Eyes on the skies, feet on the ground

A report on the one-day conference "I'm Talking About Jerusalem", sponsored by SOF magazine and Political Theology journal, at the Abbey Centre, Westminster, on October 27

Alison Webster, as Assistant Editor of Political Theology and Reviews Editor of SOF, chaired the morning session and welcomed more than one hundred participants to the conference.

David Boulton, retiring editor of SOF, briefly introduced the Sea of Faith Network and outlined the aims of the conference: to focus on the tension between the prophetic voice of principle in politics and the pull of pragmatism. "Our programme is prophecy, pragmatism, power and practical politics, pulled together by a practitioner, a pastor and a politician. But there won't be any bar to exploring the rest of the alphabet! We want to explore what it means to keep your eyes on the skies and your feet on the ground."

Graeme Smith, editor of Political Theology, introduced "the journal of Christian Socialism", published by the Sheffield Academic Press at 20 for two issues per year. The journal "aims to resource and promote theological engagement with mainstream political life, bringing together political theory, cultural studies and theological thought to analyse the complexities and diversity of modern politics". (Subscription details from Sheffield Academic Press, 19 Kingfield Road, Sheffield S11 9AS).

The first of the three principal conference speakers, with "The Practitioner's Tale", was Christine Allen, newly-appointed Executive Director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations. The Institute had "a faith motivation which comes from a prophetic theology", but its work was intensely practical. It was a matter of "keeping one eye on principle and the other on pragmatism without falling over".

In the real world of international relations, development politics and human rights work, Christine said, the "best possible" was always subject to practical constraints, not least those of human and financial resources, and competing demands for such resources. Pragmatism was a necessary discipline. It need not mean collusion. Principle divorced from pragmatism could be arrogant and dogmatic.

Christine saw the work of the Institute and other practical bodies in the field as "listening to the voices of the oppressed - because God is on their side". If we want to find a principled guide to practical action, we should always be asking, "Who's gaining, who's losing out?"

Principle was of little use if it meant we were always against: "I have no interest in being anti. I want to be for. For building, for reconstruction. That for me is the hope of resurrection."

Leslie Griffiths, minister at Wesley's Chapel, North London, and a former Methodist president, presented "The Pastor's Tale". From his home at Wesley's Chapel, he said, he looked out over Bunhill cemetary where William Blake was buried. Blake had turned from the religion of "Thou shalt not" to a vision of a new Jerusalem. The question for us was "how to identify Jerusalem, and go for it".

The key was our attitude to the oppressed people of the world. "There are not many oppressed in this room", said Leslie. "I can't remember the last time I spoke to an audience which didn't have a single black face in it. [There were two! - Editor]. We have 24 nationalities worshiping at Wesley's Chapel every Sunday. Many of them can tell us what oppression means."

Our first principle might be freedom for the oppressed. But spreading freedom and fighting oppression was "a messy business". Leslie cited the classic story of the Exodus, from which so many oppressed peoples have drawn inspiration - African Americans, the Inca, Tupac and Amaru of South America, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, the small farmers of Castro's Cuba, not to mention women throughout the world.

"But every time I hear the Exodus story invoked as a metaphor or model, whenever I hear it appealed to in the cause of freedom, I want to apply what I call the Deuteronomy 7 test: 'When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are about to enter to occupy it, when he drives out many nations before you - Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you - and when the Lord your God delivers them into your power for you to defeat, you must exterminate them. You must not make an alliance with them nor show mercy towards them'.

"It chills the blood, and ought to be read again and again to remind us of the stupidity of human beings, their pride and their arrogance, to say nothing of their capacity for cruelty... A rigid reading of these verses has been used to undergird theologically the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the settlements, the driving of Palestinians out of their villages. And the very people who have suffered so terribly and who have such a song of freedom to sing have instead become the oppressors and tyrants in their turn."

Leslie concluded: "It is no use having fine prophetic ideals if we can't find ways of translating them into practical action. I want to be marching to Zion - but I don't expect to arrive there."

Tony Benn presented "The Politician's Tale". Now 76 years young, having retired from Parliament only to spend more time in politics, he told the conference of his upbringing in a Christian home where ethical and social values were expressed in the language of a faith tradition which built the framework on which his political life had been based.

"My mother didn't talk so much of Jesus as the 'incarnation' of God but as the 'embodiment' of what we could aspire to be like. We were taught to stand out from the crowd, as he and the Old Testament prophets had stood out - to dare to be different. We used to sing: 'Dare to be a Daniel! Dare to stand alone! Dare to have a purpose firm, And dare to make it known!"

Tony saw no irresolvable conflict between principle and pragmatism. As Leslie Griffiths had said, "it's a messy business". A basic Christian principle was not to tell lies. "But my whole parliamentary career depended on a lie. To get into Parliament in the first place I had to swear allegiance to the Crown. I did so, although I am a republican. I lied. I repeated the lie for every Parliament I sat in. That was my pragmatism overcoming principle, as sometimes it must.

"My colleague Dennis Skinner found a way round it. He swore allegiance, but under his breath he made it conditional on the Queen paying her income tax like the rest of us! When, eventually, the Queen did start paying taxes, he turned to me and said, 'Well it worked, didn't it?'"

Tony had "a deep respect for all faiths", but faith had no meaning except in action, and it was action which would build Jerusalem. "But I see Jerusalem as a road sign, beckoning me on, not a destination".

The three presentations were followed first by a discussion between the speakers in which David Boulton tried to tease out some of the implications of what had been said, and finally by a vigorous session of questions and comments from the floor.

During the lunch break, about two dozen conference participants joined David Boulton, Tony Benn and Christine Allen in a short peace vigil at nearby Downing Street, wearing white peace poppies. After promising not to "shout slogans, wave placards, or cause a breach of the peace", they were allowed to stand at the entrance gates instead of the usual "demo site" across the road. The vigil was not an official SoF event: but those who came, representing only themselves, demonstrated that they "had a purpose firm, and dared to make it known".