Dissenting Radical

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

Month: December, 2014

Christmas as a liberal / progressive / unitarian Christian.

We know that the celebration of 25th December was imported from Roman paganism and from the cult of Mithras.

We know that in northern European traditions the celebration of Yule, at or around the winter solstice, long pre-dates Christianity.

But no one knows, for certain, exactly when Jesus was born.

No one really knows what the full circumstances of his birth were.

It seems clear that the idea that he was born of a physical virgin, by means other than natural insemination, is a mythological accretion, inserted by later gospel writers to highlight the status of Jesus, without pretending to be a record of actual events.

Those who believe that Jesus was a man – a natural man – who was a prophet, teacher and messiah, but not a God or a demigod, cannot sing those songs about ‘clothed in flesh the godhead see’ without at least a bit of wincing.

And yet, we do celebrate Christmas, as the date on which the church collectively and traditionally celebrates the birth of Jesus, the anointed one, the Saviour.

So what do we think about this remarkable, mysterious man, whom we do not worship as a God, but do try to follow – through the help of the holy spirit – as lord, master and teacher?

Obviously, views vary, but the following, from the Hungarian Unitarian Catechism, is generally representative of how Unitarian Christians think about Jesus.

From the Hungarian Unitarian Catechism:

57.  What do we mean by “I believe in Jesus”?

    When we say, I believe in Jesus, we express our conviction that Jesus is the greatest child and prophet of God, and his teaching is the surest way by which we can come to a real knowledge of God.

58. How do we know about Jesus?

    We know about Jesus through the New Testament: from the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, where the history of his life and his teachings are written.

59.   What do we know about the birth of Jesus?

    Jesus was born during the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus Octavius. His father was Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth, his mother, Mary. His brothers: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. The Gospels did not mention the names of his sisters. Jesus lived in Nazareth with his parents, sisters and brothers.

    Mark 6,3: Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offence at him.  

60.  How did danger threaten Jesus in his infancy?

    According to the gospel narrative, Herod the King of the Jews wanted to kill Jesus when he was a baby.

61. How did Jesus escape from this danger?

    Jesus escaped from this danger because his parents carried him to Egypt and they returned from there to Nazareth after the death of Herod.

62.  What do we know about Jesus’ childhood?

    When Jesus was 12, on occasion of the holidays, he went into the temple of Jerusalem with his parents. His clear mind excelled while talking there with the Elders. At his parents home he was an obedient and good child, growing up in body and spirit, in wisdom and in kindness toward God and people.

63.   How old was Jesus when he began to teach?

    Jesus began to teach at 30 years of age. Before he began to teach, John the Baptist baptized him.

64.   What is the purpose of Jesus’ teachings?

    The purpose of Jesus’ teachings is to acquaint us with the laws of God and thereby to deliver us from ignorance, sin and from the fear of death.

65.  How does Jesus deliver us from ignorance?

    Jesus deliver us from ignorance through his teaching and his example, which acquaints us with God, our duties and our callings.

66.   How does Jesus deliver us from sin?

    Jesus deliver us from sin by revealing what is sin and how one can avoid it. With the example of his life set before us, which we endeavor to follow, we escape more and more from sin.

67.   How does Jesus deliver us from the fear of death?

    Jesus delivers us from the fear of death by strengthening our faith in the fatherly love of God and in eternal life.

68.   What do we call this activity of Jesus?

    This activity of Jesus, by which he takes on the heavy charge of our spiritual life, we call deliverance. In that sense we believe that he is our deliverer.

69.   Which is the greatest law of religion according to Jesus?

    The greatest law of religion is summarized in the Great Commandments of love, which are as follows: “The first of all commandments: the Lord, our God, the Lord is one: and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength, The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

   See Mark 12,29-31

   Jesus expressed the truth of moral-religious life in his Sermon on the Mount and in his parables.

   The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is as follows:

Who are blessed?    Matthew 5,3-13

The calling of the disciples:    Matthew 5,13-17

The old and the new law:    Matthew 5,17-48

Hypocrisy is the biggest sin:    Matthew 6,1-23

The subject of our love can be only one:     Matthew 6,24-34

In our decisions involving others we must be gentle and toward ourselves very rigorous: Matthew 7,1-14

The fruit of true religion is the act:    Matthew 7,15-29

   The most beautiful stories and parables of Jesus:

The seedsower:    Mark 4,1-20

The Mustardseed, the Leaven and the Seed upon the Ground:     Mark 4,26-33   

The Good Samaritan:    Luke 10,25-37

The Prodigal Son:    Luke 15,11-32

The Talents:    Matthew 25,14-30

The Woman of Samaria:    John 4,1-42

The Children:    Mark 10,13-16

The Pharisees and the Tax Collector:    Luke 18,9-14

The Rich Young Man:    Mark 10,17-31

Zacheus:    Luke 19,1-10

The Woman taken in Adultery:    John 8,3-11

Mary and Martha:     Luke 10,38-42

The Rich man and Lazarus:    Luke 16,19-31

The Foolish Rich Man:  &The Great Supper:    Luke 14,15-24

Nikodemus:    John 3,1-21

The Bad Servant:    Matthew 18,21-35

The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin:    Luke 15,3-10

70.  How do we summarize the teaching of Jesus?

    We summarize the teaching of Jesus as follows:

God is one and is Spirit: God is our providential Father.

We are children of God and brothers and sisters to each other.

Our most important duty: to love God, to love our neighbors and to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

In fulfillment of our duties we shall listen to the voice of our conscience, we shall always choose good, truth and beauty, and we shall be loyal to these.

If we life in that way, our reward will be a restful heart, peace among us and the joy of eternal life.

71. Do we also call Jesus God?

    We do not call Jesus God, because we know that he was in reality a man.

72.  From what sources are we informed that Jesus was a real man?

    We know that Jesus was a real man from the Gospels, where he first called himself a man and the son of man. But his real humanity is verified by his whole life as well: he was born, grew up in body and spirit, was happy, sorrowful, hungry, thirsty, suffered and died.

    Jesus was considered to be a man by his disciples and his contemporaries as well.

73.   How did Jesus differ from the other people?

    Jesus differ from other people in that he lived according to the laws of God and all of his actions agreed with the will of his providential Father, so that he became for us “the way, the truth and the life”.

74.   What steps did Jesus take to spread his teachings?

    Early in the beginning, Jesus gathered twelve men around him whom we call his disciples. With them he walked throughout the country, teaching everywhere, doing good for the poor, restoring health to the sick and through these means, preparing his disciples to spread his teachings.

    His disciples were fishermen, tax collectors and poor people. Jesus’ choice demonstrate that he knew people very well.

    The names of the disciples:

Peter was the first, who was followed by Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartolomew and Thomas, Matthew, James, Simon, Thaddeus and Judas. These are the names in the order of the Holy Scripture.

75.   Who were Jesus’ enemies?

    Jesus’ enemies were those who feared for their power and material interests if the kingdom of God should spread and for that reason they slandered and persecuted him.

76.   Did the attitude of Jesus’ enemies discourage him?

    The attitude of Jesus’ enemies did not discourage him: Jesus trusted in God and in the truth of his teaching. And those who are founded upon these can never despair.

   Isaiah 40,31: …but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

77.    What did Jesus do in the face of pressure and suffering?

    In the face of pressure and suffering Jesus prayed, and he always obtained new strength and courage to continue his work.

Luke 22,39-42: And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation”. And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw and knelt down and prayed. “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but, thine be done.”

78.   How must we pray?

    We can learn how must we pray from the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father”. Jesus taught that prayer to his disciples as a model, saying: “Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.”

Matthew 6,9-14

79.  What kind of prayer should prayer be?

    Prayer is a spiritual communion and conversation with God. So our prayer must be simple, short and rising from our spirit. In our prayer we must ask more about spiritual needs than about material goods. In that way our prayer will be a clear mirror of trust in God.

Matthew 6,6:  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

80.   How many years did Jesus teach?

    Jesus taught only three years: as a consequence of betrayal by Judas, his enemies captured him, he was judged by Pilate and crucified.

81.   What was the manner of Jesus’ death?

    Jesus’ death – as well as his life – was the manifestation of his love toward God and people. On the cross he prayed for his enemies as well, he asked God to forgive them and then he commended his soul to his providential Father.

Luke 23,34: And Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”. And they cast lots to divide his garments.

Luke 23,46: Then Jesus, crying with a laud voice, said: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

82.   What happened after Jesus’ death?

    After Jesus’ death, his loyal disciples and followers took his body down from the cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. His disciples and followers loyally kept the memory of their master and teacher and proclaimed his teachings.

83.   How do we remember the more important events of Jesus’ life?

    We remember the more important events of Jesus’ life through Holy Days.

84.   What are these Holy Days?

   These holy days are: Christmas,   Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Holy Thursday and Pentecost. 

    Christmas is the birth of Jesus, Palm Sunday his last entry into Jerusalem, Good Friday his death, Easter the victory of his ideas, Holy Thursday the awakening of the consciousness of the Disciples, Pentecost the triumph of the spiritual life and the Holy Day of the formation of the Christian Church.

    Christmas is always on the 25th of December. The other holidays depend upon Easter. Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. If the full moon is on a Sunday, Easter is on that Sunday. The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday. Three days before Easter is Good Friday. 40 days after Easter id Holy Thursday and 10 days after that is Pentecost.

    Christmas, Easter and Pentecost we usually celebrate for three consecutive days.

85.  Do we have other Holy Days besides these?

    In addition to these, other Holy Days are: All Sundays, Thanksgiving, the first day of the new year and 15th of November, which is the Memorial Day of Francis David’s death.

    The Holy Day of Thanksgiving is in the last Sunday of September.

86.  What does all that we have learned about Jesus requires of us?

    All that we have learned about Jesus requires us to love him, to endeavor to know his teachings and to faithfully follow his example.

Matthew 16,24:  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”


You don’t have to be mad to live in a capitalist society, but it helps.

There’s an interesting article here arguing that the current epidemic of mental health problems is a result (at least in part) of a fundamentally ‘sick’ society that is ‘built around the values of growth, competition and manipulation’, over-glorifies work, privileges doing over being, rewards pathological behaviour (bankers’ bonuses, anyone?) and alienates us from the pro-social and co-operative aspects of our nature.

I figured this out several years ago. I was depressed and burnt out for a while after leaving a very stressful job that was financially rewarding but of dubious moral worth (the government paid me to invade countries and engage in neo-colonial wars for oil – what larks!).

Fortunately, I got the opportunity to go and live for a year in a small village in France to recuperate a bit. There I was able to live at a slow pace, close to nature, with a gentle balance between work and relaxation, and plenty of fresh air and healthy green food. It did me more good than any medication.

It also gave me the opportunity to read ‘Small is beautiful’ by E F Schumacher. There and then I realised what the problem was. We have a structure of society and of production that makes people exhausted, restless, anxious, competitive and unsatisfied – and it is no wonder that there are so many psychological casualties.

Since then, my values and priorities have been realigned. It’s still difficult – one has to live in the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be – but that experience has helped me focus a bit on what is really important as a human being, and not on what a capitalist-consumerist society tries to tell us is important.

Beards, Banjos and Real Ale: Or, Why Christian Music is Better than It Used to Be.


One of the strange things about going back to university as in my late 20s, after several years doing a ‘proper job’ (if playing around in war zones and nuclear submarines is a proper job), is that it was a bit like having a second crack at ‘university years’. I went to some cool parties. I hung out in the library and in coffee houses. I even went back, on at least two or three occasions, to Christian Union chapel services and prayer meetings at stupid o’clock in the morning. And, in the midst of all this, I somehow got a second bite at the university cherry. A second youth, if you will; a second time for self-reinvention.

Of course it was different. I was a post-grad, doing a PhD. I was married. I had my own house. All these things were quite different from the usual student experience. The most contact I had with the undergrads, seven to ten years my junior, was when I was their tutor. But still, the age gap was small enough that many of them quickly went from being my students to being my friends – indeed, some of them I would now count amongst my best friends.

And so I interacted with, and partially absorbed, the popular culture of the cohort half a generation younger than me. Technically, I belong to the tail-end of Gen-X (my parents were post-war Baby Boomers), but I feel in many ways more a part of the Millennial generation. I probably share the stereotypical thoughts and concerns of educated Millennials much more than those of Gen-Xers: I care about organic fairtrade environmentally friendly coffee. I’m a bit more into Gemeinschaft and gemütlichkeit.

Most of all, I was able to observe recent developments and trends in the popular culture, compared with that prevalent a decade or so before. And it seems to me that many of these changes are for the better. The music has, on the whole, gotten better. There is more emphasis on genuine, authentic folksy-acoustic music, played by musicians, not machines. And the clothes: whoever thought the ‘chap’ look, complete with waistcoat and hat, would come back into fashion? And the beer, of course, thanks to the craft beer and micro-brew movement. I’d rather sip a real ale in a dark pub listening to a man in tweed on the cello than knock back lager to the 1990s sounds of Blur, Pulp, Oasis and REM. In all these ways, the 2010s meet my needs and suit my tastes much more than the 1990s did.

Except, of course, that in the late 1990s I probably wasn’t listening to those bands (except REM, of course). I was listening to Vineyard Music’s ‘Hungry’ album on continuous loop (interspersed, somewhat incongruously you might think, with whole bunch of Old School goth tracks). And this is where we get to the point of this post. One of the things I felt in the 1990s was that Christianity was deeply uncool. Although it tried so hard to be cool, by jazzing up the music and wearing hoodies with bible verses on the back, it never really worked. At my university there was a lot of upper-middle class privately educated evangelicalism of the HTB Alpha-cult sort. It was all very nice, in a staid, complacent, comfortable way, but quite culturally uninspiring.

mumford-and-sons-otwOne of the things I’ve noticed is that this seems to have changed for the better. I was attracted to the goth scene, in part, because I yearned for a depth, a recognition of the darkness, of the fragility and brokeness of life, that never existed in the sanitized christian sub-culture of my university years. But now I think the millennial generation of ‘hipster’ (horrible word) christians have changed that a bit. Bands like Gungor with their ‘liturgical rock’ and folksy christian bands like Mumford and Sons and Rend Collective, to cite just a few well-known examples, bring a depth that I find integrative. The many-splintered reality of a world which is both redeemed and still groaning in anticipation of redemption is expressed in a way that the rather one-dimensional, over-engineered, relentlessly upbeat christian music that I remember from the 1990s wasn’t able to do.

The figures might show a continued decline, but qualitatively Chr3e78a27c367210eb8bf02170cfc43d51istianity in the millennial generation is making something of a comeback. Perhaps this is because we live in darker, less certain, times. Perhaps it is because, unsatisfied with the instant gratification of consumerism, we yearn again for art, creativity, craftsmanship and slowness. Perhaps there is a sense that, having being obsessed for two generations with profits, we need once more to be concerned with values. Whatever it is, I think we are experiencing something of a cultural renaissance in the church, especially at the fringes of the church. I can only hope that this is able to make a lasting and positive impact on the wider culture.

A light shines in the darkness

I am really excited by the idea that, as the darkness of winter gives way at this winter solstice to the slowly breaking light of coming spring, so likewise our world – so darkened by war, violence, oppression, fear, hatred, injustice, torture, exploitation, and environmental destruction – waits for the slowly breaking light of a messiah.

The evil powers, which seem so strong when they are fracking the life out of the planet, or kidnapping people to feed the torture chambers of the CIA, or locking up refugees in highly profitable detention centres, or trafficking women into prostitution, or sending troops against striking workers, have been disarmed by a messiah who comes in the form of a baby born to an unwed teenage mother from the wrong side of the tracks, whose way can change the world, whose truth can set us free, and whose life is now resurrected in us – despite all that the rich and the powerful did to try and stamp it out.

I find that a quite remarkable notion, and, on whatever level of historicity or mythological abstraction one believes it, there’s a kernel of hope and possibility in it. In the midst of all this reality of darkness, a kingdom of light has been, is being, and will be established.

Good yule!

Getting Christianity Wrong

I recently came across the following statement from ‘Exposing the Institutional Church’, a group whose facebook page I follow. I thought it made a good point and was worth quoting and sharing:

Something tragic has occurred in Western Christianity. We have legalized the Gospel to the point where every commandment concerning “obedience” or taking up one’s “cross” has become synonymous with denting a pew, adding mass to an offering bag, and not watching movies with anything over a PG rating. The fact is that when Christ spoke of obedience, denying self, etc…, He was not speaking in the context of modern, American Christianity. Since we see it that way, and since we’ve had it preached to us that way, however, those who see themselves as part of the “Grace camp” unfortunately have to try to explain such verses away, for to them they speak of legalism.

What we must remember is that Christ’s ministry was not about clothes line holiness, or a “no cigars or ‘rated-r’s'” brand of sanctification. It was about a life of others-centered, self-giving love. It was about forgiveness, mercy, grace and service to others. It was about non-violence, peace, and lifting up the downtrodden. It was about coming alongside the broken, the weary and the tormented, and loving them back to life. Christ’s call to deny self and follow Him is not reminiscent of tent revival calls to holiness, but to a radical lifestyle of love and grace.

We do not need to explain Christ’s words away, we just need to understand that He wasn’t an evangelical, hellfire and brimstone preacher. I will lay down my life any day for the things Christ taught, but I will not waste another moment in the swamp of legalistic, man-centered religion.

Jeff Turner

I often feel like that. That much of contemporary Christianity is closer to the sort of thing Jesus preached against than to the sort of thing Jesus preached. To embrace the Way, Truth and Life of Jesus is, often as not, to put oneself intentionally outside of the institutional, conservative, buttoned-up, respectable forms that Christianity has taken. It’s not about being religious – putting on religious trappings and covering ourselves rituals, doctrines and outward piety. It’s about learning to live in a love so profound that it transforms us from the inside out, and for a love so radical that it can transform our whole society.

Bishops (female) in the Church of England: II.

The ‘Church of England’ decided earlier this year to allow the appointment of women as bishops. Effect has now been given to this decision through the appointment of Elizabeth Lane to the Suffragan See of Stockport.

As far as it goes, this is a mildly encouraging development. It shows that the two conservative wings of the church – a motley alliance of fundamentalist evangelicals and conservative Anglo-Catholics* – have had to give way (if only a bit, only on grounds of pragmatism, and only under political pressure) to the moderately liberalish ‘More Tea Vicar?’ centre-ground.

Yet, although I heartily welcome and embrace the idea that Christian leadership does not require the possession of a penis, this decision bothers me. In as much as Scotland remains (for the time being and for the foreseeable future) a part of the United Kingdom, what bothers me is not whether or not there are female bishops, but the very notion of having a Church of England as an established church in our non-constitutional monarchic state, with reserved seats in the Westminster Parliament and a privileged  role in education and public life.

Yes, the Church of England’s decision to admit female bishops is a good thing, but it does not make up for the sorry fact that there are male bishops, and a so-called ‘Church of England’, in the first place.

For me, this is a matter of both religious as well as democratic principle.

Jesus subverted both kingship and priesthood: we are all our own and each other’s priests; and there is no king on earth equal to the royal prince of love that reigns in our hearts.  In spite of this, the mitred ones have impressed themselves on the timid consciences of their fellow men, for the advancement of their own wealth pride, power and position. This is a betrayal of the egalitarian, democratic and voluntaristic principles of the Jesus-movement.

In objecting to bishops, I mean also to object to all those  cunning conjurors who pretend to special spiritual authority or priestly powers. Every trace of simony and priestcraft must be thrown down – whether the culprit lives in an Archbishop’s palace or a televangelist’s Californian mansion.

Instead, let those people who have  freely chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is the enlightened conscience, peaceably gather together where they will. These local gatherings are the only church, and, while each is part of the universal church – which consists of all who choose and resolve to follow the Way of Jesus – each is entire and complete in itself. Let each local church freely elect from amongst its members such as are learned, wise and virtuous – regardless of their gender – and let them be elders, preachers, pastors and counsellors. These officers are not to rule or dominate, but to guide and to reflect; they must not claim sole or predominant voice, but should encourage everyone to use their gifts and follow their callings.

Neither should church-officers they be paid, as if piety were a trade, and religion a rent-charge upon the people. A paid clergy is the root of all corruption and dishonesty in religion: once it is admitted, there will be no end to inquisitions, lies, tithes, heretic-burnings and crusades. A paid clergy gives a class of men (and women), who must live by their religious functions, a stake in hiding, rather than in striving to discover and reveal, the truths of God and Nature. It encourages them to confuse, rather than to enlighten, the minds of their fellows (for it is only by creating imaginary notions, fears, and doctrines, hells and punishments, and then by selling imaginary relief, that these people can maintain their trade).

Finally, while church officers can have authority over all matters of practice and organisation in the local church (subject always to the consent and approval of the whole congregation, deliberating freely and deciding), authority over all matters of faith, and all speculative matters of belief, must be left to the conscience of each individual – for no one can believe or accept anything which is not agreeable to their own reason and understanding.

When this is done, and when the whole vain and corrupt hierarchy is swept away in the great levelling work of Christ’s Spirit – when the last shall be first and the first shall be last – then all the nit-picking arguments about female bishops will cease.

* In normal circumstances, of course, these two groups wouldn’t even speak:  the evangelicals would look askance at the vain ceremonies, mumblings, cringings and kneelings of the Anglo-Catholics, while the Anglo-Catholics would dismiss the evangelicals as boorish puritans who wouldn’t know what to do with a thurible if it hit them in the face. But they can both be condescending to the women and hate on the gays, so that gives them something in common.

Hope is a state of mind

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Vaclav Havel (‘The Politics of Hope’, in Disturbing the Peace, 1986).


Starting our first works over.

We are now, after 30+ years of basically unquestioned neo-liberal doctrine, having to re-learn a lot of things that were widely understood in the early and mid twentieth century:

(1) If you want a good society, where most people enjoy the capacity for a healthy, flourishing life, you cannot base that on a system of selfish greed that enriches the few and enslaves and degrades the many.

(2) The market has a place, but it’s place must be limited by a system of law and regulation that reflects public ethics and protects workers and consumers.

(3) Freedom is not achieved by unrestrained competition amongst people with vastly unequal bargaining power, and so trade unions and collective labour agreements have an active role in protecting those in weak positions from abuse.

(4) There are some public services that are good for overall prosperity and well-being, which should be paid for out of general taxation and should be rationed according to need, not price.

(5) A healthy democracy requires a broad equality of wealth, otherwise it degenerates into oligarchy.

(6) The rich should pay more tax than the middle class, and the middle class should pay more than the poor.

(7) People have families. They need some economic stability. Short term or zero hours contracts are not good.

(8) People also need time off and reasonable working hours. A good life involves a balance of work, rest and play. The eight hour day, the weekend,  paid holiday: all brought to you by the combination of social democracy and trade unions.

(9) If you want people to be healthy, they need safe, dry, warm, affordable houses, preferably with a garden.

(10) Risks such as illness and unemployment can befall – and ruin – anyone, and it makes sense to pool these risks on a mutual and reciprocal basis, and it makes sense to use the state to facilitate that risk pooling.

During the last few decades, these propositions have been perceived as more-or-less ‘leftist’ statements, which most politicians dare not utter. But if you go back a little bit further, to the world before 1979, they would have been commonplace notions, which were widely accepted by all but the most extreme and reactionary conservatives.

The challenge for the left today, as I see it, is not to shout at the fringes, but to occupy and reclaim the centre – to drag the whole political spectrum back into a sane place.

How to oppose a budget

This speech was delivered by an opposition parliamentarian, quite recently, in the context of a budget debate. I will not tell you which country. The fascinating, perhaps worrying, thing is that it is such a familiar tale – it could have come from almost anywhere:

It is a great misfortune in our country that 98% of the masses are held hostage by 2% of the ruling elite. The feudal, intellectuals, industrialists, senior bureaucrats, business tycoons – along with the land and money  barons – which  constitute  this  dreaded  to  2%  have  held  the  poor, meek,  humble,  oppressed  and  suppressed  98%  of  the  populace  hostage […].

All budgets in the past have therefore represented the privileged 2%  population and this one is no exception. They have always been feudal, industrial,  multinational bankers  and  business  oriented.  In spite  of  having  a  brilliant  financial  vision [….],  the  honourable  Finance  Minister , a  dream  team at the  helm  of  affairs,  a  heavy  mandate  and  ample  opportunity  the Government has  miserably failed to provide a budget that offers  any relief whatsoever to the poor or the middle class of the country.

It seems to be the Government found it impossible to break this strangle hold of the powerful ruling elite and the bureaucrats; it can only be claimed to be a budget  of the elite,  by the elite and for the elite, and it will only make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

Mr. Chairman! cries of anguish can be heard  at  the length and breadth of this fair  land of ours, while inflation marches relentlessly on and the people are desperately attempting to manage the personal budgets an  apparently  wild  and  apparently  merciless  Government  demands  more from the people than they have to give. How are the poor and the humble masses  suppose  to  manage  when  prices  are  not  controlled,  subsidies  are removed on consumer items and tariff on utilities used  by the poor are so harshly and heartlessly raised.

Secularist? But how? You’re religious!

To those who want to try to stir up ‘culture wars’ between religion and secularism, I appear to be a double-agent, treacherous to both camps. When other Christians discover that I am a secularist, they wonder how that could possibly be: am I a goat-sacrificing baby-eater? (Answer: I’m not). Likewise, fellow-secularists are often surprised by my religious leanings – how could I possibly believe in magic sky-fairies? (Answer: I don’t – that’s not how I understand God at all).

This confusion over my apparent double-life stems from a misconception. Secularism is not a religious position. It is, above all, a legal-political or constitutional position, that believes in the separation of religion from the state, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and no religious discrimination or privileges. It has nothing to do with whether one is religious or not. One can be Christian and secularist, just as one can be pagan and secularist, Jewish and secularist, Hindu and secularist, Muslim and secularist, or atheist and secularist. Indeed, the great advantage of secularism is that it enables a state including Christians, pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists, to manage the temporal affairs in which we all share – justice, schools, roads, healthcare, the economy –  in a peaceful, inclusive and egalitarian way.

There are many reasons why I support secularism. Some of these happen to be theological reasons, related to my understanding of the nature, order and purposes of the church, and some of them happen to be civic, political reasons. I cannot discuss all these reasons here, although I might get around to covering different aspects of secularism in future posts. For now, I just want to address just one reason: that the absence of secularism can easily lead to the corrupt co-optation of religion by the State, and the subsequent degeneration of the church from a liberating prophetic voice at the margins of society to a powerful tool of hierarchical social control at the centre.

It was at a church service in an army camp just outside of Basra during the Iraq war that I realised that the institutional religion of the UK (‘monarcho-military-anglicanism’, for want of a better name) was just a tool of control used to justify imperialism and authoritarianism. It suddenly appeared to me as a mockery of everything that Christianity should be and should stand for. I wanted absolutely no part in it. (That was an interesting day of self-discovery, I can tell you!)

And this is a major reason why I am against that ‘national churches’, religious establishments, privileges, blasphemy laws, bishops in Parliament, and all that nonsense. These things needed only to prop-up a corrupt and compromised religious establishment, that has more to do with the monarchy and the military system than with Jesus.

Jesus’ church needs no such propping-up from the state; it asks only for freedom – the ordinary, equal freedoms of an open society that all citizens can enjoy.