There’s something different about the protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s not as simple to categorise as one of the usual dualist battles between left and right. This is not just because of the incoherence of the protesters’ case: the protest is complicated by its unintended target of the cathedral precincts.
It was inevitable that settling on ecclesiastical turf would result in grand talk of Jesus turfing out the money changers from the temple and eventually thirty pieces of silver and no doubt numerous other sophistically-applied quotations.
As a hard-headed capitalist it is far too easy instantly to dismiss this sort of talk: clearly I don’t for one minute believe that the stock exchange (the original target of occupation) and the capitalist system are responsible for creating poverty etc. Yet it’s not so easy to dismiss a protest against ‘greed’ because it is moving beyond an economically-ignorant rant to something resembling a prophetic call to repentance.
This situation gets to the heart of the relationship of the political right with the church. I can sometimes be heard lamenting the well-meaning but misguided socialist exhortations of clergymen from the pulpit but I try to refrain from doing so in most cases, not just because that would mean continuously being in a state of ranting but because I believe it serves a valuable purpose. It is not good to surround oneself only with teaching with which one is predisposed to agree but more importantly the gospel does make radical demands.
A danger for us on the right is that having established to our satisfaction that our support of capitalism is not just neutral towards ‘social justice’ but actually essential for it, we can go around with a slightly unattractive smugness, laughing at the lack of insight in our ideological opponents and practically wallowing in the disdain targeted at us by their misguided belief that we are heartlessly antagonistic towards the poor.
It is therefore right for us to be brought down regularly. The church has a role to play in keeping us grounded. As I write this paragraph I am listening to the Magnificat live on Radio 3, part of the office of Evening Prayer. To me the Song of Mary is a welcome, regular, reminder of what exactly is valued in the Kingdom of Heaven. And what isn’t (Luke 1.53-55):
He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
There’s no doubt that there’s a place, even a need, for a warning against greed. But is that what the protesters are providing? A little bit, perhaps, but their message is fatally undermined by their (disparate) demands. They are not really calling for people to examine their hearts and change their ways, they are calling for pretty-irrelevant constitutional change (the Corporation of London) and for the state to appropriate more tax. This to me is qualitatively different from the personal god demanding personal conduct, personal responsibility; it is demanding something (rather loosely specified) from the system. I think this is a missed opportunity. Marches and protests about ‘the system’ are ten a penny, and if one doesn’t agree that the socialist solution will work then the protests will fail to attract sympathy across the board.
So to St Paul’s Cathedral. At first the protesters lauded the welcome they received by the socialist Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, perennial BBC and Church Times contributor. The speed with which they turned their praise into bile when the cathedral decided they’d really rather the protesters moved on reflects very badly on the protesters. What I find objectionable is the victim status that the protesters have awarded themselves.
The protesters are making out that the cathedral is denying them sanctuary and denying them a platform. The intimation is that this is somehow un-Christian conduct. This is a scurrilous claim. It is preposterous to talk as if they are destitute and being denied basic rights. They are most certainly not. They have chosen to occupy and make a mess of public space for a prolonged period of time and inconvenience a major national institution which in fact is ideologically sympathetic to the protesters anyway. It is this attitude of the protesters which fundamentally shows they have no perspective. If they wish to appeal to Christianity then their defiance of civil norms manifest by their stubborn refusal to move is equivalent to not rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, something they demand of the “1%”. It is a self-indulgence.