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Jacobin - December 2018

Born into a family steeped in the tradition of Christian non-conformism, Tony Benn would later go on to become Britain’s best known socialist. Benn’s mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn was a theologian and founder member of the League of the Church Militant, the predecessor organization to the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

An inspiring force in Benn’s life, Margaret would teach her young son that the story of the Bible was based on the struggle between “the Kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness.”

Later in his life, Benn would assert that he was a “Christian agnostic,” unsure of the existence of God, but someone who believed in “Jesus the prophet, not Christ the King,” the historical Jesus — “the carpenter of Nazareth” — who preached social justice and egalitarianism.

This is the main text of a lecture delivered in November 1980 at Mansfield College Chapel, Oxford in which Benn looks into the revolutionary history behind Christ’s message and its relationship to socialist thought.

— Max Shanly

... Personal Salvation Seen as Revolutionary Experience

Few would question the use of the word “revolutionary” to describe the effect upon an individual of his or her conversion to the Christian faith with its sense of personal re-birth and the comforting certainty of eternal life.

Historically many churches appear to have been, and to remain, more concerned with the task of preaching personal salvation than with the social imperatives spelled out in Jesus’s reply.

Generations of churchmen have formulated creeds and liturgies, discussed the mystical aspects of theology and have worked within ecclesiastical hierarchies to interpret the word of God for the faithful, supported by various disciplines designed to secure their compliance.

The Injunction to Be Good

It has also been true that Ecclesiastical and Temporal power have often been fused into a combined establishment to secure the submission of the people to the authoritarian demands of church and state.

In such situations the social imperatives relating to our obligations to practice neighborly love were shrunk into a vague and generalized injunction directed to the rich and powerful to express their love by being good and kind; and to the poor to return that love by being patient and submissive.

Both rich and poor, powerful and weak, were then reassured by the church that in the world to come each would have their just reward and all suffering and injustice would be swept away for all eternity.

Neighborly Love as Revolutionary Doctrine

Not surprisingly, this interpretation of the teachings of Jesus did not commend itself to the poor and the disinherited who saw through this argument and rejected the role allocated to them in this world — of accepting injustice. Thus, outside the established churches, and in parallel with them, the practical commandment to practice true neighborly love based upon an acceptance of our common humanity acquired an impetus of its own.

This radical interpretation of the teachings of Jesus spread wherever the Bible was available for study — and no doubt explains why the authorities were so anxious to keep it out of the hands of the laity. In this way the message reached and influenced a far wider audience — including those for whom social action was much more relevant and meaningful than the call to personal salvation.

H. G. Wells in his history of the world — himself an atheist — wrote this about the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s teachings:

In view of what he plainly said, is it any wonder that all who were rich and prosperous felt a horror of strange things, a swimming of their world at his teaching? He was dragging out all the little private reservations they had made from social service into the light of a universal religious life. He was like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto. In the white blaze of this kingdom of his there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride and precedence; no motive indeed and no reward but love.
Is it any wonder that men were dazzled and blinded and cried out against him? Even his disciples cried out when he would not spare them the light. Is it any wonder that the priests realised that between this man and themselves there was no choice but that he or priest-craft should perish? Is it any wonder that the Roman soldiers, confronted and amazed by something soaring over their comprehension and threatening all their disciplines, should take refuge in wild laughter and crown him with thorns and robe him in purple and make a mock Caesar out of him? For to take him seriously was to enter upon a strange and alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, to essay an incredible happiness. ...
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