Introducing…the Liberal Holy Spirit!

By James Crossley

So far we have seen that the Lib Dem Bible is largely Thatcher’s Bible. But, following Tony Blair’s socially liberal spin on Thatcher’s Bible, the Lib Dems have their own Lib Dem contribution to make, just as they have in the Coalition (right?). As ever, it should be assumed that the actual contents of the Bible are largely irrelevant and that we are looking at what Lib Dems think the Bible, and the Holy Spirit, ‘really mean’.

Liberal Democrats Do God is a potentially important moment for the Liberal Democrats because despite their Nonconformist history and Gladstone himself, they have gained a reputation as a ‘secular’ party with an openly atheist leader in Nick Clegg and recently having one of Parliaments most active atheists in Evan Harris. While a number of other participants also raise the issue of ‘secularism’ and the Liberal Democrats, Greg Mulholland’s essay in particular addresses such issues head-on and polemically.

Nevertheless, Liberal Democrats Do God provides the clearest contemporary use of the Bible by leading Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Bible features prominently. While his views on same-sex marriage may differ in nuance from  others, Greg Mulholland’s essay uses the examples of persecution and ‘Christ’s teaching’ (as well as a personal story of abuse while campaigning) to illustrate the classic liberal concern for the experience of others: ‘As a Christian, if I am to follow Christ’s teaching, I must be grateful to those who abuse me in his name…it has given me a much better understanding of what it is like to face hatred as a result of what you are, and an appreciation of the experiences of others who face racial, sexist, homophobic or nationalist hatred’. It is notable that when issues of discrimination and poverty emerge, the confrontational edge of the tradition of politically radical interpreters of the Bible and social justice is not present. For Sarah Teather, Christianity demands particular attention ‘to the most vulnerable members of society’ and asks that Christians ‘seek and find the face of Christ in the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger’, based on the ‘idea of Jesus identifying himself with the least amongst people’. But ‘what follows logically’, Teather adds, ‘is a perspective on policy-making which is inclusive and not exclusive’.

There are a number of readings of the Bible which closely resemble policies popularly associated with the Liberal Democrats and which are implicitly based on a (politically) liberal interpretation of all human beings created in the image of God and thus, it is argued by some of the contributors, equally deserving of respect. Alan Beith claims that ‘the concept of forgiveness, properly examined, offers insights into what we need to do with our criminal justice system.’ Beith is more precise still, claiming that ‘restorative justice [is] an approach which is firmly rooted in New Testament thinking’ and that restorative justice processes ‘work to bring offenders and victims into communication, allowing victims to express the impact an offence has had upon them, as well as getting answers to their unanswered questions about the crime. It also gives the offender the opportunity to make amends’.

Another favourite Liberal Democratic theme likewise gets some attention. According to Duncan Hames, and using a passage popular among politicians, ‘Jesus’ appeal to “love your neighbour as yourself” has clear applications for any Christian’s approach to the environment’. Hames wants to challenge, through exegesis, potentially problematic interpretations of Genesis 1.28 in relation to environmentalism. He argued that for him and probably ‘most Christians’, the term ‘dominion’ should be ‘interpreted as responsible stewardship rather than exploitative tyranny’, before adding that further evidence of ‘man’s duty to protect the earth abounds throughout the Bible, from God’s order to Adam and Eve to work and keep the garden to the instruction in the Leviticus that “you shall not strip your vineyard bare”, to Jesus’s observation of the Father’s care for even the smallest sparrow.’

Completing the Liberal Democrat key themes, Baroness Brinton (as she is named in the book), looks at Deuteronomy 10.18, Leviticus 19.33-34 and Hebrews 13.2 to defend certain voices on immigration, as well as attacking others: ‘…our modern world has become increasingly xenophobic, and it can be hard for the biblical voice to be heard. How many of us have heard the shrill voice on the doorstep, complaining that all the best jobs are taken by immigrants, or that “they” are getting free health services and welfare despite not contributing to the tax system’.

At some point, someone was bound to point out that it is not always so easy to equate the contents of the Bible with liberalism and modern sensibilities and so – as Blair did when confronted by socially illiberal biblical passages in the Bible – hermeneutical guidelines are required for separating the wheat from the chaff. Lord Tyler (as he is named in the book) makes the common move of having the seemingly liberal Jesus overruling anything illiberal or anachronistic, including the liberal bogeyman, Paul: ‘Above all, I hope those of us who remain Anglicans can soon find a way to return to Christ’s own teaching, and stop agonising over the dated views of my namesake Paul of Tarsus, let along the washing up requirements of the Book of Leviticus.’ However, Andrew Stunell went further still, effectively downplaying the Liberal Bible in favour of what might be called (by me) the Liberal Holy Spirit. The Liberal Holy Spirit allows illiberal biblical verses to be overturned. For Stunell, the ‘biggest challenge’ is to explain is ‘why Wilberforce was right about slavery, and St Paul was wrong’. Paul, in this and the role of women, ‘hadn’t fully discerned the Spirit’ and ‘the Holy Spirit did not stop work when the Book of Revelation was sealed’. Indeed, Stunell, in arguably the most direct challenge to conventional political readings of the Bible, went even further still, claiming that:

No Christian should have as their goal the recreation of some mythical olden-days society where Christian values were understood and universally acknowledged, where lambs and lions sat down together, and harmony reigned supreme. It never existed. Neither the first Century in Judea nor the 19th Century in England provides that model.

Instead, ‘thanks to the vigorous and continuing work of God’s Holy Spirit, we know better than they did’, including how to understand issues of children’s rights, care of the disabled, respect for differences, being a lot more relaxed about women wearing hats and veils in church…’. The Holy Spirit, Stunell adds, continues to show ‘how God wants our society, nationally and internationally to be shaped’, with ‘full rights’ for gay people, disabled people, and women worldwide. As with Blair (and indeed Obama), Stunell also uses problematic biblical verses against others: if Christians want to oppose rights for homosexuals, why not oppose rights for people committing adultery?  However, despite all the concerns about the Bible being outdated, Stunell’s views ultimately remain grounded in the Bible and, at least on the basis of Liberal Democrats Do God, a favoured Lib Dem biblical passage: ‘the recognition that if all six billion of us are made in God’s image, we must all be treated equally and honestly by each other.’

Presumably there is no point asking why the Holy Spirit took so long to reveal liberalness…

PS the winner of Best Quotation from the Book goes to Greg Mulholland for this: ‘…in 2010…the excitement of Cleggmania [was] palpable amongst many students’

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3 responses to “Introducing…the Liberal Holy Spirit!

  1. Alan J Williams

    Dear James,
    Liberal Democrats Do God is a new departure and may well inspire replies from Christians in the Labour and Conservative parties. Articles in it may also provoke replies from other Liberal Democrats.

    As it is the Judeo-Christian heritage which provides the underpinning for the principles of human rights, eg. the right to life being based on the injunction found in the Ten Commandments, it would appear that democratic politics cannot do without religion if they are to claim a true moral legitimacy and not rely simply on having the votes and/or the civil power to establish their laws.
    BTW there is only one ‘n’ in Stunell.

  2. Thanks for the comments. Let me see if I can answer.

    Actually, I’m not convinced this is a new departure, as least in terms of the Bible. It ma provoke responses, as you say, but the uses of the Bible are very conventional in the contemporary history of politics (see e.g. the Thatcher post).

    The statement ‘the Judeo-Christian heritage which provides the underpinning for the principles of human rights’ is too general and very vague. They are certainly used to define human rights but that’s not the same as underpinning them. Interestingly, your example of the Ten Commandments shows this – and it is a typical example among politicians and in the media.in its (necessary) vagueness. E.g. ‘the right to life being based on the injunction found in the Ten Commandments’ is very vague. The right to life is something that could be attributed to countless texts and ideas. The Ten Commandments talks about a lot of things but it doesn’t really explain ‘right to life’ in any detail. Avoiding making images, serving one God, being nice to parents to live a long and decent life in the land, keeping the sabbath, not committing adultery etc are the more obvious points.to emerge from the Ten Commandments. Biblical details are dangerous for politicians.

    Whether democracy needs religion is too big a claim. We don’t even know what it might alternatively look like. What we label ‘religion’ is everywhere. As for moral legitimacy, that’s like saying that non-believers have no (‘true’) moral legitimacy. Are non-believers second class? And it also implies that democracy might have to be partly theocratic to work. Taken absolutely, that is somewhat problematic for democratic thinking, is it not? How can be ‘true’ for those who think it isn’t?

    However, I do believe that plenty of politicians imply that their political perspective does have ‘true’ and ‘religious’ authority. But there’s a case to be made that this is groundless and the creation of authority to something that has no essential authority other than inherited culture. ..

  3. Pingback: Bible and Politics Posts from Sheffield Biblical Studies | Harnessing Chaos

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