15.28: This post has now been updated as a draft version was published in error.
The figure of Jesus bestrides history in a way that few others do. The impact of his life and his words still resonate in a way that even those who deny his divinity cannot deny. He however was and is a master at never being co-opted into political agendas, so I am wary of doing what I am about to do, as to claim him for one humanly fallible political party is of course a nonsense. To paraphrase Lincoln, the lazy way is to claim that God is on our side, rather than doing the harder work of making sure we are on his. This is an effort to kickstart a debate on that longer process by provoking some response and thought.
Jesus’ actions and pronouncements were often intensely political. We forget that when he was addressing and critiquing “religious leaders” that these same leaders were also the political leaders of Israel. But it is also ludicrous to shrink Jesus into a merely political figure. In the words of the famous Carlsberg advert he simply reaches and transforms the parts that mere politics can’t reach. But in light of the present media debate about faith and politics I thought it would be interesting to ask the following question – and please note its careful phrasing – “Why might Jesus vote Labour?” Here are my top ten reasons. Others will have their own, and of course others will legitimately give me 10 reasons why he wouldn’t. And you know what. That’s fine. Let’s have the conversation.
1: His identification with the poor and marginalized. In the book of Matthew, Jesus acutely identifies himself with those who are naked, hungry and imprisoned. “‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The Labour party has always had a commitment to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves”. The Bible contains over 2,000 other verses which talk about poverty and justice and many theologians speak of Jesus having a “bias to the poor”. Since its inception, there has been a continual attempt in the Labour party to reflect this bias, through structural change. There is a desire, in the words of Martin Luther King, to not merely play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but to go back and improve the security of the Jericho road to make sure that no-one else gets mugged.
2: His view that his Kingdom was more important than any earthly kingdom. Nationalism is nothing new. The Jews of the first century were hoping for a national Messiah to once more turn them into “a great nation”, again operating as the political powerhouse of their region. But Jesus confounded their desires. What they got was someone who announced that justice, mercy and compassion were to be extended to insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies alike. He was always clear that his and our primary allegiance should to be to “the Kingdom of God”, and not to any earthly kingdom. Labour has always had an internationalist tradition, favouring international co-operation and reconciliation to nationalism. This has been expressed through positive engagement with the European Union, peace-making in Northern Ireland, the commission for Africa, and asylum policy.
3: In Jesus’ teaching there is a strong ethic of working for “the common good”, to serve a community with all our different gifts, rather than our jobs purely being about wealth creation for ourselves. This is reflected in Labour’s commitment to protect those public services which will never have great market value, but immense benefit to the public. Fair progressive taxation helps to provide a context where we can all progress together, rather than sacrificing those who are struggling at the end of the line.
4: Jesus firmly placed himself in the centre of the “Big Story” of creation and redemption. For Christians who believe that we are called to be part of God’s “Big Story” i.e. the restoration, redemption and reconciliation of all things in creation, Labour’s policies of engagement fly in the face of conservative (small c) theologies of escape for the privileged few to a separate heavenly realm. We can be permanent stewards of this place that we call home, not temporary residents. This is reflected in Labour’s responsiveness to Christian NGO and church campaigns to increase its already ground-breaking carbon emissions cut target from 60% to 80% – the first Government worldwide to set legally binding targets.
5: In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of speaking on his behalf yet actually turning him away, by rejecting the pleas for hospitality from the naked, hungry and poor. The Department for International Development was created by the present Labour Government, and Gordon Brown has shown leadership globally on international development issues including debt cancellation and aid. The tangible effects of debt cancellation are there for all to see across the world. No other world leader has continually reminded the global community of the dangers and injustice of not meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
6: Trickle-down economics have been around since Old Testament times. They didn’t work then and they still don’t work now, despite the well-financed propaganda of the rich that tells us how important it is for us that they are rich. Evidence of God’s opinion on the subject is there throughout the Bible where for example, the concept of Jubilee is necessary. God affirms wealth creation, but recognises that in our innate selfishness, the rich will become richer and the poor poorer unless there is a regular “re-calibration”. Every 50 years land is handed back to its original owners. Fields are left unharvested at the edges to allow those in poverty the dignity of working for themselves and survival. Jesus also had something to say about rich men, camels and needles. Labour’s introduction of the top-rate tax band and recent regulation of city excess are good examples of laws that are honest about our potential selfishness as humans. At the other end of the scale, practical help like the Winter Fuel Allowance have greatly assisted those over 60 to pay for heating.
7: Jesus affirmed the dignity of work. The truth that we are all made in the image of God is the starting point for human dignity. We are therefore all imbued with God’s divine creativity, no matter how blurred or distorted this image has become through our circumstances or bad decisions. The Labour tradition believes that no-one is beyond help, and that the dignity of work should be available for all those who are able. There has been a clear focus on reducing unemployment and encouraging people into work through Welfare to Work. Fair employment legislation is ensuring that workers have rights, and that there is no abuse of cheap labour. Against much opposition, a minimum wage has been introduced successfully.
8: Jesus was passionate about extended families as the building blocks of community. He emphasised the importance of covenantal relationships, rather than “as long as I feel like it” easy-come, easy-go connections. Through Labour there has been unparalleled practical support for families through programmes like Surestart, free nursery places for three and four year olds, rights to flexible working, and the increase in statutory paid leave.
9: If we are all made in God’s image, then we have an inherent equality which Labour fights to recognise irrespective of social class, geography, race, colour or creed. There is now greater potential for equality of opportunity through excellence in education for all, not only the privileged. There have been record levels of investment, including the Schools Rebuilding Programme and City Academy programme. Another roadblock to equality of opportunity, poor health, has been impacted by massive investment in the NHS leading to drastically reduced waiting times and improved services across all medical areas, but especially with regard to cancer treatment and cardiac care.
10: Jesus did believe that there was such a thing as society (e.g. – Love your neighbour as yourself) We are not just a collection of individuals. The very nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit fleshes out the importance and vitality of community. This resonance of divine DNA in us drives us to communion rather than competition as we “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)
Andy Flannagan is the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement