By Joshua Penduck
It may surprise some of the people who knew me, but I once was the Vice Chairman of the local youth branch of the British Conservative Party (the equivalent of the Republican Party in America). I wasn’t very good at my job, and stepped down after a few months. By the time I had reached that lofty position, I had become much more moderate in my viewpoints than had previously been the case. In my early teens, frustrated by the British Conservative Party’s support of the European Union, I formed my own political party with a few friends. Ironically, we called it the British Central Party – ironic, because it was about as right wing you could get without heading off into outright fascism. Strangely, we thought of ourselves as moderates (which gives me an insight into how people can think of Donald Trump as a moderate politician). I was immersed in reading the Daily Mail, in which those who were unemployed simply scrounged off the state, that immigrants were treated better than native Britons by the government, and that taxes were way too high. I believed in the privatisation of the NHS, the cutting of red tape wherever possible, and of course leaving the European Union. At the core of it was the belief that though in God’s eyes you were infinitely valued, from society’s perspective your value was in what you contributed. There was a clear distinction between religion and economics. I was, despite, my Party’s name, very much on the right.
So what changed? In December 2007, I had had a calling to be an Anglican minister (despite never actually attending an Anglican Church). I had thought it best that if I was going to be a minister, I needed to know my Bible. So I started reading through it systematically. Meanwhile, I heard my father preaching about Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast, and how the host invited all the homeless and beggars to it. I was cut to the core. Here was Jesus talking about how the poor were invited to the wedding feast, not the rich. They were the important ones. My policies didn’t change, but I realised that my attitude had to: I had seen those who were poorest in disregard. But here, in Jesus’ parable, they were held in the highest regard. My distinction between religious status and economic status was non existent in God’s eyes.
The more I read my Bible, the more I realised that caring for the poor and the outcasts was at the heart of God’s plan. I read the prophets pronouncing that God desired that the powerful pay their workers just wages, as in Jeremiah 22.13-17:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.
The prophets criticised the rich for not looking after the orphans, widows, and immigrants, who I learnt were those who had no one else to support them. In Jeremiah 7.5-7 it said:
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
In Isaiah 5.8-10 I read about how the rich were gobbling up all the resources at the expense of the poor:
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
I read the Law, especially with Leviticus and Deuteronomy saying that you had to be generous and not stingy to the immigrants and poor. I was struck by how much God put in national provisions for the poor and even immigrants in Leviticus 25 and commands generosity of hand and heart in Deuteronomy 15.7-11:
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”
I wondered if this was just an Old Testament thing. But Paul seemed eager to care for the poor in Galatians 2.10:
They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
He was furious with the Corinthians for the way the rich did not care for the poor in that church. Revelation 18 seemed to revel in the downfall of the capitalist system I held dear. Jesus had a seeming obsession with meeting the needs of the poorest in that society, and criticising the Pharisees for being concerned with religious issues at the expense of giving people economic justice. Again and again and again, God was commanding his people to make provision to care for the poorest people. I couldn’t just think of this as being more charitable; I began to realise that God desired that his people put in place structural provision at the heart of government for those who were poor and in need, otherwise why include the provisions for the poor in the Law of Moses?
All this was a little abstract at first. But during this time, the Crash of 2008 was happening. I began working for a company called Brighthouse. This was a hire purchase company, which meant people would essentially rent products off us until after a period of time they owned them. Usually, it was those who were unemployed who would come to us. With my right wing spectacles on, I initially thought of them as layabouts who needed a kick up the backside in order to get jobs. But then I realised that many of the people had recently lost their jobs due to the Crash. I couldn’t help but notice that hard working people were paying the consequences of the greed of the richest in society. For instance, as more and more people seemed to lose their jobs, I watched a television programme about art auctions in London, in which someone bid £2,000,000 for a large omelet, which was considered a work of art. I couldn’t help but feel enraged by the injustice of the situation. As I got to know the customers at Brighthouse, I realised that many weren’t unemployed; rather they had multiple part time jobs which didn’t pay enough. Others were long term unemployed because of health problems, through no fault of their own. Others were long term unemployed because they had lost their jobs in middle age due to the closure of their industries, and were unable to get new jobs due to a lack of need for their skills set. Others could get jobs but only in London, and because of the extortionate housing costs could not afford to live near their place of work; furthermore, the transport costs would mean they couldn’t afford to live and travel into work from the distance that they would live in for affordable housing. Nearly none of these were the caricatures that I had seen in the Daily Mail.
A few years later, I had the opportunity of being on placement with a church in Stockton, which ministered especially to asylum seekers. Even though I was solidly in the left wing camp by then, I was shocked afresh. These were not the scroungers who travelled over to the UK to get benefits and sponge off the system. Instead, most of them didn’t want to be here. These were doctors, lawyers, company bosses – I even met the Finance Minister of an African country! They had all fled their countries because they had discovered some corruption in powerful places, or had backed the wrong people in politics, or who had converted to a different religion. I met one seventeen year old who was in tears, telling me how he wanted to go home to see his friends (his family had been murdered by the government). One man said that he had worked all his life, and now was unable to work because the government wouldn’t let him, as he was an asylum seeker. Families were living on extortionately low benefits (I discovered that I had spent that morning the equivalent of what they had been given to live on for the whole week).
This has added up to a whole: if God has such concern for the poor, how can I as a Christian not also have such a concern? And if I have a choice between a political party which would make the life of the poor less difficult, and one which would leave people in a similar or even worse state, how could I vote for the latter? I realise the importance of economic necessities, and that we cannot live out of our means, but a balance between necessity and justice must be maintained. The injustices I saw in Brighthouse and Stockton, combined with the added injustice of how these people are portrayed by the media, made me reconsider which political parties I consider voting for.
This is why I became a Left Wing Christian.