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Conservative. Radical. Christian. Political.

Conservative. Radical. Christian. Political.

After almost 40 years of research, and the sad announcement of their closing Nick Spencer looks at the work of the Jubilee Centre. 22/09/2022

Think of a Christian organisation. Conservative evangelical. Very high view of the Bible. A particular interest in Old Testament Law, Leviticus and all. Convinced that said Law, and the Hebrew scriptures more generally, offers a template for modern society. Wants to work out what this might look like. 

By this stage, you will probably have run for the hills, where you are likely to find quite a few Christians. The idea that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, provides a template for society today (which, by implication means for all societies everywhere and everywhen) is commonly known as theonomy, the rule of divine law. It’s an approach to Christian social and political ethics that betrays a desperate lack of imagination and a poor grasp of hermeneutics. It can be pretty terrifying.  

I used to work for one such organisation, and it was a wonderful experience. Wonderful because it was nothing like this caricature, taught me a great deal about the Bible, politics, economics, etc – and above all because it alerted me to the absolute centrality of relationships to the Christian social vision. More of that later. 

The organisation was called the Jubilee Centre and the tense is doubly correct, because nearly 40 years after it was founded, the Jubilee Centre is to close. Started by Dr Michael Schluter in 1983, Jubilee contributed innumerable articles, pamphlets, books, talks, and conferences bringing, in its own words, “biblical insight to bear on public life”. I wrote some of them myself, so this piece is not burdened by objectivity.  

Jubilee tried to fill a gap that was less a gap than a crater. ‘Evangelical social thought’ has never quite been the total contradiction in terms that people think. For every evangelical who wanted to get you saved, there was one who wanted to improve your life on earth. Activism marked the movement from the later eighteenth century. But activism was rarely accompanied by a systematic analysis of social ills or anything approaching a systematic socio–political theology by means of which a sustained response could be formulated. ‘Evangelical social thought’ was an anaemic tradition. 

Jubilee was different, recognising the kingdom was now as well as not yet, and that its ‘nowness’ wasn’t simply a question of personal morality or stable families. The turn to Old Testament Law was as fresh as it was unpopular. When Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar and rare academic fellow–traveller with Jubilee’s work, proposed doing his thesis on Old Testament social ethics, he was told not to bother because the subject didn’t exist. He and Jubilee helped revive it and the result was a political programme that politically unboxable.  

Publications could combine truly radical left–ish economic ideas (cancellation of debts, banning of interest) with more familiar right–ish ones (importance of business, limitation of state). Ditto social policy (I once wrote a book for Jubilee arguing, on the basis of biblical teaching about gerim and nokrim, that we should be more critical towards immigration and more positive towards refugees. Twenty years on, I wonder how that worked out.) Ditto law. Ditto nationhood. Ditto criminal justice. Ditto environmentalism. Time and again, Jubilee’s work was biblical, creative, and fresh.  

To my mind, the closest political ‘position’ it approached is post–liberalism but at a time when post–liberalism was merely a glint in John Gray’s eye. And the reason for Jubilee’s proto–post–liberalism (though that label fails to capture how radical Jubilee ideas could be) was the same one that is seeing people turn their backs on today’s culture of social and economic hyper–liberalism. 

The Jubilee Centre unearthed and fixated on the idea, from the Old Testament law, that relationships matter. Not ‘matter’ in the sense of being quite important, but matter in the sense of being everything. God judges a society not on its wealth or its liberty or its equality but on the quality of its relationships, and not just the intimate ones that you associate with ‘relationship counselling’. All relationships… between employers and employees, owners and managers, politicians and citizens, prisoners and free, immigrants and natives, teachers and pupils, people and planet, investors and businesses, one country and another, one generation and another.  

None of this meant that money, or liberty, or equality are irrelevant. Quite the opposite; it is, after all, very hard to sustain ‘right relationships’ in situations of extreme poverty, oppression or inequality. It did mean that ultimately it was relationships that mattered. 

This resonated with me powerfully twenty years ago. It still does. In fact, my experience is that it resonates with most people, whether Christian or not. The idea that relational thinking was the beating heart of the Law and the Prophets, and indeed the entire Christian social vision, I found – find – transformative. 

And here is the final point. Back in those naïve days, I had yet to encounter the brilliance of Catholic Social Teaching. I had no idea of what personalism was, and had not read a word of Jacques Maritain. When, years later, I discovered all these, I was struck by how consonant the two sets of ideas, relational thinking and personalism, were – both understanding the purpose of creation, the nature and good of the human person, and the objective of good government as the fostering of good relations. The fact that these two traditions, so different in their theological paths, should end up converging on this political vision was, to me, inspiring and affirming.  

So, the passing of the Jubilee Centre is a loss (although I understand the website will keep going as an on–going resource), one that I feel personally but also a loss to wider Christian social engagement. Jubilee showed that a deep, sincere, respectful, thorough engagement with the Old Testament as a social vision need not be synonymous with the nasties of theonomy. It can be thoughtful, fresh, inspiring, and even liberating. It will be missed.  

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos 

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 Image by Jubilee Centre

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 22 September 2022

Bible, Bible, Christianity


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