What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him. Matthew 7 vv 9-11
This is one of those gospel sayings of Jesus that it is easy and comfortable to spiritualise so that it offers no challenge to us as we live our lives in the world. The process of spiritualisation is even visible in the New Testament: where Matthew has God giving ‘good gifts’, Luke’s version (ch.11 vv19-13) has him giving the Holy Spirit. We need to reverse this neutralising trend and try to go back even beyond Matthew to what Jesus might have been getting at as he tried to help people improve their lives.
Ever since the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, the most important determinant of your position in an increasingly complex society has been your parents’ social standing. It’s really not very much different now: social mobility is still quite limited; it’s relatively widespread only in unusual social circumstances; and it’s seen as desirable, if at all, only in one direction. This isn’t surprising. People generally have two inclinations when it comes to social organisation: while they want it to be ‘fair’, they also want to do well not only for themselves but also crucially for their own children. There’s an obvious tension here. No parent intends that in the interests of fairness their own children should be poorer, or less powerful, or of lower social status than themselves; you don’t pay for your kid to go to
Eton to give him the opportunity of becoming a bus driver. If you are a poor or powerless parent, your demands for ‘fairness’ may be as much driven by considerations of heredity as are the demands of rich and powerful parents that their children should inherit their wealth and social position. People who have no children, whatever their wealth or social position, may find it easier to espouse fairness at least in the long term because they have no heredity to worry about. This is the very stuff of politics, of course, and you can often characterise political parties in terms of their wish to conserve the social order pretty much as it is, or their demand for the better treatment of their down-trodden supporters and their children, or their impartial idealism about fairness.
Religion is equivocal about all this. On the one hand, it sanctifies existing social stratification; the Hindu caste system and the coronation of hereditary monarchs come to mind. It may preach that true contentment has nothing to do with your place in society, so you can be content with the lot that society has laid upon you. Sometimes it has discouraged social revolution partly because revolutions tend to be violent, and violence is discomforting to most religious outlooks. On the other hand, there has long been a positively equalitarian, levelling streak in religion; it’s there in Old Testament prophecy and in Islam, and here in
both the Civil War Parliamentarians and the later Labour Movement were the offspring of religious nonconformity. To some extent religion may have simply been enlisted by opposing political factions, but I don’t think that’s the whole story; there are sincere religious, and indeed Christian, convictions on all sides of the political debate. This is worrying. If religious and specifically Christian people have deeply held, religiously-informed convictions about politics, but those convictions will support almost any political position, that wouldn’t seem to say much for the quality of the religion that informs the politics. England
It’s hard to expect a parent to do anything less than as much as they possibly can to advance their child’s interests, not least because to do so is to go against the evolutionary grain. Some political revolutionaries have attributed their political aims to religious inspiration, yet often when such religiously inspired political revolutionaries gain power, they find they want to hand it on to their children, just as their ousted predecessors did; the example of Oliver Cromwell comes to mind as once among many. In theory, religion may possibly put God on the side of the poor and dispossessed, but when it comes to practice, that doesn’t cut very much ice; it seems that heredity always trumps fairness when heredity is available. Perhaps that was one creditable reason why the powerful medieval western church insisted on clerical celibacy. In a world of widespread dynastic violence, clever and ambitious people born outside the ruling class – Thomas Becket, for example – could rise to wealth and power only provided they had no children to whom they could pass on their new-found social status.
One characteristic of heresy is that it gives too great a prominence to some particular religious idea and too little to others, and it may be that the problem here is of that kind. Maybe religion asks us to give full political weight to several different ideas, a balancing act that is only possible to the extent that all the relevant ideas are honoured. To ask socially well-placed parents to allow the clever, ambitious children of their social inferiors to overtake their own children is going to be a lot easier if socially inferior roles are properly respected and paid; to claim that money isn’t everything is going to be a lot easier if the disparity between rich and poor is narrower than it will be if left to itself; to resist violent revolution is going to be a lot easier if social structures offer other avenues for redressing grievances. And close to the heart of all this is the Jesus conviction that just as human parents want the best for all their children, so in the God-as-Father theology the concept of all human beings being radically equally the ‘children of God’ implies an urge towards more equal treatment in society. If as a religiously-informed parent you treat, or allow society to treat, a child that is not yours in a way you would not accept for your own child, the Jesus teaching challenges you to ask yourself how you would justify that in terms of your religious convictions. No-one should imagine that there are easy or comfortable responses to that challenge.