A guest post by Chris Allen, who lectures in sociology at Liverpool John Moores University.
Another five years of Conservative austerity will bring a lot of injustice and a lot of protest and resistance. As I write the Love Activists are occupying the Bank of England building in Liverpool. It is a protest. It is resistance. Their protest and resistance are being expressed through acts of love towards homeless people.
What the Love Activists are doing might strike most onlookers as socialist, anarchist or whatever other left political label might appeal. But it is also very Christian because the love activists are heeding Jesus’ call to love their neighbour and his reminder of who their neighbours are: ‘Who are my brother and sisters? All are my brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 12, 47-49).
If that is a similarity between Christianity and the left then, it seems to me, there are also differences. In academia, I frequently hear the academic left talk about ‘resistance’ to ‘the state’ using the language of class war. We saw the latest example of such resistance and class war in the aftermath of the Tory election victory with clashes between protestors and the Police in Whitehall. Another similar protest is planned at the Bank of England in June.
I have to admit that the language of class war was once very attractive to me. But I think Jesus challenges us to rise above the desire to classify and categorise human beings into such abstractions. The problem he poses is basically this: When class war terminology such as ‘the state’ is used, we reduce it to an abstraction that becomes de-humanised. We are no longer talking about people but a thing – the state. This then enables us to dis identify with its functionaries as fellow human beings. Instead they become ‘Tory scum’, ‘Police scum’ etc which we set up as the things to be reviled and resisted.
One the one hand, this is fair enough; Insofar as the state is defined by its monopolisation of the legitimate use of violence (and it’s increasing tendency to resort to violence in the first instance) then it is repulsive to Christians that take Jesus teaching on violence seriously. That is to say, violence is never justified and is always repulsive. We need look no further than what the state has done in Iraq and how the Police treated the Whitehall protestors last week to feel reviled by it. The state deserves all the scorn that is poured on it.
On the other hand, and as Jesus recognised, the state is not merely an abstraction. It is peopled. The left recognise this too, of course. But there is a difference in how Jesus and the political left treat the state in its human form. The scorn of many on the left is not just reserved for ‘the state’, as such, but also for people that are identified with it such as Cameron, Osborne and so on. So it gets personal.
Jesus leads us away from such practices. And he does so in many different ways. So, if you think that Cameron is a bastard that vilifies and inflicts social harm on the poor, Jesus might caution ‘how much better are you?’ Dare you cast that stone at Cameron …. lest you forget that you are not that perfect yourself?
It is all too easy to call Cameron and Osborne ‘Tory Scum’ and to cast ourselves as the good folk that are intervening on behalf of the poor. But are we really on the moral high ground? As we cast judgement on Cameron and Osborne, are we doing so whilst continuing to satisfy our cultural fascination with food in the ever expanding range of exotic restaurants at our disposal; and whilst spending our money on fashionable clothes that make us look good; and on the foreign holidays that further satisfy our cultural tastes and that we think we deserve; and with houses in ‘nice areas’ that secures our middle class identify – and all while transporting ourselves around in our cars because we are too lazy to walk or cycle?
We can learn something here from the Christian tradition of humility. Jesus did not simply offer a critique of wealth and power. He advised us to look at ourselves, and to give up what we have and live in solidarity with the poor. How many of us are doing this? If we are not, perhaps we should not only lament Cameron and Osborne but also repent our own complicity in feeding the system from which we draw our own satisfactions and that creates the poverty we complain about. We should also listen to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin – true disciples of Jesus if there ever were – who remind us that the gospels are there to be taken seriously. They are not something we can pick and chose from when it suits.
The root of the problem, then, remains our idolatry of money, possessions and ourselves which we continue to prioritise at the expense of others – unless, like Jesus, we are prepared to ‘become servants’ to the greater cause of justice. Cameron, Osborne, the Tory Party and their wealthy supporters are not alone in serving themselves. In one way or another we all serve ourselves whilst shouting about what we think Cameron and Osborne should do about poverty. Is that really seeing the poor as our brothers and sisters?
But Jesus’ injunction to us is not merely a negative one – don’t cast that stone at Cameron and Osborne. He calls us to do much more. Jesus – the man that was famous for hanging out with drop outs and outcasts – also made a point of hanging out with the oppressors, as in the instance of the tax collector (Luke 19, 1-10). This alarmed some people (why does he take dinner with that scoundrel?). But Jesus was unmoved. He may have warned people against self-serving authority figures (Luke 11, 42-44) but he also understood that they were people that could be moved by acts of love. This is why he ate with the tax collector Zacchaeus. And it changed Zacchaeus for the better – albeit in some limited sort of way.
There is a lesson to be learned here and it strikes me in something a friend posted on Facebook in the last few days. He spoke to the Police outside the Bank of Love in Liverpool. Qualifying his facebook post with an apology to activists that are hostile to the Police, he describes an hour of conversation which revealed Police that were upset at the return of a Tory government and in broad sympathy with the anti-austerity movement. In other words, they revealed themselves as people with feelings for the predicament of others. This does not excuse some of their behaviour towards activists at the Bank of Love, of course. But it highlights the complexity of humanity.
So it all boils down to this: Jesus central message in the Sermon on the Mount is not to confront and lambast ‘the state’ or wage class war. He did none of these things. In fact, as he showed during his trial, he did not even recognise the authority of ‘the state’ so he more frequently ignored it. (A true anarchist!). He only recognised God, and that God as love. He also recognised God in all people people – rich and poor. As such his central message was to resist not the evil of the wealthy and powerful, but to love the enemy. People are people.
Now in a context where placard waving protests that condemn ‘Tory scum’ has achieved little in the last 5 years to stop austerity – whilst merely creating more opportunities for violence between two groups of people (protestors and police) that might otherwise have common cause – who is to say that Jesus’ way is not more effective? It is certainly more challenging because it challenges us not to cast those stones which only cause more division. But it might also be more effective because it demands that WE change as people, and as a community, and not just demand that THEY change their politics. In a nutshell, Jesus might say that we need to learn to love as a form of protest – and the Bank of Love in a Liverpool is an exemplar in this respect.
A politics of love demands an approach to seeking change that anarchists call prefigurative politics and that some Christians call personalism, i.e. ‘being the change we want to see’ as Ghandi once said. And we really can begin to build another world by acting together. Imagine a world in which everyone lived simply and only took what they needed – relinquishing the rest to their neighbour so that other people could have what they needed too. Lots of people are doing this quietly and without fuss and, in doing so, starting to build little new worlds in the shell of the old. Some are living on the average global wage and giving the rest of their income away. Others do it in other ways – most of which involve giving love as well as their resources as they live alongside and in equality with their poor brothers and sisters. They are creating new social spaces that conform to the call of Jesus rather than capitalism. They are creating a change that is healing rather than building rhetorical walls that divide. They are building social spaces that prioritise the social value of the human spirit over wealth and material things. As Jesus said, what use is wealth anyway?
Of course, we might feel – a bit like the rich man (Mark 10, 17-31) – that Jesus’ path to change is a lot harder harder to follow than shouting at the state and the wealthy. It is, after all, challenging us to live differently ourselves and become servants to others needs. Suffice it to say that accepting this challenge is not an argument against protest and resistance. It is merely questioning how we do these things. So on June 20th, at the Bank of England, why not repent our own complicity in capitalism rather than just damning others for being its cheer leaders. This would require an event based on humility rather than chanting slogans. How about a mass sit-in with some silent contemplation and practices of mutual aid. It would not only disrupt the business of capitalism but also make a point. And it might encourage more people to attend than just the placard waving left. This is important because building a social movement that can achieve change requires the inclusion of people who do not currently identify themselves as activists. But they will only be encouraged to join in if we change the way we protest and resist. Long live the Bank of Love – which, according to the local newspaper, is supported by the majority of people in Liverpool including, apparently, Police themselves.