Dissenting Radical

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

Month: December, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn for Leader (of the Liberal Democrats)

Once again it strikes me that Jeremy Corbyn would be a much better leader of the Liberal Democrats than of Labour. He could bring some much needed spine and backbone back to the LibDems – the party, unlike Labour, is small enough and flexible enough to take on the character of its leader.

And the LibDems would relish that type of leadership. He’s outside the political establishment, stands on principle and is willing to be a witness to the truth as he sees. He connects instinctively with whatever is left of that old Radical tradition and the non-conformist Reform spirit. All of this is what used to be LibDem territory, until Nick Clegg turned up and moved turned them into Tory-Lite.

And Corbyn’s policies are really no further left than David Steel’s were in the 1980s. Much of his political thought owes more to the Levellers and Tom Paine than to Marxism – no matter what the Tories might try to say about him. It’s true that Corbyn’s pitch and rhetoric seem quite far to the left, but we must not overlook the difference between position and motion. Corbyn does want to move Labour a long way to the left. This makes him look like a leftwinger to those who are still fighting the battles of 1979-1997. The intended the destination of that movement, however, is to somewhere like where the Liberal-SNP alliance were in 1983.   It’s quite clear that if Corbyn got everything he wished, he would not be trying to turn the country into a Soviet Socialist Republic. In policy terms, he’s a centrist, moderate social democrat, not a revolutionary communist. He only seems so radical because he’s actually willing to take a stand and try to move things in that direction, rather than allowing the oligarchs to set the policy agenda and then just triangulating with it, which is what the Blairites did and do.

Corbyn could be the most successful Liberal Democrat leader since Lloyd George. He could easily win more than 60 seats as LibDem leader. As such he could influence policies even without being in government – by changing the terms and the territory of the debate, and by setting out a clear democratic challenge to which governments of either Tory or Labour stripe would have to respond. 

Instead, he’s stuck in the Labour Party, the political Titanic, and he’ll sink with it – which is, for all of us, a great tragedy.

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Christmas Greetings!

You know that whole cutsy-pie oh-so-sweet baby-in-a-manger thing that’s so popular as a religiously-appropriate marketing ploy around this time of year? Well, the contemporary equivalent of the manger scene is a cardboard box in a dirty back street, with bin-men for shepherds.

A crucial part of the story of the nativity is that world will be saved by the lowly, the poor, the outsiders, the smelly and the despised. They will pull the mighty from their thrones. They will be first in the great process of restoring and redeeming the world – when the poor are filled with good things.

Let’s not lose sight of what thoroughly revolutionary documents the gospels are.

And a girl was the first to proclaim it. Quite magnificent.

A Proposal for National Insurance

I’d like to go from the negative, critical and oppositional to the positive, constructive and programmatic. The problem with “Tories bad, fracking bad, benefits sanction bad, war bad, repealing human rights act bad, corrupt corporate oligarchy bad” etc etc is that it always puts one on the back foot. It leaves the agenda to be set by the very forces we seek to oppose. I’d like to think about a workable, practical set of specific policies that could make a real positive difference to the lives of ordinary people, and especially to the poor and vulnerable in our society.

On top of my list would be (for discussion and consideration) universal income protection insurance – so that if you are sick, disabled, unemployed, or unable to work, you can claim an insurance pay-out that will maintain a sufficient and decent quality of life. This could be mandated and organised by the state, so that there is universal coverage and the maximum amount of risk-sharing, but privately funded through compulsory contributions by employee and employers.

This might protect, say, 80% of the average of the last two years’ income (within certain maximum and minimum parameters) for an initial period of three months, dropping to say 60% for the next nine months. In case of permanent illness or incapacity a rate equivalent to the medium income would be paid out. These figures are merely illustrative of the general principle.

The advantage of this scheme is that it would give ordinary people some real economic security against the risks and hazards of life, at a rate that makes it worthwhile even for middle class people with relatively decent professional salaries. It would be without stigma, too, because it wouldn’t be a ‘benefit’ or a ‘dole’; those who claim it wouldn’t be ‘scroungers’ – they would be recipients of an insurance pay out based on previous contributions. No questions, no registration, no pointless meetings.

You could even call it ‘National Insurance’.

I’m sure this would have been a radical – but achievable – idea in 1911. Is it still so in 2015?

 

National-insurance-act-1911

(Image from Wikipedia).

Reimagining Church

It is important to distinguish between belonging to the church (to a community of fellow-followers founded by Jesus that exists invisibly and universally, throughout time and space) and belonging to a church (a particular denomination, structure, congregation or place).

Belonging to the church is integral to the christian life. If we have decided, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus’ Way, Truth and Life, then we are necessarily members of the universal church.

But I’m not so sure about ‘church’ in the ‘sitting in pews on a Sunday morning listening to the man at the front and giving him your money’ sense of the word. Belonging to a church might be helpful for some, at certain times, and in certain ways, but it is not always necessary for everyone. I don’t see any clear mandate from Jesus that the universal, invisible church should take any particular institutional form. There is an assumption in the New Testament that fellow-followers will gather together to encourage and support one another. But no requirement that it be done in a dusty building with a leaking roof, that there be a ‘worship team’ with electric guitars, or that there should be a pastor who calls all the shots and does all the talking.

In other words, being written in the Lamb’s Book of Life is not dependent on being written in the membership rolls of any particular congregation. For many, membership of a local congregation can be a source of help, blessing and community. I don’t doubt it. For some, however, it can become an idol. It’s all about building ‘our’ church, expanding, raising more money, doing ‘exciting’ things. It’s just empire-building, and its endemic in the institutional church. It’s this sort of thing (coupled with intellectually shallow, brittle, conservative preaching) that makes the institutional church a source of frustration, misgivings and disillusionment for some of us. It actually gets in the way, for us, of authentically following Jesus.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how I am done and disillusioned with the institutional church, so I will not labour that point further here. I would like to reflect a little, however, on possible alternatives. How might it be possible to achieve a specific incarnated community of members of the universal church in a way that doesn’t just become institutional cash-cow?

I have no definite answers to this question, although it is one that I think about very often. Nevertheless, I’d like to offer some preliminary ideas, if only as a spark to further thought and discussion, on the principles on which such a community might be built.

1. Intellectually robust teaching that takes modern biblical scholarship, science, comparative religions, and the findings of history and anthropology seriously. We cannot have a church in which the message of Jesus is contingent on accepting 1st century worldviews about the origins or nature of existence.

2. Recognition of plurality and difference. Christianity is complex and many faceted. We don’t all have to agree on everything. The core on which we do have to agree might, in fact, be very small indeed: ‘Jesus is Lord’ was the first creed, and perhaps the best that has very been devised. There should be room for different soteriologies, christologies, eschatologies – as long as we can learn from one another, remain open to one another, and not condemn one another for such differences of opinion. We should place Jesus at the centre, not doctrines.

3. A firm commitment to tackling poverty, homelessness, racism, exploitation, slavery, war, and abuse of power at the heart of everything we do. Christianity is about standing on the side of freedom, peace, justice and love. If we get this wrong, we might as well pack up and go home, because we will have missed the point of what the gospel is about: liberation and transformation, setting captives free, wiping away tears, bringing love and joy and hope and life and abundance – in practical (and most often edible) ways, in the here and now.

4. Democratic, plural leadership. No one person in charge. No ‘senior pastor’ who claims to be primus-inter-pares but runs the show like a dictator. Congregationalism should be taken seriously – not just in business meetings, but also in meetings for worship: that is, everyone should be able to contribute, to share in the preaching, testifying, singing and music making.

5. Following from point 4, no paid clergy, no paid staff, no church buildings. Once a church has a building, so much of their time, work and money is put into serving the building, and not into serving the community. The church can meet in people’s homes. Larger conservations, gatherings and events can take place in venues hired for the occasion.

6. Limitations on size. Each congregation should be no bigger than can meet comfortably in a large living room. But several of these congregations co-operate in order to achieve common goals (particularly in terms of serving the community, doing charitable outreach etc). Keeping it small prevents empire building. Of course we want the church (universal and invisible) to grow, but we can do that by creating new small congregations that branch off like amoeba, not by building massive mega-churches that are invariably filled with tithing pew-sitters being lectured at by a millionaire pastor-entreprenuer who is only in it for the private jet.

7. Just as I see the future church as post-evangelical, I also see it as post-Catholic and post-Orthodox; that is to say, the little house church is a manifestation not of the Protestant branch of christianity, but of the whole universal christian experience. I can envisage a combination that pairs progressive theology with the cycles of the liturgical year, action for social justice with the Common Lectionary, fully egalitarian participatory congregationalism with Gregorian chants, and sermons on environmental stewardship with icons and candles.

8. I envisage a ‘rule’ for christian communities, a little bit like a monastic rule (but obviously much shorter, and not necessarily intended for a residential community) in which these principles could be embodied. This rule would be replicable, thereby providing a simple and accessible basis for the incorporation of independent house-church congregations in keeping with these principles. It wouldn’t be necessary to constitute each house church from scratch – any group of people could download the rule and use it as a baseline for establishing their own little congregation on these lines.

 

 

The Turned-on Truth

Today’s ‘Grand Old Hymn’: The Turned on Truth.

Unlike Timothy Leary, Jesus doesn’t call us to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’.

It’s more like ‘turn on, tune in, and get engaged’.

Amen

On the limits of markets

Markets work, for the achievement of certain purposes, to a certain extent, in certain contexts. When markets are applied to other purposes, or are allowed to go beyond their proper extent, or are applied to wrong contexts, they cause havoc and destruction.

Or, to put it another way, markets are like fire: a good servant, but a bad master. The state’s function is, in part, to be a fire-guard and fire-extinguisher. If we forget that, then instead of being nice and warm we’ll burn the whole house down.

And that, basically, is what happened 1979-2008.

Star Wars as a Political Morality Play

Star Wars is the epic story of the everlasting struggle between two civilisational modes: ‘the republic’ against ‘the empire’.

The republic is presented to us quite clearly. It is a federation of planets, each of which sends representatives to the Galactic Senate, which is the legislative body of the republic. The executive is headed by a Chancellor, who appears to be elected by the Senate and removable by a vote of no-confidence, in a sort of parliamentary system. The internal government of each planet seems to have a wide degree of variation, but even those that are monarchies seem to be elective and constitutional in nature.  There’s at least some concern for human rights, the maintenance of justice, and the public good – slavery, for example, is illegal across the republic’s dominions. We also know that there’s a class of warrior-priests, the Jedi, who have some special, quasi-institutional relationship to the republic, as its moral and military guardians.   

And the Star Wars saga is the story of how this republic was brought down by political corruption, oligarchic imperialist wars, false flags ‘terrorist’ attacks, repressive ‘states of emergency’, faux-populism, a lack of civic virtue, and neglect for republican institutions. etc. The combination of these factors leads to a dictatorial military-backed coup in which the institutions of the republic are overthrown, giving a few unlimited access to power and riches, while disenfranchising and enslaving the many.

But the coup sparks a rebellion, which begins as a basically conservative and loyalist defence of the old republic and its values. To succeed, however, the republic has to broaden its appeal to include races and classes who have previously been excluded from power. There’s some hope in the midst of this heroic struggle for liberty: the ewoks beat the imperial storm troopers, and the sons of peasants become jedi knights.

Critics might say that the acting is wooden, the dialogue stinted, and the characterisation a bit one-dimensional. I agree. But that’s ok, because it’s not supposed to be realistic character drama. I think of it as a sort of political version of the passion play or nativity play. No one complains that the wise men are wooden, that ‘Lo! It is a star that shines in the east!’ is stinted dialogue, or that Herod is one dimensional – the point is to tell a story that has an important meaning.

And the meaning of Star Wars is that republican liberty is a precious and fragile thing, that it is easily destroyed by the ambition of oligarchs and military-industrial complexes, and that is worth fighting for. In the background are sub-plots about issues such as the use and abuse of religion, civil-military relations, and the danger of political spin. Also, it has spaceships, lightsabres and explosions, which is always a bonus.

If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to watch the Star Wars series (starting with episode I, not IV) through this political lens. You really will get a lot more out of it.

The End of Empire

The BBC have organized a poll on people’s ‘feelings’ about the British Empire – whether it was, on balance, good, bad or indiffernet.

For what it’s worth, I’m probably in the camp that thinks the British Empire did more good than harm. I’m not denying the harm, of course, nor justifying the racist and imperialist attitudes that over lay behind it, but – at least speaking for my own field – the British empire did at least bring a decent system of law, justice and administration to much of the world. (The effects of the empire on scientific advancement and culture cannot be ignored either – although perhaps much of that might have been achieved without directly ruling over other countries.)

Arguably, of course the best thing the Empire did was come to a fairly peaceful, consensual and well-managed end. Perhaps the post-independence Constitution of India is one of the greatest lasting achievements of British Imperial civilisation.

But this recognition that the Empire, at least, did some substantial good, need not translate into a defence of British imperialist values today. The Empire – for good or ill – is over, and it is not coming back.

What annoys me is that so much of this imperial nostalgia is used by those on the right-wing of British politics as a way of justifying existing institutions by yearning for past glories. That’s just unhelpful, reactionary, backward looking nonsense. It is  exactly the sort of nonsense one would expect from a country that has not come to terms with the fact that it is no longer an imperial power.

So the question of whether the empire was good, bad, indifferent, or a complicated mix of all of the above, is irrelevant. The pertinent question is whether we can accept that the Empire is over, and deal with building a decent country for now and for the future, rather than living always in the past.

Suicide Blues

One drink too many, one line too long, too many mornings already gone wrong. Been so long, I’ve been feeling so blind, deep down in the dark dark night. Forty days you’ve been tried and tested, forty nights you’ve been out in the cold. But there’s gonna be peace in the valley tomorrow, because tonight he’s gonna blow it all away.

Oh Lord he feels so twisted, he ain’t never gonna fix it, just waitin’ for the light to shine on a brand new day. Sometimes the light don’t shine, that’s the time you gotta open your eyes, because you and me baby gonna get rehabilitated. Teardrop on her black dress, she’s reaching for the rosary beads. Remembers when that boy was ten, sang ‘No body knows the trouble I seen’. Now you don’t dance to techno anymore.

In that morning I wanna be walking, I wanna be walking on to glory. Cos up above my head I hear music in the air. And together we’ll keep on reaching.

My father-in-law, was, in his own way, a bold, principled, honest, fearless and generous man (if not always an easy or agreeable one) who could not come to terms with an imperfect world, couldn’t find a strong enough reason to live, and chose to tackle death head on, on his terms, rather than letting death take him on its terms. I salute him.

The Anatomy of Oligarchy, Part 94.

According to a recent article in The Telegraph, ATOS and G4S paid no corporation tax last year, despite recieving 2 billion pounds of public money.

The routine use of private companies to provide core public services, and the close and cosy relationship between those companies and the political class, highlights the intrinsically corrupt and oligarchic nature of neo-liberalism.

According to neo-liberal dogma, outsourcing public functions to the private sector, through companies like ATOS and G4S, is supposed to result in efficiency, cost savings, flexibility and better services.

The reality, of course, is often quite different.  In practice, the oligarchic state is a siphon that sucks up money from the working people and redissmall parasitic class of corporate directors and major shareholders. The companies can then use their financial power to lobby the state, inducing the state to divert ever more revenues into their hands.  The result is higher costs, worse service, and a corrupt, unresponsive state strangled by the corporate interests which it serves.

The injustice of this is plain to see. To allow corrupt special interests to triumph over the common good is to replace the democratic ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ with the oligarchic reality of ‘government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich’.

You don’t need to be a tree-hugging hippie or a red flag waving member of the hard left to realise this. Wishing for public resources to be faithfully stewarded for the well-being of the whole community, and prioritising the everyday needs of ordinary people over the maximisation of profit for a small number of leeching companies, should not be a radical position. It should be the moderate, centre-ground, pragmatic mainstream of democratic politics. It should be something that all parties agree on.

Meanwhile, in other news, Alistair Darling (now ‘Lord Darling’, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the highly successful ‘Keep Scotland Poor, Wee and Stupid’ campaign), has been given a lucrative job at Morgan Stanley. Because that’s how oligarchy works: serve mammon, get your pieces of silver.