Confession of a left-wing christian

Introduction

What follows from ‘Background’ onwards is a post I wrote a few months ago, but have delayed publishing as it kept expanding and wish it was my intention to break into several parts and publish as a series later this year. Now, at the weekend, a report published by Demos proposed that there was a link between ‘religious’ people and left-wing viewpoints. This prompted me to think whether or not posting this article would be apposite. After asking an open question on Twitter, I was encouraged (and many thanks to those of you who responded so warmly) to publish this.

This is incomplete, I admit. I would need a thesis to firm up my arguments and I readily admit there may be many a good counter-argument to the case I make here. Be that as it may, here it is, warts and all.

Background

After my earlier post, ‘Should christians accept bonuses?’ a friend posted underneath the link I put on facebook the following comment: “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian. How left is left? Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc. Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to. I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius. To the original question though – it depends is my answer. For 99% of us, I’d say “yes”. But abuse at the top makes this question more topical.”

Since there is far more to write than could be contained in a single comment, I’ve opted to write this post as a response. This will only be an overview, since to give full justification for the matter would require the writing of several books (maybe about 66 of them!) which I don’t have the time to do. I am already well aware that I have over a dozen blog posts that I have started but not finished for various reasons (lack of time, ill health, inability to find the right words to express myself).

Opening comments

In all of what is to follow, I hope to keep in mind two things:

1) Christianity predates the ideas of ‘left’ and ‘right’. So when I talk about myself being left wing, this is because there are ideas and values which I have taken from my understanding of christianity which I recognise as being more common to the left than to the right. So from the outset, I do not claim that “christianity = left” as was stated in the comment.

2) There are wide variety of opinions that fall under the scope of ‘left’ and ‘right’ making them very hard to pin down in any precise sense. In that respect, it’s not unlike trying to define a christian, which is a question I looked at in some depth last year.

So I have to define what I mean when I say ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ I know I often have a go at others about not being precise enough in their thinking, so I shall attempt as best I can to be precise. In these definitions, I won’t cover all ground, so I shall only try and get at the core values.

What I mean by ‘left wing’

When I talk of being left wing, what I have in mind is a system of fairness and equality, tempered by grace.

When I speak of being left wing, I primarily mean in an economic sense. There is an additional sociological sense to being left wing, which is tied up with the economics, though for the sake of not confusing matters, I prefer to use the term ‘liberal’ when it comes to the more sociological side of things. I will touch on that later but for the most part I will leave that for another time, as I think that is far more complicated to deal with in a short blog post.

To be economically left wing is to recognise that our economy (both national and international) is full of inequality. I know that I benefit from that inequality at the expense of others. Though it is not a scientific tool, there is a little gadget here which shows how highly ranked you are in terms of the world’s wealth. Take it with a due pinch of salt. While the recent Occupy protests talk about the 1% and 99%, these were initially meant to refer to those within a single country. Taken globally, I am probably in the 1%, though, as will many of those who read this post, I suspect.

The main principle of left wing economics is to ensure that as many people as possible are looked after and able to live dignified lives. If we then recognise that there is inequality, then corrective measures have to be taken. This leads onto the secondary principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That is, wealth redistribution. The emphasis has to be on the disadvantaged.

What I mean by ‘right wing’

As before this is a wholly inadequately brief summary, but I want to get at the core values from which all else springs. In economic terms, by right wing I refer to capitalism. The fundamental principles which drive capitalism are individualism and greed. The notion of supply & demand is inherently grounded on the idea of the individual person setting out to get the best deal for themselves. But this rapidly leads to an idea of “value” that is purely monetary and which loses any sense of proportion. This is most easily seen in the example of footballers’ wages. Here, there is a high demand and a low supply which pushes the cost up, but which, by its very nature, ignores the rest of society and fails to take into account anything other than a very narrow viewpoint.

One of the things that got me very angry in my accountancy training was when it was stated that “the purpose of a company is to increase the wealth of its shareholders.” There was no statement about creating employment or providing a valuable good or service to the public. It can be put into summary by saying that the pound is more important than the person.

One aspect of capitalism is often stressed is that of competition. The idea is that there should be several different entities in the same market, where the forces of supply and demand lead to each party trying to improve their products (which will therefore attract customers) and to reduce their prices, but without doing so to the extent that they lose money. This only works in a limited and isolated microcosm, which of course is not the kind of world we live in. Plus, it doesn’t remove from the fact that the fundamental motivation remains personal greed. This is something I find fundamentally opposed to my christian belief.

What I do not mean by left and right wing

There are some things which may have cropped into people’s minds during the above discussion in the form of “what about this” or “what about that.” It’s not a discussion that I find particularly productive or helpful. When I talk about left wing, I do not mean I am a communist.

Marx had some very good ideas, but I do not agree with all of them. Firstly (and you won’t be surprised by this), I don’t agree with his statement of atheism. Secondly, there are many examples of supposedly communist states that have veered a long way from what Marx envisioned. He is said of once uttered, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” In fact almost every communist regime in the world has fallen, and for one very simple reason: greed. It is the very fuel of capitalism that is incompatible with a communist style of government. When the task of administering a redistribution of wealth is given to individuals and groups, time and again, history has shown that these groups adopt an approach akin to “one for you, one for me.” This has led to mass economic ruin often with greater levels of inequality than in the pre-communist days. So this is not what I am advocating.

Similarly, it may be common in some rhetoric to equate anyone of a right wing persuasion with the fascist extremism of Germany in the 1930s & 1940s. As Godwin’s law rightly points out, when you compare someone you disagree with to the Nazis, you have usually lost the argument. I would reserve the term “far right” for those individuals and organisations that advocate setting up one group as inherently superior to another, or prejudice against certain groups. These exhibit themselves is characteristics such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, theophobia, etc.

So by referring to someone as right wing, I am not trying to falsely align them with the likes of the British National Party or English Defence League. That kind of talk is far more provocative than it is productive.

The obvious justification: the early church

There is some very obvious justification for identifying christianity as a left wing group. This is evidenced by the early years of the church. The book of Acts gives us a couple of samples of what life was like in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The two clearest passages are these:

“All of those who believed came together, and held everything in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and divided them up to everyone in proportion to their various needs.” (Acts 2:44,45; NTFE)

“The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and great grace was upon all of them. For there was no needy person among them, since any who had possessed lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sale, and placed it at the feet of the apostles, who then gave to each according to their need.” (Acts 4:32-35, NTFE)

I think they’re fairly self-explanatory. One of the phrases that was often taken to sum up the thinking of Karl Marx was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” referred to above. Interestingly, this is found neither in Das Kapital, nor The Communist Manifesto, but in one of his lesser known works, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Although the phrase is not used exactly in Acts, the idea is very much present, predating Marx by quite a few centuries.

In all fairness, there is no explicit instruction that this is the only way to conduct a christian society. Rather, it is a natural expression of the disciples (and by this I mean more than 12) who have spent several years following Jesus and his teaching, and who are now living in the light of his resurrection, carrying out their commission to preach the gospel to all the earth. It’s what they did as one of their first reactions now that they had the full picture.

From Jesus’ teaching 

Below is a selection of quotations taken from the gospel of Matthew which have influenced my thinking. For the sake of the wordcount, I have made them intentionally short. I would, of course, encourage you to read the wider contexts in which they appear, lest you think I am quote-mining.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Gk: mammon).” (Matt 6:24; NRSV)

This is crucial to me. I struggle to understand christians who profess to serve both. This is later echoed in 1 Timothy 6:6-10 which includes the famous quotation “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” One reason is because I work in finance and as such, it is very easy to lose your priorities in that world. So I constantly have to remind myself that I do a good job because that honours God rather than allowing me any materialistic gain.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake.” (Matt 7:9,10, NRSV)

This demonstrates to me the idea of meeting the need as it arises without prejudice. Jesus doesn’t ask for any form of means testing. If it asked for, it is given. I know that if I am in need the last thing I will want to do is to face an interrogation (c.f. Atos assessments for disabled people) before being given the help I need. Likewise, if I would like that for myself, then that is what I am obliged to give to others, as exemplified by the following quote:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12, NRSV)

One of the themes that runs through Jesus’ teaching is of turning conventional or ‘obvious’ wisdom on its head. The idea of each person getting what they ‘deserve’ is often described as a meritocracy, and at surface level is really quite straightforward and seems to make sense. Yet the gospels turn this on its head:

“At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’.” (Matt 11:25, NRSV)

Another example of this is the parable of labourers in the vineyard (Matt 19:30 – 20:16) which is bracketed by a parallelism of “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” and “the last will be first, and the first will be last” – here, I think the chapter divisions break up the flow and probably ought to be repositioned.

Then we come onto health:

“Great crowds came to [Jesus], bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others. They put them at his feet and he cured them,” (Matt 15:30, NRSV)

Putting aside questions of the historicity of miracles for a moment, what’s the principle being shown here? I read it as one of generous compassion. In modern politics, the future of healthcare is a major topic. Jesus never asked for payment to heal others, it was done freely.

In the next quote we see another example of the topsy-turvy reasoning that permeated Jesus’ teaching:

“’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” (Matt 16: 24,25, NRSV)

Again, in the news recently has been the issue of tax avoidance. For honesty’s sake, I probably admit that I avoid some tax, via gift aid, pension contributions and an ISA. So I am uncertain as to whether I am actually living biblically given the following:

“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’” (Matt 17:24b,25a, NRSV)

Though I shall not quote it in full, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35) has a summary of the major subject of the gospel: forgiveness. Where the master has a debt, he is willing to be forgiving to his debtor; this is not the way of capitalism. It is far more compassionate than the cold laws of supply and demand, where payment is demanded from those who cannot pay, which is what the unforgiving servant does.

“’If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21, NRSV) In cross-referenced bibles, this is usually linked to the verses in Acts quoted above; thus demonstrating the link between Jesus’ teaching and the behaviour of the early church.

“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:23,24, NRSV)

Again, Jesus talks about the issue of wealth. I get the impression that it’s a fairly important topic as far he was concerned, and therefore it probably ought to be important to us. Note, he doesn’t say it’s impossible for rich person to enter the kingdom, nor does he condemn them simply for being rich, so neither do I. Instead, it is simply “difficulty.”

Then again, we come to yet another example of the upside down logic of Jesus:

“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt 23:11,12, NRSV)

Note that these are just quotations from Matthew. My intention had been to do a complete survey of both the Old Testament and the New Testament but, as stated earlier, there is no space here. I leave it to you to fill in those extensive gaps and which is why I readily admit that this argument is incomplete as it stands.

Some caveats

There is the not entirely unreasonable argument that goes along the lines of “that’s fine for individuals, but this shouldn’t be reflected in government policy.” Where I believe this argument falls down is that if carried through to its logical conclusion, all welfare would be solely due to the whim of the a very small rich minority. Implicitly, this would then be dependent on each and every member of this elite minority to conform to the same set of values. But this has been precisely the problem with implementing communism; nice as an idea as it was, it failed because of the fallibility of people.

While the disciples in the early church don’t seem to have implemented a tax system, per se, I have yet to think of a better way of implementing a redistribution of wealth to those who most need it in a manner other than what we would recognise as a tax system in a society as large and complicated as ours.

I ought to point out that the gospel is not primarily a political manifesto. There may be some who consider it to be such but I think the broad consensus amongst christians is that the gospel’s primary purpose is one of salvation (or soteriology, if you want to be fancy). It does have a number of knock-on consequences, so do not think that I am stating that this is the whole summary of the gospel. I am not pretending it is, this is something of a side show. Of course, 1st century Middle Eastern politics does play an important part in the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and I would not seek to rip those out of their historical context. But for the sake of brevity, I shall have to leave this aspect woefully short of what should be an adequate treatement.

There is one very right-wing sentiment that Jesus expresses. “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matt 13: 12, NRSV) Here, as with all the verses quoted above, we need to consider the context. Here, Jesus is explaining why he uses parables as a teaching tool. He refers not to material wealth but to, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”. This takes us firmly away from the world of materialism and more into eschatology. Were this to be taken as a basis for socio-political rhetoric, you would have to somehow dismiss all that has been noted above; and I, for one, don’t know how to do that with any integrity.

The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) and the parables of the pounds (Luke 19:12-28) provide food for thought in this context. I haven’t got space here to go into these in the depth that they deserve. If anyone wishes to write a counter-argument to mine (and I would encourage you to do so) then these 2 parables would make a very good starting point. All I would say here, is I think that Jesus is using the worldly wisdom as an illustration of the issues of sin & judgement. For the parable of the pounds, Kenneth Bailey has an excellent essay in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which is well worth a read.

What I do not argue is that wealth is inherently wrong. To the best of my knowledge, at no point in the bible is wealth in and of itself ever condemned. Indeed:

“When Joshua sent [the half tribe of Manasseh] away to their tents and blessed them, he said to them, ‘Go back to your tents with much wealth, and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze and iron, and with a great quantity of clothing; divide the spoil of your enemies with your kindred.’” (Josh 22:8; NRSV)

Deuteronomy 8 is a great passage that carries the core message “[don’t forget where you came from and who provided for you]” One of the key verses is the following:

“But you shall earnestly remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deut 8:18; Amp)

I would encourage you to read the whole chapter, as it carries a warning against complacency and lack of humility. This is what I think is at the heart of Jesus’ declaration that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (cf Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) .

A breakdown

So with that said, let’s go back to the original comment and break it down. “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian.” I think I’ve shown that I made no such statement; and this is a misconstruing of what I did write. To quote myself: “…I am distinctly left-leaning. One of the main reasons this is because I am a christian.”

“How left is left?” As discussed above, there are a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints that fall broadly under such an umbrella term. I don’t think it’s overly helpful to always try and classify such subjective opinions and group them together; you can find yourself making bedfellows with those with whom you disagree on a large number of matters.

“Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc.” I’d be interested in the evidence to back this up as well as finding the definition of “benefit addict” is. While the tabloid press may love to find the odd exception and pretend it is demonstrative of an example of the failure of the welfare state, the silent majority who receive benefits do not live on them entirely and it is certainly unfounded to say that benefits stunts the need to work. Indeed, as things stand, I shall be on Job Seeker’s Allowance very soon, yet the amount that pays wouldn’t even cover half the rent on the 1 bed flat I live in, let alone any other living expenses. Frankly I find the comment as offensive as it unreasoned.

“Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to.” Here, I don’t think the assertion being made makes any logical sense. What I think may be meant is that being right wing is in some way identified with the rule of law. Now, provided that my reading of that is correct, it does show a subtle difference in terms of left/right when it comes more to sociological aspects than economic, the latter of which has been the thrust of my argument thus far and which was the subject of my original post. But even if one takes the more sociological ‘liberal’ aspect of ‘left’ then the comment still doesn’t make sense, as liberal values still have respect for, and demand the enforcement of, the rule of law. Precisely, how those laws are formulated is of course something up for grabs and a matter there isn’t room for here.

“I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius.” As stated at the start, I do propose that christian = left and never did. As for the inclusion of Linux & Prius I am simply perplexed as to how they come into the equation.

Conclusion

In spite of going on for around 4,000 words, this has barely scratched the surface. There is much more that could be (and probably has been) said. I’ve given just a sample of scriptures that have influenced my thinking on the subject. The heart of the issue is the source of our motivation. My view is that the gospel is largely built around the notion of grace, and that this has far more in common with left of the economic-political spectrum. The economic right is dependent  upon, and actively encourages, greed. For this reason, I cannot, with any sense of honesty, reconcile this to a christian viewpoint.

Of course, this analysis has been dependent on my understanding, and I acknowledge that that may well mistaken. For the sake of brevity, I know have made some gross over-simplifications, but I hope that you can forgive me for these. If I have made any gross misrepresentation or have got the wrong end of the stick, I would encourage you again to post a comment with a due correction or to write a response post and let me know about it.

So, for all its flaws, that is my argument.

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7 responses to “Confession of a left-wing christian

  1. PhilippaB

    I was discussing Marx’s atheism with a friend, a long time ago, specifically the characterisation of religion as “a dead dogma, not a living truth” (Communist Manifesto). But what if that isn’t a characterisation, but a castigation, not of the nature of religion, but it’s practice? If religion is a ‘dead dogma’, fixed, unarguable, then it is doomed. But it isn’t, for the majority of believers I know – it *is* a ‘living truth’. Perhaps Marx was speaking not of religion in principle, but how he saw it practised, institutionalised, around him.

    Christian Socialism has a long and vibrant history, as you say, for reasons that predate party politics – a sense of fairness, justice, equality, which has then translated into ‘left’ on the political compass. It is often said that the Labour party owes more to Methodism than to Marx – but we should also remember that Thatcher was brought up Methodist. Thus, religious affiliation is not inextricably linked to a ‘party’ outcome, but a driver of a deeper worldview that then can express itself in many different party affiliations.

    Them pesky ‘Christians’ at the far right of the GOP, for example. Don’t recognise those thought processes, personally, but they do seem to be popular. What can you do?

    A very interesting post, on which I will ponder further and no doubt return with more free-associative vibes. 😎

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  3. IgnorantiaNescia

    One of the authors, Jonathan Birdwell, is interviewed here:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9711000/9711943.stm

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