I’ve been reading about the history of radical faith and politics in the UK. It’s part of the research for the next book, which is not about the history of radical politics or this kind of religion, but that’s a whole other story. However, some things have struck me.
From the first radical noises in the 1200s, the first rebellions that I’ve read about, people have been protesting about the way in which money and power collect into the hands of the few who then control the law so that the money and power remain in their control. While we’ve come a fair way from feudal times (it’s your Count that votes!) I read this stuff and I realise we are having all the same arguments today. All the ‘takeover’ protests, all the troubles with bankers, and the way in which the very poor are being made, all over the world, to pay for the indulgencies and gambling of the very rich.
The history of radical politics fills me with despair, because it is so obvious that the same essential battle has been going on for centuries, and we still have power and wealth in the hands of the very few. Quality of life, life expectancy, and personal freedoms have all advanced on where they were for the early radicals, but compared to how things could be… we are living in the dark ages still. I also despair because of the ease with which the radicals of history sometimes turned tyrants themselves. The history of violence inherent in the history of protest is not anything to be proud of. Radical history has no shortage of figures who were in it for their own gain, recent history too. If we tear down the king in order to be king ourselves, we are no different from what went before, no matter what we spouted along the way.
At the same time, radical history also awes me. There were plenty of people who gave up comfort to campaign for rights. There were people who endured imprisonment, barbarous physical punishments and death in trying to improve things. I do not honestly think I would have the courage to stand by any belief all the way to the scaffold or the stake. We have at least made enough progress in the UK that being a radical is not automatically a means of courting death, but there are still countries where you can die for daring to defy oppression and tyranny. There are still people brave enough to give their lives in the hopes of making a difference. The heroism inherent in such sacrifice deserves far more recognition than it gets.
In the midst of this, I also feel hope. Wherever there have been wrongs in the world, there has always been some small, courageous voice raised against them. I feel concern because I have no doubt that many people with repressive, controlling, diminishing ideals for the rest of humanity think that they are bravely speaking up for the common good. There are people who are determined to feel spiritually, or psychologically harmed by what others do. Even if they aren’t present, directly affected, or even able to see it. The idea that someone is having gay sex, being a pagan, letting their women drive cars… is so offensive to some people that they would have no problem answering ‘an it harm none’ with the assertion that they are indeed being harmed and must protect themselves from the horror. While anyone believes they have the right (god given or otherwise) to control other human beings, in this way, we are going to have problems.
Reading about the tradition of crazy prophet women from the 1600s, writing illegal pamphlets touting ideas the elite didn’t want to hear… I think yes, this is something I belong to, just a bit. I watch the discourse across blogs, and it’s not so very different from the way people used to carry out arguments through pamphlets. Just a bit quicker, and sometimes with better spelling.
Historically, radicals have not tended to get what they want up front. It takes time to turn an insane heresy into an idea everyone can embrace. The transition from slave trading to the abolishment of it, was not rapid. Civil rights movements take time. They have to build support and belief, convince the mainstream that ‘normal’ does not mean ‘right’ and establish a whole new way of viewing the world before they take hold and themselves become ‘normal’. Every battle for human rights, freedom of expression, the equal valuing of all human life, has been slow won. But we do win more of them than not, eventually. So long as there are voices of dissent and people willing to question, there is hope.
Social fairness and the resistance of power is as much an issue as it ever was. We aren’t fighting over Biblical interpretations so much these days. The new heresies have everything to do with issues of climate change and human responsibility. The kind of radicals I’m interested in are talking radical compassion, radical resource redistribution, radical revaluing. The greatest dangers lie in thinking it’s all fine, and that we can sit back and trust that our freedoms and rights are safeguarded. Ask who has power over you, and ask what is done in your name, without your consent. One piece of repressive legislation is all it would take to turn most of us into criminals, or victims, or both.