Scottish social justice movements still inspired by theology

By staff writers
February 14, 2010

Radical understandings of Christianity have played a marked role in achieving land reform in Scotland as recently as the last decade, according to new research by the University of Strathclyde.

Principles such as “the Earth is the Lord’s” were important in campaigns for social justice in Scotland in the nineteenth century, but the researchers found that religious themes were also significant in the run-up to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003.

The research, which involved interviews with a range of individuals involved in land reform, has been produced by Alastair McIntosh and Rutger Henneman. McIntosh, a Quaker, is known for his religiously inspired commitment to social and environmental justice.

“I think the theology provided not a justification [for land reform], but it provided depth and a focus” said Alison Elliot, who became the Church of Scotland’s first female moderator in 2004.

She added, “A lot of people are involved in land reform who would not have said they were religious in their commitment, but there was a deep sense of connectedness with the land, a sense that the land was something that was beyond ourselves”.

For others, motivations were more explicitly Christian. The study quotes Donald Macleod of the Free Church of Scotland, who said that land reform is “driven by the most irresistible of all forces: the divine spark of discontent.”

The researchers are keen to show that the “biblical challenges to landlordism” continue to be important in Scotland, as they have been in Latin American liberation theology.

“We are living in an era where theology has a new-found political relevance, but often in regressive ways,” said Alistair McIntosh, “Our research hints at progressive possibilities that help to regenerate communities and give life”.

McIntosh was quoted in the Quaker magazine The Friend making links between the land reform movements of today and the radical theology of seventeenth century groups, such as the Diggers and some of the Levellers and early Quakers.

“The kind of land rights radicalism that we saw with Winstanley in the early days of the Diggers, Levellers and Quakers is not dead yet” he said, “It inspires us in Scotland and may it spread again in England”.

The Digger leader and theologian Gerard Winstanley produced one of the most thoroughgoing biblical cases for common ownership of land. In 1649, he led a group of men and women to farm common land in Surrey, insisting that the Earth had been made “a common Treasury”. He later became one of the first Quakers.

Winstanley wrote, “That Earth that is within this creation, made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured”.

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