Monday, 16 July 2012

Radical Christianity as a basis for social change

Marx is back! Or so says Christian Fuchs at Uppsala University, editor of the journal TripleC for which I'm currently co-guest-editing a special issue. And certainly some academics are beginning to return to Marx, now that communism has had its decent burial and we can begin to disentangle the master from his authoritarian pupils - given the failure of robber capitalism in the recent banking collapse, it makes a lot of sense to read him. One of the most passionate talks at the recent American Society for Cybernetics / Bateson Ideas Group conference I attended in California, given by Ely Dorsey, drew heavily on Marx as well as on second-order cybernetics (and a healthy amount of moral outrage).

However, Marx doesn't do it for me that much, and I think some people's attraction to him is essentially ideological, deriving from their worldview and basic assumptions rather than scientific evidence or hard-argued theory. So if social theory can be based on that basis, I've been wondering whether a radical social theory couldn't just as legitimately be based on Christian teaching.

There are many Christianities, and many gospels, but I prefer (as others have written) to concentrate on the teachings of Jesus than the teachings about Jesus. This Jesus was a radical figure, a fiery teacher from nowhere in particular, who said that God had "anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18). He hung out with society's marginalised - outcasts, women, tax collectors - and he was executed for challenging the religious and political authorities. He preached a world turned upside down; told his followers that the poor, meek and the peacemakers were those were truly blessed (Matthew 5:3-10); and said that at the day of judgement, God would favour those who fed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and prisoners, and curse those who did not (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Moreover, Jesus came from a long tradition of radical prophets within the Jewish tradition. His own mother, on hearing of his birth, praised the God who "has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, [who] has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53) - which as I've remarked elsewhere is not an entirely comfortable passage for those of us who live privileged lives in rich countries. As Gustavo Gutierrez wrote about this passage, "[its] thanksgiving and joy are closely linked to the action of God who liberates the oppressed and humbles the powerful ... the future of history belongs to the poor and exploited" (A Theology of Liberation, 1973, p.120).

Many other parts of the Old Testament express similar views, from the experience of Job in empathy with the oppressed from his own experience, to the call that God requires of us is "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). This is a theory of the world turned upside down, of a preference for the poor, the humble and the oppressed; it is a theory that would condemn as iniquitous all structures and attitudes that divide people and favour the powerful, that is against homophobia, sexism and racism as much as it is for economic opportunities for all people through the world to thrive.
So if Marx can be the basis for a theory of social change, could not this radical Christianity likewise be the basis of social change? At this time when our economy is in a mess and our society fragmented and depressed, it might be just the hope we need. It certainly can't hurt to try.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Busyness again

I've written on this blog in the past about busyness and the importance of not being too busy to sit and just be (and listen to God, as I wrote previously, but this could be put differently). Well, no secrets here - I'm rubbish at this. I lurch from one activity to another (work, time with family, voluntary activities, housework, church...) and have become quite bad at stopping to smell the flowers, as it were. Indeed, I've fallen into a worse trap: quite frequently now when someone asks how I am, my default response is to say "oh, busy".

It's not an especially health frame of mind. I'm very influenced by my Presbyterian upbringing (as I increasingly realise) and so-called Protestant work ethic (plenty of other religious cultures have it too), so I do value hard work and I do like to see concrete outcomes from what I do. But being constantly busy, or at least feeling that way, does no-one any good.

These reflections are not just indeed to be confessional, but were inspired by an interesting article, "The Busy Trap", by Tim Kreider in the New York Times (which was linked to by John Naughton). Kreider writes:
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. ... Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
So I'm going to spend the evening reading my novel. Once I've finished the washing up...