What then must we do?
Luke 3:7-14 (trans. David Bentley Hart)
So [John the Baptist] said to the crowds going out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers, who divulged to you that you should flee from the wrath that is coming? Bear fruits, then, worthy of a change of heart; and do not think to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father’; for I tell you that God has the power to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; and thus every tree not bearing good fruit is felled and thrown into fire.” And the crowds questioned him, saying, “What then should we do?” And in reply he said to them, “Whoever has two tunics must share with him who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” And tax-collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what must we do?” And he said to them, “Collect nothing more than you are required to.” And men serving in the army also questioned him, saying, “And we too, what should we do?” And he told them, “Neither extort from, nor falsely accuse, anyone; and be contented with your wages.”
From Aylmer Maude’s (who was on the Fabian national executive from 1907–1912) summary of Chapter 38 of Tolstoy’s “What Then Must We Do?”
What must we do? Not lie to ourselves. Repent, and change our estimate of our own position and activity. Take every opportunity to serve others. No one possesses rights or privileges, but only endless duties and obligations. Man’s first duty — to share in the struggle with nature for the support of life. My consumption of other people’s labour destroys people’s lives.
In his editor’s introduction to his own translation (1899) of Tolstoy’s book, Aylmer Maude quoted the influential and magnificent American author, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams (1860–1935):
A young person reading today Tolstoy's ‘What Then Must We Do?’ might find it difficult to conceive the profound impression which it made upon sensitive people when it first appeared. In the late [eighteen] ’eighties there was a widespread moral malaise in regard to existing social conditions, ranging from a mere unformulated sense of uneasiness to an acute consciousness of unredressed wrongs. The abuses connected with the beginnings of machine production had by the end of the nineteenth century been somewhat lessened in England and the United States, but the evil slum conditions in our rapidly growing cities, with all the inevitable results on health and morals, were pressing on men's minds. Social and moral questioning, stimulated by some of the greatest leaders of English thought, had driven deep furrows in the smooth surface of nineteenth century satisfaction with the belief that progress was inevitable.
What then must we do?
As a teenager in the early 1980s I began to explore the area around my home in the small Essex coastal village of Kirby-le-Soken by bicycle. On one memorable summer’s afternoon I cycled over to see the magnificent, medieval Augustinian Priory at St Osyth. Having done that and fortified myself with tea and cake from a comfortable tea-room opposite the gatehouse I decided to spin on to take a look at Jaywick about which I knew nothing except that it was a coastal village on my map which I had not yet visited and wanted to visit. It was a village, no doubt, which also contained nice tea-rooms and, perhaps, a genteel greensward upon which I could rest quietly in the sun. Nothing had prepared me for the shock of what I found as, utterly unkowingly, I cycled into a village that then, and to this day, is considered to be the most deprived area of England. Some of you may recall that only last year a picture of one of the most run down roads running through the village was used in an attack ad by the Trump-supporting Republican US congressional candidate Nick Stella during the 2018 United States elections. The advert bore the words “Only you can stop this from becoming reality.” Strange words are they not from a politician whose political ideology has successfully made real many places in the US just like Jaywick? Alas, what is true of the USA is now true here, too, as any careful and observant traveller around the UK can testify. The Jaywick phenomenon has spread far and wide especially along our coasts.
Anyway, I date the start of my own religious, political and social activism to that visit. How come I had not been told this place existed? — my parents, teachers and school friends certainly knew nothing about it. How was it possible that this kind of extreme poverty had been allowed to develop almost on my very doorstep but, astonishingly, completely out of sight? What social and political policies had made this dreadful thing possible? I was shocked to my core and, inevitably, it made me ask for the first time “What then must we do?” or, as it is sometimes translated, “What is to be done?”
I quickly discovered from some newly made socialist friends that a famous text to read on just this question was Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet with exactly this title. I duly got myself a copy and found that in it Lenin had argued the working class would never spontaneously become political merely by fighting various economic battles with employers over wages, working hours and so on and that, consequently, what needed to be done was to form a political party, or “vanguard”, prepared to spread socialist ideas among the people. I was never entirely persuaded by Lenin’s whole argument but what I did take from the book was a recognition that, alone, I would never be able significantly to tackle the nightmare I’d seen at Jaywick and, therefore, I had to find ways to work and organise with others in voluntary charitable associations, pressure groups, political parties and, of course, religious communities. From that day to this it has been clear to me that organised solidarity with those who have found themselves through no fault of their own marginalised and kept in poverty is essential in any search for a meaningful and lasting answer to the question “What then must we do?”
But I was not only a politically engaged teenager, I was a religiously engaged one who knew their Bible and this meant I was well aware that the most famous and influential answers to the question “What then must we do?” weren’t Lenin’s but John the Baptist’s, many of whose answers propelled Jesus into his own radical ministry of which we are modern-day heirs. I also knew, thanks, in part, to reading Christopher Hill’s work, especially, his classic 1972 work of religious history, “The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution” — which, marvellous to relate, was a set text for my “O” level history course — that these answers had been filtered through the writings and actions of English religious radicals such as Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers and thence into a broad stream of English religious and political thinking that is known today as Christian Socialism.
As I began to read histories of that broad movement, again and again, I came across someone whose religious writings became ever more important to me, Leo Tolstoy. I discovered that in 1886 Tolstoy had written a book which was not unknown to Lenin and which bore the same title “What then must we do?” or “What is to be done?” Tolstoy’s book had a huge influence around the world — but particularly in England — it inspired many people to commit to various versions of Tolstoy’s own form of pacifist, Christian anarchism.
My visit to Jaywick ensured that, as a young person reading Tolstoy a century later, there was in fact very little standing in the way of the book also making a profound impression upon me. Again, to quote Jane Addams from Maude’s preface to Tolstoy’s book, I had seen in my own neck of the woods a first glimpse of the same disturbing contrast Tolstoy had seen “. . . between the overworked and the underfed poor on the one hand, and the idle and wasteful rich on the other” and that this “was felt as raising unanswerable questions . . .. We told ourselves in vain that the situation was over-simplified and that [Tolstoy] had made it more logical than life warrants.”
And now, in 2019, I find that every time I step outside the door of the Manse or the church I’m finding strong echoes of my (politically/theologically) foundational visit to Jaywick resonating on every corner of this city as I see an ever-increasing number of people on our streets sleeping rough in the doorways of an ever-increasing number of empty shops whilst a new type of idle and wasteful rich promote policies — economic and social — that are overworking nearly all of us and causing many, many more people to find themselves socially and financially marginalised, cripplingly poor, underfed and reliant on food banks and charities such as Wintercomfort. Once again I find I am forced to ask “What then must we do?”
Now, I truly and whole-heartedly applaud the generous donation to which we have all contributed — in my time here it’s the largest amount we’ve ever collected for our Christmas collection — and, naturally, as our chosen charity for the year I also applaud the work of Wintercomfort. In a time when there is less and less support from government for the most vulnerable in our society every little helps — it is something to be done. However, we all know in our heart of hearts that giving donations to aid charities in their work (no matter how large the donation, no matter how fine the charitable work) forms, at best, part of what Erik Olin Wright calls an “ameliorative struggle”. This is all well and good, but we clearly need also need to begin actively to engage in another struggle which attempts to do more than merely make things a little better “in the meantime” by affecting a deep, structural change in the way we organise ourselves, religiously, politically, financially and socially.
For me this present need has been no better nor more succinctly articulated in recent weeks than by the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas who bravely spoke truth to power by unexpectedly beginning a speech to a conference attended by those wanting a second referendum by offering “a genuine thank you to the 17.4 million people who gave the Establishment such a well-deserved kicking in [the referendum of] 2016.” She continued:
Thanks to you [ — the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit that is] the crisis at the heart of our democracy — and the intolerable levels of inequality and insecurity experienced by so many — can no longer be ignored. The place that we’ve been brought to by the outcome of the referendum is difficult, dangerous and divisive. But we mustn’t let that obscure the truth, or distort our analysis. Many people took the question they were being asked to mean “Should the country go on being run in the way that it is?’ And they voted “NO!” with a collective howl of rage. That response was justified then — and it’s justified now. For some, it might have been mixed up with fear, even bigotry, and an impossible longing for the past. But there was — and is — a core message at the heart of the Brexit vote. That the status quo in this country is intolerable for huge numbers of people. That the social contract is broken and the power game is rigged. It is right and reasonable to be furious. The questions we must ask going forward have to start with that acknowledgement. And with a powerful commitment not even to try to go back to the way things were. There has to be something better. Better than both the inequality and the powerlessness we’ve been grappling with for decades and that still haven’t been resolved — A democratic failure as well as an economic one.
I think Lucas is right, and right way beyond the concerns of any party politics or simple remainer/leaver arguments, because things have to change across the board and about this none of us can any longer have any doubt. The question “What then must we do?” is now pressing upon us from every direction of society and we know our ameliorative struggles via charitable giving and our charities do not provide the needed, long-term, structural answer we are really seeking. The status quo ante will not do.
It will come as no surprise that I still maintain many of the answers we seek are to be found in better heeding and practicing the peaceful, but still revolutionary social gospel offered by people like John the Baptist, Jesus and Tolstoy which, if we are honest, is something we have never yet properly tried. As Tolstoy put it I think this means doing a number of basic things, we must not lie to ourselves; we must repent, and change our estimate of our own position and activity; we must take every opportunity to serve others because no one possesses rights or privileges, but only endless duties and obligations; we must remember that our first duty is to share in the struggle for the support and maintenance of our own and other people’s lives; we must come to see that our endless, thoughtless consumption of other people’s labour is destroying people’s lives. I think we need to see and do these things and many more besides and as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus — albeit an highly unconventional, atheistic one — I recommend them to you all my heart, mind and strength and will continue to bring them into any public or private conversation about what we must be doing.
But whether or not you agree with me about some or all of these specific answers be assured something will be done by someone so it’s up to us together to make sure that what is done is done with the intention of building a peaceable, Republic or Commonwealth of Heaven on Earth and not the deliberate creation of more and more places like Jaywick which only serve to deepen the divide “between the overworked and the underfed poor on the one hand, and the idle and wasteful rich on the other”.
On Holocaust Memorial Day it is vitally important also to remember the way ethnic and identity divides also always threaten to develop in horrific ways during times of deep national stress such as that we are experiencing at the moment.
As John the Baptist, Jesus, Tolstoy and Lenin asked in their times and places so, in mine, I ask again: “What then must we do?”