A few weeks ago I attended the community launch of Christians on the Left (www.christiansontheleft.org.uk) with a summit on faith, social action and social justice. In a packed food bank based in a London City Mission venue in Vauxhall, inspirational voices shared stories of action motivated by Christian faith.
Grassroots practitioners spoke passionately about their experiences of seeing people’s lives transformed through the work of night-shelters, food banks, debt and housing advice and entrepreneurial initiatives, providing further evidence that churches frequently remain at the forefront of provision for the most vulnerable in society, increasingly filling gaps created by shallow and poorly-executed government policies.
Christians on the Left is the new name for the Christian Socialist Movement. Having not been directly involved in the former movement I attended the summit in order to find out how Christians on the Left hopes to connect the worlds of church and politics and what their distinct contribution might be to the contemporary search for social justice - the investigation and addressing of root causes of poverty, not only the responses to its symptoms.
With John Kuhrt of the West London Mission and Director of Christians on the Left, Andy Flannagan, chairing a panel with such a wealth of experience as the likes of Matt Barlow (Christians Against Poverty), Annie Kirke (Pioneer of Missional Communities in London), Graham Miller (London City Mission), Claudine Reid (Social Enterprise Ambassador and Director), Chris Mould (The Trussell Trust), Stephen Timms MP and David Lammy MP, it was inevitable that the time for interaction would get squeezed and responses were in danger of being reduced to soundbites. Hence big questions such as how the church avoids becoming a service provider without a faith distinctive, or treating the victims of a system while not influencing it for the better, whilst highlighted, had little opportunity to be dealt with at any depth.
Christians on the Left aims to be both a "prophetic conscience of the Labour Party and a prophetic voice to the churches". A wider experience of the movement might prove this to be true, however for me the launch event felt targeted towards a middle-ground audience of people on a journey, perhaps just discovering that their social action provokes questions about social justice, leaving those who need no convincing that our government needs to be held to account for its systematic and unrelenting demonisation and scapegoating of ‘the undeserving poor’ and protection of the ‘hard-working’ corporate tax-avoiders, feeling like it was all a little inoffensive and twee.
The most prophetic and challenging comment in my opinion came from Shadow Employment Minister David Lammy MP who, when asked if Christians are too busy with social action to be concerned about social justice, simply replied "No, they're too busy singing to themselves on a Sunday morning!" As someone who found it impossible to sing in church for a year for this precise reason, it made me ponder again if the church is concerned enough about injustice that we might allow ourselves to hear the offensive Amos lament “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:23-24).
In order to ground things, participants were invited to bring contributions for the resident food bank and it was great to see the pile of provisions grow. We were also invited to protest against the increasing number of payday loan shops and bookmakers opening up in our high streets by signing up to a twitter ‘thunderclap’ in order to simultaneously tweet Eric Pickles MP to demand he tighten up legislation concerning the opening of such financial institutions. Aside from the fact that thunderclap seems like quite a bullyish form of tweeting to me, whilst I share these concerns and have witnessed the destructive forces of gambling and loan sharks in peoples’ lives, this action felt exactly like the type of campaigning we were simultaneously being urged to think beyond.
Surely the appearance of an increasing number of payday loan shops is symptomatic of a population struggling to pay their way through life? I wondered if an expression of support for the Living Wage might have been more akin with challenging why the problem exists in the first place and doing something about the root causes?
Attacking the local bookies also has a danger of buying into the middle-class ethos that gentrification is always the way forward. The church needs to be careful about unwittingly demonising institutions which have stood the test of time in historically working-class communities, and Christians responding to the call to move back to our inner cities need to be careful not to sound like they are promoting Shoreditchification as the answer to all social problems.
One thing that would help us in this is to ensure the voices of local people are always heard and paramount in decision-making. I have been very impressed recently by the launch of the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge (www.leedspovertytruth.wordpress.com) which, in the spirit of its fore-runner in Glasgow, insists that ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’ and has ensured that local voices are there right in its foundations. As a community launch event it was not clear to me which communities were actually represented.
Two further thoughts stayed with me that evening. First, I wonder if there are other conversation partners that could be involved? Whilst not exclusively Christian, followers of Jesus have been heavily involved in London Citizens (http://www.citizensuk.org) and Occupy (http://occupylondon.org.uk), and each of these movements continue to express creatively, courageously and concisely what social action and social justice looks like hand in hand. I have felt in particular that the Occupy movement has been evangelising the church for the last two years and setting the bar for social engagement very high, and the newer UK Gold campaign (http://www.theukgold.co.uk), supported by numerous Christians, is raising clear challenges about our "murky tax avoidance". If not included already, perhaps some of these prophets might be good to listen to and journey with alongside the increasingly influential voices from Churches Against Poverty (https://capuk.org) and The Trussell Trust (http://www.trusselltrust.org) which were heard on the night.
Finally, I came away pondering how two biblical passages that Anabaptists such as myself have historically interpreted as evidence of Jesus challenging social injustice, were used in ways that surprised me. The contribution of a banker’s valuable and restricted time to a night-shelter (instead of giving his money) was compared to the offering of the widow’s mite, along the lines that he, like her, gave out of the little he had to offer. Apart from being heckled as a cop-out from someone behind me, (the closest we got to tangible anger) this surprised me, because an alternative understanding of this story is that the widow’s plight is an example of the ‘system’ taking even the very last penny from the most vulnerable and in Jesus’ critical words "devouring widows’ houses".
Likewise, the parable of the talents was quoted by one story-teller as a challenge for us, even in our weakness, to use the few resources we have efficiently so that we do not encounter the disappointment of God. Despite being used in this instance (as is often the case) as an inspiration to use our gifts in the service of others, an alternative reading of this passage by those who do not assume that every king or master in Jesus’ parables represents God, could find similarities between the master who harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he has not put in the hard labour of scattering seed, with those who seek an unrealistic return and advocate perpetual unsustainable growth, losing their temper with those at the bottom of the ladder when they fail to deliver this for those at the top.
These two biblical passages alone could bring a rallying call to the UK church to urgently engage with social justice and politics, which is the ultimate hope of Christians on The Left as it resources people in the areas of prayer, campaigning, standing for election, political theology, neighbourhood service projects, research and more. With little more than twelve months until the next General Election, to say this engagement is urgent is an understatement and so any assistance Christians on the Left can provide is very welcome. I just wonder if the church in the UK is angry enough to do anything much about it yet?
© Juliet Kilpin is a coordinator of Urban Expression (www.urbanexpression.org.uk) and co-host of the Crucible Course (www.cruciblecourse.org.uk). She is also a freelance consultant and trainer and editor of Urban To The Core: Motives for Incarnational Mission. Follow her on Twitter: @julietkilpin