Some weeks ago, Barton Creeth talked to me about Christians on the Left, the (relatively) new name (since 2013) for the Christian Socialist Movement, which was founded in 1960, tied to the Labour party in GB, and whose current director is Dr Andrew Flannagan, originally from Portadown. Its Northern Ireland grouping was due to have its Stormont launch last Monday night, but at the time I wasn’t available to go along anyway.
My key question, as a trade unionist and a social liberal, was whether I was sufficiently left wing! Barton was satisfied that I was, and with a change of circumstances I was able to make it last Monday night. Chris Lyttle MLA sponsored the event, which took the form of a panel discussion chaired by Barton – about thirty people of various ages and from different professions were present.
Rev Dr Lesley Carroll (Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian churches) observed that Christians tend to talk about a single “Christian” position rather than reflecting the many positions that such a diverse bunch of people will take, particularly with reference to culture and principles – both moderated and absolute, such as regarding abortion, and how and whether compassion is shown.
She considered her willingness to entertain views other than her own was what made her a Christian on the left.
Rev Chris Hudson (All Souls’ Non-subscribing Presbyterian church) suggested that if Christians engage with the question “Who is on the left?” that is a start! For him, liberal views on for example, equal marriage do not make someone “on the left”, rather it is their economic and political views. He gave the example of water and property taxes: the new Greek government didn’t propose to abolish their water charges, and he did believe Bono should pay his property tax.
Many years ago, Chris had gone to El Salvador as a trade unionist to investigate human rights abuses, and staying with Irish Franciscans who lived among and identified with the poor. He was surprised to see the opulence of the local Jesuit priests when he visited them, but their role was to educate the children of the rich who would later lead the country and to teach them to have compassion for everyone and have responsibility for their wealth. All Jesuits present were murdered six months later.
Chris made clear that you cannot separate moral and political thinking from one another.
Barton noted that with regard to issues such as equal marriage, it was necessary to have respectful and engaging dialogue because of the variety of differing views across the left. By contrast, there was common ground on economic justice.
Alban Maginness (SDLP MLA, Belfast North) highlighted the separation of faith and politics in Western Europe, including the UK and Ireland. He came into politics because he is a Christian, and would not have done so if he hadn’t been – he believes that many others were inspired in the same way. The UK Labour party arose from non-conformist churches – Harold Wilson said it owed more to the Methodist Chuch than Marxism – and also from Catholic social action.
The local problem was that because political divisions correspond with religious divisions, religion with politics was being rejected, but faith has a lot to contribute. Alban believes that Christ came to reconcile man to God and also man to man. It was his Christian duty to be involved in politics in such a divided society.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance MLA, East Antrim) gave his life to the Lord in 1969, and his world was turned upside down – he did things he didn’t expect to do, and he didn’t do lots of things he thought he might have done! His parents worked for the Co-op, and Stewart was involved in trade unionism.
The “One Christian voice” tends to drown out all others. Stewart wishes to defend the rights of Christians and also the rights of those who do not wish to be Christians. Many will have different views on conscience clauses, abortion etc, but it was essential to discern what the Lord wants in our lives. It was his aim as a member of the Alliance party since 1976 to keep it grounded in faith, as do many others in the party.
Concluding the evening, Jonny Henson alluded to the French principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and wrapped up with words from Isaiah 61:
61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour (NIV)
So why Christians on the Left for someone who thinks that the SDP should demerge from the Liberal Democrats, and is a lot less uncomfortable with the Labour party than the Tories but isn’t a Socialist and believes pretty broadly that people should be able to make as much money as they wish as long as they don’t exploit people by avoiding and evading taxes, overcharging customers, underpaying suppliers and staff, etc?
That exploitation thing is the key. I may consider myself third way, because I see how levelling out of people in more extreme versions of socialism cannot reward or encourage excellence because there is no incentive, yet individualism and libertarianism espoused by Ayn Rand et al loses its social conscience, and denies equality of opportunity – indeed, because the market is king, those with power – and money – in a “free” market will use that power to squeeze out others, either by making sure that they don’t have enough money to make great ideas reality, or simply pricing them out of the market.
In the change of name of the Christian Socialist Movement to Christians on the Left, even though it remains tied to the Labour party, I see a widening that will allow more people like me to be involved, because of that common ground in concern for others – and I look forward to seeing what happens next.