Occupy your soul! The Christian Left gets active
A court in London has ruled that the Occupy camp near St Paul’s Cathedral should be evicted. When the bailiffs and police turn up, they are likely to find the camp surrounded by hundreds of people kneeling or standing in prayer. This is the face of radically leftwing religion. To much of the British media, it as a strange new phenomenon.
The proximity of the camp to Britain’s best known cathedral has turned Christianity’s relationship with politics into headline news. The camp began after police prevented protesters from getting closer to the London Stock Exchange. Cathedral staff responded with a tortuous series of U-turns. Three clergy resigned in the ensuing controversy.
As they were giving evidence in favour of the City of London’s legal bid for eviction, the cathedral’s leadership gave the impression of being more concerned with the messiness of the camp than with the damage inflicted by the financial institutions around them. They are sincere and compassionate people, but they are used to looking at the world from a position of privilege. The most they can offer is the Bishop of London’s increasingly desperate insistence that he is holding ethical discussions with bankers. To put it politely, this rather misses the scale of the crisis.
For hundreds of years, Christianity was at the centre of power in Britain. Like much of Europe, it went through various forms of Christendom, in which the state gave political backing to the official Church, while the Church provided moral sanction to the state.
As Christendom fades in a multi-faith society, British Christians have largely reacted in one of three ways.
Firstly, there are those who respond by revering the cultural shell of Christendom. This is the attitude that turns cathedrals into tourist attractions, expects to see nativity plays at Christmas and wants people to get married in churches that they never otherwise attend. It is the approach of people who last year celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible because of its linguistic and cultural significance, as if the quality of a text could be considered independently of the message it conveys.
A second approach is fear and panic. Some cling desperately to the remains of Christendom, such as privileges for church schools and opt-outs from equality legislation. Organizations such as the Christian Legal Centre insist that Christians are facing discrimination in Britain. Like many people who lose privileges, they mistake equality as an attack on their own freedom. They risk reducing Christian identity to the holding of certain views on sexuality and abortion.
At times, these two images of British Christianity seem to be the only ones visible in the media. The excellent work done by Christians groups on issues such as poverty, war and the environment often goes on away from the media spotlight.
But this is changing. Leftwing Christianity is gradually coming into public view. It is drawing on old traditions. For its first 300 years, Christianity was predominantly pacifist. Jesus’ protest against moneychangers is regarded by most scholars as one of the stories about him most likely to be historically accurate. Throughout the centuries, Christendom was challenged by people who called for a return to Jesus’ revolutionary message – Waldensians, Anabaptists and Quakers, as well as individuals and groups within more mainstream churches. The ring of prayer planned at the eviction is only one step in the growth of leftwing Christian activism in Britain. It is a step that is likely to be noticed. And that bodes well for Christians who do not want the options for the future to be nothing more than a choice between promoting bigotry and maintaining tourist attractions.
Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Associate Director of the Ekklesia thinktank.