52 Christianity and political beliefs

Over the past few days, I have been wrestling in my mind with the issue of politics.  The reason for this is that I feel that some of Chris’ concerns for the disadvantaged and poor need  to be approached as a political issue.  Theological platitudes will never on their own be adequate to deal with the real problems of society.  This blog post is, however, not going to be an adequate response to many of the issues of poverty and deprivation but merely to indicate how difficult  I find it to have a secure political opinion.  My problem in finding it difficult to take a strong political position on most issues is one probably shared with countless others.  As far as I am concerned, most political issues draw from me two separate responses.  One is my outward approach to political questions which is based on my reasoning, intellect and Christian outlook.   The other is my personal emotional reaction to the same political questions.  This latter reaction arises out of my family background and the particular experiences of life that I have had.

I want to start to start with second of these two approaches.  I realised, as I was reflecting, that the story of my grandparents’ families has affected the way I think about certain political questions .  In each account there is a story of struggle.  As far as my paternal grandfather was concerned, it was the story of his struggle to cope with poverty and the effect of losing his father while still a small child in the 1860s.  The family moved from Brighton to London to live with an aunt while my great-grandmother eked out a living as a seamstress.  My grandfather was, however, fortunate.  He, with a group of other bright boys, attached themselves to a sympathetic schoolmaster in Tottenham for extra teaching.   Thus he was taken through an enhanced curriculum which included Latin and English literature.  He was able, in due course, to get a reasonably senior job at the Church Times.  He also acted as the English Correspondent for an American church magazine.  We still have the volume that Living Church sent him after his retirement from that post in the mid-30s.  This grandfather died the year I was born, 1945.

My maternal grandfather died in 1924 leaving behind my grandmother and my mother, then a child of 10 and three other siblings.  The family had been reasonably prosperous but their world was turned upside down by this catastrophe of his death.  My mother’s childhood was overshadowed by the real fear of poverty, not the extreme kind, but one that threatened the loss of the middle class status that they had enjoyed up to that point.  Somehow my grandmother juggled the finances so that she never had to go out to work, but it was a lean period.  In those pre-war days, all education had to paid for beyond school and it was by hard effort that a Trust Fund was tapped to release some money to enable my mother and her sister to attend teacher training college.

These family stories have of course seeped into my thinking about political issues.   I recognise that access to education, beyond the basics, has played a big part in my family’s history.  My own valuing of education is in particular inspired by my grandfather’s story.  In his case education was the route out of abject poverty while, in the other account, education allowed my mother to retain her future (and her middle class background).

Access to education is one crucial area of political debate. It is clear that the better educated part of the population possesses greater wealth and status than those without such advantages.  Logically if everyone recognised this fact, as my grandfather did, then there would be an enormous struggle to learn on the part of all.  As it is, it is the ‘pushy’ middle class parents who juggle the application criteria to make sure their offspring go to the best schools.  My own children both received very good educations but I am haunted by the tens of thousands who do not receive the best possible chance.  There are various reasons for this.  Some are political, the lack of financial resources provided to schools, but there are also problems with an endemic lack of understanding of what education is for on the part of many parents.  It is here my Christian outlook and my reasoning powers come into play and I find myself in a conundrum.  Instinctively I recognise the desire of ambitious parents to do the best they possibly can for their children.  That may include the right to spend money on school fees when practicable.   I also recognise that the very effort and sacrifice put in by these parents acts as a divisive factor in schools, with some children left at the bottom of the heap in schools which lack ambition on behalf of the students.  If no one believes in you and your potential, then there is little chance that you will be able to achieve.

It is here in the educational debate that I am divided internally.  My left wing side says that every child should reach their potential in education whatever the cost.  My right wing side says that we must honour the struggle many parents and their children make to acquire a good education.  Any attempt to discourage these sacrifices, whether financial or in terms of effort, should be resisted.

A similar conundrum exists within me over wealth.  My left wing reasoning (Christian?) side says that a greater equality in wealth is desirable.  My right wing emotional side tells me that motivation and reward for hard work is a good way of organising our economic life.

I leave the reader with my dilemma.  Is it possible to resolve, internally, these and other political attitudes and retain consistency?  Chris has made me more acutely aware of the problems and issues around those who are disempowered in society.  He has also emphasised how right wing attitudes, that are tolerated by many Christians and espoused by Thatcherism, have made inequalities worse.  Should a Christian ever collude with policies that may cause disadvantage to a group in society?   As far as education is concerned,  is it actually possible for everyone to get a decent education?  A good education would itself empower many vulnerable people and help protect them from the danger of exploitation by employers or by churches?   That is one of the issues raised by this blog on behalf of the abused in churches.  There was someone who once said that he could never enjoy the blessings of heaven if he thought that a single individual was being tormented in hell?  If that is a true Christian sentiment, then it might also be right  to ask if it is possible for one child to enjoy a first rate education which, indirectly, contributes to another child being let down by the system.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “52 Christianity and political beliefs

  1. Distanced Perception
    I think that the disempowered abused people that we talk about on this blog do not appear in the visual field of any political party, of the present day. Even in 2014 they are often spoken about in a stereotypical dismissive way.
    They are still used as pawns in the game of; “The masters who make the rules for the wise men and the fools”
    The question for the Christian (And that means every person in this country who names the name of Christ) is simply this. Does compassion ever have a threshold beyond which it does not proceed?

    *I have spoken before about how a nurse teacher once took us to a ward where there were paralysed people, deaf, dumb and blind. She later blocked off our ears, and then blindfolded us, while another auxiliary nurse would attempt to feed us, we then exchanged roles.

    I use this example because I know of no better way to blow open this ‘Threshold beyond which we do not wish to proceed’ mentality, that to me seems to pervade the academic world (And especially the political). Stephen Parsons and Dr Peter Nelson are the only people from that background who have perceived this and along with me (I wish it wasn’t true) carry the burden of knowing. Stephen has perceived the mirage’s that surround this and the language of limited definition that pretends to acknowledge its seriousness, and I can feel the tension within him.

    This stilted overview of need is to me very plain to see in the way that certain ‘Christian charities’ conduct themselves. For example, I was amazed to find out that a charity that deals with poverty never provides cash gifts to people even when the need is unimpeachable. No instead they talk about ‘counselling’?
    I despair at such a betrayal of those in acute need. This seems to be left to voluntary bodies like the Outsider Project. (Please see http://outsider-project.org)

    Any one reading this blog should now know that the system is not working for the disempowered underclass. This of course includes the political system.

    There remains an ear aching talking over the top of this issue. I am unable to say more.
    I challenge everyone reading this to seriously consider meditating on the paragraph marked *

    We must try to be a constant irritant over this issue especially in the political world?
    If the disempowerment of the underclass continues who knows what the future holds? We have seen whole communities destroyed. The misery left behind when the miners were sacrificed on the altar of capitalisms superhuman inhumanities should break our hearts! Could any Christian really, really, preach to them over their hatred of ‘Scab Labour’? I say this knowing that at least some coverage was given to the miners in the media however, the underclass described in this blog have no media to assist them! I see extreme right wing and left wing views as somewhat self- indulgent and just as much part of the theatre that allows a mass evasion of the truth to take place. Surely, the Christ of history is asking us to put in our vote for the Kingdom of Heaven every day we wake up alive?

    I normally get my wife or Stephen to check what I have written however, not today, because, I feel that what I have written has a quantity in it that is lacking in Christian England, It is passion.

    Chris Pitts

  2. “The lower orders” don’t have access to the same level of education as the middle class, and the middle class don’t on the whole have access to the good public schools. I really do believe we should provide really good education for every child. That way, the rich wouldn’t feel they had to take their children out in order to educate them properly. They still might want to if they don’t want their little darling to mix with the wrong sort! But mediumly wealthy people might simply want to spend their money on something else! This would still leave the problem that poor people often don’t value education. But on the other hand, if you are told you’ll never amount to anything at the age of nine, why bother? It’s not an irrational reaction. This of course needs money, so we need more taxes. I have to say, I don’t see why offering even poor children a really good education is dissing not very rich people who have struggled. It’s making sure they never have to do that again. Wealth? Perhaps we have to face the fact that mostly people work harder if they get some of the profits?! But things like the CEO’s being paid more than 100 times the cleaner? The cleaner isn’t getting a share of the profits. She is working because otherwise she will get the sack. One gets huge rewards, the other gets fear.

  3. I’m in a bit of a hurry to catch a tarin this morning, but want to offer two observations, plus the obvious one that I wish I could claim to make a comment on Chris’s points. I can’t. I simply don’t qualify, based on shameful ignorance.
    The two points are these. Firstly, I’m apalled at how we’ve ‘depowered’ and neutered Christ’s teaching. He was executed because he challenged the social order. His teaching is so revolutionary that it is not surprising that kings tried to prevent the Bible from being translated into the vernacular in the 16th century. How can we possibly have such right wing views coming out of churches, and shouldn’t the term ‘conservative evangelical’ be an oxymoron? How do we reclaim Christ’s teaching on social issues for what it is?
    Secondly, an observation about schools based on being a governor in Lewisham for ten years. It’s this. We’re nuts if we think that Maths, French and Science are sensible subjects for everryone to learn. We should be teaching life skills; that’s the education that we all need, whether rich or poor. The focus on the three Rs is mad. When did any of you out there following this blog use algebra in your daily life? If the answer, even coming from someone like me who’s made a career in engineering and manufacturing, is ‘never’ then why are we teaching this at GCSE to every child? Our education sector needs a massive shake-up. If kids from disadvantaged backgrounds thought that they were being taught useful things, we might be amazed about how more engagement there was.

  4. I very much agree with you James about teaching ‘Life skills’.
    Part of the education could include what some have called,’ Shock therapy’.
    This would allow teachers to take his/her class around the type of hospital I worked in.

    The present generation seem to look at qualifications as information you stuff you head with, irrespective of if its ‘True’ or not, they just “Must have that piece of paper”. Many don’t have the will to test things. I agree that they may discern a fault line in the way that education is presented to them, for example take the two Catholic and Protestant presentations of history in Northern Ireland?

    Also the young have a very hard job freeing themselves from the present day mindset behind ambition, especially, when you have TV shows like ‘The apprentice’ that tell them its OK to stab your competitor in the back!
    Put this together with a ‘Christian’ capitalist music industry that has been normalized at Christian festivals and meetings and you have all the fertile ground for the advent of the Career Psychopath!

    If ‘Judgement begins at the house of God’ we are in real trouble.

    Chris Pitts

  5. Labels are deceptive. Anyone who has been at the wrong end of stigmatising labelling gets to realise you can’t trust them. “Christian” is no different than any other label. For some real Christian music, I like Woody Guthrie. This one doesn’t pull it’s punches (Jesus Christ): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ARDj0NYolo. I’m also especially fond of this one, (Blowin down the road) which isn’t so overt in its religious references, yet it’s unmistakably there in the line “I’m going where the water tastes like wine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qquzBFJdVw

  6. haikusinenomine. Woody was the last real folk poet. Great to hear you are a listener. If you care to email me I may have something you would like to hear (chris-mary@skylash.freeserve.co.uk) ? Please fell free to challenge me on my thoughts about the invisible people. Reality has a lot of heads? Peace, Chris

  7. It seems to me that we are dealing with two different concepts here that may be irreconcilable. Politics derives from the classical Greek idea of ‘government of the state’; the position taken by any individual in this regard will be influenced by the society one is brought up in, what competing philosophical ideas one is exposed to and, as Stephen points out, the social background of the family one belongs to. The practice of government is dominated by the exercise of power, an individual or group dominates a particular society and requires its members to conform to certain ideas and precepts. These ideas may be generally agreed upon by the broader population or not. The variety of political institution may range from Divine Kingship to democracy but it is possible to practice a religion outside these social restrictions. The witness of early Christianity under Roman rule demonstrates this, as does the practice of the Russian Orthodox church under Stalin. It may be that over time a religious perspective becomes dominant in a particular society or that same religious perspective may be in conflict with those who govern society. If one accepts that Christianity is a faith which requires more than metaphysical belief, that certain behaviours are to be promoted and , conversley, others are to be avoided we need to examine whether those behaviours are in conflict with the power structures governing a society. As those who know me will testify I always return to the Bible for guidance on these matters, primarily the Gospels, then the others books and the epistles. For me one of the most important of the epistles is that of James, too often glossed over in the modern church, and it is made clear that a persons ‘works’ are as important as their faith. “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”(James. 2.17) The question then becomes ‘what works are required?’ “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, – and one of you say unto them, “depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful for the body; what doth it profit?(James.2 15/16.) Acts of Charity, in its widest sense, are part of the christian faith. There is no intrinsic conflict between either left or right wing politics and such acts, however there may indeed be real conflict between a specific political interpretation of either end of the political spectrum and the practice of one’s faith. One of Margaret Thatcher’s proudest no political acheivements was having segregated dining re-established at a firm she worked for. During World War 2 the company had combined the dining of ‘Staff’ with that of manual workers as they felt it encouraged everyone to feel they were in the struggle together, Margaret Thatcher found this offensive and petitioned for a reversion to previous practice. I return to James for guidance on this and find “But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin,and are convinced of the law as transgressors.” It seems impossible to me to reconcile Thatcherism and its concommitant attitudes with the Christian faith. We now live in a society which has been moulded by Thatchers ideas and have to deal with the situation but we should never lose sight of the ideals enjoined upon us by the foundation principles of Christianity. Does this mean we should oppose, in the political sense, those we perceive to be in conflict with those principles? Again taking my examples from the bible I find that Jesus very deliberately did not oppose the political authorities of his day, he circumvented them. Similarly James, during the Jewish revolt, withdrew the fledgling christian community from the synagogue. That did not prevent the authorities from executing both Jesus and martyring James, along with many others; the lesson seems to me to be that one should remain true to the principles of Christianity even at the risk of one’s own life. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”

  8. Mark has said far more than I could say on this. I concur totally with his views on Thatcherism. Her discrimination towards the working class so evidenced well before she became Prime Minister is sickening. Mark has (in his comments) laid the ghost of this to rest in the only appropriate place for it, Satan’s toilet!

    Her quoting St Francis on the first day of her premiership must now stand out as one of the greatest blasphemies ever uttered.

    I ask all the people kind enough to support this blog to consider the consequences of this continued disempowerment?
    Working with the Outsider Project has not only kept me in touch with all my former work colleagues but put me in touch with a new generation.
    The cannons of capitalism over the last 35 years has left them with a tremendous rage against society. I am sorry to say it will (I have absolutely no doubt) burst out on to the streets soon.

    If we as Christians don’t come up with a better way of reaching them I fear their rage will (Rightfully in my opinion) be turned against us.

    I can’t insist on being believed however, I am dealing with people each day who are willing to consider what to most of us would be unthinkable, in terms of violence or underground warfare. Its time to stop the service and Really Think!


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