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The church and social protest: counting the cost

Now that St Paul’s has belatedly decided that it has enough common ground with the Occupy London protesters to work with them rather than against them, the conversation naturally turns to the question of what sort of economic policy, etc., the church might propose in the place of rampant acquisitive capitalism.

The announcement of a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue already contained details of a new initiative led by the former investment banker Ken Costa aimed at “reconnecting the financial with the ethical”.

That sounds safe and probably ineffectual enough (read Jonathan Bartley’s concerns), but once the excitement provoked by the turnaround has worn off, people will begin to remark on the fact that the church generally, from St Paul’s downwards, does not always set a very good example of material restraint. What does the church have to do to be seen to be putting its money where its mouth is? How socially radical does the church have to be if its prophetic stance is to carry weight and integrity?

Kester Brewin has posted some good thoughts on the matter of alternatives. First, he notes that it is “part of the corruption of power to insist that any protest or critique against the dominant system comes fully formed”. The fiasco of the last couple of weeks, even if it made St Paul’s something of a “laughing stock”, has not necessarily been a bad thing. Secondly, he makes the point that the situation will not be remedied by resorting to the “violence” of punishing evil bankers and somehow redistributing their ill-gotten wealth, because that simply perpetuates “an essentially unfair and unjust system”.

In other words, the changes that need to be made need first to come at the inner, personal level. We need to deal with our own desires to be rich and wealthy, to use more than our fair share of resources. Without that, all we are wanting is to swap places with those who have done better than ourselves out of the current system.

Kester then goes on to ask what would constitute “Christian” economics, and he suggests that the Anglican Church—he has in mind especially the “grandeur and opulence” of St Paul’s—has drifted a long way from the original radical Jesus ethic. To underline the point he contrasts the communalist practices of the early church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:32-35) with the 38th of the Church of England’s 39 articles:

The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

All sorts of complex issues are raised here, and Kester acknowledges that there are “nuances and interpretations”. I will make three points with respect to the biblical background to his arguments.

First, while protest against the dominant system does not have to come “fully formed”, it needs to be well interpreted. The Rev Richard Coles is quoted in the Guardian as saying, “Authentic Christianity is always a PR disaster; there hasn’t been a worse disaster for the church than the Crucifixion and look what came out of that.” But in the same way Jesus adroitly interpreted his action in the temple, the post-Easter church quickly made sense of his death in the light of Israel’s story.

Secondly, the symbolic protest in the temple foreshadowed a radical change of the system, but in the end it was an event of extreme violence that razed the old system to the ground. The church may have to get used to the idea that system change will be traumatic.

But does this mean, thirdly, that the church needs to go back to the radical communalism of the early chapters of Acts? That depends. What we see in Acts is an ad hoc response to a particular social need—it was how the early believers dealt with the crisis precipitated by the success of their prophetic vocation. It is not at any point presented as a universal ideal or as normative, but whenever the particular needs arise, whenever the prophetic vocation triggers a material and social crisis, the response may have to be radical and courageous. St Paul’s has learned that accommodating the protesters for the sake of its prophetic calling will be a costly business.