Tuesday, June 24, 2008


"It is useless to dream of reforming the socioeconomic structure...as long as there is not a correspondingly deep change in our inner selves." - Dom Helder Camara

The late Archbishop of Recife in Brazil also famously said: "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. Why I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist" - and he pointed out that personal piety without social change is equally useless.

Holding these two insights together seems to me very important. When I started to engage in politics as a Christian in the UK in the late 1970s, it was hard to persuade some (especially in the evangelical sector) to get out of the pew and into society at large, or to recognise that reforming individuals could still leave the wider social structure damagingly unaltered. These days, such Christians can often be seen zealously trying to change the social order while themselves behaving in the same old power-grabbing way that characterises "the political game" as a whole.

Likewise, in the '70s and beyond, there were some "social justice Christians" who eventually found themselves spiritually dried-out: partly because they implicitly kept hoping that altered structures would make people behave differently without the need to change hearts and minds. What we have come to discover, I think, is that the process of transformation is always about connecting the structural and the interpersonal, the spiritual and the political, the macro and the micro, in positive, life generating ways. This is the connectivity that "church" ought to be about.

[Picture: the cover of Camara's marvellous book, The Conversions of a Bishop, which documented his own transformation by those he sought to work with.]


Unknown said...

Ah, Simon! I became politically active in the late 60s early 70s and I am of an Australian generation radicalized by the Vietnam war and apartheid. I have been called a communist. I have been told I should be content to be an accomplished woman and mother. My social justice inclinations bred and embedded in the Old Testament prophets and the actions pf Jesus had no outlet within the Christian church. As well, I lived in an Australian state ruled and dominated by an ultra-conservative oppressive "Christian". I welcome the interest in social justice by a wide range of Christians to-day - although in my own parish it is non-existent. I took my inclinations into Labor politics - where I was involved for approx three decades and this included earning my living within that context - but have come out the other side of that. I could properly be described as a Christian activist. I belong to two faith communities - a traditional Anglican parish with almost no interest in justice issues and a Quaker meeting which does allow me a faith conversation on social issues and some meaningful avenues of activity. Aside from that I am trying to stir my local communitry into empowerment and action as I have done in many communities in which I have lived. So what is the solution? Simply, the two commandments - but understanding that individual transformation by the penetration of the good news of the gospel needs to find expression within the systems of the wider society as far as we are able. However, to do this we sometimes have to find alternative modes of operation and ways of thinking to those which operate in various parts of society like academe, bureaucracies, political institutions - a case of new and old wineskins. This is one area in which Quakers can make a contribution since they have been active socially with some achievement under their belts as a community of faith while holding fast to their testimonies. There are other complications: churches who allow themselves to be co-opted by govt; churches who will not move except in directions favoured by govt - as if they need permission from a political leader rather than the word of God. Too few, Simon, would be prepared to help Jesus turn the tables in the Temple.

ChrisC said...

There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that social structures or hierarchies in themselves (and there are a variety of them described) are necessarily unjust. Neither is there any suggestion that power itself is evil when exercised in the world by individuals or groups, in fact quite the opposite as all power is given by God. What is condemned over and again is the exploitation of social, religious and economic power for idolatrous ends that have their root in the spiritual and moral corruption of individuals. You will note that this does not imply social and economic equality. Instead, it calls for the use of power, money, status and authority for the good of others and as praise and worship to God.

Jane said...

Interestingly in France I've always been rather shocked that it is often teh evangelical Protestants who get more involved in social justice issues - Jubilee 200 for eg.
Anyway once you get some review copies of eitehr of the books we'll try to review one of them in ER
off to Reading tomorrow S becomes Dr B officially on Thursday
No Air France just the Eruostar for us for now looks as if I'll be breaking my flying rule sometime in October to get to Cyprus.
take care and enjoy the footie

Simon Barrow said...

Chris: Well, the biblical texts point in a number of different directions on these issues - and of course, categories like "individuals" and "social structures" in their modern usage don't really apply. In the prophetic-Jesus tradition and in a key strand of Pauline thought (see Michael Elliott's 'Liberating Paul') there are radical critiques of personal and corporate injustice (unrighteousness) and a transformation of the notion of "power" as it is commonly used -- away from domination, towards metanoia. Overall, it seems to me that the Gospel is an act of divine reversal, calling into question our behaviour, beliefs and assumptions at every level. Equality is a very key upshot of the new community Jesus creates, btw. The "every mountain laid low, every valley filled" motif for John the Baptist's announcement of the coming of Christ makes this plain. Donald Kraybill's 'The Upside-Down Kingdom' is a good, basic introduction to these issues.

ChrisC said...

I think you're referring to Neil Elliot (although I went off to see who Michael Elliot is and I can't say from what I've gleaned that he'd necessarily disagree with Neil! Another one who makes valiant and quite persuasive efforts to shoehorn an early commitment to the politics of the radical left into a long term commitment to the Christian faith without reflecting on the origins and outcomes of radical left wing thought throughout the world.)
On 'liberating Paul', my first reaction is that this title is indicative of considerable arrogance and an example of the shoehorning alluded to above. I also understand that a major pillar of his argument is that the 'difficult' bits of Paul were not written by Paul but by others who wanted to cash in on his reputation. So not only is Paul liberated from nasty, oppressive types like myself but he is also liberated from himself for which he is no doubt sufficiently grateful to Neil for. I always thought it was Christ who liberated Paul.

Simon Barrow said...

Sorry, Neil indeed. However you are very unfair to the book. It's your assumption that anyone who wishes to engage with the biblical prophetic tradition is trying to import "radical left" ideas that is conditioning your reading, I feel. Not that I agree with Elliot on all matters. As with Ched Myers on Mark, his views on authorship are questionable. It was, of course, Christ who liberated Paul. On that we are in complete agreement.

ChrisC said...

I feel it would be more accurate to say an alergic reaction to those who engage with 'radical left' ideas by importing the biblical prophetic tradition conditions my reading. In fact I think that sums it up rather well. An alergic reaction to their approach, not as people, of course. Although I'm sure you can sympathise with the notion that it is sometimes difficult to seperate the two.

Simon Barrow said...

Chris: I think this is largely an allergy to a disease of your own imagining. Some of the most radical prophets (like Helder Camara and Oscar Romero) were neither products of the left nor prisoners of it. They both came from highly conservative backgrounds and were transformed by their encounter with God in Christ in the presence of the poor and through reading Scripture outside the prism of the conformism they had taken to be 'natural'. Anyway, we've probably exhausted this one for the time being. As I've said before, I really don't want to turn this blog into a duologue. But feel free to set up your own! Best wishes, S.

Simon Barrow said...

Thanks, Miss Eagle. I especially agree with your very last comment.