12 March 2010

'Social Justice' Christians - you're in good company!

Just to bolster the point that 'social justice' is a biblical mandate which has been passed down to us in the traditions of the Holy Church and carried forth by many throughout its history, here are just a few relevant figures in the Christian narrative (with a particular emphasis on, but by no means limited to, the English Church - thanks to this fine website for many of the pointers and resources used herein) who have been associated with the struggle for economic equality throughout the centuries:

JESUS OF NAZARETH (6 BC - 30 AD) - not (strictly speaking) a Christian, but rather a Jewish radical whose doctrine, ministry to the poor and ill and civil disobedience campaign against the Roman Empire led to his death by crucifixion in the year 30 AD. He spoke up on behalf of the widows and orphans, and on behalf of those considered 'unclean' by the Temple authorities (lepers, prostitutes and tax-collectors). To us he is the Messiah, the Human One as prophesied by Daniel and the Son of God, of one substance with the Father.

Blessed SIMON KEPHAS, later known as PETER (1 BC - 68 AD) - apostle of Christ and controversial early leader of the Church who demanded the equal sharing of property among followers (Acts 5), and (though originally opposed to the idea) ended up ministering to the Gentiles. Later executed in his mission to Rome, being crucified on an inverted cross.

Blessed SAUL OF TARSUS, later known as PAUL (5 BC - 67 AD) - early convert to the Way, and much misunderstood by later historians, both those favourable and those hostile to his contributions. He made it his mission to include believing Gentiles in the community of Christ, facing down and resisting debt and purity codes and taboos against the 'unclean'. In the seven letters definitively attributed to his authorship, he proclaimed equality between Jews and Greeks, rich and poor and men and women (Galatians 3), defended the authoritative role of women in the Church (Romans 16) and exhorted wealthy believers to manumit their slaves and treat them as brothers (Philemon). Decapitated in Rome in 67 AD.

Blessed JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (= Golden-Mouth), Church Father and Bishop of Constantinople (347 - 407 AD) - so named for his eloquent public speaking (which probably means today he might be considered an 'elitist'?). Was outspoken against the practice of lending at interest and in favour of the equal distribution of property, which he thought was the social extension of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist to the wider society:

Week by week you come to the Lord's table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? Do you regard them merely as some kind of spiritual medicine, which will purge your soul, like a laxative may purge your body? Or do you sometimes wonder what God is saying in these simple elements? Bread and wine represent the fruits of our labor, whereby we turn the things of nature into food and drink for our sustenance. So at the Lord's table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. This means that God's material blessings belong equally to everyone, to be enjoyed according to each person's need. The whole ceremony is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table.

Also (according to the scholarship of current Pope Benedict XVI!) vehemently believed that almsgiving was not enough to fulfil God's plans for a more just society, but that egalitarian social programming was required, according to his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Was banished from Constantinople to modern-day Abkhazia and died en route; canonised shortly thereafter.

Blessed BASIL OF CAESAREA (330 AD - 379 AD), Church Father and Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca - renowned for his sympathies to the poor, for his ascetic lifestyle and for his opposition to Arianism. Made a scathing critique of the drive for the acquisition of material wealth as an obstacle to the commonwealth of God:

While we try to amass wealth, make piles of money, get hold of the land as our real property, overtop one another in riches, we have palpably cast off justice, and lost the common good. I should like to know how any man can be just, who is deliberately aiming to get out of someone else what he wants for himself.

Blessed HILDA OF WHITBY (614 AD - 680 AD), Abbess at Whitby of the Celtic monastic tradition - though she was often sought for advice by wealthy and powerful men, she was nevertheless famed in Bede's history for her strict obedience to monastic rule, for her advocacy of holding in common all goods and property and for her generosity to the poor. Most famously, she encouraged and supported the cowherd Cædmon to take up the discipline of holy music.

Blessed ÆLFHĒAH OF CANTERBURY (954 AD - 1012 AD), Archbishop of Canterbury - known for his life of simplicity and service to the poor, and for his dedication to just peace. Negotiated a peace with the invading Danes in 994, a peace which resulted in the conversion of Olaf Tryggvason (along with his promise that he would no longer attack the English). In a later invasion, Ælfhēah was captured, and a ransom of 3000 pounds sterling was demanded. Ælfhēah refused the ransom, and was beaten to death by the Danes.

Blessed WULFSTAN OF WORCESTER (1008 AD - 1095 AD), Bishop of Worcester - advocate for the rights of the Saxon peasantry after the Norman conquest and leader of a campaign of civil disobedience against the slave trade. Made a discipline of washing the feet of 12 poor people every day, and held a banquet at which he insisted that the Norman dignitaries serve the hundreds of poor he had also invited.

Blessed FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1182 AD - 1226 AD), deacon of the Church and founder of the Franciscan Order - dedicated himself to a life of simplicity and service to the sick and poor, and to the care of nature. One story has it that he was scolded by his father for giving all he had to a beggar who asked for alms. Undertook a famous mission to the Middle East during which he sought a resolution to the Crusades and a peaceful accommodation between Muslims and Christians.

HUGH LATIMER (1487 AD - 1555 AD), Bishop of Worcester and one of the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake for his faith under Queen Mary's reign - worthy successor to Wulfstan, Bishop Latimer inveighed heavily against the exploitative economic practices of the landowners and lords of his time, both Catholic and Protestant. Once said that '[t]he poor man hath title to the rich man's goods'.

Blessed WILLIAM LAUD (1573 AD - 1645 AD), Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr - often remembered as an apologist for High Church practice and for Blessed Charles I, the Martyr King, he was also an implacable opponent of the privileges of the wealthier classes, in particular of the practice of enclosures (which allowed wealthy landowners to 'privatise' lands once farmed by the poor, driving them in starving masses into the cities). This placed him at odds with both the landed upper classes and the growing proto-capitalist urban middle class. A full treatment of Archbishop Laud's agrarian social-justice activism may be found here.

MARY ASTELL (1666 AD - 1731 AD) of Newcastle, Anglo-Catholic author, philosopher and activist for women's rights - known for her book A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694), in which she advocates broader education and equal rights for women in English society on the grounds of Christian principles. Her work was not treated kindly by the supposedly-liberal Protestant society in which she lived, but she is (thankfully) enjoying a rediscovery by contemporary feminist thinkers and theologians.

OTTOBAH CUGOANO (1757 AD - ???? AD), Ghanaian abolitionist and member of the Sons of Africa - author of Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787, 1791) and friend and contemporary of OLAUDAH EQUIANO, GRANVILLE SHARP and WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, highly active in the movement to abolish slavery and to promote the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. His anti-slavery stance was motivated both by his personal experiences and by his Christian convictions.

Naturally, I understand that this is list is limited in scope, highly Anglocentric and by no means representative of the entire Church or the entirety of the ongoing movement for social and economic justice. But I hope that the point is clear - the label of 'social justice' Christian ought to be worn as a mark of pride, in defiance of the insults of our persecutors in the wider culture. We stand in a proud tradition which has sought and is still seeking to transform society in the image of Christ, in the service of 'the least of these' - not just in modernity, but in antiquity as well. We will not abandon it at the whim of a culture obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and power.

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