270: RED CHRISTIANS #29: Tony Benn

I was very sorry when Tony Benn died recently.

That’s 3 great guys dead in the first quarter of 2014:
Nelson Mandela (whose letter to me thanking me for the (small) role I played in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement I shall always treasure);
Howard Clark, the theorist of Non-Violent Direct Action who worked for Peace News in London, whom I never had the good fortune to meet, but whose articles and books will be referred to in future Zingcreed Posts;
and now Tony Benn ex peer of the realm, Labour cabinet minister, and socialist shaker and stirrer par excellence.
I’ll miss Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole series of novels too. Her subtle, witty critiques of the Monarchy and the British class system were outstanding.

Benn appeared  on many of the platforms at rallies I attended over the years. He supported almost every British protest movement you have ever heard of, and could be relied on to give a warm humane speech off the cuff on any topic from human rights to nuclear disarmament (i). His slight lisp and polite handling of questioners made him stand out from other more shouty types. His tobacco pipe and flask of tea were two other notable features!

I last saw him in August 2013 in Tavistock Square for the annual Hiroshima day meeting. He had grown a white beard and sat throughout the event without making a speech. I knew he was getting old then.

When he spoke it was almost as if my own thoughts were being articulated; his Christian values, his emphasis on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; his constant reference to the history of the Labour Movement and the Unions – if ever I was on the same wavelength as a public figure, then it was he.

But I disagreed with him over Uranium mining in Namibia. When he was Minister for Technology in Harold Wilson’s Labour government his job was to secure fuel for Britain’s new nuclear power stations (and atom bombs). The African miners worked for low pay in appalling conditions, inhaling radioactive dust as they dug. One night myself and several members of CANUC (Campaign Against the Namibian Uranium Contract) protested outside his garden gate. There was no response from the house. It was more Canute than Canuc – no way could we few demonstrators stem the tide of Uranium imports.

In 1979 he gave a series of 3 brief talks on BBC Radio Four’s morning ‘god slot’ Thought for the Day on Christian Socialism. At the time I was on the Executive Committee of the Christian Socialist Movement here in London, and I suggested that we approach the BBC with a view to reprinting his talks as a leaflet, which was subsequently done (iii). In the same year he gave a talk to an Oxford College on the same topic (iv). I use both these little known sources, which I am lucky enough to have copies of, in compiling my assessment of his philosophical stance.

Benn divides Christians into two groups:

  • those who used religion in history to ‘keep the rabble in line’, like the ‘divine right of kings’ in English history;
  • and those able to study the radical teachings of Jesus for themselves once the Bible was translated into English.

These latter believers, especially the poor and disinherited, he extols as “practicing true neighbourly love based upon an acceptance of our common humanity.” Once the ‘message’,  like a genie, was out of the bottle, it reached a wider audience which included “those for whom social action was much more relevant than the call to personal salvation.”

“This radical interpretation of the message of brotherhood and its clear anti-establishment agitation has surfaced time and again throughout history. Wycliffe and the Lollards were engaged in it. So was the Reverend John Ball whose support for the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 cost him his life. In Ball’s view of history “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ which lies at the root of Congregationalism; or the Quakers‘ ‘inner light’ were, and remain, profoundly revolutionary in their impact upon the hierarchies of the church itself. The Levellers expressed their political philosophy in Christian terms: “There is no ground in nature or scripture why why one man should have £1000 per annum, another not £1. The common people have been kept under blindness and ignorance, and have remained servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry. But God has now opened their eyes and discovered unto them their Christian liberty.”

Benn claims that “revolutionary ideas deriving from the Bible and the Carpenter of Nazareth have spread to influence hundreds of millions of people.” He includes the ‘sacred’ ideas of human rights, and cites the 1776 American Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Another highly revolutionary conviction is that conscience (God-given) is above (man-made) laws. Thus people were right to struggle for civil liberties including the right to worship in our own way and to hold dissenting political views.

Britain’s heritage of democracy and all the political ideas associated with it derive from the teachings of Jesus. If we are ‘our brother’s and our sister’s keepers’ then ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ and from that derive most of our contemporary ideas about solidarity and the moral responsibilities of trade unions.

The right of each man and woman to vote in elections also stems from their right to be treated as fully human and equal in the sight of God.

So too does the pressure for social justice and greater equality which the ballot box allows the electors to exercise through their vote. Such feelings can be found in the Great Charter of 1842.

Many democratic socialists in this country look back to the teachings of Jesus as a major and continuing source of political inspiration over centuries of thought and effort. Their secular interpretation of these teachings may separate them from Christians, in particular over the issue of sin- is it simply about the conduct of individuals or is it institutionalised in the structures of economic, industrial and political power which Christian churches may support, sustain and even bless? Socialists argue that neighbourly love must be sought in this world, not postponed until the next one.

The socialist interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan would cast many churches and churchmen in the role of priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side ; and would identify the socialist position with that of the Good Samaritan who was less concerned with the personal salvation of the traveller who was stripped and beaten than with his immediate need for medical treatment, accommodation and food in this world here and now.

Unless Christians can respond institutionally and politically to that socialist challenge their faith can become an escape from reality and indeed an escape from the challenge posed by Jesus himself.

Benn’s role as an oratorical rallier of the public will be taken over by other left-wing Londoners such as my former councillor in Haringey, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Diane Abbott MP, and Tariq Ali (who was secretary of the Oxford Union when I was up there reading Science), plus assorted greens, trade union leaders and single-issue campaigners; but none of them will have a Christian analysis of British history and politics. I shall miss that even though I’m an atheist.

P.S. (written a few months later). Today we found out that Benn was not the sort of Christian who practised Voluntary Poverty. In his will he left £5 million to his family as well as his ancestral home, Stansgate Abbey in Essex

(i) Benn, Tony “Arguments for Socialism” ed Chris Mullins. Penguin (1979)
(ii) Benn, Tony, editor “Writings on the Wall. A radical and socialist anthology 1215-1984” Faber and Faber (1984)
(iii) Benn, Tony “Our common humanity” Christian Socialist Movement Occasional Paper 1 (1979)
(iv) Benn, Tony “Revolutionary Christianity” the text of an address delivered at Mansfield College Chapel, Oxford, on November 1979
(v) Benn, T. “Gerrard Winstanley. A Common Treasury” Verso revolutions series (2011)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Red Christian documents #6: Revolutionary  Christianity by Tony Benn (UK 1979)
Similarities between Christianity & socialism
Alphabetical index of other ‘Red Christian’ posts

[270: Linked & Indexed, t&c]



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