Tag: politics

Dorothy Day

Continuing the faith and politics theme, the Catholic Worker page has a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings available. Well worth a look.

It is one of the strange paradoxes of the Christian life that we can say with St. Paul, “As dying, yet we behold we live.” We can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery, yet all the time there is the knowledge “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come.”

Often we comfort ourselves only with words, but if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that “all things work together for good to those that love Him.”

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Politics and faith: fragments

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Life at the moment is dominated by strike action I’m taking at work. Read about (and, if you can, support) our dispute here. This inevitably raises for me  the issue of conflict – how do those of us who sign up to a gospel full of the language of peace and unity reconcile this with the reality that, in a situation like this, someone like me is committed to fighting, and to winning, against a management that are, in respect of this at least, my enemies. At the risk of becoming a McCabe-distribution agent, his The Class Struggle and Christian Love remains the best thing written directly on this. I looked at similar issues from an intra-ecclesial perspective some time back.

Also on the subject of Christianity and politics, there’s a nice piece currently up on the Morning Star website on the Christian heritage and socialism. (Anyone familiar with the internal divisions of the left will realise that it takes a lot for me to recommend something from the Morning Star, but this really is worth a look!)

McCabe on Almsgiving and Justice

I am, honestly, reading authors other than Herbert McCabe this Lent. But this, from an Ash Wednesday sermon, struck me as succinctly getting right the purpose and dangers of Lenten almsgiving. Having already spoken about fasting, McCabe says:

The other side of fasting is almsgiving, helping those in need. But here, too, remember that we are engaged in a drama, a symbolic act. We do not give alms in Lent because we are under the illusion that almsgiving will solve the problem of world poverty; and by the same token we do not think it foolish to give alms just because we know it will not solve that problem. The point is again to dramatize for ourselves the reality of poverty and oppression and need, and of our responsibility in the face of it. Almsgiving is not a substitute for political action. Art is not a substitute for reality.

(God, Christ, and Us. p. 77)

Mark’s demons

Sunday’s gospel introduces a new, but to the modern reader, troubling, theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has already been baptised, and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted. He has called the first disciples and commenced his public ministry, preaching, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Now he shows, in action rather than words, that the Kingdom is near by casting an “unclean spirit” out of a man.

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Unclean spirits, spirits that are somehow outside of the dominion of God – or “demons” to give them the more familiar, and altogether more Buffy the Vampire Slayer, name – are major cast members in Mark, as they are in Matthew and Luke who draw on him. As we’ll see, their being “cast out” of people is one of the ways that the gospel shows us the nature of Jesus’ mission. More than that, they seem to know who Jesus is  (in this passage, “the Holy One of God”). This is striking, since in Mark Jesus gives the impression of wanting to keep anything unique about his identity to himself. It is only on the cross that he is declared “Son of God” by the centurion.

Be that as it way, demons surely present modern readers with a problem. What are we to make of them? Aren’t they simply too alien to our ways of understanding the world for us to be able to get anything from the passages in which they occur? Don’t appeals to the demonic represent a more primitive way of understanding what we would now understand in terms of physical or mental illness, to be given a scientific explanation or remedy?

The temptation to dismiss this theme in the gospel as a relic from a pre-modern age is not only understandable, but often motivated by concern for the abuse that it continues to licence: demons and exorcism feature as concerns for a growing fringe of Christianity which does real damage to people, not least to those of us with mental illnesses. The idea that someone’s suffering is caused by, explained by, a non-natural being (possession of which might well be the result of personal sin) compounds the already difficult experience of illness. For those of us who rightly retreat from this view, this forces the question of how Christians can better understand mental illness.

Too often, though, the fundamentalist view that sees demons as a correct explanation of everyday suffering gets replaced by a liberal view that sees demons as simply an incorrect explanation of everyday suffering. The baby of Mark’s narrative gets thrown out with the bathwater of demonology and we lose a key theme of the gospel.

To get things right, we need to grasp how demons feature in Mark’s story.  For Mark the world is a kind of battleground between God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who longs to set his people free – and the forces of chaos, tamed at the moment of creation. Jesus comes to decisively announce and make present the victory of God over those forces, to bring in the Kingdom of God. Like many of the prophets before him, his proclamation of the Kingdom is not simply a matter of words, but of actions, his great signs of power, or miracles. Amongst these, his exorcisms stand out as a practical demonstration that he has, as he will later put it, “bound the strong man”, that the Kingdom of God is triumphant over Satan. A cosmic battle is given expression in the relief of individual suffering.

Binding the Strong Man is the title of an excellent book by Chad Meyers which reads Mark’s gospel through a political lens. The political dimension of the Kingdom, the redemption of human community, sheds light on the need for speaking of the demonic in telling the story of the Kingdom’s coming. Like the demonic, the political ties in the global to the personal: the worldwide struggle against, say, racism, is played out in individual lives and suffering. It reminds us that we are caught up in things beyond our capacity to control, which pre-exist us, and from which we need redemption.

And that is as true today as it was in the first century.

 

Saying that Christ, the Lord, is King

Over this weekend a number of my non-Christian friends have been sharing links to a story about the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden on their social media accounts. These friends, secular leftists to a person, are generally under the impression that the Swedish state church’s appeal to its clergy to stop using the word ‘Lord’ or male pronouns of God is bizarre. And they are certainly right.

Whatever else makes a body of people part of the Christian tradition, a commitment to use, recall, and grapple with the scriptures is surely an essential condition. The Swedish strictures, if taken seriously, would make this impossible. If, as I suspect to be the case with the Swedish church, you think characteristic scriptural language about God is damaging to justice and equality amongst human beings then the honest thing to do would be to declare yourself  post-Christian. That is perhaps what the Church of Sweden ought to do.

 

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It would have been better though if it had never got into the kind of muddle over religious language that leads to this sort of censoriousness in the first place. Consider what the Swedish archbishop says,

Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human

This is indeed true, but it only follows that one shouldn’t (for instance) use the word ‘he’ of God if one supposes that in doing so one is making an assertion that God is male. But that’s not what is going on with religious language. It does not, in the main, seek to describe the contours of divine reality (a very few uses of language, called by Aquinas analogical, do speak truly directly of God, but they are exceptions). Rather it points towards it playfully, pointing out the inadequacies of our words before God by placing contradictory and unsettling images before us. God is not only Lord for the books of the Hebrew Bible, but a woman in labour, a fortress, a rock, and a case of dry rot. If she is Lord, he is also a servant, a shepherd, a steadfast hope, and a vengeful judge. We do not, other than by covenanted grace, know where we stand with God. His thoughts are not are thoughts, we are creatures, she the creator.

The kind of liberal who thinks that in using the word ‘Lord’ (generally, in the Old Testament, a rendering of the tetragrammaton) one is saying that God is a celestial version of Donald Trump or Prince Philip, and that this is a bad thing, is simply the photographic negative of the fundamentalist who thinks that God is indeed the Top Bloke and holds this to be a very good thing. Neither party thinks about rejecting the fundamentally idolatrous understanding of religious language which they hold in common.

And that is where I would leave things were it not that I’m writing on the feast of Christ the King. For whilst the archbishop is right that God is not human as God, God is of course human as the man Jesus. And as a man we call him King and Lord. Now these uses of language can’t be so swiftly dismissed as metaphorical, can they? After all, don’t we believe that Christ does, and one day will more fully and completely, possess the foremost place in a human community, known as the Kingdom? What does someone like me, who thinks that human hierarchy and kingship has brought in its wake nothing but bloodshed and oppression, say about the fact that my Church invites me today to celebrate the fact (as it takes it to be) that Christ is the King?

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Just this, that the Kingship of Christ is an ironic, subversive, affair which undermines human institutions of domination through superficially assuming them. His crown is made of thorns, and his kingly life one of service. His reign is not over his subjects, but rather one which, through grace, his sisters and brothers come to share. If we affirm this man as our king, if we affirm that kingship looks like this, and that we too hope to share in it, then we can no longer have any time for anything less, for any structure that subjugates or dominates. If Christ is the King then Caesar is not. And what a strange kind of King Christ is.

Creation and the country

Today is the feast of St Francis. He gets special treatment in the calendar and offices of the Dominican Order; he is referred to as ‘Our Seraphic Father’ and one generally gets the impression that he is regarded as a Good Thing. This reflects the shared origins of our orders in medieval mendicancy and similarities in their emphases (on creation and the Incarnation, and so on).

In the world more generally, St Francis seems to get regarded as a cross-between Doctor Doolittle and Alan Titchmarsh. He is all about ‘nature’, in the modern sense of that word, where the contrast is with ‘culture’ rather than ‘grace’. He is the saint for people who like green stuff, of the countryside, of animals.

I don’t for one second want to join in the mean-spiritedness that has greeted Christian concern for the environment or the, disgracefully late in so many cases, consideration of non-human animals in the light of the history of salvation. But precisely because these things are important we ought not to tie them up with an inadequate theology of creation. And this is what I think some presentations of Francis, along with some of the celebrations of harvest which happen at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, are in danger of doing.

Francis did care for non-human animals and his surroundings, and he did so on the basis of an understanding of the world as created. Yet for exactly the same reason he contemplated themes such as poverty, concerned himself with the well-being of his fellow-human beings, and condemned what he saw as wrongdoing.

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Creation, for Francis, as for Thomas is implicated in everything, because everything other than the Creator is created. Dogs and dandelions are created, but so is the beggar, and so is your act of giving money to the beggar. Trees are created, and so are trade unions. Creation is not a matter of God winding up the world at the beginning and leaving it to run (Thomas thinks that it is perfectly possible that the world have no beginning). Nor does it consist in God’s creating a ‘natural’ environment as the playground for human freedom. It certainly isn’t a matter of God making things happen in a way that explains them better than do scientific theories. Rather, creation is God’s eternally continual action of making there be something rather than nothing, God’s loving beings into existence at every moment of their existence. God as Creator is not one more item on the stage of the world; God is why there is a stage. In particular God does not compete with us for freedom – us doing things cannot threaten God’s status as Creator. God’s creating our free actions, as God does, is not a barrier to our freedom, but the condition of it.

This much is an entirely standard Catholic understanding of creation. But for all that, a very different view is commonplace, which I think is damaging. It is neatly summed up by the harvest hymn:

We plough the fields and scatter,

the good seed on the land,

but it is fed and watered,

by God’s almighty hand.

There’s a neat division of labour here. God acts through ‘nature’, and we get on with the merely human task of agriculture. Creation, we might say, is stuff God does, but that we don’t do. And stuff that we do is not creation.

Perhaps the least serious problem with this is that it is impossible to square with a sensible understanding of the world as susceptible to scientific enquiry. We have perfectly good theories of the weather and God’s almighty hand does not feature in them. On this point, at least, the kind of criticism made of some religion by people like Richard Dawkins is absolutely correct. But surely God does send the rain, doesn’t he? Well, it’s a perfectly good metaphor; but the truth of the matter is that God creates the rain, just as she creates the ploughing and watering. Any thought that the rain (or the growth of trees, or the sunshine, or that meteor – pick your favourite ‘natural’ event) is a special action of God’s, akin to my sending the cat out at night is the beginning of idolatry, or re-enchanting the world and re-establishing a nature god of the kind the doctrine of Creation was supposed to dethrone.

More serious is the view of human freedom implicit in (what we might call) the bucolic theory of creation. If God’s action competes with ours, such that what God creates we do not make, and vice versa, then very serious consequences follow. The way we view politics and history will be corrupted (Herbert McCabe wrote in several places about how idolatry and oppression go together). We cannot both appeal to God to rid the world of war and injustice, and see victories in these respects as divine work, whilst also fighting to transform the world ourselves, and identifying our own agency as effective in some respects. The result, almost inevitably, of thinking this position through properly is political quietism – trust in the Lord, and keep your head down.

Then there are the questions: where is God? What is of God? It is easy for those who live in beautiful countryside surrounded by wildlife to imagine themselves part of creation. The divine associations of this kind of setting are reinforced, for example, by the fact that most retreat centres are in the countryside (although this is also a product of the divinisation of ‘peace and quiet’, which needs another blogpost). When doing the garden outside the cottage, it’s not hard to see yourself as a co-worker with the Creator. The picture of God as the maker of ‘nature’ will do you no harm in this respect.

It is, however, a false picture. And whilst there is not for one moment anything wrong in approaching God through the beauty of the natural world, there is a real danger in supposing that God is only creatively present in the natural world. Apart from the danger of heresy, with which God (if not ourselves) can cope, there is the danger of writing off most of the human race. What about factories, call-centres, schools – is God not creatively present here as much as in the field or the garden? Yes absolutely (although, we should add, God’s creative action might, providentially, move to transform these places to make them more just – what is is not what will be). What about people who live in flats, bungalows, doorways – what about those who don’t have views of landscapes? Are their lives not lived out in the space God has generously created for them? Isn’t the city, just as much as the countryside, becoming the Kingdom?

We cannot have a theology of creation which renders those who don’t fit into the ‘We Plough the Fields’ view of reality second-class citizens. “For the Kingdom belongs to such as these”.

Marxism and Christianity: Chapter Two

Wittgenstein became fond of a line from Goethe, “In the beginning was the deed”. The reason for his attachment to this saying was that it reverses a certain picture of language as something discarnate and inert, somehow floating apart from embodied human life and action. Against this, the later Wittgenstein insisted that language arose out of and lent meaning to particular forms of human life: “to imagine a language game is to imagine a form of life” he writes in the Philosophical Investigations. Action is meaningful, not least because some actions are linguistic (speaking, writing…), but also because the wider array of actions we can perform are incorporated into our lives as linguistic, meaning-bestowing animals – thus kisses, handshakes, salutes, sex, and shared meals, amongst much else. On the other hand meaning is a bodily, practical, matter, incarnate in our somatic lives, which limit its possibilities just as it extends theirs.

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Undoubtedly influenced by Wittgenstein (whose thought reached the English Catholic left of the later 20th century through McCabe), Turner adopts this view of the interconnectedness of meaning and corporeality (a corporeality which, because governed by conventions is of necessity social). He uses it to supply an exegesis on Merleau-Ponty’s take on a key Marxist notion, praxis: “…the meaning which works itself out spontaneously in the intercrossing of the activities by which man organises his relations with nature and with other men”. He poses an agenda setting question: if thought is so intimately related to social practice as the applicability of the concept of praxis and the operative picture of meaning might suggest, how can it be that thought misrepresents social reality, as many understandings of ideology seem to suggest that it does?

I am unapologetically signed up to the Wittgenstein/ Turner approach to understanding meaning, but it has a dated feel in the context of contemporary discussions of relationships between Christianity and the political left. Between Turner’s writing and now the reception of postmodernism took place, followed by its disintegration into a myriad of identity politics. Common to these is a stress on the arbitrariness of meaning: why need a kiss mean “I love you”; why need this piece of paper be a banknote? In one sense, of course, this is uncontroversial – things could have meant otherwise. But on the other hand, the line of questioning can become obsessional and perverse. (Wittgenstein remarked that the language-game is “just there, like life”.) Meaning comes to be thought of as too plastic an affair, its rootedness in social practice is either forgotten or written off as inherently oppressive (that some social practices are oppressive does not, of course, entail that all are). Similarly the extent to which we are limited by our bodies is understressed. Whereas Christianity and Marxism alike see hope in the constrained possibilities contained within (or in the case of Christianity, given to) frail fragile bodies, our corporeal natures are now viewed as potential sites of limitless transformation.

The unfortunate thing is that, as far as I can see, the impetus to recover a view in which meaningful bodiliness is a source of some stability is, within contemporary politically-aware Christianity the preserve of reactionaries. Think, for example, about a particular kind of anti-feminist reception of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet surely the left needs just as much a better picture of language (and, dare I say, a less ideological one) than that bestowed by the intellectual fads of recent decades. Solidarity is a matter of socially instanced meaning, bodies move with purpose in demonstrations, and words of revolt arise out of lives of toil. It is no small irony that Turner’s favoured picture has the resources to explain its own demise: as the violent upheavals of neoliberal capitalism uprooted the more stable forms of life of the past, people became less able to speak and think of themselves as the linguistic animals they in fact are. The challenge is to recover that ability.

 

Marxism and Christianity : Introduction and Chapter One

My plan is not generally to precis the chapters of Turner’s book. Those who want to read it can do so for themselves. I want instead to reflect on themes it raises about Marxism and Christianity and their relevance to our current situation. However, there’s a lot of scene setting in the introduction and the first chapter, ‘Ideology’, so it might be good to summarise some of that, if only to orientate future posts.

Turner is going to argue for two claims in the book:

The identity thesis: (True) morality is (in capitalist society) Marxism.

The strong compatibility thesis: Marxism and Christianity are in asymmetrical relations of dependence on one another.

The identity thesis, in particular, is likely to strike many readers as implausible. It is worth, then, emphasising that for an entire classical tradition it would appear less so. The possibility of human flourishing, of living well, is – for Aristotle, for example – tied up with the condition of the polis in which somebody is situated. There is, for this tradition, no particular reason that living in accordance with morality in a given situation must be particularly easy, or even possible (so much for Kant’s view that “ought implies can”). If this is right, of course, much of what passes for morality is entirely misplaced. Turner concurs, writing in the 1980s,

Anyone who, like me, feels crushed between the moral cynicism of a Brezhnev and the moral hypocrisy of a Reagan and who finds in both something rooted in the very structure of our moral world will have identified the controlling concerns of this book. Perhaps also they will be able to identify its governing symbol, that it is, as Terry Eagleton once put it, in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in his refusal to talk morality with the moraliser, that the true significance of morality may be articulated. (p. xi)

Morality, Turner concurs with the mainstream of Marxist tradition, is ideological in capitalist society. Morality appears as moralising. So too, alas, is Christianity manifest as ideological. I’ll say a bit about what the claim that a phenomenon is ideological amounts to in a moment. First, an aspect of Turner’s treatment of Marx that comes through in the first chapter deserves comment.

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Turner thinks Marxism is a science. That it is a systematic endeavour that aspires to, and often succeeds in, uncovering truths about society, a process that involves getting behind appearances to an underlying reality. This will feel quite alien to many on the contemporary left, and in particular the Christian left, who decry this kind of  or claims to objectivity in favour of more feeling-driven, vision led, and intellectually amorphous movements, often of the sort that Marx would have denounced as utopian. Marx himself rejects the dichotomy between the heart and the head, between facts and values; the talk of science might suggest bland amoral technocracy. But, for Marx, one of realities uncovered by the science of capitalist society is that the accumulation of capital is rooted in alienation, grounded in the failure of millions to flourish as they could. Description and value judgement coinhere. It is in this tradition that I take Turner to be writing. It is also evident in, for example, Herbert McCabe’s ‘The Class Struggle and Christian Love’, a classic of the Catholic left of the time.

The word ‘ideology’ as used in the Marxist tradition suggests a number of things. Ideology is (in some sense) false, untrue, or misleading. Ideology is lived out in our day to day lives. Ideology is a society’s consciousness of itself. It is by no means obvious that these all amount to the same thing, or are even consistently said of the same phenomenon. Turner’s task in the first part of the book will be to explore this, so that we might better understand the ways morality and Christianity are caught up in ideology.

Christianity and Marxism

I’ve written on a couple of occasions about politics and religion. In both cases I’ve talked about the apparent difficulty of reconciling aspects of political life, conflict and division, with Christian life and belief. Many of my friends and allies, both religious and political, would ask more fundamental questions of me. Isn’t the kind of politics I espouse, a basically Marxist socialism, basically incompatible with orthodox Christianity? (And an orthodox Christian is the only sort of Christian I have an interest in being, the alternatives striking me as wishful thinking).

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Well no, say I. Up until now I haven’t devoted a great deal of energy to trying to convince anybody of this. After all, Britain in 2017 is a very different place from its former self between the 60s and 80s, when the ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’ was a going concern in theology faculties and on the fringes of churches. Christianity has receded from view in public life, meanwhile Marxism has declined in profile, ironically seeming to be a victim of the fall of those regimes in Eastern Europe that distorted and blighted its vision for so long. In these circumstances trying to reconcile the two intellectual might appear like trying to integrate steam trains with cassette players.

Things are changing a little. The left, albeit the non-Marxist left, is somewhat ascendant, to the extent that alarmist comments are being made to the (alas absurd) effect that the Leader of the Opposition is to be numbered amongst Marx’s disciples. At the same time, however, there seem to be various trends dragging explicitly Christian politics to the right, sometimes focused around sexual ethics in the style of the US Religious Right, sometimes around nebulous and dangerous notions of Christian Values.

In this context, I think it is worth giving some thought to the theory behind being both a Christian and the kind of socialist I am, both personally and in terms of pointing towards an alternative way of faithful engagement in politics.

And this is what I’m going to do over the summer on this blog. But rather than bore your with my unmediated reflections, I’m instead going to read Denys Turner’s Marxism and Christianity, offering thoughts here on each chapter.

Those of you who have no stomach for this kind of thing can at least be reassured that it will be over by the autumn.

One body

During the prayer for peace at today’s Mass, which I was attending whilst on holiday in a very Tory-voting part of the country, I found myself pondering the fact that I’d probably be actively campaigning against much that my fellow congregants hold dear in the run-up to June’s election. Isn’t there some kind of tension here? We pray for, express (at the sign of peace), and are given as sacramental gift (in the eucharist) the unity amongst us and yet struggle against each other when Mass is over. I’ve written about this before: I think there is a tension, but I think it is a tension that goes with living in the in between times – between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ and its fulfilment at the end of all things.

There is a type of politics, sadly current in Britain and affirmed frighteningly by today’s French presidential election result, which does seem to me as incompatible with Christian peace and unity in the here and now, however. This is opposition to migrants. When I receive the eucharist alongside people of different political allegiances, I take myself to be part of an ongoing human project with them, to be living alongside them, and to be part of a local church with them, in communion with our bishop, and with him with Rome and the church internationally. When an adherent of anti-migrant politics receives the eucharist alongside a migrant they simply cannot take this attitude consistently with their beliefs, which set them in opposition to what that sacrament both signifies and effects.

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Catholic churches in Britain are amongst the most diverse communities in the country. This is as it should be: we are a sign of the coming Kingdom, where people of all races and language worship before the Lamb. Sadly, I suspect, the very clear symbolism of our congregations doesn’t always have the impact it should on the ideas of some of their members. The question is: how do we change that?