Services Religion or God's Subversive Kingdom?
Retrieving the Political Dimension of Christian Love
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


In spite of a supposedly widespread interest in spirituality it is clear that for most men and women in Britain today Christianity is something they would rather do without. The prestigious position which the churches used to enjoy in our society is a thing of the past and religious faith - at least in the traditional sense - frequently elicits ridicule, or at any rate indifference, rather than respect.
To some, especially some church officials who depend upon a certain measure of civil recognition for a sense of their own value this is all very lamentable, but in my opinion it is not of itself a depressing or disheartening state of affairs. In fact in one sense it is a welcome development, because it presents Christians with a great opportunity to stop hankering after a past golden age when Christianity was the official religion of Western society and to start thinking about the real meaning of following Jesus Christ.
Specifically, Christians must reflect on how they might accept and embrace their minority position in British society and yet still play a part in creating the necessary bonds of human solidarity in a world increasingly divided by the effects of globalisation and the wealthy nations' dogged pursuit of their own short-term interests. On the one hand we must strive to preserve the unique perspectives of our faith, instead of clinging to the cultural forms in which it was previously embodied, while on the other hand we must - as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World put it - join with others in the search for right solutions to the moral problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships (Gaudium et Spes, article 16).
I personally do not go along with the revisionism, currently fashionable among conservative Catholics, which dismisses the inspiring vision of Gaudium et Spes as merely the warmed-over remains of 1960's "optimism". On the contrary, given the widespread anxiety and demoralisation of the present time this vision is more relevant now than it ever was. But if we are to treat this time as an opportunity as I suggest, we will have to choose between two very different types of faith.
The first type is a sort of services religion. Belief in God provides individuals with an inner, spiritual strength and helps them accept and adapt to the negative, contingent aspects of life, whether in the realm of personal suffering, social injustice, or whatever. In other words it services certain personal, emotional needs - a legitimate facet of religious faith in itself - but it does not aim to alter external social or political conditions.
The second type embraces the distinctively prophetic aspects of Christ's vision and teaching. It places all the emphasis on the Kingdom of God and its justice (Mt. 13:33). Like Christ himself it denounces the causes of suffering where these diminish human dignity. And it announces the good news that division, injustice and hatred are not natural or necessary features of human life. On the contrary, it is possible for human beings, by placing themselves under God's reign, to live together in unity, justice and love.
As an objective observer would quickly conclude, it is the first type of faith which is more evident in British society today, and this is because it fits in nicely with the role that the now all-important market assigns to religion. Christianity can 'market' itself as part of the heritage industry - an interesting aspect of European history - and at the same time it can put itself forward as a service providing a sort of therapy or feel-good factor, or maybe just a sense of group-belonging.
Perhaps an example will show what I mean.
Less than a year ago I happened to visit a large monastery in the south of England. Like most similar institutions it had a gift shop on site which sold wine, handmade pottery, and other goods which the community had produced to support itself. But as well as these there was a mass of tasteless religious knick-knacks - 'Jesus loves you' keyrings, pens, stickers and the like - and several other inessential commodities like air freshners and pieces of jewellery.
Superficially this may not seem very significant, let alone harmful: people invest such objects with all kinds of personal meanings. But on a deeper level I think it illustrates the function which religion typically performs in modern society: a kind of channel for sentimentality and escapism.
Yet the Christian faith cannot be twisted into performing this function without falling victim to two specific distortions: (1) the love which is the essence of God's nature is subjected to the same debasing commercialisation as the romantic love symbolised by pink hearts and cute toy animals; and (2) essential, but in this perspective dysfunctional, elements of the gospel are simply filtered out - namely, any reflection which is critical of social reality or any analysis which unmasks the idol of wealth-accumulation and encourages people to imagine alternatives to the status quo.
The German theologian Johann-Baptist Metz accurately summed up this process when he wrote that "religion does not change society, but middle-class society does not rest until religion fits its plausibility structures".[1]
Another illustration of the modern tendency to narrow down the field in which religious faith is relevant or applicable is the current fashion in the Church for counselling and management.
Again, I do not deny that these are worthwhile and beneficial within a certain limited sphere, but it is also important to recognise that in our society they are fundamentally strategies for enabling people and organisations to adjust to the needs and costs of the economic system and the key aspects of its ideology. Individuals pay a heavy price, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, for the rapid modernisation, the constantly-increasing efficiency and competitiveness, and the accelerated social and cultural change which proponents of the market deem necessary and uniquely advantageous.
Techniques of management, based on a narrowly pragmatic or problem-solving type of reasoning, are used to ease disruption and facilitate co-operation in carrying out work of all kinds, while counselling is needed to combat the strain which many people feel as a result of being forced to constantly shape and reshape not only their work-practices and their attitudes to work and leisure, but their sense of individual identity, their qualities of character and their ideas about human relationships, in accordance with the demands and the values of the capitalist Moloch.
I personally suspect that many Christians are enthusiastic advocates of these techniques within the Church for three reasons:
(1) they have a vague idea that the gospel involves emotional healing and harmonious relationships and see counselling and management as promoting these goals;
(2) they conceive of the Church in its organisational aspect as similar to other institutions which employ these strategies to perpetuate their existence and enhance productivity and performance; and
(3) it has never occurred to them to see their Christian commitment as involving a rejection of the structures, the power relations and the picture of the world which the market dictates.
Implicity they accept that the Church should concentrate on personal morality and private spirituality, and therefore, perhaps unwittingly, they reinforce the idea that persons should - to adapt an old saying - adjust their minds rather than address the fault which lies in reality. The end result is that they have religion doing the job which the powerful and wealthy want it to do.
It should be sufficiently clear from what I have said that I am not criticising attempts to raise levels of competence and efficiency in the Church per se, far less the work undertaken by organisations like Relate, which carry out an important part of the Church's healing ministry.
But to the extent that management and counselling achieve their ends within the standard capitalist framework of assumptions, they advance further the privatisation of faith and discourage us from questioning larger structures and ideologies in society which, precisely because they are omnipresent, are invisible and therefore exempt from moral critique and reform.[2] and [2a]
The second type of Christian faith is the opposite of this. In the gospels the central theme of Christ's ministry is the Kingdom of God, which means first of all good news for the poor, freedom for captives and joy for the broken-hearted (Lk 4:16-19).
This is because the Kingdom as announced by Jesus subverts the 'normal' order of the world, in which the strong, the rich and the powerful maintain their privileges at the expense of the weak and powerless and the losers of history.
It subverts the accepted wisdom about human nature as individualistic, acquisitive, competitive, desirous of power over others and so on, and announces the good news that our real nature, real vocation, and real dignity lie in our resemblance to God, that is, in our capacity to love, to live in unity, to share and cooperate, to free ourselves from the tendency to find security in possessions and wealth, and to serve each other without any man-made class divisions or institutionalised inequality. In short, it announces the end of the reign of sin.
The gospels leave us in no doubt about who belongs to the Kingdom of God, and who does not, and what we must do if we want to enter and belong. It is not possible for us to live our lives in deeper harmony with our real vocation and still adhere to the corrupt values described above.
At the same time, the capacity for love which is peculiar to us as human beings cannot be restricted to the realm of personal relations without narrowing and therefore distorting its true meaning. The God who is love is also the God who "drags dynasts from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty" - not as a second thought or an incidental feature of his personality, but precisely because he is the God who is love (Lk. 1:52-53).
So wherever men and women are treated as objects, exploited, manipulated, used for others' benefit, and wherever political and social structures are erected or maintained in order to facilitate this exploitation, God's Kingdom does not flow in peacefully as an escape or a relief or a means of adjustment, but arrives, as Jesus said, with sword and fire, to condemn and to demand deep, immediate change (Mt. 10:34; Lk. 12:49-53).
The fact that the spirituality of so many Christians presupposes a split rather than an obvious connection between the sphere in which love is active and matters of political and economic organisation only shows how privatised our concept of love has become, how far we have departed from the concept of God's Kingdom as Jesus preached it, and how readily we adhere to the desiccated version of Christianity which the profit system favours.[3]
The tension which is present in Jesus' preaching between the Kingdom as future event and as present reality shouldn't mislead us as to what is important. Love, truth, and justice are not misty and ethereal abstractions which are only realised in some heavenly Never-Never land, nor are we in the position of men and women waiting passively and helplessly for the relief of an occupied city.
To be sure, the full reality of salvation, in which God will decisively reverse the existing order of things, lies in the future, beyond human history. But our true nature, our vocation to love as God himself loves, characterises our life already, in the present. God's Kingdom is already in our midst as the practical challenge which we all face to create, here and now, a milieu of love, justice and truth in the face of the egotism, oppression and lies which continually distort both our personal and our social and economic relationships.
It goes without saying that not all those who call themselves Christians are committed to God's subversive Kingdom or his bias towards the poor. There is a type of religious-minded person who desires the comforts of faith, but who doesn't really believe at all in the God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, if by that we actually mean those abandoned to "underclass" status on the one hand and the self-serving corporate cabals on the other. This is not surprising and in fact Jesus predicted it (Mt. 7:21-23).
Similarly, there are leaders of the Christian community who, if they believe that salvation has a social dimension at all, offer little more than a reflection of the concerns and anxieties of the middle-class layers with which they identify and whose interests they share.
When Church officials and hierarchs deplore rising crime, violence, drug abuse, permissiveness and anti-social behaviour among young people, they are only echoing the worries of the comfortable and successful who sense that their meritocratic values and secure future are threatened by such tendencies.
British Catholic Church leaders in particular rarely offer the kind of analysis which comes from sharing the viewpoint, let alone the experience, of those who are closest to God's heart, namely those impoverished by the deliberate decisions of the rich and powerful. Despite occasional clichéd remarks about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable", these leaders are basically committed to the prevailing social order rather than the revolutionary justice of God's Kingdom.
It is part of the paradox of the Kingdom that the atheist who reacts passionately to the manifest wrongs of the world and works to correct them, is closer to the God of Jesus Christ than the army of noisy religious conservatives who spend all their time preserving outmoded traditions and hankering after the social model of Franco's Spain; or the cynical Church bureaucrats who always occupy the middle ground and gently stifle every sign of the irrupting Kingdom with a few unctuous, neutralising phrases.
Christians used to think in terms of a dualism of Church and world, and very often this was little more than a pretext for dressing up a very this-worldly attitude to power, wealth and privilege in ecclesiastical garb, and, ironically, for sacralising oppressive structures and practices in the 'secular' realm. There are still many who wish to enlist the authority of religion to give a spurious metaphyical justification to existing distributions of power and privilege, as the sickening Bush-Blair religiosity amply demonstrates.
But if there is a legitimate and permissible dualism in the outlook of Christians it is that between 'the world' as St. John and St. Paul describe it and the Kingdom of God, between the sinful self-assertion which ignores God - real atheism - and the love which is the fruit of sincere receptivity to God's grace.
If it is true, as traditional spirituality urges, that we should not aim for anything less than perfect virtue and holiness in our individual dispositions and behaviour, then it is equally true that we should not settle for anything less than the perfect justice of God's Kingdom in the social, political and economic dimensions of human life.
Those Christians who play court prophet to capitalism by espousing the current vogue for 'realism' and 'pragmatism', who refuse to consider the possibility of an alternative social order, and who consider the sufferings of others a price worth paying for their own satiety and ease, have simply lost sight of the transcendence of God's rule.
Far closer to the faith that God asks for is the approach of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who found Christ not in the services religion which pleases the beneficiaries of the market but among the poor who are its victims. "The Kingdom of God is not only beyond our efforts," he wrote in a poem, "it is even beyond our vision . . .
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own".
In a world still full of needless cruelty and many preventable evils God's subversive Kingdom of love - the vision which is 'even beyond our vision' - continues to offer us ground for lucid and rational hope.


Notes and References
[1] Johann Baptist Metz, "Base Church and Bourgeois Religion", Theology Digest 29:3(Fall 1981), p.203.
[2] For the Church's tendency to imitate modern large-scale bureaucracies, and hence for Church personnel to assume a managerial mentality hostile to prophetic commitment, the essay "The Vanishing Clergyman" by the late Ivan Illich is, if anything, more accurate now than when it was first written in the late sixties. See Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, Penguin Books 1971, p.59ff. I should perhaps add that it is possible to understress the genuinely liberative potential of skilled counselling; that plainly men and women encounter emotional problems which can be resolved at the level of individual psychology or in terms of personal relationships alone. The reservations stated here have nothing to do with the right-wing criticism of psychotherapy which originates in the fear that it's own hidden motives, goals and indeed weaknesses may be uncovered; which objects on more or less social-Darwinist grounds to pampering those who only need to learn habits of "individual responsibility". These critics of counselling, like the critics of welfare provision, believe that the victims of a harsh, exploitative and unstable economic system should be denied even the remedial measures which, in more expansive times, were incorporated into the system itself. To put it another way, conservatives dislike counselling because it has no place in their view of society in which only the fittest deserve to survive, while liberals are those who see it as a way of ensuring the continued functioning of society and the institutions which make it up. In the last analysis the difference between these two perspectives is not great.
[2a] Secondly, within the Church, perhaps mainly among the clergy, there is a particular danger of misusing counselling because like all functionaries, especially those in organisations with little or no internal democracy, Church administrators are apt to rationalise criticism of institutional structures in terms of the supposed personal problems of the individual critic. The bureaucratic mentality would naturally find it convenient to subjectivise every instance of unhappiness or dissatisfaction and deal with it through personal counselling rather than by open debate and concrete structural reform.
[3] If this seems too extreme, consider the following comparison. The document The Easter People, a 'Message from the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in light of the National Pastoral Congress, Liverpool 1980', contained a whole section entitled "Witnessing to Christ in the World: Christian Witness and Justice". By contrast the 1995 document The Sign We Give, a 'Report from the Working Party on Collaborative Ministry' published on behalf of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, concentrated almost exclusively on questions of internal organisation, liturgy planning and rival models of lay-clergy relations. Leaving aside the purely paper character of The Easter People's commitments (and the general uselessness of the grand talking-shop model of church life) what The Sign We Give shows is that among the British Church's policy-makers the last fifteen to twenty years have witnessed a sharp inward turn, a contraction of vision, and a further retreat from the idea of action for justice as a basic facet of the Church's mission - and this at a time when one might have expected greater radicalization in the face of the worldwide swing towards neoliberal economics and growing state power.