Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: March, 2013

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Easter has come, bringing spring with it. The snow has melted. The sky is blue and the birds are singing. The cycle of nature continues. The early Romanising Christians might have made many mistakes, in corrupting the radical ‘Jesus movement’ with ideas from Mythraic and Egyptian death cults, but their decision to hang easter on the hook of pagan spring festivities was a wise choice.

On a bold and obvious level, easter is the springtime of the soul, the coming of a new season of the spirit, in which ‘New birth! New life! New hope!’ are declared. The bunny and the egg, symbols of fecundity almost as old as human civilisation, are not, then, to be despised or cast aside as relics of the deep pagan past, but cherished as reminders of a profound truth: that after winter, spring comes; that out of darkness, comes light.

The metaphor of springtime is an old one. Historians speak of the 1848 Revolutions as the ‘Springtime of the peoples’, as national liberationist movements, calling for constitutional rights and representative government, sprung up across Europe. More recently, we have the ‘Arab Spring’, and the struggle – still uncertain – for freedom, justice and democracy in the Middle East.

Within the Christian tradition, C. S. Lewis used this metaphor to good effect in his Narnia stories: Narnia was a land of perpetual winter, until Aslan (representing Christ) came to bring a warming spring. Surely all those who have experienced their hearts being warmed and melted by the presence of the Holy Spirit within can testify to the aptness of this comparison.

But springtime is more than a metaphor. The annual triumph of springtime over winter is woven into the very fabric of our human, physical existence. As big-brained sociable apes spinning around on the third rock from the sun, we are utterly dependent upon it. In a post-industrial age, where few people in so-called developed countries are involved in the primary economy of food production, and where the reality of climate change calls for an urgent and fundamental review to our ways of living and working, we would do well to remember our continued dependence on nature and the seasons for our very survival. If spring did not come, we would die.

These real and metaphorical uses of springtime are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each sustains and augments the other: the metaphor of spring makes sense to us because we have at some point experienced the extended days and rising temperatures of real spring; the reality of spring is enlivened, and given depth and breadth of meaning, because it evokes a wealth of metaphorical associations.

Likewise with the resurrection. Some insist on a literal reading of the texts. Resurrection, at its most literal, means a dead man walked. The resurrection, according to the literalist account, was a miraculous reversal of the regular order of nature, brought about by direct divine intervention. I find this literal understanding of the resurrection unconvincing. Aside from the fact that that resurrection stories are a familiar mythological device in the sacred folktales of many cultures, I find it unconvincing because the biblical texts do not agree on many points of detail – they cannot be considered accurate eyewitness accounts. The stories become more elaborate over time: the oldest manuscripts of Mark omit reference to the resurrection altogether (quite odd, if a literal and physical resurrection was, at that stage, central to the significance of Jesus to his followers); by the time John is written, about a century after Jesus’ death, the resurrected Jesus is both a ghost who can magically appear inside locked rooms (John 20:19) and a physical man who can cook breakfast (John 21). Given what we know of physical reality, there is too much here that appears legendary or mythological for me to credit it.

We can be relatively sure that something marvellous took place, which united the despairing and defeated disciples into the new community called ‘church’, but we do not have sufficient evidence to know with any certainty what that marvel was. It is possible, for example, that Jesus did not lose his life through crucifixion, but only his consciousness, and that he regained consciousness only to die shortly afterwards of the wounds received. We will never know. Some claim to know, based on an over-confident reliance either on creeds or scriptures, but such brittle certainties are not for me. I can go no further than a profound and awed agnosticism on these historical claims.

Does that mean I reject the resurrection? No, by no means.

One way of comprehending the reality of the resurrection is to say that it took place not physically  in an empty tomb, but spiritually in the hearts of men and women. The Romans, in collusion with the temple authorities and the mob, could use force to kill the man Jesus, but they couldn’t kill his spirit, his Way, his teaching, or his example. These lived on in the community of disciples he left behind.

According to this understanding, Jesus’ death and resurrection can be likened to the breaking of a seed pod – the seeds are useless unless they ‘fall to the ground’ (John 12:24). In dying, Jesus was broken into fragments and scattered amongst the people; the resurrected body of Christ, which will continue his mission of healing, restoring, loving, changing and challenging the world, is not a ‘dead man walking’, but the Church. The same ‘Christly’ anointing of the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus was poured out upon the disciples and proclaimed to all. We see beautiful echoes of this in Communion: the bread of life is broken, and the wine poured out, in order that they may be shared for the joy and sustenance of the whole world.

Unlike a physical resurrection which is alleged to have happened once in the distant past, this spiritual resurrection keeps on happening. Just as Christ was reborn in the first disciples, so Christ is reborn in us today, as we come to acknowledge and follow the Spirit, or the ‘inner light of Christ’, within us.

That’s the easter reality: Christ is resurrected in humanity. The kingdom is here. It is within each of us. There’s no need to argue about what happened, or did not happen, two thousand years ago. Embrace it now.

Whereas many ‘orthodox’ Christians insist that entrance into the life of the Spirit must be bought by blood, or made conditional upon subscribing to certain doctrinal statements, Christian Universalists proclaim with joy that the spirit is in all, however dimly it may appear in some, and however much it may be temporarily masked by the ugliness of ignorance, sin, or squalor.

This means there is no hierarchy of holiness. The Spirit inverts traditional standards of external purity, internally purifying and sanctifying everything it touches. Everyone, every living thing, perhaps everything that exists, is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Some folks comprehend, appreciate and respond to this more quickly and more fully than others, that’s all.

As we become aware of the Spirit within, as we yield to it and follow it, we experience a resurrection within us; we are gently and slowly transformed by an enlightening joy, a profound peace, an enlivening freedom, and quickening love. We are equipped to transform the world, bringing peace, joy, freedom and love to wherever they are needed.

As Quaker Faith & Practice (26.56) puts it:

The resurrection, however literally or otherwise we interpret it, demonstrates the power of God, to bring life out of brokenness; not just to take the hurt out of brokenness but to add something to the world. It helps us to sense the usefulness, the possible meaning in our suffering, and to turn it into a gift. The resurrection affirms me with my pain and my anger at what has happened. It does not take away my pain; it still hurts. But I sense that I am being transfigured; I am being enabled to begin again to love confidently and to remake the spirit of my world. (S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989.)

Now, isn’t that better than a zombie myth?

This isn’t even half of the miracle. The good news is that the Good News keeps on getting better, but I’ll save that part for another day.

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The Gospel According to Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie preaching it like it is.

Shouting Victory Walking Back Down

 

I’ve spent some time in all my years
Walking up calvary’s hill
And I’m so glad there’s a cross that I can go to
When I have a need to be filled.
The steps that I take are all worth the climb
‘Cos at the top it’s Jesus the Lamb.
He takes all my cares that I bring up to the cross
And gives me victory to carry back down.

I’ve spent alot of time at calvary
Kneeling before the Lamb.
His blood makes everything whiter than snow
When I come just as I am
And as I am walking back down calvary’s hill
My feet are not touching the ground.
For the heart that was burdened on my way up
Is shouting victory walking back down.

When I walk up the hill to calvary
The reasons are different each time.
I may need forgiveness, just to be lifted up,
Or I might need healing divine.
When I walk up the hill with my load of despair
I lay it down at the feet of the Lamb.
And the heart that was burdened on my way up
Is shouting victory walking back down.

This song might seem like an incongruous choice, especially following so close on the heels of my Good Friday reflection. The lyrics, replete with venerations of Calvary and references to the adoration of the Lamb, are almost certainly intended to be understood through the lens of an evangelical, rather than a progressive and universalist, understanding of the Gospel.

It would, of course, be possible to reconcile these apparent inconsistencies. The lyrics could, at a stretch, be made to fit into a progressive Christian mental framework. But this would miss the point. This song is not about theology, but about spiritual experience. We might try to fit it into our minds in different ways. We might use different language. We might argue all day about the exact nature of Christ, but however we frame our words and labels, the experience of coming humbly into the presence of the divine, of refreshing our spirit in the well of life, is a truly Universal, and yet strangely intimate, experience, ultimately beyond language. The words, the concepts, the modes, the expressions, all eventually slip away into nothing.

Nevertheless, as someone who encounters the divine chiefly through the narratives, ethos and imagery of the Christian tradition, the notion of ‘walking up calvary’s hill’ and ‘kneeling at the cross’ makes sense to me (even if only in a rather metaphorical, non-literal and anti-realist way). It makes sense not because I can agree with the theology of it, necessarily, but because it chimes with my experience. I’ve spent a lot of time ‘walking up calvary’s hill’, and on almost every occasion I’ve been ‘shouting victory walking back down’. There’s nothing like it. The sense of release is amazing.

Now, don’t that just make you wanna run up there to the front, get down on the ol’ fashion altar and ‘rededicate your heart to Jesus’? Don’t worry. It’s quite normal for me to be like this at the end of Holy Week. It happens every year. I’ll be back to my usual self soon enough.

Why did Jesus die?

 

I’m sure, back in the days when I was spiritually fed on the infantile milk of Alpha Course pamphlets, there was one entitled ‘Why did Jesus die?’ This set out the usual conservative evangelical line: Perfect creation, Man’s fall, ‘Woe we are all hellbound sinners!’, God needs blood, so he sends (becomes? – not clear on that part) his Son, kills him(self), punishes him(self), and thereby can forgive us for the sins that we did because of Adam’s fall, so that we can go to heaven when we die.

It did not take long to dismiss this thin and brittle theology. Aside from all the problems this story creates (like, ‘Why did God put a talking snake in the garden anyway?’ and ‘How come all this happened 20,000 years after man domesticated to dog?’), it makes God out to be a blood-thirsty monster, whose insatiable wrath can only be appeased by an act of horrific, sado-masochistic slaughter.

To the conservative evangelicals, Good Friday is, indeed, ‘good’. It is the day on which their salvation, as they understand it, was purchased by blood on Calvary. Once we have moved to a Unitarian and Universalist theology, in which Jesus is a prophet, teacher, revolutionary and mystic, but no more a ‘Son of God’ than Moses was, and in which none shall be consigned to torment because God’s nature is to love and forgive, not to punish and destroy, what significance does Good Friday have?

Can it still be ‘good’ for a progressive Christian who has rejected the myth of redemptive violence along with all literal interpretations of the creation and fall stories?

Indeed, why should we bother to mark and observe it at all?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to return to that posed by the dog-eared pamphlet that someone once gave me at a Christian Union Events Week back in 1997: ‘Why did Jesus die?’

One alternative position is to see Jesus’ death not as a necessary blood-scarifice to appease an angry God, but as a tragic martyrdom. Jesus died because he was good. He had the courage of his convictions, and those convictions upset people. Jesus opposed the rulers, the priests, the bankers, the moneylenders, the landlords, the whole imperial-hierarchical system. This great reformer of religion and ethics, who was deeply absorbed in, but not uncritical of, the traditions of his people, offered a radical creed of love, forgiveness, community and equality. He broke down barriers. He exposed hypocrisy. He called for the redistribution of land and the forgiveness of debts. To the Romans, he was a threat to state security who might incite the people against occupation. To the colluding temple authorities, he was a threat to their wealth, power, and priestly monopoly of religion. To the zealous people – ah, this is the rub! – he was a bitter disappointment. They wanted a king, a new David, but Jesus refused to play that part. The kingdom he had in mind was of a different, more subtle sort, brought in not by military force but by love. He masterminded a policy of non-violent resistance, of being-the-change-you-want-to-see. And they killed him for it. In the words of John 3:19, ‘light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’. It was so predictable. So tragic.

And, like every good tragedy, he saw it coming. He knew at the outset that to follow his great calling would require him to lay aside any trappings of wealth and power (that’s what the story of Jesus in the wilderness being ‘tempted of the devil’ is all about). He knew that his radical teaching, in the tradition of the social justice prophets of Israel, would bring him into conflict.  He knew in the garden of Gethsemane that he was about to be killed. And yet, although he knew it, he could not avoid it. He could not turn from the path on which he had set out. Not my will, but thine. “Here I stand”, he might well have said, “I can do no other”.

Not only is this death tragic, it is also heroic. His martyrdom was an act of political theatre. It did not disarm the military might of the Roman empire, but it stripped it naked, and revealed its oppressions in a light so stark that even Roman centurions were forced to question their motives and their loyalties. He could have flinched. He could have run, or have gone into hiding. He didn’t. He allowed himself to by killed, so that the evil of his killers and the system they supported could be unmasked, and so that the way of non-violence and love could be vindicated.

Evangelicals believe that Jesus’ death was a one-off, a unique event in history. For Unitarian and Universalist Christians, this is not so. Rather, Jesus’ death, sadly, is all too familiar. It is shockingly similar to too many other deaths, beatings and imprisonments. Every freedom fighter in an infested cage, every investigative journalist facing punitive damages, everyone who stands on the side of love, of justice, of peace, of freedom, will encounter, to some degree or other, the same opposition, and perhaps the same fate. As we recall on Good Friday the martyrdom of Jesus, we are also invited to remember all those before and since, and all those still to come, who will be moved by their conscience to ‘pick up their cross’ and follow his Way.

The salvation wrought by the Cross is not that of the passover lamb, but that of moral example. Every act of martyrdom, great or small, weakens the moral authority of the systems of power and domination which seek to exploit and oppress, and strengthens the claim of those who are working for liberation and justice. For the seeds do indeed bear fruit. The gains are fragile and often temporarily reversed, and the struggle continues, but we are moving forward. The kingdom of love and light expands. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. From darkness into light; from a narrow, bitter, tribal ethic into a broad, gracious, universal ethic; from vengeance to forgiveness, from hatred to love, from division to harmony.

That is the way of salvation. Salvation is not an escape-card from the imaginary underworld of hell, but a call into wholeness and newness of life. That, and that alone, will wipe away all the tears from our eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. That alone is what causes former things to pass away, and lions to lie down with lambs. And this is not for the future, at some great eschatological explosion. It is for now. I know because I have seen it. I have seen it in many transformed lives and in restored relationships. Moreover, this salvation is never merely individual. It is social and civic, too. I’ve even seen it in the rebirth of delicate democracy, in the end of brutal conflict, and in the passing of bold, generous, reforming legislation.

So this, then, is what is good about Good Friday: As we remember the death of Jesus, we remember that force and fraud may prevail for a time, but cannot endure. We remember that power without moral right has no authority, but righteousness produces an authority whose power, while soft and silent, overcomes all things.

Amen

Unitarian Universalist Poetry.

These poems are by Andrew Wells, a late 19th century Unitarian Minister. They are now out of copyright, and, I think, well worth sharing.

God in Nature

The solemn, silent, archèd woodland ways,
And shady slopes beside the babbling rills
Where, to spring’s piping, dance the daffodils,
And happy song birds warble jocund lays,
Are now as in the antique golden days,
Haunted by Deity : whose spirit fills
The earth, whose garments trail across the hills,
Whose glory shineth in the noontide rays.
Altho’ we see no dryad in the wood,
Nor ever naiad resting by the stream,
Yet we do feel there is a spirit good
Abiding with us still : now as of old.
In all things pure and fair, we may behold
A revelation of the Power Supreme.

Of One Eternal Power Speak All The Creeds

From mosque, and synagogue, and forest fane
High church and chapel, prayers to God arise;
Who, then, dare say his brother calls in vain
To that blue dome where hope and healing lies?
To one All-Father throned in blissful skies,
Ascends from every land this plaintive strain,
“To thee, O Lord! we lift imploring eyes,
Thy succour send, Thy blessing on us rain.”
Of one Eternal Power speak all the creeds,
And pious lips find fitting words to say
When seeking guidance on the rugged way
That to the golden gate of glory leads :
God hears, alike, the cry of all who pray,
And with the bread of life all mankind feeds.

When from Creative Toil

When from creative toil God paused to rest,
Did man seem then in His admiring sight
A form of grace fulfilled with inward light?
Ah, no! he was not so supremely blest :
God sent him forth upon a weary quest,
And said, “From darkness deep as primal night,
By toil unceasing must he climb the height
Of knowledge all unaided. It is best.
His spirit I purify with fire
Of sorrow and sore anguish, so that he,
Heart-worn and weary, may My rest enjoy.
Beatitude is but fulfilled desire:
Schooled by affliction first, felicity
Will then taste sweet; now heavenly bliss would cloy.”

Whence and Whither

Moulded in grace and beauty by God’s hand
Some say were we : some say evolved from slime
In slow process of long enduring time ;
And some proclaim a faith, supremely grand,
That we shall yet in guise immoral stand
On time’s eternal shore, and sing sublime
Paeans to Him, to whom the ages climb
Convergent. The glories of that golden strand
Have ne’re to mortal eyes yet been revealed :
But O a loving tone proceeding thence
We crave ere we take our departure hence
The silent heavens, alas! no token yield
Nor sign vouchsafe! as darkness veils our whence,
So is our whither by deep shades concealed.

Question

For man’s offence you say this earth is cursed,
And that the Love Eternal turned His face
In anger from the father of our race,
Because for knowledge he was all a-thirst :
On such like tales our infancy was nursed!
And yet, in all we say, do we not trace
Infinite beauty? Yea, our dwelling place
Is now as fair and fruitful as when first
It heard in joy the voice of God, and rose
From chaos old, and dark primeval night,
Arrayed in garments beautiful and bright.
Did he, whose work infinite wisdom shows,
E’re ban this lovely earth with bale and blight,
And loose on man a leash of deadly woes?

 

This one is by Hosea Ballou, one of the founders of modern Universalism:

An Address To Orthodoxy.

You say, before the world began,
God’s first decree respecting man
Doomed more than half to endless woe ;
And then you say, that this decree
Left every man an agent free,
For bliss above, or flames below.

Now, to be saved, all that we need
Is to belive what God decreed,
And feel submissive to our fate ;
A willingness to go to hell
A title gives in heaven to dwell
In that most perfect, happy state.

Well, be it so ; it still remains
That we present our simple claims
That you this creed would now defend ;
To us, be sure, ‘t is dark indeed,
Our future state would be decreed,
And yet on what we do, depend

‘T is difficult for us to know
How those, whom God decreed for woe,
By faith in hell should heaven gain.
Could all mankind be saved, if they
Were willing to be damned? now say,
And try this problem to explain.

Smooth down that brow,– We’ve more to say ;
With circumspection would we pray
How you this knowledge did obtain?
We’ve searched the Scriptures through, but find
No testimony of this kind ;
But the reverse from them we gain.

God will have all men be saved, we read ;
You say, he more than half decreed
To death, and everlasting pain.
You cross yourself, and, what is worse,
In room of grace hold up a curse,
And death and hell’s eternal reign.

Invisible Church

For many, Sunday is just a day like any other, dedicated to the unholy trinity that rules us: capitalism, consumption and car parks. I have rejected that. The injunction to ‘honour the sabbath and keep it holy’ is one I take with growing seriousness; in a society such as ours, dedicated to business and busy-ness, it is perhaps the most radical of all commandments.

Yet, on Sunday mornings, like millions of others, I often find myself anywhere but church. My decision to not go to church is a conscious and deliberate one, and it means breaking old habits; for most of my adult life, going to church was a regular part of my Sunday routine. It started in my late teens, and continued through my twenties and sporadically into my early thirties.

Only rarely, though, did I find church-going to be a ‘spiritual’ or uplifting experience. I liked some of the singing, and communion, and the sometimes the sermons would be interesting, but most of the time, I found church frustrating and even stressful.

The way it works is like this. One person, who may or may not wear a special outfit, stands at the front. He (or sometimes she, which is usually a good sign) gets paid to talk, and they want folks to get their money’s worth. “So sit down, listen-in and shut up, pew-warmers!”

You cannot get away from the words. Sometimes the words are challenging, inspiring, enlightening and encouraging. At other times they are objectionable nonsense, or just mumbled patterns of sound. But they are always the thoughts of another, speaking only on ‘transmit’; there’s no room for discussion, and there is no space to digest them. There’s no time for silence, beauty or reflection. Just a barrage of wordy words wording their way into my life, crowding out my already busy mind. There’s an hour to fill, and filled it will be.

Afterwards, you have cliquey tea and coffee in the grossly-misnamed ‘Fellowship room’ (or it may be ‘Church hall’, or, if you are very unfortunate in your choice of church-house, the ‘Rev. Arnold J. Rimmer III Memorial Agape Hall’). There the ‘insiders’ pretend to be holier and more fixed than they are, and the ‘outsiders’ pretend that they are not feeling completely awkward.

For most of the time, I was a perpetual outsider. I was on the inside a few times, but found the pressure to conform intolerable. It was easier to stand around looking lost, not speaking to anyone, or making polite weather conversation with an old lady in a pink hat, than to try to fit in with the churchy-cliquely in-crowd.

So now I’m more likely to spend ‘sabbath time’ in God’s only true temple: Nature. I do it because I have learnt, through experience, to appreciate the sacredness of time. Sacred, that is, in the sense of behind ‘set apart from common use’. Sunday is a special day, because setting a day apart from the ordinary cares and business of life is a healthy, balanced and wise thing to do. The point is to stop ‘doing’, and to set apart time and space for just ‘being’. Time to sit. Time to contemplate without having to think about things like work, car insurance and overdraft fees. Time to write without deadlines. Time to walk without any known destination. Time to linger in a deep bath, sipping sherry, listening to Bach, or to sit on a rock, sipping tea, listening to the waves crash below.

This contemplative ‘be’-ing, this reflective state of creative non-doing, is about as close as I can get to a post-theistic definition of ‘spirituality’. It is both restful and playful. It discharges concern and recharges energy. The word for ‘spirit’, in many languages, including Hebrew, is related to breath and breathing. For me, spirituality is about finding space to breathe: space to reintegrate the split-ends of life, to reconnect with the world more profoundly, and to reawaken oneself to the mysterious wonder of existence which we call God.

And yet, having erased myself from all membership rolls, I still consider myself a member of the invisible church. As Robert Barclay put it in 1678:

The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life… Under this church … are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts…

This invisible church needs no clergy but one’s own conscience, no buildings but the forests and the sky, no Scriptures but nature. It needs nothing more than the ‘holy light and testimony of God in our hearts’.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the institutional church, perhaps in a radically different form, has no purpose. There is much to be said for meeting together to encourage and sustain one another, and to serve the community through acts of charity and justice. It must be said that I have never seen an institutional church which comes close to this vision (they seem far more interested in ‘religion’ than growth, healing, love and transformation), but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Besides, every great transformative movement requires some institutionalism, if it is to bring together diverse people, sustain difficult activities, and outlive its founder.

It does mean, however, that any church claiming to be the ‘one true church’ is wrong to make such a claim. Any church that claims to have a monopoly on truth or salvation is wrong. Any church that tyrannises over its members, or persecutes its non-members, is wrong. It means that the church is a human, not divine institution – and that therefore it should be open and democratic in its structures, accommodating of diversity, and willing to be challenged and called to account when it makes mistakes.

Ultimately, it means that membership of the invisible church is not dependent on being associated with an institutional church: just because one does not go to a church, does not mean one is not a member of the church.

 

Localism and Subsidiarity

Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Scotland’s 32 so called ‘local’ Councils are really regional-level bodies, covering large areas – Highland Council covers a land area the size of Belgium, with no effective parish, burgh, town or community level government below the regional scale.

Being distant and remote, having relatively few powers, and being permitted little discretion in matters of policy or finance, Scotland’s Councils operate quite anonymously – as instruments of bureaucratic administration, not local democracy. The effect of this centralisation is deeply damaging to the health of our democracy and to the quality of life of ordinary people in many parts of the country. It stunts initiative, encourages apathy and dependence, allows urban blight and rural rot to go unchecked, undermines civic pride and identity, and denies any real sense of communal self-government. Centralisation is part of what makes us passive subjects, not active citizens.

Of course, there are so-called ‘community councils’ in many places, particularly in rural areas, but these are so small, so lacking in powers, responsibilities, and financial and administrative resources, as to be useless, or next-to-useless, as instruments of local democracy and civic empowerment.

Even as toothless talking-shops, whose only role is to ‘reflect the interests of local people’, community councils are ineffective. They have only the most tenuous democratic mandate, since most ‘elected’ community council seats are uncontested, meaning that vacancies are filled, in effect, by co-optation. Far from representing the interests and concerns of local people, community councils are often little more than self-selecting, self-perpetuating little cliques of NIMBYs.

From this sorry situation I take two lessons. Firstly, that we need more, more effective, and more autonomous, local government in Scotland. Secondly, that existing structures are not fit for purpose, and that any meaningful reform must combine useful powers with the ability to use those powers in ways that are visible and democratically accountable.

The most promising local government reform in the UK was the establishment of the Greater London Mayor and Assembly. This system, which features a strong, directly elected mayor, vested with power and responsibility for matters of strategic policy, under the scrutiny and supervision of a proportionally elected assembly or council, has also been adopted following local referendums in several English regional cities (most recently Bristol).

This mayoral model appears, for the most part, to increase engagement in local democracy, and I believe that serious consideration should be given to adopting a similar form of government in Scotland’s major cities. This would, at least, end the anonymity of numpty councillors. The elected Mayors (or ‘Lord Provosts’, if one prefers the traditional title) of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee (and perhaps of Stirling, Perth and Inverness too, if their ‘city’ status is to be anything but a meaningless honorific) would be locally important and highly visible political figures. Their names and faces would be known to local voters, and they would have the opportunity to achieve national fame or notoriety.

Outside the big cities, perhaps the best solution is to restore the burgh level of government, restoring the Burgh Councils which were abolished under the Whitehall-driven centralising mania of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1973, and providing for the chartering of new burghs where local residents so demand. The newly restored or created Burgh Councils need not be the corrupt and sprawling cesspits of one-party rule that their predecessors had, in many cases, become. Small councils, perhaps with just five or seven members, each responsible for a particular set of duties and functions, might perfectly capable of doing the job.

In my enthusiasm for effective and responsible localism, it is tempting to say, ‘All power to the Councils!’ However, it must be recognised that localism, if excessive, and if unchecked, can result in particularism, petty corruption, and violations of minority rights. Perhaps a better statement of true subsidiarity would be more along the lines of:

‘Considerable regulatory, administrative and fiscal powers to the regional, City and Burgh Councils, according to the Constitution and the law, with effective mayoral leadership, proper delegation to technically competent administrative officials, adequate juridicial safeguards to ensure due process and the protection of individual and minority rights, independent auditing to ensure honest accounting and prevent corruption, transparent means of administrative repeal and redress to protect against maladministration, and mechanisms for the referring of decisions to national bodies for the purposes of co-ordination and infrastructural planning’.

What it loses in pithiness it gains in practicality.

Christian Democracy for the Secular Left

Today I had the pleasure of attending a lecture on ‘Transforming Capitalism through Real Utopias’, given by Prof. Erik Olim Wright, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The lecture was both insightful and inspiring. Prof. Wright opened with a statement that the social sciences have no moral purpose if they are not engaged in the process of making the world a better place – understood in terms of reducing suffering and increasing human flourishing. A ‘critical and engaged’ social science, he argued, must first accept that many causes of suffering and many deficits in human flourishing are caused by economic, political and social structures, and then acknowledge that these structures could – and so should – be changed for the better. All music to my soul.

This moral call-to-arms issued, the speaker then proceeded to outline his main argument: that capitalism, in its ceaseless push for ‘growth’, causes gross inequalities of wealth and power, undermining democracy, destroying the environment, and stunting the lives of many people. He acknowledged that ameliorative reforms, such as those carried out by European Social Democrats in the 20th century, could go a long way to taming and moderating capitalism, restraining its bad effects and providing the conditions for a more flourishing life for many, but argued that these reforms were external to capitalism; capitalism itself offers no succour to any but the winners. Ultimately, capitalism needed to be replaced, or at least relegated to the position of no longer being the ‘only game in town’. This replacement, he argued, should not come about as a result of a sudden revolutionary rupture, since that tended to produce violence and tyranny – adding to, rather than reducing, humanity’s woes. Rather, it should come about through a gradual change in the economic balance, away from an economy of corporations and wage-debt serfs, and towards a more variegated economic model – one in which mutuals, co-operatives, non-profit organisations, social enterprises, and other such non-capitalist forms of economy activity would co-exist alongside, and in many areas displace, capitalist forms.

What struck me most profoundly was that the speaker – both in his critique of capitalism and his proposed way forward to a better society – seemed to have very much in common with Christian Democratic ideas. There was the same desire for pluralism, co-operative solidarity and subsidiarity. The same use the interventionist democratic state to create the frameworks of flourishing through ameliorative reform to capitalism, whilst also encouraging non-state institutions (like co-operatives, mutuals, social finance etc) that would ‘be the change we want to see’ – the shoots of a non-capitalist sector, incipiently decommodifying the economy.

Yet the speaker did not acknowledge any intellectual connection to the Christian Democratic tradition. He had not engaged with Christian Democratic thought at all – and seemed, when questioned, to be unable to conceive of a Christian approach to politics which was anything other than reactionary.

This is symptomatic of a general lack of familiarity with the Christian Democratic tradition in the English-speaking world. The vocabulary and conceptual frameworks draw on unfamiliar biblical and Aristotelian themes which have been lost under the shadow of Hobbesian liberalism. This is a shame, because the Christian Democratic tradition offers much that we are desperately seeking: a compelling and timely critique of the evils of neo-liberal capitalism, together with a better alternative which is practical, achievable and sustainable, rooted in a more balanced and fully humane way of thinking about ourselves, our society, our work, our consumption, our needs and our obligations. And, at the heart of it all, is a commitment to love, to right relationships, and to human dignity, that connects with our very highest and best aspirations.

Those on the secular left – Civic Republicans, Left-Liberals, Social Democrats, Ecologists – have much to learn from Christian Democracy, just as Christian Democrats have much to learn from these ideologies of the secular left. Great progressive change in Europe was achieved by the pragmatic cooperation of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in the middle decades of the 20th century – in consolidating democracy after the second world war, and in building-up the welfare state and the social-market economy.

Today, all those on the left, and all those who side with the ‘99%’, need to stick together in order to achieve political and programmatic victories. Even if there are differences of fundamental internal philosophy amongst us, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, and ‘Faith, Hope, Love’ are not so very far apart when it comes to the brass tacks of economic reform – both necessarily stand on the side of the little guy, and against the powerful and privileged.

So consider this the prologue to a series of short introductory articles on Christian Democracy, aimed specifically (although not exclusively) at those on the secular left. These will outline the nature of Christian Democracy (as an ideology and a political and social movement), cover some basic definitions and concepts, and perhaps also compare and contrast Christian Democracy to other, better known, ideological traditions.