In Chapter 8, Williams challenges the widespread modern belief that Christianity
is a "right-wing" value system.
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants
to be first must be your slave.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found
difficult; and left untried.
For many people in the West of left-wing ideological persuasion, there is an
obstacle to Christian faith even more formidable than the existence of
suffering. That is the association in their minds between Christianity and
right-wing politics. The former leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Mark
Latham, is representative of this mindset: 'Organised religion: just another
form of conservative command and control in our society'. A lot of people who
are close to me also think in this way; and I once did myself.
The more one learns about Christianity, however, the more evident it becomes
that the Latham view is shallow and simplistic. It is not entirely wrong: there
is no doubt that some denominations of the Christian church, especially in the
United States, have aligned themselves with right-wing political parties. In
addition, many aspects of Christian theology are aptly described as
conservative. But in saying that, I do not use the word 'conservative' as a
synonym for right-wing ideology in general, as I suspect Latham did. Rather,
Christianity is conservative in this commendable sense: it teaches that we
should place a high value on certain long-established moral and ethical
precepts, and be wary of any form of change that threatens the primacy of those
In other respects, Christianity is anything but conservative. At a personal
level, it challenges people to change the way they live their lives, to make
what Kierkegaard called an act of 'infinite resignation'. Sometimes the change
that results from following Christianity is radical, as it was for the Disciples
called at the Lake of Gennesaret. Jesus was blunt about the disruption that such
change may cause (see Matthew 10:34).
At a political level, too, Christianity is (or should be) a dynamic force. It
should not be equated with timid preservation of the status quo, nor with what
'works' in some pragmatic sense, but with what is proper and just. In my
judgment, Christianity is more 'left-wing' than 'right-wing' in emphasis; but
ultimately it is a set of beliefs that, as a whole, defies such labelling.
After a lifetime of immersion in politics, and a decade of learning about
Christianity, I have reached six broad conclusions. The following explanations
of them may assist other people to overcome any prejudice against Christianity
that is based on political ideology. My purpose is not to espouse a
party-political message. I want to encourage people on both the Left and the
Right to think again about some of their political views in the light of
Christian principles, and to think again about Christianity in the light of
their political principles.
Christianity reflects some seminal 'left-wing' values
The Jesus of the Gospels was an agitator, a pacifist and a champion of the
lowly. He was quite disinterested in the accumulation of wealth. He espoused
principles that are in many ways unrecognisable in the views of some modern-day
adherents of Christianity.
So-called religious 'conservatives' in the United States, and increasingly in
Australia, are regularly to be heard invoking Jesus's name. Yet it is hard to
escape the conclusion that, if Jesus were alive today, some of those same people
would label Him a dangerous radical, an appeaser and a 'bleeding heart'. As Tim
Costello has asked rhetorically: 'How did the message of Jesus ever become
aligned with big business, military spending, gun ownership, tax cuts and
disdain for the environment?' The situation is sad and perplexing. It is as if
some Christians just have not read the Gospels.
Jesus regarded agape - the practice of charity toward one's fellow man - as
fundamental to right behaviour. He emphasised time and again that each of us
would be judged by how we have treated the weakest people in society. According
to Matthew's Gospel, this was the very last thought that Jesus left with the
Disciples. In the account of the Final Judgment, Jesus explicitly equated
helping the needy with having helped Him:
'...For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you
gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed
clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison
and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did
we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When
did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply,
'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers
of mine, you did for me.'
This was not an isolated thought but a central theme of Jesus's teaching, also
reflected in the parables of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) and of the rich man
and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). It is also a dominant theme in the Letter of James,
one of the most challenging books of the New Testament. St James, who was most
likely one of Jesus's brothers, stressed the importance of good works as well as
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