By Ray Gaston
On Saturday I hopped on the bus to go into Birmingham City Centre and attend the Joint Public Issues Team's very well organised conference on Poverty of Ambition - Churches and a Politics of Hope. The title and the fact that the conference had been fullly booked since early December made me expectant that this might be an opportunity for discussing how Christians could engage in resistance to the current government agenda and build of theologically informed politics of hope. Unfortunately I was sadly mistaken. The folk at JPIT had done a great job in bringing so many people together for such a conference (approx 150) but I fear they missed an opportunity. Their aim was not about resourcing Christians to engage in creative resistance to the growing idolatry of the market, the cuts and other government attacks upon the poor and marginalised but about maintaining a dialogue with the exisitng political establishment of think tanks and Government. As a result they had organised a conference for Christians on a Politics of Hope that was deviod of any overt theological content.
First up was Will Hutton who enlightened us with the fact that 'Socialism is dead and buried' just at the time, of course, when there has been a growing interest in the Marxist analysis of capitalism and an increasing engagement with the ideas of creative and open Marxist academics such as David Harvey. At the same time increasing numbers of young people are beginning to explore new ways of articulating and acting out a radical anti capitalist politics. Uninterested in engaging with this phenomenon - that he dismisses in his latest book - Hutton entertained his largely 50 years old plus audience with wisdom clearly drawn from various versions of 20th century social democracy - Tony Crosland, the SDP and early 'progressive' Blairism . All of which are about as tired politically as the patsies of Stalinist Communism and Thatcherite neo liberalism that he set up as the alternatives to this rehash of centrist social democracy that he presented to us as a new vision of ..... wait for it....Fairness!
Second up was a very defensive Liberal Democrat Minister Andrew Stunnellwho was feeling sore that he was being held to account by brothers and sisters in Christ who had described his activities in Government as 'totally unacceptable' in his demoninational paper The Baptist Times. What was most surprising and flattering was the 10 minutes he then spent on engaging with the Common Wealth Statement that the folks at JPIT had kindly sent him as part of the briefing papers, He described it as 'too assured' and 'could be at the back of the Old Testament'. In a conversation with him over lunch I discovered that this reference to the Hebrew Bible was not about his willingness to ascribe the statement the status of Holy Scripture but a form of traditional Christian supercessionism in relation to Judaism and it's scriptures through a spiritualising of the gospels and Jesus' witness. Our interpretation of Jesus in The Common Wealth Statement clearly made him far too Jewish for Mr Stunnel's liking. The only positive thing about the morning was seeing conference participants give Mr Stunell a decidedly cool reception and not allowing him to get away without some strong questioning about The 'Big Society'.
It was a relief therefore to have to head across the city centre to St John's Ladywood after lunch as I had promised Councillor Salma Yaqoob that I would come to hear her and Rabbi Margaret Jacobi address the Progressive Christian Network on Radical Faith, I'm not a great fan of PCN which professes the sort of modernist theological liberalism that I find more self indulgently bourgeois than radical - more Jack Spong than Daniel Berrigen. I got there as Salma was a short way into her talk which was a passionate exposition of how her faith informs and inspires her in her political action. In response to a question about how have other faiths informed her practice Salma highlighted the inspiration she had received as a politically active Muslim from reading the Common Wealth Statement and particularly it's attack on the idolatry of the Market.
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi from Birmingham Progressive Synagogue in her speech highlighted the influence upon her of the Hasidic Rabbi and radical social activist Abraham Heschel.
Both women articulated a faith that sought to radically critique the social order - the kind of radical faith and confidence sadly lacking in the conference at Carrs Lane earlier in the day.