Why Should We Talk About Class?
Luke Larner explains why the church needs to talk more about class.
For those minded towards justice and the common good, life in the 21st Century can feel like a constant game of whack-a-mole. Many of us are left anxious, exhausted or apathetic by the myriad crises of our age, not least climate collapse, fragile economies, the rise of racism and fascism, and the seeming ineptitude of much of the church in the West to respond. So why make it worse by distracting people with something else to worry about? Because as my fellow contributors to the upcoming book Confounding the Mighty recognise, these topics are all inseparable from the topic of social class. And because, at the risk of oversimplifying, the only hope of a way out of all this, is solidarity.
I’ve been encouraged to see many more people talking about social class again in recent years, whether in the mainstream through the likes of Darren McGarvey, Lynsey Hanley, Akala and Kenan Malik, or in the theological sphere through the published work of scholars such as Anthony Reddie, Ruth Harley, Joerg Rieger and others. Here in our British context we are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and increased union mobilisation while being governed by a nefarious crowd of neo-fascist gangster capitalists. Faith communities are under increased pressure to support each other’s material needs. Even academic theologians are seeing their jobs feel more and more like the ‘precariat’ experience through fragile working conditions. We cannot address these and the other issues I have mentioned, without addressing capitalism. We cannot address capitalism without addressing labour and economics in material ways. And we cannot do this without talking about class. This kind of talk about class means moving beyond talk of ‘inclusion' and ‘classism’ in terms of identity politics (although this has its place). It means examining the material economic and power relationships in an increasingly class-divided society where the distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is growing at an alarming rate. In fact, it is growing so fast that even the ‘have-a-little-but-want-mores’ (or the middle-classes as they are often called) are wondering if they picked the right side in the class struggles of the last few hundred years…
This is a conversation some of us don’t enter by choice. Many of us who have lived the ‘have-not’ experience, and have slept with hungry bellies. Many have had the labour of our broken bodies exploited, and worked by the sweat of our brow to ‘win’ in a so-called meritocracy only to find the whole system was rigged. Many have been divided against one another despite being part of the biggest and most diverse group of people on planet earth (the proletariat, the working-classes, the ‘wretched of the earth’, pick your terminology). Yes, this isn’t a conversation we enter in to by choice - we have lived and breathed it our whole lives. Even those who ‘made it out’ will never forget how it feels to do the trapeze of life in late-capitalism without a safety net. For those ‘have-a-little-want-mores’ of the middle-classes who see or are beginning to see that they have more in common with the labouring majority than with the 1% and 0.1% pulling the strings, this conversation is starting to seem pretty damn important too.
The conversation has, of course, been going on since humans started farming and establishing ‘civilisations’. Every society has a multitude of stories and fables about the rich and the poor, our sacred texts are filled with them. For those of us who pay allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth, and who draw inspiration from the Hebrew Torah and prophetic tradition in which he was formed, we don’t need too look far to find plenty to inspire us in this conversation. Before he was even born, Jesus’ own mother sang a song about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, the rich being sent away and the hungry filled with good things (Luke 1:46-55). Indeed, as I have learned in recent years through a painful journey of growth and having some of my rough edges knocked off, one doesn’t need to have calloused hands and a sore back to ‘get’ this. The working-class experience is multi-faceted and intersectional - it is deeply woven with racism, sexism, disability and many other forms of oppression. Without a class-critical lens, these topics are lacking. Without a class-critical lens, our theology is lacking.
But the truth is, it’s time for more than a conversation. As others have said, ‘we gather not to mourn, but to organise’. We tell our stories and sing our dreams in hope of change, in hope of building movements of solidarity to shift the unjust power imbalances we see all around us, believing that solidarity to be a gift of the Spirit. We wish to confound the mighty’ through our stories of church, social class and solidarity. Though coming from a variety of socio-economic, theological and ecclesial stand points, we gather in the Spirit of a labourer from Nazareth who said it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. Each of our stories form part of a bigger story. And there are many more stories which need to be told, many ears unplugged, and many tongues loosed to speak. We speak from a variety of Christian perspectives while standing and listening in solidarity with our comrades of all faiths and none. But for now, we start here in this book as an act of defiant hope that the Christian faith can offer more than ‘pie in the sky when you die’ for the exploited working-class masses of the world, whose cries have “reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (Jas. 5:4 NRSV).
Luke Larner is a Church of England priest and former bricklayer serving a parish in the post-industrial town of Luton. He is passionate about weaving parish ministry with theology and social justice, and is engaged in community organising and studying/teaching theology alongside his parish role.