A pure class phenomenon…..

I grew up believing in class. That is, our class, the class my parents belonged to. I believed because they believed. Both were publicly -minded  Christian people, my mother especially devoted throughout her life to the welfare of the neediest, yet they believed that the professional, educated middle class of Scotland upheld important social values and exemplified these in their habits of life. Other classes, the aristocracy and old-monied, the vulgar nouveau-riche, the decent working class, the rural labourers, and the shiftless unemployed, they might all, except the last, have their virtues, but it was the professional middle class that kept society decent.

They were committed kindly people who nevertheless saw class difference as positive and expressed casual prejudice about members of the other classes. My mother, who had a keen sense of fairness had also a particular distaste for Trade Unions, which she saw as rudely demanding what otherwise might have been kindly given. (Or not!) All of which is simply to say, that I grew up with prejudices which were not merely assumed but inculcated.

Peasant birth

As a young man, I was exposed to two crucial experiences of working class culture. The first was football which I played for the Boy’s Brigade against teams from around Glasgow, many of them from working class areas, which, although their players were physically smaller than ours, were very much more skilful. Over the years, the respect engendered by getting regularly gubbed by boys from Maryhill and Mount Florida, led to friendships that questioned my prejudices.

The second was my serious involvement in my theological College’s Mission in the Calton area of Glasgow, which contained much slum housing, as well as Glasgow landmarks like the Barras market and the Barrowland Ballroom. I was involved for three years in running Youth Club activities for children and teenagers from the area, most of whom were from families who had little income and lived in rotten housing, yet coped daily with problems that would have defeated me. I came to love their stoic gallantry, their sour humour, their pride and their endlessly inventive language.

These experiences, together with exposure to the ethos of the Iona Community, a radical Christian community committed to social justice, helped form the socialist convictions which are still with me. Extensive reading of Marx, McLean, Gramsci, EP Thomson. Eric Hobsbawm, Brecht, Nyerere and others extended my grasp of class history and the role of capital. For a short time in my thirties I was a member of the British Communist Party, which was a joke when it wasn’t a disgrace.

I have as a minister, worked in two working class parishes, the first in Bellsmyre, Dumbarton, the second in Douglas and Angus, Dundee, in both of which I found myself learning more from my parishioners than I could teach, as they knew so much better than I did, the virtues needed for individual and family living in these communities. Their experience of skilled and unskilled labour, of poor wages and uncertain employment, of predatory criminals selling drugs, as also of hard-won success, children going to college or Uni, sunny evenings drinking beer in the back step, of how love and loyalty could be life, and isolation could be death – was not my experience and made me at best an encourager rather than a leader.

I was reminded of this aspect of my life when I was reading Luke’s gospel this week. It was particularly Jesus’ argument about healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath that caught my eye, ” You all untie your ox on the Sabbath or take your donkey from the manger to give it water, don’t you?” My only answer to that would be, “No, I’ve never done that in my life,” because it comes from the experience of Galilean peasants, whose lives and customs are central to the teaching of Jesus. They were a class of people distant from me, but who shared with Scottish workers the experience of hard physical labour and with rural workers in particular, the care of crops and animals.The quoted incident is preceded in chapter 13 of Luke, by the parable of the fruitless fig tree which is spared being cut down to give it one more chance. Again this is not my class experience, nor indeed would have been the experience of the probably urban believers for whom Luke was writing, in the years when  the great expansion of Christain faith was taking place in the cities of the Roman Empire.

Peasant king

The Gospels are filled with the language, economy, labour, and consciousness of Jesus’ class, the peasants of Galilee. The tradition of Jesus sticks stubbornly to this class basis, even when its audience had become largely urban. This argues for the conservative bias of those who handed on the memory of Jesus. The scholarly consensus these days is that the tradition of Jesus was almost infinitely flexible and could be changed as  communities or authors wished. Here, as we expose the peasant bedrock of the tradition, we see its resistance to change, even when that might have seemed an evangelical advantage.

My personal history has taught me that the culture of any class is a rich treasury of human experience, with particular answers to the common human questions of how to survive and to flourish. At present through my part-time ministry in three rural parishes, I am again learning a culture previously unknown to me, that of the family farmers of Angus, which may be closer to that of Jesus than my own. Although the methods are very different from those of first century Galilee, seed time, harvest, the birth and death of animals, shepherding, physical labour in rough weather, dependence on the seasons, the importance of family inheritance and the ownership of land, all of these and more are points of contact with the biblical tradition and the experience of Jesus.

Of course, the message of Jesus is intended for all peoples and all classes of people;my argument is that we cannot share it by reducing it to general ideas, but rather by maintaining its roots in the economy of peasant Palestine, from where it can speak to people of very different economies. It does not speak immediately to our ideologies, but to our shared need to survive and our desire to flourish. It is not therefore a word of God which descends ready made from the heavens but like a mustard seed grows for many generations in the soil of community life. It is a commonplace that Jesus’ wisdom is rooted in the wisdom of Israel; it is more specifically rooted in the wisdom of Galilean peasants whose communal experience speaks through him.

A peasant gospel

PThe message of Jesus addresses how we manage our indiviual and communal dwelling space (ECONOMY); how we share our local experiences in the common house of the inhabited world ( ECUMENICITY);  how we cooperate with all creatures in the universal house of life (ECOLOGY); All the words in capitals are derived from the Greek word oikos, a house, meaning respectively Household Management, Readiness to look beyond our own houses to the houses of others, and Concern for the world as a house for all creatures. Jesus and his community announced justice in economy, peace through ecumenicity, love in ecological partnership; and they did so by practicing these virtues as the fulfilment, not denial, of their own experience as peasant farmer/ fisherfolk in first century Palestine.

As my old Clydeside communist pal used to say of almost everything, “It’ s a pure class phenomenon when you take its clothes off.”







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