In a recent piece, Richard Allen responded to the manifesto of the revived organization Christians for Socialism (CfS). The return of CfS is an exciting sign of the times. I’ve signed up for their email list and may even start a local chapter.
Allen is also thrilled to see the emergence of a 21st century version of CfS. (The original CfS started in 1971 in Chile.) He is particularly favorable toward the claim that CfS is “neither church nor party.” So am I.
But, following Italian Autonomist thinking, he takes that claim in a direction that I believe will be fruitless. Allen disputes the goodness and necessity of both the political party and theological orthodoxy.
I will readily admit that all four entities in the title of this piece (Christianity, socialism, party, and orthodoxy) have been horribly misused countless times. Despite those realities, I also find that all four entities are worthy of both heartfelt belief and dedicated work.
In what follows, I argue that Christianity without orthodoxy and socialism without a party are not quite worthy of our time and energy. Neither Christianity without orthodoxy nor socialism without a party are fully able to offer people the most significant things that Christianity and socialism should respectively be able to offer: salvation and liberation.
(Of course, salvation and liberation are, as Gustavo Gutiérrez has pointed out, inseparable, though I would say they can be distinguished from one another. The material and the spiritual are like human action and divine action in that they are utterly intertwined with one another but also not the exact same thing.)
Not a church or a party
Let’s start where I agree with both the CfS Manifesto and Allen’s response.
CfS absolutely should not be a church. It may seek to transform churches, but the church is a community of people who have been called out of the world who nevertheless have not left the world. It is a group of Zealots who have met Jesus, tax collectors (collaborators with imperialism!) who have met Jesus, prostitutes who have met Jesus, Canaanite women who have met Jesus, etc.
The church is church solely because of the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. I believe that that can and does mean that, insofar is Jesus is truly present, people will be inclined toward human liberation. I also believe that there’s a fine line between being a prophetic voice for justice and being an insufferable asshole.
A church consisting only of one political perspective or oriented only toward the political realm won’t be the body of Christ. Salvation, as Gutiérrez says, is not only social and political. It is also personal, spiritual, and psychological. The church must not forget that it needs to offer the inner salvation that comes from God even to ideologically reactionary sinners (while taking care not to separate that inner salvation from material liberation, a difficult balance).
So CfS cannot be a church.
Nor can it be a party, though. After the history of Christian support for fascism (in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Finland, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay–to name just the greatest hits), there should be nothing more frightening than a group made up only of Christians trying to seize political power.
And yet, that’s what a party should do. Political parties exist to seize power and enact their vision of what society should be like.
But the problem isn’t simply that Christians doing politics as a group of Christians will inevitably be fascist, since they won’t always. The problem is that a Christian political party runs counter to the deepest ideals of both socialism and Christianity. I address that in the next section.
Churches certainly have much to learn from political groups about the social and political dimensions of salvation. Political groups have much to learn from churches about inner liberation. But there are good reasons that they are separate institutions.
There are also good reasons for not creating churches only filled with socialists or political parties with only Christians as members. CfS is rightly seeking to be a third kind of thing.
Fight for your right to join a party
Allen takes the CfS Manifesto’s disclaimer that CfS is not a political party beyond the Manifesto itself to question the very notion of a unified party. Following Italian Autonomist thinking, he claims that “What makes a political movement viable is its almost rabid defense of difference.”
Political parties as an institutional form, Allen argues, are shaped by capitalist ideology to such an extent that they “are not capable of actualizing liberation.”
Against this, I believe that the party form is essential for material liberation at this point in history. In the context of Christian socialism, I also find that there are specifically Christian reasons to join a party or similar political organization as part of one’s work for human liberation.
Political parties are not intrinsically holy or morally pure. They are not dropped down from heaven like the New Jerusalem, fully formed and well-stocked with precious stones.
They are, however, utterly necessary in a world shaped by power. Our world is dominated by the evil powers mentioned by St. Paul, which take on modern guises such as capitalism and hunger, patriarchy and gendercide, imperialism and racism. This list could obviously be much longer.
Against these powers, we should not fight simply with the weapons of this world. Much like St. Paul, though, we (in North America, at least) don’t even have that option. The poor and oppressed of our societies couldn’t defeat the ruling powers with conventional weapons even if that was the plan.
Nevertheless, we can exercise power as we fight for human liberation. That power means solidarity, mutual aid, strikes, worker-controlled economic structures, and ideological liberation. It means the sorts of things that groups like labor unions can do. But it eventually means something like the party form.
Actual, material solidarity in our world almost inevitably requires a political party. Attempts to achieve liberation without a broad network and coherent organization will be relatively powerless in the face of the overwhelming forces imposing hierarchical structures on our societies.
Joining a party is also a helpful spiritual exercise for Christians. As the CfS Manifesto points out, Christian privilege is a reality in many societies (in most of the Americas and Europe). From the perspective of Christian doctrine, that privilege is something to give up.
Christians are, in theory at least, imitators of Jesus, who gave up his position and dwelt among those of us who were nothing like him. If a divine being can carry that out to the point of death, it is a relatively small sacrifice for Christians to submit to the practice of organizing with people from other religious or non-religious perspectives.
If we are to be considering the interests of others above our own, there are few better ways of doing that than joining a party composed mostly of people who aren’t Christians, joining with others in fighting for the liberation of everyone.
Jesus told his followers to do just that, to be salt mixed into the world for its flavoring and benefit. He talked about a kingdom of God that is like a tree that provides shelter to all. So Christians must be willing to organize with others, even in a form as imperfect and impure as the political party.
Toeing the churchly line
Toward the end of his response, Allen takes an sudden turn. He asserts that “heterodoxy is more viable politically than orthodoxy.” He considers “the expansive possibility of thought” to be something that is only possible in a context of heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy.
That, I think, is mistaken. To say why, we have to define orthodoxy. As I understand it, Christian orthodoxy does not involve ethical issues. I, like most Christians, disagree with many historically-dominant ethical teachings in the Christian tradition, such as the acceptance of slavery.
Orthodoxy, as I understand it, means belief in the basic doctrines outlined in the primary creeds of the ancient church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
Is it politically unhelpful to believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate? I actually find it extremely politically relevant that the most truly holy person was unjustly arrested by the police, tortured by an occupying army, and executed at the hands of European colonizers.
I find it remarkable that this person, of all people, was considered worthy of being resurrected and seated at God’s right hand. It’s almost too perfect that a victim of imperialism and unjust policing has been appointed to judge the living and the dead.
There’s the thought that there is a communion of saints, of imitators of that resurrected person, who are also raised to life forever: Óscar Romero! Fannie Lou Hamer! Sitting at the right hand of God the almighty from which justice will come!
There’s the promise of the resurrection of the body. The body, beaten under the reign of the evil powers of this world, beaten by racism, by poverty, by patriarchy. The queer body, the black body, the Muslim body, raised and brought to the fullness of life, free from material oppression. Is that politically viable?
And the Spirit, the one who haunts our world with the spectre of life, the one poured out upon sons and daughters alike. That Spirit is fully the Lord and the giver of life. That Spirit is the one who spoke by the prophets when they raised their voices against the collectors of ivory couches, against those who crush the poor.
Is every line in the creeds reducible to a political meaning? Of course not, and no one would expect that. At some level, orthodoxy is simply a question of theological truth or falsehood. But one cannot deny that those doctrines, which lend themselves to endlessly creative thought, have shown the potential to inspire movements toward human liberation among people who believe in a God who has brought and is bringing salvation.
Is liberation possible without a party? Probably not. Is salvation available without orthodoxy? Yes, one might make enough qualifications to fill a book, but yes.
But while one could strive toward liberation outside a party, that seems unnecessary. And while one could think Christianly without orthodoxy, it appears to be at the cost of no longer speaking a deeply persuasive language.
Whatever the problems with parties and orthodoxy (especially when used in the service of claims to authority and hierarchical structures), neither are inherently opposed to human liberation. Christians who are also socialists can actually benefit greatly from deep immersion in both.