Growing up amongst those who had lived through the history of the Labour Party, there were tales of heroic figures. My grandmother would talk of hearing Jimmy Maxton speaking at open air mass meetings. Maxton was leader of the Independent Labour Party, a small group to the left of the main party. There would be tales of Maxton’s mane of dark hair and Scots accent and the fiery oratory with which he captured the imagination of the crowds of working people who stood and listened. Of course, Maxton was far too radical and not at all pragmatic, of course his policies stood no chance of success, but he lifted the hearts of those who listened, gave them hope of a world other than the one they inhabited, the one of the grinding poverty of the 1930s.
Such radical aspirations appealed to a teenage idealist, the radical newspapers offered a vision of a bright new age to come, one where popular democracy eliminated economic injustice. It would be a world where work had dignity and where artisans and craftsmen were valued as much as professional and academics. At one meeting, a trade unionist stood and argued that if a college lecturer deserved a sabbatical, then how much more a coal miner or a steel worker deserved such a chance of a break. It all seemed so obvious, so attainable.
Of course, the aspirations of the radical Left of the 1970s stood no more chance of being realized than those of Jimmy Maxton forty years earlier. In college days, the debate was not even about what the vision would include, it was about the sequence of the steps that would be necessary to achieve a revolutionary transformation of society, terms like “the vanguard of the proletariat” would be bandied about.
Coming to Christian faith from a radical socialist background and reading the Sermon on the Mount, there seemed a prospect of working for a different world in a way that had never been possible among the small fragmented groups of the Left. If this was what Jesus said, and the church believed in Jesus, then the church might bring extraordinary changes in society.
Of course, I learned that most Christians regarded Jesus as most voters regarded Jimmy Maxton, as a man whose views were at best unrealistic and, at worst, repugnant.
It’s a pity that the church never really took Jesus’ views seriously, it would be nice to try to imagine what it would be like if the ethics propounded in Saint Matthew’s Gospel had been translated into reality. As it is, while the words might give hope to the poor and offer a vision of a different world, the church just ignores them. Perhaps Jesus would have understood Jimmy Maxton.