William Temple is one of my heroes. I realize that he’s hardly a household name, but in his day he was quite the figure. A public intellectual before the phrase was common, this beloved Anglican priest would become Archbishop of Canterbury in the closing years of the Second World War. He was bold in defending the oppressed and the marginalized, as well as being politically outspoken. “Socialism,” he said, “is the economic realization of the Christian gospel.” More than this, he argued that there were two choices as a Christian: socialist or heretic.
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I know precisely what Temple meant. The Christian faith is not politically or morally neutral, and if we live and act as if it were the case, we do indeed become heretical. He saw, and he was surely correct, that the Old Testament is not a collection of esoteric codes of archaic manners but a book of liberation — economic, political and spiritual liberation.
As for the New Testament, the pleas for equality and social justice are unavoidable. And don’t forget the Letter of James — probably Jesus’ very own brother. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.” Hardly ambiguous!
Yet if we asked most Canadians about political Christianity, I guarantee you they’d mention opposition to gay rights, abortion and euthanasia, and a belief in capitalism. That is not only extraordinarily sad but also a knife thrust into the body of the faith.
In many ways, The United Church of Canada has been a sparkling exception to this, as have other liberal Protestants, Anglicans and left-leaning Catholics. But the hierarchy of the Roman church and the mass of evangelicals far outnumber Christ-following advocates of social justice.
I genuinely think that the tide may be turning with the new generation of believers. But there is something fundamentally important that has to be stressed, and it’s also where I may lose some of you: there is no contradiction between orthodox Christian belief and radical political and economic views. In fact, I would argue that the deeper the faith, the more likely it is that we can leap forward to social justice activism. The firm base of belief in Christ enables us to spring forward with confidence and compassion.
William Temple died in 1944, when tangible evil still ruled most of Europe. Yet he remained an optimist, and he was proved correct. The old politics have failed us, the hard right is expanding from continent to continent, and the climate, the economy, common decency and human rights are under siege. Not a good time, of course, but a perfect time for a truly revolutionary creed to take centre stage and proclaim that Jesus is not in the boardroom but in the breadline.
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.