A success story
Last week I took a lunch break from the dusty vellum manuscripts of eighteenth-century lawyers, and hitched a bus over to Westminster, where I met Dr. Andrew Bradstock, president of the Christian Socialists, for lunch.
Talking to the Christian Left on this side of the Atlantic is one of the true restoratives I know. When one begins to feel the hopelessness of saving Jesus’ teachings from adolescent school-boys obsessed with pints of blood and centurion whips, when one blanches to see teachings of mercy and fellowship somehow converted to the torturing of prisoners and taking pints of milk away from school-children, it’s time to turn to what political Christianity can do in her truer incarnations. And it’s very appropriate for our young, feeble movement for a true political Christianity to take guidance from an older political Christianity that has been working for the poor and outcast in the unbroken work of a hundred and fifty years.
Their office is small: three wee desks squeezed into a basement room, idiosyncratically hidden beneath the grand copper dome of Westminster Hall. On the shelves are booklets on global poverty, welfare, racism, and public education. The pamphlets are authored by names that are famous here: Members of Parliament, famous journalists, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
Like progressive Christianity in the US, Christian Socialism in the UK arrived in mid-nineteenth century, in response to the ‘theology of atonement.’ For a solid two generations on both sides of the Atlantic, evangelical ministers had preached thrift, cleanliness, and obedience – very human virtues with a limited resemblance to Christ’s teachings. By the 1860s and 70s, a new group of ministers were preaching a theology of “incarnation” which stressed the redemptive power of Christ’s love, according to new historical research by Georgetown professor Michael Kazin and Harvard political scientist Richard Parker. Cambridge University theologian F. D. Maurice and populist orator William Bryan Jennings collaborated with grass-roots workers’ activism for political rights and economic representation. Christian Socialists in the UK, and their US equivalent, the Social Gospel Movement, preached that corporate interests were taking rank advantage of the poor in total disregard of Christian ideals. On both sides of the Atlantic, the church lobbied to cleanse government of corporate influence, proclaiming that the primary goal of government was to protect the interests of the people.
Christian Socialism didn’t enjoy its reign of political influence unabated, and its spunk waned severely in the Thatcher years. But the movement saw a rebirth in the 1990s, nourished by a generation of strong leaders from Labour politics and the church. British congregations now stand united on issues of poverty, environmentalism, and peace in the Middle East, capable of serious political pressure in the international realm. Last week, bishops of the Church of England condemned the War in Iraq as a “litany of errors,” and apologized to Muslims for the suffering it had caused. This week, opposition party leader Gordon Brown announced that the leading nations of the world (minus the US) had decided, at long last, to acquiesce to the forgiveness of third world debts lobbied for by the campaign to Make Poverty History, a program of historic proportions, largely engineered by the Church of England and related Christian aid programs in the UK.
In the US, churches have been much less quick to lead initiatives for visionary, global change. Trapped in the Bibles-and-bread foreign missions of the last century, communicating only to their denominational circles, US churches have had few visionaries of the kind that have captured Britain’s heart.
We see right now some developments that could give US Christians a push along equally visionary lines. One sign of change is the number of conferences that appeared this year, organized by the Christian Alliance for Progress in Jacksonville and the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, among others, where professedly progressive Christians drafted leaders, passed resolutions, and took a firm stand on political issues. Now, in the wake of Katrina, another major event, the Values Conference, is condemning the Bush government for its abandonment of the poor. Sponsored by Episcopalian Sunday School programming developers Via Media of San Francisco, the Values conference will host an array of bipartisanal politicians, journalists, grass-roots leaders, and intellectuals. It takes place October 13-14 at the National Cathedral in Washington.
If such an idea is intriguing, we know from the British success story that there are at least three key ingredients. First, local volunteers must be motivated to work towards education within the local churches: the campaign to Make Poverty History came only after ten years over which motivated volunteers distributed leaflets to congregations, personally corralled preachers, and visited one Sunday School after another to talk about the Christian message as they understood it.
Second, a national campaign must coordinate the goals of individual congregations at a national level: the Christian Socialists were united around a common conversation about what their highest priorities were. While some fought racism and others lobbied for political power in Parliament, it was only their unity at a national level that allowed the campaign to Make Poverty History to have such effect.
Third, a powerful and articulate leadership must speak effectively for organized action by the churches and the congregations. England has seen leaders in the church and in Parliament lobbying for justice and social responsibility in the name of an articulate, rampantly progressive Christianity. Will America see the same?
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