Together we can

More than thirty years ago I was invited to join the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), principally because I was a journalist on the left of things, and I was editing a trade union sponsored newspaper called ‘East End News’. I was a tabloid journalist and the ‘The Christian Socialist’ newspaper needed a makeover of an extreme kind! Unbeknownst to me at that point, was that the CSM itself also needed a makeover.

There were people who had the vision to broaden the reach of CSM. I produced a tabloid looking A4 magazine version of The Christian Socialist. The focus was on the here and now, about real people tackling the challenge of the real world with a real faith. It signalled a new direction for the movement.

Another challenge we had in the early 1980s was about whether we were really going to be ‘Christians for Labour’ as a main approach. People like Ken Leech felt it should be wider than that and the Jubilee Group reflected that; ‘on the left/radical’, but unaligned. But others felt getting into membership the likes of Jack Straw and other MPs who could be identified as ’Christian’ was the way forward, the breakthrough to the mainstream. This led to some controversy!

Alongside this, radical Christians formed a new organisation arising from a conference in 1980. Called COSPEC (Christian Organisations for Social, Political and Economic Change), it was an umbrella under which all kinds of radical groups gathered and who would not necessarily go along with Labour or CSM. CSM was also a member. One of the achievements of this was the Mining Communities Fund in 1985, during the Miners Strike, which channeled funds raised in the usual ways from public donation directly to suffering mining families through church and health service contacts in Barnsley and elsewhere, with the then Bishop of Durham acting as Patron.

These are tensions we continue to wrestle with, and maybe we can never quite resolve it all, and maybe we don’t need to. Like many things inside Labour, we have to find the most connecting points and get on with it together.

So it’s still the same story – if Labour and the church want to be a vehicle of communal and individual expression then both are going to have to find new ways (and maybe re-discover some older ways) to get onto the wavelengths of ‘ordinary folks’ and to be a force which does change things for them. The foodbank saga is an example where this has happened involving leading church people like Justin Welby and John Sentamu in actually criticising the Government and getting some good headlines.

I find some comfort in Ed Miliband’s 2014 Conference speech which tackled a far deeper malaise than a budget deficit with the theme - ‘You’re not on your own’ because the Tories and others want us to believe their tired old message that we are on our own, ‘look after number one, no-one else will’. But divided we don’t stand, or as Ed put it – “Because together we can - and on our own we can’t”. Loneliness is growing, more and more people of all ages are living on their own, feeling on their own because they don’t know their neighbourhood. We need to do something about it. The media are divisively hitting on people on benefits as somehow ‘outcasts’ and on their own, compared to the rest of ‘us’. There is a growing disconnect with volunteering and general community involvement dropping alarmingly.

Our message, our antidote to this poison, is that as human beings we are community – we belong together. It’s the message of Acts 2: 44  – ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common’. Sounds really dangerous doesn’t it.

I recently pointed out to a tweating UKIP supporter that Jesus would not be recommending ‘vote UKIP’ because the message of Jesus is in direct contradiction to UKIP. It includes the Good Samaritan, championing the despised person as the one who loved the stranger and was merciful to him. Jesus himself was in turns homeless, a refugee, an immigrant, an asylum seeker.

And we know that ‘all are one in Christ’ and when we get to heaven there we will all be -  ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne’ [Rev 10:9] and if we are about bringing heaven to earth, then there can be no distinctions. We will all be together.

We struggled years ago to broaden the movement and make it more politically relevant to ‘ordinary folk’.  Christians on the Left looks like a further development of that move towards welding faith and policy, strategy and action, to bring about a lasting transformation in our society. Hopefully, a new direction.

Meanwhile, this Government has proven to be not good news to the poor. And God loves the poor. So they have to go.

Ian Rathbone is a Pastor in Newham, and a local Labour councillor in Hackney.

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