Politics and enchantment


Tina Beattie, a mother of four children, who is completing her doctoral studies in theology at Bristol University, reflects on the role of social justice in bringing her into the Catholic Church. She records her later disillusionment and the subsequent conviction that the pastoral and political aspects of the faith must be kept together.

When I was a ten-year-old Presbyterian child living in Zambia I used to pray to have a vision of the Virgin Mary. I fervently believed that she was an invisible inhabitant of the secret shadows at the bottom of the garden, a creature of magical enchantment who would appear if only I clasped my hands and beseeched God fervently enough.

In my early thirties and living in Zimbabwe, I returned to the Presbyterian church after years of spiritual wandering and once again I found myself seduced by Catholicism. This time, however, it wasn't Mary who enticed me but a Church which dared to take a political stand. During the years of UDI, a large and influential section of the Catholic Church had been resolutely opposed to white minority rule. While liberation theology was developing its theoretical basis in Latin America, many Catholic priests, nuns and lay people in what was then Rhodesia found themselves confronted by the radical challenge of a guerrilla war between white supremacists and black freedom-fighters with very little theoretical guidance. If theirs was a theology of liberation, it was formed in the crucible of war and drastic political choices.

Honest critics

When I went to live in Zimbabwe six months after Independence in 1980, I became sceptical about the claims of some of the Protestant churches which had lent relatively uncritical support to Ian Smith's regime (with a few notable exceptions), but grumbled incessantly about the new black government and its abuses of power. I can remember going to one strident prayer meeting, where an elderly white woman prayed for the government of Robert Mugabe: 'Dear God, I just pray for the government. I pray that you will mend them, and if you cannot mend them, then dear God, end them.' In the meantime, the Catholic press and the Justice and Peace Commission were consistently applying the same criteria of social justice to the new black government as they had applied to the previous white government, and finding both wanting. This, I believed, was what the gospel should be in relation to society - a constant voice that takes the side of the oppressed without fear or favour, even although it risks persecution.

It was this political dimension of the Catholic Church that made me think seriously about becoming a Catholic, a temptation I had resisted for many years. I began to dabble in the ideas of liberation theology, and a priest who remains a close friend fired me with his passion for inculturation and a grassroots theology that filtered from the people up through the hierarchy, rather than the other way round. Yet I also found myself once again lured into the enchanted world of my childhood, in the rich sensuality of Catholic worship. I decided that I would be received into the Church one Holy Thursday as I watched the Blessed Sacrament being carried to the altar of repose. The Protestant in me wanted to giggle in the aisles as the priest processed past me under a frilly parasol, carrying the ciborium. But the reverence, the mystery, the absolute solemnity of the moment struck a deeper chord, and I knew that I had to become part of whatever it was that was going on.

Catholic in Britain

In 1988, a year after becoming a Catholic, I left Zimbabwe with my husband and four children. I joined a thriving parish in Bristol and threw myself with gusto into justice and peace activities, naively assuming that all Catholics shared my political and social concerns. At the same time, I developed a new perspective on the injustices that had increasingly preoccupied me while living in Zimbabwe. Why was it that I, a white African with a British passport. had so many more life choices than black Africans who shared my time and place in history? Why did our Zimbabwean currency devalue month by month in relation to the US dollar or the British pound? Why did that young and promising nation so quickly begin the inexorable slide into impoverishment and debt which blights the African continent? In Britain, mainly through my involvement with CAFOD, I learned about the Third World debt crisis, the arms trade and the many ways in which the global economy starves the poor to feed the rich. I bombarded my MP with letters. A friend who has never thought much of the Rt Hon William Waldegrave says she began feeling terribly sorry for the poor man, having seen some of my letters to him.

I became profoundly disillusioned as I discovered the apathy and disinterest of the British public, including the majority of Catholics. I saw a population in the grip of Thatcherism, culpably ignorant of its collusion in the structures of oppression and exploitation that govern our world. Charity was big business, and everywhere people were willing to rattle buckets on street corners and don red noses in their noisy beneficence, but any attempt to explore the causes of poverty rather than treat the symptoms met with glassy-eyed resistance.


Then came the Gulf War, and for me the beginning of a slide into despair as I watched the wholesale brutalisation of a nation. I was appalled at how easily so-called freedom of speech was sacrificed to the propaganda of war. If the voice of public conscience could be silenced so effectively in a relatively democratic and affluent society, no wonder dictatorships and oppressive ideologies flourished in poorer societies.

Dead women and children were 'collateral damage'. Bombing raids that flattened homes and destroyed families were 'surgical strikes'. A society was being destroyed by 'smart bombs'. The nation sat glued to its televisions and played computer games with the flesh and blood of people who simply happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, under the regime of a leader who the West had armed and helped to keep in power.

So few people protested, and those who did were ignored by the media and silenced by the politicians. The Pope spoke out with passionate conviction against the war, but Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Runcie declared the war 'just'. In Zimbabwe, I had become part of a Church that occupied a subversive and prophetic role in society. In Britain, I was beginning to realise that Catholics were not going to sacrifice their recently acquired social respectability by challenging the status quo.

Grim reality

So by 1991, my honeymoon with the Catholic Church and with British society was over, and I viewed the fallen religious and social world around me with lofty and lonely disdain. Perhaps the final moment of disenchantment came on Ash Wednesday that year. I was in London and decided to attend the evening Mass at Westminster Cathedral. As I went into the church, I saw from the news stand that many civillians had been killed in the allied bombing of a bunker in Baghdad. In the church, the choir was singing Palestrina. Sitting in the queue for the confessional, I felt I had stepped out of a world indifferent to its brutality and violence, into a world of what felt like obscenely lavish beauty. When I finally reached the confessional I blurted out my confusion and distress to the elderly priest behind the grille. He responded with a pep talk which might have been lifted from the front pages of the tabloids, asking me why I thought it was wrong to resist an evil aggressor like Saddam Hussein. In that moment I knew that both the passion and the magic of my new-found faith had died. It has taken me several years to realise that that was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life - a night when the truth of Ash Wednesday took possession of my soul and overwhelmed me.

Seeking unity

When I agreed to write this article, I said I would write something fairly personal on trying to bring justice to bear in the parish. I begin with that autobiographical sketch, because it provides the context for what follows. I want to consider the question of justice and peace from a number of angles, without pretending any particular know-how and without offering any clear solutions to the problems I raise. Having said that, my continuous involvement with the Clifton Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission since coming to Britain has I hope given me some insight into the challenges and pitfalls of justice and peace activities.

My colonial childhood created in me a substantial degree of ignorance and disinterest with regard to political issues, and it is still true that many of my commitments in this respect are based on emotion and instinct rather than reasoned argument and information. Unfortunately, this is something I have in common with a good many other well-intentioned campaigners. There are few things more chaotic than justice and peace meetings when everybody wants a platform for their pet cause, and the agenda covers everything from the latest regional conflict to the most intractable global problem in one evening. One of the problems with the justice and peace umbrella is that it tends to cover so many issues, and to bring together so many strong-minded individuals.

This is why I believe there needs to be a boundary between campaigning on specific issues and raising awareness of the Church's social teaching. While different people with different temperaments and backgrounds will be drawn to a variety of causes, the task of exploring and understanding the theology behind our activities can be a source of unity and lead to a deepened level of commitment.

We are not all called to the same task in the Church. We are all called to what St Anselm described as 'faith seeking understanding' - a life of discipleship and commitment to our neighbours that is replenished at the wells of our faith, including the theological and social teachings of the Church. Only through this process of nurturing our campaigns with theological understanding, can we avoid becoming 'clashing cymbals' in our approach to social issues. It is our shared vision of how the world might be, and a belief that God calls us to participate in bringing that world into being, that holds us together in our diverse activities and interests.

No smug saints

There is, however, something else that I think I have learned from my early years in this country, and that is the ease with which discouragement becomes a form of arrogance. When we embrace a conviction and find our enthusiasm met with indifference, it becomes very easy to feel morally superior. Unfortunately, this too is a not uncommon tendency among those who campaign for justice and peace. In the bleak years following the Gulf War, I felt increasingly isolated and remote, not only from the 'ordinary' parishioners I encountered at Mass, but also from the rhetoric of those involved with justice and peace. Such feelings of alienation can mask a deeply rooted pride, a belief that I alone have a monopoly on truth.

Perhaps what distinguishes the saint and the martyr from the rest of us is the ability to maintain vision and commitment, even in isolation, without giving in to a sense of smugness and superiority. The Old Testament prophets always spoke from a position of love and servitude to the people, a sense of belonging amongst them and sharing their joys - and their vicissitudes. I am increasingly wary of the free-floating prophet, the person whose sense of justice is so acute that he or she simply cannot find a good enough community to belong to. This is the consumer par excellence of religious titbits travelling from parish to parish and Mass to Mass (sometimes even from denomination to denomination), never dirtying his or her hands in the ordinary commitments and concerns of parish life.

Where to begin?

The expression 'charity begins at home' is pernicious when it blunts our social conscience, and yet surely justice and peace must begin with the ordinary men, women and children who inhabit our neighbourhood. Often, a commitment to the poor is based on a belief that poor people are somehow more noble and more appreciative of our endeavours than the rather unappealing characters who occupy the pews beside us.

If our service to the poor is based on a romantic idea of poverty, we easily fall into the trap of believing we only need to care for the deserving poor. The homeless person who spends my pound on drink does not deserve my charity. The unmarried mother who cannot afford to feed her child only has herself to blame. The AIDS victim who was promiscuous has no claim on my compassion.

Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. If I can love neither myself or my neighbour because we are too middle class, too apathetic and too self-centred, I cannot really love the stranger whose fly-blown, starving child gazes out at me from the charity brochures, because that stranger shares all the warts and failings of my own humanity. Given half a chance, she too would be middle class, apathetic and self-centred. She has a claim on me not because she is better than anybody else, but because she is poor.

Pastoral or political

Perhaps one of the greatest tensions in parish life is between those who are pastoral and those who are political. The person who will volunteer to run a soup kitchen for the homeless might flinch if asked to make connections between homelessness and politics. Those who give generously to help children wounded in wars might refuse to discuss the economic and social implications of the arms trade. The person in the parish who visits the sick and cares for the elderly may feel threatened by justice and peace activists who sometimes seem to sneer at her politics and her small acts of charity. In self-defence, she brands them as the parish lefties and refuses to have anything to do with them.

On the other hand those of us who take on political issues and commit ourselves to the work of justice and peace often become so busy with meetings, campaigns and events that we have no time for the pastoral activities of care and compassion on a one-to-one basis. The person who spends her spare time attending meetings and discussing social problems feels guilty because she so often neglects the pastoral side of life and finds it difficult to respond when asked what she actually does. In self-defence, she denounces the charity of those who put money in envelopes and look after their own kind, without ever rocking the political boat. The result can be an attitude of mutual hostility and contempt and a constant vying for the heart of the parish.

There are some people who admirably combine both, whose lives are shining examples of Christian discipleship achieved through an integration of the personal and the political, the private and the public. However, I suspect most of us bumble along feeling vaguely dissatisfied with our efforts and guilty for not doing more, and it can be tempting to project that guilt onto others.

A new consensus

Certainly, I think this was true of many parishes a few years ago, but I dare to hope the situation is changing. More and more people are convinced that there is a profound malaise at the heart of our society. Those who campaign on issues such as fair trade and the cancellation of Third World debt are no longer seen as a troublesome faction on the margins of the Church. The bishops of England and Wales have taken up Pope John Paul II's call to renew our commitment to the poor as the millennium approaches, particularly in campaigning for debt relief for the poorest nations.

The publication of The Common Good signals the Church's desire to speak prophetically to the political heart of the nation, bringing its rich heritage of social teaching into the public arena. But there is still a long way to go. Most Catholics remain profoundly ignorant of the Church's social teaching. As a Church we are still much more preoccupied with questions of abortion and sexual morality than with issues such as war and economics. One of the mixed blessings of living in a democracy is that we can sin in the ballot box as easily as we can in the bedroom, but the implications of this have yet to be worked through in the formation of Catholic conscience. Only when we resist all the forces which interact to create what Pope John Paul II has called 'a culture of death' might we begin to act in an integrated way to create a culture of life.

None of us can single-handedly take on the world, and there will always be some who are gifted with the kind of sensitivity and attentiveness required for pastoral work, and others who have the breadth of vision and grasp of issues required for political work. We need to recognise these as part of a shared endeavour. The pastoral and the political are complementary. Dom Helder Camara said, 'When I give bread to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.' If that's so, then surely a healthy parish needs both saints and communists if it is to be salt of the earth and light of the world.


Yet I also believe that a healthy parish needs enchantment and magic, beauty and laughter. Mary never did appear to me in the shadows at the bottom of the garden, but if she had, how might she have behaved? Would she have sung the Magnificat and filled me with a vision of a world turned upside-down? Or would she have danced and laughed as if at a wedding feast where the guests had drunk all the wine and she knew there was still more and better to come? One of the things that the poor can teach us is how to feast and celebrate. We are so often encumbered with the burden of our affluence that we forget what feasting means as communal celebration and shared delight. A faith of politics without enchantment is little more than an ideology, just as a faith of enchantment without politics is an escape to a childhood fantasy. As we struggle to find a balance between the two, we need to cultivate the art of gentleness in our dealings with one another, to emulate the one of whom it is said:

Faithfully he brings true justice;
he will neither waver, nor be crushed
until true justice is established on earth,
for the islands are awaiting his law.
(Is 42:2-4)

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