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Justin Welby is playing a dangerous game in confusing holiness with political ambition, argues Gavin Ashenden
It’s true this is not a great age for the study and understanding of the Bible. But you might expect people who turn to it to make some effort to understand the context of the texts they are quoting; especially if they are archbishops.
The Old Testament, or better, the First Covenant, was an agreement between God and his chosen people. He treated them as a unique enterprise and gave them rules and prescriptions that were intended to allow them to recognise and relate to him. It was all about holiness; holiness in the family, in the tribe, in politics, in money, in time, in cooking and ultimately, in the heart.
The aim was always to get them ready to recognise the appearance of holiness, and in particular the appearance of holiness in human form, Jesus.
One of the New Testament are the number of admirers who are hanging around Jesus, lapping up the wisdom, practice and presence of the One God. There was something wonderfully attractive about the social and spiritual vision given to the Jews, compared to the profligacy of power and sex practiced by the pagans.
Jesus began by holding the hangers on at bay (the Syro Phoenician woman for example) until he had given Israel its opportunity to recognise or refuse him. But that suspension of access ended with the resurrection, and the Church was sent out to tell everyone what was on offer. The invitation came to draw in the rest of the world.
Soon like Israel, the rest of the world would make its choice too or recognising or refusing, the human face of God.
The rules and privileges of the revelation of Christ are not pearls to be spread in the path of the trampling swine, who, it turns out, are more interested in consuming the husks of their more pressing desires, than the exchange of love and the experience of the forgiven soul.
So when Justin Welby carefully picks and chooses texts from the prophets making their call towards holiness of justice, and offers them to their rampant socialists and Marxists of the Trade Unions, what help did he give them to understand the origins of this offer justice and the call to self sacrificial holiness that this prophetic justice flows from?
Force-feeding pearls to swine
The unions are more interested in taking away the wealth of the rich than they are of finding their lives transformed by the presence of God.
In their economic and egalitarian calculations they mix revenge with redistribution. The problem with their approach and its economic fall out, is that having destroyed the rich and shared around their wealth, what follows economically and politically is never very successful. Whether it is Cuba, the Soviet Union or Venezuela, the mixture of revenge and redistribution ends up making the poor poorer.
There is the further issue of what happens when you try to impose a mystery religion on the masses from on high; force-feeding pearls to the swine has an equally poor record at the hands of the Church.
The Church has never managed to keep its integrity when it has imposed the values of holiness on communities that didn’t care for them. Or when it has made its own category error and confused holiness with political and social ambition. Whenever the Church has grown sufficiently in influence to begin to resort to power rather than prayer, to force rather than faith, the result has been ultimately disastrous as well.
The Church has never managed to keep its integrity when it has imposed the values of holiness on communities that didn’t care for them
You cannot access the justice of Micah or Isaiah without some glimpse of the God they are beckoning you towards. You cannot access the self sacrifice of Jesus and his invitation to the rich young ruler to impoverish himself financially in order to feed himself spiritually, without an inner existential hunger and the melting of the will and the heart.
Why socialists envy Christians
Socialists have always looked upon Christianity with a mixture of envy and apprehension. They envy the values of generosity and selflessness, and are afraid of the invitation to die to themselves and their dogma. They are rightly frightened of abandoning their quest for the power to enforce their values and to take up a quest to achieve something similar but more subtle, by transforming the human heart, instead of the body politic.
A holy and wise Archbishop might have stood before the Trade Unionists and help them understand the difference between power and love; between utopia (which is literally nowhere) and heaven – (which can be everywhere.) He might have begun with what they had in common – a longing for a better place to live, and invited them to journey with him to heaven, in the company of Jesus, who would give them a better and more long lasting version of the scent for justice and peace they had begun to scent in their nostrils.
You cannot access the justice of Micah or Isaiah without some glimpse of the God they are beckoning you towards
But Justin Welby let them down. He spoke to them as a socialist to socialists. He hid from them the invitation to a radical new life of holiness and mercy; he drew a veil of the the teaching of Jesus that made a distinction between this wold (perpetually scarred and marred by the ‘prince of this world’ and his lust for power) and the one to come.
He offered them better wages not better souls. He urged them towards a more powerful leverage against the rich, rather than a more merciful dependence on their maker, who would one day call them to the most piercing and terrible moral judgement, for which they would be so poorly prepared.
He spoke to them as a politician not a prophet.
And worst of all, he spoke to them as a hypocrite who had failed to check that those he was directly responsible for reflected the simplistic economic values he was urging on them with such fervour.
“If you live by the sword”, warned Jesus, “you will die by the sword”. The same principle applies to politics. If you live by economic rhetoric, you will be destroyed by economic rhetoric.
Welby will have been astonished that his precepts came back to bite him, with his own organisation’s investment in Amazon, and practice of zero-hour contracts exposed to a merciless world.
What he might have done would have been to help the socialists understand that their instincts for justice were right. Their intuitions, that they were made for a better world, were well tuned. But he would have needed to have told them that politics has never been able to create heaven on earth, and the state, however benign, has never been able to adjudicate wealth, goods and power, equally.
Politics has never been able to create heaven on earth
He would have had to present them with the resurrection of Jesus, whose bursting from the tomb demonstrated the tangibility of the life to come.
A better vision
He could have shown them from Christian history, that those who believed in Jesus and followed him, had had more success in caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, sharing their resources, supporting the sick and protecting the weak, than their own political creed and worldview had ever come close to succeeding in. But he didn’t.
He spoke, taught, described and urged socialism on them, coloured by the cassock, “supercharged by the dusting of faith” as Simon Jenkins so poignantly wrote in The Guardian.
Justice on earth cannot come; because as Jesus promised ‘the poor will be always with you”. Without faith in Jesus and a relationship with him, the real goal of human life, the place that all socialists intuitively long for, cannot be come to; for it is heaven – in the presence of God, not the shadow of Marx.
The Church of England and its Archbishop will not survive the entropy of politics, if it cannot find a way of leading people to heaven. And to do that it will need to talk about Jesus and the vision of heaven, more than Marx and his vision of the egalitarian republic. One will turn out to be heaven. The other has already shown itself to be hell.
It is not the job of the Church to make the poor poorer, and lead them to hell. Time to turn round Archbishop.
Gavin Ashenden has worked as a Vicar, University Chaplain and lecturer, BBC broadcaster, author and newspaper columnist. He writes a regular column for the Jersey Evening Post and lives between Shropshire and Normandy. He blogs at ashenden.org where this article first appeared
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