In a recent post (“The New Left”, 7/20/11) we issued a declaration that we were going to reclaim the term “Left” and redefine it in terms of who Jesus is and how he calls us to live and reflect his heart. I’d like to add a little background to some popular ideas (and misconceptions) of “the Left”, since the term that we want to reclaim has had quite a convoluted history, and has generated a lot of misunderstanding, for quite a long time. So ........
Where did all the “left/right” dichotomy come from in the first place? The terms first showed up (in politics) in France during its Revolution of 1789, when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. The terms went through a history as complex as the politics in France over the next century and more (including the appearance of more nuanced terms such as “center-left” or “extreme right”), but by 1947 historian Robert McIver noted in his book The Web of Government:
“The right is always the party sector associated with the interests of the upper or dominant classes, the left the sector expressive of the lower economic or social classes, and the center that of the middle classes. Historically this criterion seems acceptable. The conservative right has defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges and powers; the left has attacked them. The right has been more favorable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth or of wealth; the left has fought for the equalization of advantage or of opportunity, for the claims of the less advantaged. Defense and attack have met, under democratic conditions, not in the name of class but in the name of principle; but the opposing principles have broadly corresponded to the interests of the different classes.”
That ought to sound familiar: it’s pretty much identical to the battle going on today between Left and Right in this country — and it describes perfectly the principles that The Christian Left takes, in line with Christ and the rest of Scripture on defending justice and supporting the less advantaged.
“We’re the ‘left’”. “No, we’re the ‘left’ ...!”
So what should be the problem with that? Well, the problem comes from the competing political and social forces that have wrangled for control over how “the left” (or its professed support of “the people”) ought to be put into practice. Early “liberals” were actually from the middle class, aiming to protect themselves against aristocratic power (and “conservatives” arose to defend aristocratic privilege, in reaction to liberals — hence the idea of “reactionary”); later in the 19th century, socialist groups, at first allied with liberals, broke away when workers and “lower” classes sought more control of their work and political futures, since the middle-class capitalists held most of that control (at least, in the workplace). The very idea of socialism — an economic system, not originally a political one at all — arose from the ideal of the society (“we the people” would be another way of putting that) controlling material wealth and production, in order to promote more equality across society as a whole.
But as you can imagine, all sorts of disagreements about how best to apply that led to the competing political groups I mentioned just above. In the middle and later 19th century, socialism in turn led to the development of communism (a more extreme form, which held that only revolutionary change could bring about an ideally socialist society). Various forms of “socialism” ranged from the more democratic, to the more “statist” or centralized-control versions. Popular unrest over Russia’s involvement in the First World War paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution, in which the Communist Party seized power (and set the standard for “communism” as involving centralized state control, as separate from socialism as allowing for more democratic elements). The great tragedy of the 20th century, of course, was that autocratic groups so easily seized control in the name of “the people”, but then committed horrific genocides and instituted oppressive regimes in which “the people”, of course, had no control at all.
McCarthy era: no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
All that, of course, left a deep distaste in the more democratic-capitalist West, and naturally was the source of legitimate fears of “socialist” or “communist” infiltrations into democratic societies, especially in America. (The author of the Pledge of Allegiance, Baptist minister and Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy, ironically was booted from the pulpit in 1891 shortly before the Pledge was published, over his socialist views.) After the Second World War, and with the start of the Cold War — with the Soviet Union now our competing superpower, and an even greater threat — fears of communism and socialism reached fever pitch, climaxing with the McCarthy-era inquisition and “witch hunts” of suspected Communists throughout the U.S.A.
What about the “religious left”?
What about the “religious left”? That’s a whole different arena, of course (which may wait for another blog post to look at more deeply). But briefly, since the 19th century, especially during the last half of the 20th century, a whole host of views — ranging from fusions of Christianity and socialism, to “unorthodox” ideas that merge with some of what are often known as “New Age” beliefs, but often also aligning with ideas on the political or social left — have convinced much of conservative Christianity that, well, the “Christian left” doesn’t often have much to do with historic Christianity at all. That’s why, in most references to the “Christian left” in conservative Christian publications, the general perception is that “lefties” are probably not Christians at all.
Okay ... so what about The Christian Left?
So where does that leave our group, The Christian Left? Following Jesus, of course — at least, that’s always been and always will be our stated intent. Politically, we see the overwhelming theme in the Bible to support justice and defend the rights of the poor, the sick, and all the disadvantaged — which is at the original heart of what political groups on “the left” have always advocated. Religiously, we don’t take a doctrinally narrow view (or impose a religious “purity test”, nor exclude anyone from joining us, no matter their views on religion) as some groups on the Right tend to do; but neither do we have a problem with the heart of historic Christianity. Instead, again we want to emphasize the heart and life of Jesus himself, along with the rest of Scripture, as supporting justice equally for all in society (especially the poor, sick, or disadvantaged) — including the biblical insistence that it is most certainly the business of government, not just individuals or churches, to provide for the poor and needy — and we recognize the Bible’s strong call that all who consider themselves Christians “must live as Jesus did” (1 Jn 2.6).
So, to the political Right: sorry, but we are not out to impose fiendish plot to destroy Moose and Squirrel (or otherwise promote centralized, state control)! And to the religious Right: sorry, but we actually love Jesus Christ and want to follow him, as you profess to do also. We just take utterly seriously that walking our talk means applying the Golden Rule in everything, and that, as Scripture emphatically declares, it is government’s business to practice that as well.
To all our readers, then — the next time someone squawks at you over your involvement with something incongruously (as they think) called “The Christian Left”, you’ve got the chance for a little good old American value, freedom of speech, and maybe can educate some people out of misconceptions. You’re in pretty good company when you do that: Jesus is a teacher too, you know.
Sources: you can read a lot more about the histories of Left and Right, and about socialism, communism, and related topics, at these Wikipedia pages:
(Post submitted by featured blogger, Roger Smith, who also blogs at Roger’s Shrubbery.)