This is an article written by ex-paramilitary and peace campaigner Billy Mitchell. He died in 2007. Many in Northern Ireland are starting to discover that there could be a future beyond sectarian politics.
Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless
and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
A common charge levelled against loyalists like myself is that we have abandoned the faith
of our Protestant heritage and sold out to secular socialism. Those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ are especially targeted for our alleged apostasy.
The belief within certain sections of the Protestant-Unionist community that Christianity
and class politics are mutually exclusive has fuelled the bitter antagonism which religious
fundamentalists have towards Christians whose politics are left-of-centre. The fear that any
interaction between Christians and socialists must lead to a dilution of the faith is
completely irrational and displays a clear lack of faith and a lack of confidence on the part
of the fearful.
While Christianity and Marxism are philosophically irreconcilable I believe that Jesus and
Marx, as individuals, shared many common ideals. If it were possible, I believe listening to
a dialogue between Jesus and Marx would prove to be very informative and most
enlightening for Christians and Marxists alike.
Both Jesus and Karl Marx had a passion for transforming social structures. Both wished to
empower those who were excluded from the power structures of their societies. Both
sought to enrich and enhance the quality of human life for the disadvantaged and the
dispossessed. Both were outraged at the social and economic inequalities that forced people
in their days to live in poverty and oppression. Both had a deep and abiding sympathy for
the deprived, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. While they would clearly have
expressed irreconcilable differences with regards to philosophy and theology, they would
have found much in common to talk about and, more importantly, to act upon. I believe too
that both would openly disassociate themselves from much of what has been said and done
in their names.
Jesus would certainly have disassociated Himself from the religious wars, the inquisitions
and the persecutions that have been carried out in His name. I would like to think that Karl
Marx would disassociate himself from the purges, the Gulags and the suppression of human rights that have been carried out in the name of socialism.
The Bible abundantly testifies that there is a special place in the heart of God for the poor.
Indeed when Jesus commenced His earthly ministry He used the following statement to
outline the focus of His mission: -"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed
me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed (Luke 4.18). The church has
often attempted to spiritualise the words of Jesus as if to say that He referred only to
spiritual bondage, spiritual oppression and spiritual blindness. However, as the Christian
historian, Timothy L. Smith, points out: - “The poor are not oppressed simply by their sins but by an exploitative society. To face up to social wrong - unfair wages, desperate housing conditions, the reign of ignorance and deference to the idols of race or class or nationalism is the obligation of every Christian”. As Keir Hardie, one of the early Christian Socialists, once declared “Christ’s great work was… to remove the causes which divided man from man, to make it impossible for the strong to oppress the weak or the rich to rob the poor”.
In his book, Religion and Revolution, the Marxist revolutionary Fidel Castro said, “the
church should take the lead in responding to the widow, the orphan, the hungry and the
needy.” Notwithstanding the differences in belief and ideology that exists between Castro
and Jesus, I would suggest that no genuine follower of Jesus could disagree with his
statement. Indeed if we set Castro’s comments alongside those of the Apostle James (James
1.27) we will see that they are both singing from the same hymn-sheet. Jon Sobrino, the Latin American Liberation Theologian, has identified two classes of “the poor” for whom Jesus the Liberator had a soft spot. The first class was the economic poor – the hungry, the poorly clothed, the badly housed, the sick and the infirm. The second class included the social outcasts of his day – women, prisoners, prostitutes, winebibbers, lepers, strangers, and the one who was different.
Looking back on my childhood days our family certainly fell into the first category. My
own experience of life was one of watching my young widowed mother struggle to feed,
clothe, house us and nurse us through the many sicknesses that came with poverty. For our
family, life was a struggle to obtain the basic necessities of life and to ward off the attention
of the moneylenders, the tick men and the host of other parasites who fed on the misery of
It wasn’t until I went to prison, and fell into the second of Sobrino’s categories, that I had
time for both personal reflection and interaction with others from a similar background. In
Long Kesh we explored issues that we took for granted on the outside.
Even in prison we did not attempt a scientific analysis of our experiences. I have never
exhaustively read Karl Marx but I have read and experienced Other Marks - the marks of
pain furrowed across the brow of my widowed mother who was at her wits end because her
money and her food had run out, the marks of pain on the faces of at least a dozen
neighbours or friends who died before their time as a result of industry induced cancers, the
marks of shame on the face of a school friend who felt that the only marketable commodity
left to sell was her own body. These marks spoke volumes.
Doctrinaire socialists may well be correct in producing their scientific analyses of the
causes of poverty and deprivation. My analysis, flawed as it might be in terms of doctrine
and theory, is the product of personal experience. I have been there, I have experienced it
and I am entitled to wear the tee-shirt.
I know too, from personal experience, that there is more to human well-being than material
things. There is a spiritual dimension to human existence that needs to be nurtured as much
as the physical. For me, a living relationship with the Risen Christ meets that need.
Tony Benn who has described himself as a “Christian without God” and who was brought
up in a Christian home, acknowledges that the moral roots of his socialism lie in religion.
In his “Arguments for Democracy”, Benn follows Keir Hardie and George Lansbury in
acknowledging that his “political commitment owes much more to the teachings of
Jesus…than to the writings of Marx whose analysis seems to lack an understanding of the
deeper needs of humanity”.
Jesus fully understands those deeper needs of humanity. Thus, a socialism that is informed
by the spiritual passion of Jesus ministers to the whole person.
I see no contradiction in being a follower of Jesus Christ while, at the same time, seeking
the social, political and economic emancipation of either the economic poor or the social
outcasts. On the contrary, I believe with Jon Sobrino that that is exactly what Jesus Himself
would seek to do.
Thus, I am neither ashamed of my faith in Jesus Christ or of my commitment to class