would likely agree, falling into the very trap of deductive reasoning used by the disingenuous right.

It's of course easy to cite the Bible itself to riposte such arguments. In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus said he identified with the poor, the sick and the hungry. In the same book, he's quoted as saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. But if the right is hypocritical when it comes to following raw doctrine, the left is guilty of overlooking its appropriation.

Anthropologists have produced evidence that early Christian communities practiced forms of redistribution and proto-communism in line with their beliefs. Regardless of their overarching purpose, it's sorely overlooked that churches, like trade unions and housing associations, have long represented community cohesion. Secular socialists may well welcome the decline in church-going figures over the past century or so, but they overlook their role in bringing people together.

If anything, there's an argument to be made that neo-liberals have deformed Christian ideology, playing down allusions to social responsibility and placing the emphasis on individual charity. It's why in America, mega-church pastors live in mansions, preachers make millions off their broadcasting networks and televangelists sell their very own branded spiritual solutions to vulnerable viewers. Like so much else, religion has become itemised, monetised and used to prop up the wealthiest in our society.

It's why socialists should be tactful rather than openly dismissive when debating with Christians. It's said that the left tends to rely on evidence and statistics to make points, whereas the right seize on narratives (Mr. Buckley would have argued this could be extended to atheists and Christians). But this overlooks that social justice plays in both creeds.

When we stand up to the Conservative government's cuts, which have caused death and misery to thousands of people across the country, we appeal to people's natural sense of compassion. It's what stirs people into action. Compassion might not be guaranteed from any individual, but at the very least it's seen as a positive trait by a huge number of people in liberal western democracies like Britain and America.

Many consider it a great irony that 'fair play' and 'helping your fellow man' are regarded as western Christian values considering the crimes committed in their name. However, for better or worse, they're values that resonate with a huge number of people. Christians don't have a monopoly over social justice, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't appeal to this virtue when we look to challenge capitalism and raise class consciousness. After all, radicalism is born in the most unlikely of places.

@rimmerjourno