Does becoming a Christian change your politics? Hazel Palmer tells us how her faith drove her fight against the South African Apartheid regime in the 1970s-80s. It all started with a simple choice - to boycott oranges...
At eighteen, I demonstrated against apartheid. I wish I could put my hand on that photo from the Reading Chronicle. It shows me: long hair, mac over mini-skirt - outside Sainsbury’s with a placard saying, ‘Outspan – fruit of evil’. (I would like to claim it was my slogan, but, as at many demos, the placard was thrust in my hand when I arrived.) We were, of course, trying to persuade shoppers to boycott the famous South African oranges.
On other occasions, I went door to door with an information pack from a charity called ‘Third World First’. I explained to the people behind the doors the evils of poverty in the Global South. One evening a week, with a friend, I visited Asian families to give English conversation lessons.
Then, not long before my twentieth birthday, I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life. Did I then go out with even greater vigour to fight social injustice? No. I’d got the idea from Christian friends that you didn’t do that kind of thing. I don’t remember anyone actually saying so; but their attitude was clear because we didn’t get involved in, or even discuss, such activities.
Evangelism was the way to reach out to individuals and therefore change the world, so that’s what I did. I didn’t follow the news much. The Jesus I’d met didn’t seem interested in social justice.
But then, in 1978-9, came the Winter of Discontent. Years of wrangling between the Labour Government and the trade unions culminated in a wave of strikes. Like many others, I was horrified by newspaper photos of piles of rubbish in the streets. The strikes made the Labour Party and the unions unpopular just before an election. The Tories got in and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
I didn’t notice anything untoward for a couple of years. Then I went to stay with a friend who was a teacher, at a time when the Government was re-organising local schools. She was considerably stressed by the wait to hear which school she would be sent to. This made me wonder whether political concerns were important after all.
The reasons for the changes in education went over my head. However, as regards the unions, Mrs Thatcher’s intentions were hardly obscure. She didn’t just want to stop extreme strike action, but have much greater restrictions on union power. I felt she was going too far.
I read ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, in which John Stott confronted evangelicals with the Biblical basis for social concern. He focused on, for example, human rights, global injustice and that fraught subject of industrial relations. Similarly, David Watson’s ‘Discipleship’ included a chapter on ‘Simple Lifestyle’. In it, he challenged his readers with ‘the scandal of economic inequality’ and concluded that, ‘throughout the Scriptures, God is clearly seen to be on the side of the poor.’ *
Neither of these well-known preachers and authors had a reputation as ‘a red’. But it was not at all the message Mrs Thatcher was promoting.
Consequently, after prolonged thought, in the mid-1980’s I joined Christians for Social Justice. We published papers on contemporary matters and I contributed. I especially remember studying Mrs Thatcher’s speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, known as ‘The Sermon on the Mound’. It was an attempt to put forward a theological justification of her policies.
It would be difficult to argue with some of her assertions, such as, ‘the truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are precious.’ However, she also reminded her audience that Christ ‘chose to lay down his life’ (her emphasis). Again, there could be no argument about that; but how did it justify what she was doing?
‘Choice’ had a particular ring in those days. The media were bombarding us with her claims about how right it was to have consumer choice. But we could see that in a free-for-all economy, the weak were losing out. To my mind, these two instances of choosing were not comparable.
After she left office, Christians for Social Justice didn’t continue as an organisation and neither did my political involvement. But my interest was re-activated in 2010 after the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition declared its policy of austerity. I decided it was little use shouting at the TV, so I joined my local Stop the Cuts group. I already knew the organiser, who was a Christian. In 2013, Stop the Cuts morphed into the People’s Assembly, which campaigns for greater justice in the areas of housing, jobs, the NHS, education, tax and climate change.
Today, the Conservative Government are still making us all pay for the bankers’ greed. Cuts are removing essential services, while the Bible affirms, ‘[The king] will … save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor’ (Ps 72:4). That’s why, just after the Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election, I joined Christians on the Left.
I’m still concerned that individuals should know Jesus; But I’ve also continued with what I see as carrying out God’s will for society by taking part in local and national demonstrations, lobbying MPs, leafleting and so on.
Becoming a Christian changed my politics for the worse. But Jesus loves social justice, and he is redeeming my politics for the better.
Hazel Palmer is a Christians on the Left member based in Yorkshire.
*pp 210 and 222, 1981 edition