When I was a teenager, I was – like many – ricocheting from phase to phase. One of these was a truly terrible atheist phase, where I made the following argument in Religious Studies class: ‘If Christians sincerely believed that Heaven was as good as they say, why would they all not just nuke everything, in order to get there more quickly?’ In that awful way that all 14-year-olds do, I thought I was very clever.
As I got a bit older and rediscovered my faith, I returned to this question. Why not just blow everything up? Or at least – to what extent does faith engage with the world? The answer is simple – we are called to do good in this world. We will never achieve paradise – not until the Return, anyway – but we do what we can in the meantime. Christians are called to live in friendship with God – and with each other. We must help each other, look out for each other, see the good where we can… It’s not enough to wait for the Saviour: there is work to be done in the here and now. We are called to care for our fellow man, for in them is the image of God. Many of these are precepts not unique to Catholicism – they span across denominations, and indeed across many of the world’s other religions.
This idea of ‘doing the work’ is something worth dwelling upon in terms of faith. I recently attended a Christmas concert at Westminster Cathedral. Cardinal Nicols gave a lovely meditation on the readings, in which he referred to a painting at St Paul’s Cathedral – ‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman-Hunt. In it, Christ is outside the door with a lamp. The door represents the human soul, which can’t be opened from the outside, because there is no handle on the door. The rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy show the viewer that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter.
Christianity is filled with reminders that God cannot just come in and solve things. We have to let him in; we have to do the work ourselves. We have to choose to make things better ourselves. This is the precise point that those of us on the left need to grasp (after all, this is the Social Review, not the Tablet or Commonweal.) I’m not proselytizing here, and I’m aware that most people who read this might not be Christian, with fewer still being Catholic. Nonetheless, Christmas is a time where we tend to sentimentalise, often reconnecting with some cultural sense of religion, even if only through a quick family rendition of a few carols that mention Jesus. With this in mind, I think that there’s a lot that the left could draw from the Christians within its ranks right now.
It’s often easy to think of the message of Christmas as one of trite Dickensian banality: ‘it’s nice to be nice’ and so on. It’s actually rather more than that. The message of the Nativity isn’t just ‘it’s nice to be nice’. In the face of the Christ-child is the message of infinite hope, the moment where the Eternal and Divine touches our world. Christmas can be difficult for many people, this Christmas perhaps more so than most. We could all use some hope. We would, however, be better off this Christmas if the message we took was not a mere ‘it’s nice to be nice’, but rather the sense that we are called to make things better, and this will not happen without us putting in the work. As Herbert McCabe OP points out, ‘We simply have, wherever we are, some small task to do, on the side of justice, for the poor.’
There are other points of connection. Socialists and Christians alike are concerned with time. Socialists eagerly await the revolution, and time has been a major point of interest for Christians from the time of the Apostles until now – we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Christ. When medieval mystic Margery Kempe says ‘Sir, hys deth is as fresch to me as he had deyd this same day, and so me thynkth it awt to be to yow and to alle Cristen pepil’ she is concerned with him – bringing the historical Passion to the now. To turn back to McCabe, he once wrote that ‘the business of the Church… is to ‘remember’ the future. Not merely to remember that there is to be a future, but mysteriously to make the future really present.’
At first glance, this may appear to be more mere Christianity, but making ‘the future present’ is analogous to much leftist thinking. Mark Fisher’s key idea in ‘Capitalist Realism’ is the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ – the extension of neoliberal hegemony into the functioning of time itself, eating away at our ability to imagine a future. Perhaps one of the most-quoted phrases of contemporary leftist thought is variously attributed to both Jameson and Zizek – ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ One of the failings of Labour in 2019 was the tendency of the party to demand that voters took us on trust – we rolled out policy after policy, many of them entirely transformative, without doing the groundwork to explain what they actually meant in practice and how they would impact on people’s lives. Over the next five years, our job is not just to tell voters that there might be a socialist future, but rather to make this future really present. We must do this by embedding ourselves in communities and by doing the work to make the world a better place.
Neither Christians nor socialists can sit back to wait for the Second Coming and hope for the best. There is work to be done in the meantime, and it is no use pretending otherwise. We must guard against those who argue that we have lost the next election already. Without hope, we have nothing; besides, what use is such an attitude when we have no choice but to fight it regardless? On this, it’s worth returning to McCabe a final time: ‘There are…only two available attitudes in the face of the class war: you can either try to go back to a time before it started, you can wish that capitalism never occurred… or else, faced with the fact of the class war, you can try to win it.’
For those of us on the left, it isn’t enough to wait for 2024 and hope there’s a Labour government. We need to get into our communities, take on work that makes people’s lives better, volunteer if we can, donate where we can, talk where we can, care where we can. It doesn’t need to be massive, or world-changing. We are neither able nor expected to save the world ourselves. That being said, every little action helps. Not everyone can put in vast resources or time – and Christmas provides the answer to this, too. We would do a lot worse, when asking what we can do, than to turn to a carol – Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ – which ends on the following lines:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.