On this day in 1661: Religion, rebellion and repression

On this day in 1661, a group of religous and political radicals occupied St Paul’s Cathedral and proclaimed the overthrow of Charles II’s government and the imminent reign of King Jesus. The radicals were known as the Fifth Monarchists.

They took their name from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel suggesting that the four major monarchies of the world would be succeeded by a fifth monarchy, which in the seventeenth century was interpreted as meaning the Kingdom of Jesus.

The group had been more active around a decade earlier, when the overthrow of Charles I encouraged them to believe that more radical political and economic change was possible. They combined passionately apocalyptic language with a commitment to equality and economic justice. Many, perhaps most, of their active members were women.

With Charles II on the throne from 1660, radicals generally were disheartened. Charles II had the most prominent Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison, hung, drawn and quartered as a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant. But the Fifth Monarchists weren’t giving up, and on 6 January 1661, Thomas Venner led a final attempt to overthrow earthly monarchy and bring in the reign of Jesus.

It took the authorities several days to suppress the rising, despite the relatively small numbers involved. The Fifth Monarchists resisted violently, although most of the violence seems to have been carried out against the radicals by the state’s troops . The leaders, including Venner, were hanged for high treason. Over 4,000 other radicals were rounded up and imprisoned without due process. Most of these were Quakers, but they also included Fifth Monarchists and Baptists.

The Venner Rising, as it tends to be called, is generally seen as a footnote to the tumultuous history of mid-seventeenth century England. In Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, for example, it takes up only half a sentence. But the rising led to other events of great importance, and probably of greater historical significance than the rising itself.

Firstly, in the wake of the rising there was a crackdown on religious and political dissent. This was a straightforward betrayal of Charles II’s promise the year before that he would respect religious liberty. This promise had been part of the agreement under which he had been invited to take the throne. Now it was abandoned. Over the next few years, a string of laws was passed aimed at the persecution of dissenters.

Secondly, the Quakers responded to the incident by denouncing violent rebellion and producing the first formal statement of Quaker pacifism. This is sometimes seen as an attempt to assure the king that they were not a threat to him. However, the statement was not as straightforward as this. While rejecting violence, it also seemed to reject serviility to earthly kings. After delcaring that they would not fight “with outward weapons” for either “the kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”, the Quakers went on to say, “As for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less fight for them…”.

There’s a final point of interesting historical confuson about all this. The Quakers’ pacifist declaration is frequently misdated to 1660 rather than 1661. This is because at the time the year was considered to begin on 25th March, not 1st January. Thus what we would call 6th January 1661 was viewed as being 6th January 1660. The date 1660 therefore appears on the Quakers’ statement. A number of reputable books, including many written by Quakers, mistakenly attribute the declaration to 1660. By modern reckoning, however, this is impossible: it followed an incident that took place on what we call 6th January 1661.

Advertisements

Busy but not blogging

I didn’t blog much in 2018. I was very busy – not least with my part-time (but sometimes very intense) job with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which had a busy year in 2018. I’ve also continued to teach history for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Oxfordshire, as well as doing some occasionaly writing.

I’m determined to blog more in 2019! It helps me clarify my thoughts on all sorts of things, and I hope it’s at least a bit interesting for those who choose to read my blog.

In the meantime, here’s more about the Peace Pledge Union’s recent work. I’ll be teaching two courses for the Workers’ Educational Association this term: in Abingdon (on the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century) and in Goring (on British peace activitsts in the First World War.

Resisting everyday militarism

Glancing at my blog, I’m alarmed to realise how little I’ve blogged lately. This has partly been because of a period of bad health and some related problems. I’ve also been busy with my work with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).

A major concern for the PPU is the growth of militarism in everyday life in the UK. Following widespread public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British establishment whipped up support for the armed forces as an institution, attempting to secure support for war by the back door.

Thus we have had Armed Forces Day every June since 2009. The number of cadet forces in state schools in the UK more than doubled in four years after 2012. The government has ploughed millions into schemes with a “military ethos” in schools in England. Even anti-war politicians trip over themselves to express admiration for the armed forces.

It’s not been entirely successful. The British army is still failing to meet its own recruitment targets.

But the army continues to target the poorest and most disadvantaged young people for recruitment. Militarism and poverty follow each other round in a neverending cycle.

For more on these issues, you can follow the Peace Pledge Union on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye on the website (which is in the process of being thoroughly updated). You can also read my article for the Morning Star back in May, when I wrote about the links between militarism and poverty and the encouraging news of more opposition to militarism in local communities around Britain.

Mary Magdalene and the Kingdom of God

Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly much better than most films about Jesus and his disciples. Then again, that isn’t really saying much.

I enjoyed the film and – after the rather slow and confusing first twenty minutes or so – I found it pretty engaging. The acting was very good and I found Joaquin Phoenix far more believeable as Jesus than most actors who’ve taken on the role. Rooney Mara gives a powerful performance as Mary Magdalene. Peter, Judas and Jesus’ mother Mary are all portrayed convincingly.

As my friend remarked as we left the cinema, it was perhaps more of a film about Jesus than a film about Mary Magdalene. However, it was a film about Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, and this is pretty exceptional. It has long been accepted by biblical scholars that women may have been very central in the group of Jesus’ disciples, but this realisation has been slow to make its way into churches and popular culture.

In showing Mary Magdalene’s closeness to Jesus, however, the film in some ways did not go as far as modern biblical scholarship – because it showed her as the only woman who was part of the community following Jesus.

I very much appreciated the fact that the filmmakers did not feel the need to show us every scene from the life of Jesus as mentioned in the gospels, or even all of the best known ones. In this film, Mary Magdalene is knocked unconscious by the Roman soldiers arresting Jesus. Because the story is told through her eyes, we see nothing more of Jesus until Mary awakes and finds out that he is already on his way to be crucified.

The scene in which Jesus protests against the markets in the Jerusalem Temple is particuarly well done. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen the incident portrayed so well in a film or play. A priest at the Temple is shown justifying the operation of the markets in much the same tone in which the representatives of the establishment today offer reasonable-sounding defences of other forms of economic exploitation. As soon as Jesus begins his direct action, three or four Temple officials leap on him to drag him away. It is a sight familiar to many people who have taken direct action, or observed other people taking it.

That said, I disagreed with the film’s portrayal of Jesus’ protest as an apparently spontaneous one-man action. The gospels give the impression of an organised protest. This is especially true of Mark’s Gospel, which shows Jesus visiting the Temple the day before but deciding the time is not right to act (Mark 11,11). Mark writes that when Jesus took action the next day, he “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple”, implying that a large number of disciples must have been involved in order to blockade the doors (Mark 11,16).

The main disappointment for me, however, was the theological message that the film was clearly giving, and which was made explicit towards the end. The film’s writers have fallen for the old idea – often heard in schools and churches but discredited elsewhere – that Jesus’ disciples wanted him to lead a violent revolution against Roman rule but that he instead brought a message of personal transformation. I won’t give away the details of the ending, but it leaves us with a pretty clear idea that this is the idea we’re intended to take away.

It is not believable for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s scarcely credible that a large number of people followed someone while all completely misunderstanding him. But the main problem with this idea is that it implies there are only two options: violent rebellion against Rome, or individual change. This ignores all the other possibilities, such as nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire, or a wider political challenge to all systems of domination in both personal and political forms.

The Kingdom of God has to be political. A kingdom, by definition, is a political entity. If you belong to a kingdom, you are expected to be loyal to it. Yes, the Kingdom of God involves personal transformation. But it is not possible to live morally within an immoral system; the Gospel calls for both personal and social change.

If we are loyal to the Kingdom of God, we cannot be loyal to the rulers, empires and states of this world. That frightened the Roman Empire enough to crucify Jesus, and it should frighten those who hold power today.

———————-

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Darkest Hour: War, class and Winston Churchill

It was not the positive image of Winston Churchill that put me off the film Darkest Hour. It wasn’t the representation of people calling for peace. It wasn’t the historical inaccuracies. It was the portrayal of working class characters, and in paricular Churchill’s brief interaction with a group of working class people on a tube train.

Darkest Hour is primarily about a decision facing the British government in May 1940: to keep on fighting, depite devastating losses and German millitary superiority, or to enter peace negotations with the Nazi regime. It was an unenviable decision, choosing between two horrendous possibilities. The film pits Churchill, who would “never surrender”, against those pushing for a negotiated peace, notably Edward Wood (Viscount Halifax). The film’s bias is clearly in favour of Churchill: an easy postion to cheer with the benefit of hindsight, removed from the millions who died as an invasion of Britain was prevented, more by luck than anything else.

When I was a child, Churchill was frequently presented as an uncomplicated hero. Nowadays, it is much more common to see him potrayed as a flawed hero. Many people are well aware that Churchill was rude, indecisive and an alcoholic. References are less frequent to his racist attitudes, brutality as Home Secretary and opposition to votes for women and free secondary education. However, there are people who recognise all this but still see him as the saviour of Britain during World War Two. If he’s no longer convincing as an unblemished hero, then a flawed hero is still a hero.

Darkest Hour portrays Churchill’s rudeness as a comical, almost endearing quality. Despite my problems with the film’s biases, I appreciated that proponents of a negotiated peace were presented relatively sympathetically and their arguments given a hearing. I was enjoying watching the film, until the scene around three-quarters of the way through in which Churchill spontaneously leaves his government car and travels on the London Underground.

In recognising Churchill’s flaws, the film acknowledges his elite background, mentioning early on that he has never travelled on a tube train. When he enters the tube train later in the film, he talks to seven or eight working class people, to discover what “the people” think about a negotiated peace.

The portrayal is patronising in the extreme. Improbably, they all have exactly the same view – opposition to peace negotations. They are uniformly deferential to Churchill, and offer their views only after he asks them a highly biased question in extremely simplistic terms. The fact that one of them is black seems to be an attempt to ward off assocations of Churchill with racism.

The aristocrats, royals and upper middle class politicians who argue with each other throughout the film are considered intelligent enough to have a range of nuanced views. The working class characters, allowed to appear only briefly, are given only simplistic statements to utter.

Historical inaccuracies are inevitable in films; some flexibility is essential to make the story flow. And I can cope with a film having a different bias to my own. What I can’t cope with is the absurd notion that Churchill decided to rule out peace negotations because of an encounter with “the people” – in the form of a handful of randomly selected individuals on a tube train.

The rights or wrongs of entering peace negotiations in May 1940 should certainly be debated a lot more than they are. More importantly, however, we need to address the way in whch World War Two influences our culture, our politics and our society. Every military action today is equated with World War Two by those who support it. Every tyrant opposed by UK governments is compared to Hitler (but not the many tyrants supported by UK governments). Everyone supporting peace or cuts to military spending is compared, with staggering inaccuracy, to people who backed appeasment in the 1930s. The portrayal of Churchill as a hero is magnified and mlutiplied by the refusal to recognise allied atrocities, as if the greater atrocities of the Nazis make all other actions OK.

Perhaps worst of all, the myth of Britain “standing alone” against Hitler is used to portray war as inevitable and right. This is possible only by blanking out all sorts of facts and possibilities from our collective memory.

That thoughts of World War Two should still exercise so much influence is perhaps unsurprising. This is no reason to be naïve about it, or to refuse to challenge one-sided narratives that continue to be used to justify war, nationalism and militarism today. It is a shame that a film as well acted and directed as Darkest Hour essentially serves as fuel to the militarist myth machine.

Blogging, Remembrance and white poppies

I’ve realised I’ve gone two months without blogging here. This isn’t because I’ve been writing less but because I’ve been writing more.

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, I’ve been focused on my work with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). At this time of year, the PPU distributes white poppies, promotes remembrance for all victims of war and makes links between remembrance and peace.

Whitepoppywreath-Remembrance2016Usually I’m at the PPU for three days per week. But like several of my colleagues I’ve been working much longer hours in the Remembrance period. I’m very pleased to be part of a team (consisting of a few staff and a lot of volunteers) who are working to remember the horrors of war by campaigning for peace in the present and the future.

There is a report here from the ‘i’ newspaper about the PPU’s approach to Remembrance, while here are Frequently Asked Questions about white poppies. The issue gained a lot of social media attention this year, with messages and posts ranging from the very supportive to the abusive and threatening – as well as some constructive disagreement and debate. I’ve reflected on this – and in particular on the experience of being called a “snowflake” – in a blog post for the Student Christian Movement.

I’ll be getting back to blogging here more regularly soon!

The Rowes case: The Christian Gospel does not uphold binary gender

I was protesting against the London arms fair when I heard the news story about the Rowes famiy on the Isle of Wight. They have withdrawn their child from school, supposedly because he was “confused” by the school allowing children to make choices about what to wear.

It seems that the school permitted another pupil to choose weather to wear “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”. The Rowes parents insist that this was contrary to their Christian faith. They are now taking legal action against the school for allowing their pupils to choose what to wear and “confusing” their own child.

I too was confused when I was a small child. I was confused about why boys and girls wore different clothes, and why I couldn’t wear the same clothes as girls. I was confused about why girls and boys were expected to play with different toys. I was confused about why my family lived in a small cottage in the grounds of a large house in which my mother worked as a housekeeper, and why the family that she worked for had a much larger and better house than ours.

As I grew up, I came to understand the reasons for these things, while never accepting they were right. I am still confused all the time. Being confused is part of being a child – or an open-minded adult.

It came as no suprise to me to learn that the Rowes parents are backed by the Christian Legal Centre, a far-right gang of homophobes who pursue legal cases to back up their absurd claim that Christians are being “marginalised” or “discriminated against” in the UK. While they’re most often attacking gay and bisexual people, their other targets have included trans people, Muslims and Jews.

With this case, the Christian Legal Centre have sunk to a new low (some might be surprised that such a thing is possible, but they keep proving that it is). This time, they are not objecting to something being banned, but something being allowed. They are not opposing the treatment of their own child, but to the choices of another child.

They are launching a legal challenge over a school uniform policy that they considers offers children too much choice. As if this isn’t bizarre enough, they are citing Christianity as their reason for doing so.

The Christian Legal Centre (and Christian Concern, which is their political campaigning wing) are not representative of evangelicals, let alone Christians generally. Many other Christians, however, tend to ignore them rather than challenging them, which unfortunately gives them space to represent themselves in the media as the voice of Chrsitianity.

Occasionally, they have brought cases that make at least some sort of sense (such as opposing restrictive uniform policies that rule out religious symbols). This time, they’re objecting to a uniform policy that offers too much freedom.

Thankfully, they have very little chance of winning this ridiculous legal challenge. They will, however, manage to secure considerable media coverage to promote their prejudices. As a result, Christianity will probably be associated with bigotry and coercion in even more people’s minds by the time they have finished.

They will also promote the impression that the Bible upholds narrow attitudes to gender and sexuality. I am baffled as to how so many people who have read the New Testament can conclude that it promotes “family values” and binary gender. It is not just that gender fluidity is compatible with the Gospel. Rather, it seems to me that that narrow atttiudes to gender are utterly contrary to the Gospel.

Different groups of Christians can always hurl quotes from the Bible at each other. But I am not backing my argument with a few isolated lines from the Bible. I suggest that most of the New Testament consistently attacks narrow, biological, socially constructed attitudes to families, gender and sexuality. Rejection of such things is one of the New Testament’s prominent themes.

Jesus and his followers left their families to form a community that travelled around together; such behaviour was surprising at least. According to the gospels, Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (but he is never shown initiating the contact). He redefined family, saying that whoever does God’s will was his brother, sister and mother. He urged his supporters to “call no-one father on earth” (in a context in which a father was a figure of authority). He opposed the practice that allowed men to divorce their wives on a whim, throwing them into disgrace and poverty. He made clear that men were responsible for the sexual sins they committed “in their hearts” and couldn’t blame women for tempting them.

Such radical attitudes continued in the early Christan community, with the older parts of the New Testament making clear that women were given a central place in the community. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul attacked those who would replace the freedom of the gsopel with a series of rules, insisting (among other things) that distincitons between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, were ended in the Christian community.

True, the later parts of the New Testament show a more conventional attitude to gender, family and hierarchy. For example, the letters to Ephesians and Timothy tell women to obey their husbands (these letters are attributed to Paul but most biblical scholars take the view that he did not write them). This reflects Christianity losing its progressiive attitudes as time went on, contrary to the shocking radicalism of Jesus and Paul.

The Gospel is about liberaton, not legalism. To preach legalism, as Paul told the Galatians, is to preach “another gospel”.

Since last week, over 100 people have been arrested while taking nonviolent direct action against the evil of the DSEI arms fair in London. Many of them are Chrsitians, some arrested during acts of worship. The Christian Legal Centre present themselves as anti-establishment (as far-right groups often do) but they do nothing to challenge the injustices of capitalism and militarism. The gospel is about challenging legalism, exploitation and oppressive attitudes – not upholding them.