An edited version of this blog was first published on Liberal Conspiracy blog.
‘Politics and religion should not mix’. This is the mantra that is lazily wheeled out by self congratulating lefties as they marvel in their own enlightened wisdom. I come across well meaning social progressives who openly shun the role of faith based organisations as either an evangelical force that should be scorned, or, at best, a tool by which individuals can act out their selfish desire to please the big man upstairs. This lingering stereotype of faith based organisations not only alienates billions around the world who see their faith as their primary moral compass but also pragmatically restricts social movement’s ability to bring about the change they are so desperate to see.
Many, at this stage might assume that I am one of those rather smug Christian types who go around asking people to accept Jesus’ warm love into their hearts – I am not. I am, like many in 21st Century Britain, painfully middle class and going through and an existential crisis as I try to work out ‘what it all means’. I am as unsure about the existence of any deity as you can possibly be. So don’t worry, I am not trying to convert you, and neither do I see this article as my one way ticket to heaven. I am fairly sure that God doesn’t read blogs anyway.
I am however, excited about the truly radical potential of Christianity to bring about social change. All around the world, we can see different denominations working progressively on a range of issues. This could be The Salvation Army offering support to the homeless, The Quakers campaigning for peace or the Catholic Church fighting global poverty.
At this point, the sceptics out there will point to Christianity being used to discriminate against entire communities (LGBT for example) or the Catholic Church and their opposition to contraception. If you, dear reader, were felling particularly pernickety, you might start pointing to George Bush claiming that God told him to invade Afghanistan or wars that have been fought in the name of God. Religion, in many peoples mind is a bringer of war, the perpetrator of hatred and an opium for the ill informed masses.
My response would be to point to the fallibility of all human organisations, including organized religion. There is nothing inherent within any faith to suggest that it will always work for a positive social agenda, neither is there to suggest it will always cause harm. If we on the left are too smug to engage, we will leave ‘doing God’ to those who want to justify oil wars, invasions or subordinating an entire gender. It is time for us then to throw off the shackles of conformity and acknowledge a very simple truth – Christianity can be really radical!
It has taken me a while to get to a position in my life where I can work comfortably and confidently with people of faith knowing full well that they believe in something that I don’t. When working for Amnesty International, I started to spot the myriad of backgrounds and experiences that had drawn people to become human rights activists. It is clear to me now that somebody’s faith is just one of those reasons. Why are many on the left happy to work with those of faith but not faith based organisations? In the past I have had a pleasure of working for The Quakers, who are just one example of a faith based organisation who are putting their faith into practice to work towards social causes.
I am excited to be (once again) putting this theory into practice. In February I will be heading out to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel which is coordinated through the World Council of Churches. This is an organisation bringing different denominations, faiths and backgrounds together to work progressively for a non-violent solution to the conflict. It is an exciting example of a faith based organisation working inclusively with Israelis, Palestinians and the International Community to work towards the end of the occupation and for all in the region to enjoy basic human rights standards.
We on the left need to incorporate faith based groups into all of our work. They unlock the door to millions in the UK and billions around the world. We need to show we are truly inclusive by illustrating that faith can be used positively. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of George Bush and the like becoming the public face of Christianity. There are inspiring people out there from Archbishop Desmond Tutu through to the Archbishop Dr John Sentamu who are working on causes I would be proud to support. All we on the secular left need to do, is show that we can get over these outdated stereotypes of faith based organisations and embrace their progressive potential.