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Sermon online for the 60th anniversary of the Christian Socialist Movement

by Michael Ford last modified 23 Oct, 2020 09:47 AM

The Bishop preached in the online service for Christians on the Left, marking the 60th anniversary of the Christian Socialist Movement, on 22nd October 2020.

 
Matthew 22.15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

As we have seen several times this week, Christianity and politics is a minefield. Thank you for the invitation to preach at this service for Christians on the Left and on the 60th anniversary of the Christian Socialist Movement.

St Matthew’s story of the tribute money is one that has been used to explore the relationship of Christianity and politics. It is wonderfully enigmatic, presumably deliberately so. You can read it either way.

For some the point of the story is about what we rightfully give to the State: pay your taxes, be good citizens, support the powers that be. In an age of persecution that would have helped Christians survive as they would not have been a threat to the state. A more positive version was developed by St Paul that those in authority are placed there by God. They, too, have a vocation. The business of government is demanding. We should pray for our politicians and leaders and we will pay our dues.

But Jesus’ story of the tribute money also seems to have satisfied the religious leadership who were out to trap Jesus. There is a clear distinction between what Luther saw as the two realms. In this earthly kingdom we must do our civic duty but our primary allegiance is to God’s eternal kingdom. That gives us spiritual and moral purpose which is sometimes at odds with political authority and can mean my conscience tells me to disobey the State out of duty. There have only been a few examples where this has become clear to nearly all Christians, as it was for the confessing Church in Nazi Germany and for most Christians in the later years of Apartheid in South Africa. In those cases what the state was doing was not compatible with Christianity because what was happening was counter to the kingdom of God but that degree of clarity is not often given to us.

In finding what God is saying to us in a time of great change, prophets are awkward uncomfortable people who keep our critical imaginations alive about matters of conscience and there being other possible worlds over matters which ought to be controversial but on which the State has a fixed position. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are really only two tests of prophecy: is it consistent with what God has said before and does it become true. So the question is how does change happen and something come true, or not?

There have been some sobering examples in Christian history. One of my predecessors as Bishop of Salisbury, Bishop Burgess, had previously published a book in 1788 on the Abolition of Slavery advocating gradual emancipation. It’s hard for us to reconstruct what he was up against but until about then most Christians thought that slavery was part of the God given order of creation and was supported by Scripture. There is a memorial in St Peter’s Dorchester to John Gordon who died there in October 1774 aged 46. The memorial says Gordon had, “resided in Jamaica for many years in universal esteem”. He owned a plantation and was a slave owner. The inscription continues, “He was signally instrumental in quelling a dangerous rebellion... by a large body of negroes whom his bravery had repulsed finally yielding to their confidence in his humanity.” We know 400 to 500 slaves were killed and cannot be numbered more accurately. The inscription concludes: “This memorial is erected as a mark of affection to the memory of the best of brothers.”

How did we move from that being thought to be appropriately Christian to it being so offensive that no one can think it right and few defend such a memorial having a place in a church though it might still be of educational interest in a museum?

What is at stake here is the account we give of what it is to be human. Tertullian in the 2nd century said that a Jew at the time of Jesus could not hear the story of the tribute money and Jesus’ question about whose image is on the coin without also hearing a second unspoken question: “And you, whose image is on you?” We are called to live as people made in God’s image.

In the West we have grown used to the individualism symbolised by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” We live in an age defined by our consumption, “I shop therefore I am”. But in Africa it is, “I belong therefore I am.” Desmond Tutu taught us about South African Ubuntu, that a person is a person through a person. Isn’t that the insight of Christian Socialism that we are in this life together? St Paul’s account of the Church as the body of Christ enlivening and transfiguring society. In worship we find our proper place with God, one another and all creation. It’s not all about me. In an age of narcissism that is an incredibly valuable insight about our human identity and purpose.

One of the reasons Christianity is a great missionary religion is because of the incarnation Christianity has been able to take root in every time and every place. That also means there are Christians of every political hue, not just of the Left. The health of society depends on the quality of engagement across the political divides. The conventions of Parliament are meant to help the broad political discourse but in a time of pandemic a commitment to disruption is not serving the body politic well. In this time Christians with a deeper unity than their political tribe must be working hard in the shared faith space for the common good.

When the Christian Socialist Movement was founded there was a post-War consensus about a shared commitment to employment, good housing, the National Health Service, education and welfare. Other divisions have opened-up now but a government which fails to deliver in those key areas is unlikely to be re-elected.

Even a numerically diminished Christian Church still has a very significant part to play because across a deeply divided UK we are an organised Christian presence in every community. We are also global, the largest religious faith in the world. We have the potential for relationships that transcend local and global politics and which contribute to the common good. Of course this is not primarily of political or economic value but given that we live in an age when value is measured mostly in financial terms it was interesting to see last weekend the National Churches Trust’s ‘The House of Good’ report which put a financial value on the Church’s contribution to the social good of the UK at over £12 billion.

The Christian contribution to beliefs and values is about our identity as human beings made in the image of God. Our values are not unique to Christianity but are the best of what it means to be fully human in the way of Jesus Christ with a commitment to goodness as seen in the kingdom of God through truth, justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, love. It might be difficult to say what exactly these are in policy terms in this earthly realm but they are what we are about and attempts to disrupt them need calling out.

Our circumstances are changing dramatically. Big shifts in global politics are taking place. We have woken up to the scale of the climate and ecological emergency which requires collective action and new world thinking. We are faced with a pandemic and consequent damage to the economy and established ways of living.

Speaking in September, Pope Francis addressed the two related themes of the pandemic and the environment. To emerge from a pandemic, he said, we need to look after and care for each other especially the poor and most vulnerable. I would add the young to those who are vulnerable. The issues of intergenerational fairness were there before the pandemic but are very pressing now.

Pope Francis went on to say we must also extend this care to our common home: to the earth and to every creature. He said that the best antidote against this misuse of our common home is contemplation. “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple". In order to discover the true value of creation Pope Francis said, “We need to be silent, we need to listen, and we need to contemplate… Contemplating and caring: these are two attitudes that show the way to correct and rebalance our relationship as human beings with creation.”

Contemplation and the love of neighbour defined broadly as Scripture does are where we Christians can make a difference.

Anniversaries are for looking back and giving thanks but they are also about rediscovering purpose and looking forward. Because of the pandemic the age of individualism is over. Christian Socialism is well placed to make a substantial contribution to what happens next for the common good.

In that marvellously simple prayer of Dag Hammarskjöld’s, on this 60th birthday of the CSM:

      For all that has been, Thanks.
      To all that will be, Yes.
Amen

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