By Tim Hardy
The Christian anarchists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933. They rejected war and pledged support for workers and the dispossessed, maintaining these views even in the face of growing persecution from a state that wanted to destroy what it perceived as a red menace. The Catholic Workers branded the profit motive immoral. They condemned capitalism because it led to grotesque inequality. They worked directly to help those in need, providing food and shelter.
Over 150 of the soup kitchens the Catholic Workers founded are still going around the world. Each is autonomous. There is no central authority. Each refuses to accept grants or to pay taxes or to accept any of the bureaucratic restrictions imposed by the state such as the need to apply for permits or for non-profit status. The food they provide to the homeless is donated by people in the neighbourhood not the government.
I am comfortable in my atheism. I should have no problem with other people believing whatever they like but at times I do. Like many ex-Catholics, I have a problem with faith.
I am genderqueer and not exclusively heterosexual. In an ideal world that should concern nobody but me and those with whom I am intimate. Unfortunately I grew up in the era of the homophobic legislation Section 28 that had a chilling effect on discussions of sexuality. Gay-bashing tabloids and Christian bigots were unchallenged in their abuse of anyone who was not straight or cis-gendered and young queer people were left alone, sweating in the dark.
These days the Conservatives pretend they have changed and the tabloids have switched to baiting Muslims and the disabled. The Catholic Church still stands unrepentant, gladly allying itself with tyrants to block measures in the UN to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual or gender identity a crime and condemning hundreds of thousands to abuse as a result, abuse that can escalate to serious violence and murder.
My support for a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion is another issue that frequently puts me at odds with some faith groups.
Sadly there are many religious bodies that promote intolerance and harmful attitudes. I am ashamed, however, that my instinctive reaction when faced with such religious intolerance is to respond in a way that is not that different to the behaviour of the racist who generalises to make judgements about all members of an ethnic group or nation.
Many Christians, like Day, would agree with Gandhi’s judgement, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
When you listen to Prime Minister David Cameron justifying selling arms to tyrants or former Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner John Yates making excuses for a regime that tortures and murders dissidents, it is worth recalling that, for these men and for many others, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Men without morals, they capitulate to the false necessities of a brutal world view that warns if they don’t do it, someone else will and that one can only get ahead by getting one over on someone else. So we sell weapons that will be used to kill innocents in order to stop other nations doing it and profiting from the same deal. That’s what moral, responsible capitalism demands.
For religious people, on the other hand, “That’s how things are” just doesn’t wash. They have a faith at odds with the blind faith of capitalist realism.
For this reason alone, however challenging, those of us who wish to build a better world should embrace people of faith in solidarity and resist the divide and conquer tactics of those who do not want change because they profit from the way things are.
Since the coalition took power, the bigots have been crawling out of the woodwork. The right-wing papers, apologists for the rich and powerful, are lining up articles attacking gay rights and women’s rights then under cover of this artillery barrage of bigotry start whining that Christians are being persecuted in the UK. Such an invitation to attack is hard to resist.
We have to acknowledge that there are strong anti-clerical and anti-religious tendencies on the left but the desire to eradicate religion is futile. As the Soviet minister of education Anatolii Lunacharskii realised as early as 1928, “Religion is like a nail; the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood.” But it is not just a matter of being pragmatic. Those of us who reject a faith in the spiritual realm, need to recognise the value of the human desires and dreams expressed through religious faith.
We commonly describe acts of cruelty by others as inhumane because we find it hard to accept that humanity includes the capacity for such malevolence.
Likewise some ascribe forgiveness and unconditional love to divine powers because they cannot accept humanity is capable of such greatness of spirit.
The Catholic Worker movement, like all progressive movements, is growing weaker in a society that is increasingly atomised and lacks the structures of organised labour and strong local communities. The right is on the ascendant around the world. The reaction to the greatest crisis in capitalism since the Depression has been for the rich and powerful to systematically roll back the hard-won progress of over a hundred years of struggle and to attempt to bring about an order closer to feudalism than to the ideals of democracy, a world where the elite are given special dispensation from the law and from responsibilities to others and the most vulnerable are made to pay for the mistake of their new masters.
Those who believe in a better world have a potential ally in those of faith. For Day, spirituality and the moral life were founded in the constant fight for justice and in compassion for those in need. Whether or not we believe in the gospels from which she derived her faith, these values and a refusal to accept a system that condemns some to suffer so that others may live lives of luxury are the values we need. Only this will carry us through the growing darkness of a world where those in charge seem unable or unwilling to steer the machine of civilisation away from its headlong passage down the path to total self-destruction.
(Originally published in The Occupied Times of London.)