When words are not enough

Mar 27th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Can you still find the answers to all the world’s questions at student union meetings?

Thirty years ago, a decade on from its most radical days, the student union at the LSE would meet on a Thursday lunchtime.  The main items of business were rarely the practical business of life for students at the School; instead there would be resolutions on issues of world affairs.  The government of the United States would be condemned for whatever its latest overseas involvement had been and congratulations would be dispatched to leaders of “progressive” movements.  Of course, the Soviet Union and China escaped any criticism.

Student union politics seemed to rest on a premise that if you said something should be so, then reality would adjust itself to your aspirations; if you repeated slogans often enough, it would be sufficient to change the world.

The radical generation of thirty to forty years ago never quite came to terms with the changes that swept through the world.  The collapse of Communism and the emergence of free market economics was not on the script from which they had read at meeting after meeting and rally after rally.  Slogan politics was not an adequate response to complex changes in international society.

However, like the religious fundamentalists who insist the facts must be wrong if those facts disprove religious assertions; the ageing radicals persist in believing that making declarations is sufficient to change the realities of politics and economics.  The grey bearded radicals found liberal churches to be a congenial home for their worldview; so now, in the name of theology, we get recycled 1960s politics.

“Christian economics is the solution” declares a headline in one English church newspaper.  The writer doesn’t, however, explain how his idea of “Christian economics” translates into practical policy.  He excoriates capitalists and champions of the free market, but does not attempt to move beyond generalisations when it comes to alternatives.  He is concerned about stewardship of the Earth, fair wages and fair trade – concerns that all Christians might share – and is anxious that markets be ‘moral’.  What he does not offer is any alternative to the things he so dislikes.

A cynic might pick up the church newspaper and suggest that the church in England might set an example of “Christian economics”; it might hand over its palaces and fine houses and prime city centre sites so that these might be put to use by the community.  It might repent of the past and hand over its lands and its wealth built up during the centuries of poor people paying tithes to Anglican parsons.  Any suggestion from church quarters that they might embark upon such a prophetic course of action?

The reassuring things about those resolutions at student union meetings was the overwhelming majorities; one must be right when everyone round about thought similarly.  Church thinking seems to follow a similar logic: engage a writer who reinforces one’s own thinking and his words will encourage one in the rightness of one’s views.

Of course, it does nothing for the bloke down the road who has lost his job, or the family whose home is in danger, or the farmer in Africa whose living standards have been slashed, or the child whose parents can’t afford medicine, or the millions of microeconomic situations that need more than slogans.

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