We talk a lot about “human rights” these days, but rarely do we stop to think about what it is that we’re saying.

“A large majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights,” writes Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “they are rather the objects of human rights discourses.”

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Santos writes that the discourse of human rights is founded on bourgeois individualism that fits perfectly well with capitalist structures. But as Santos explains, human rights discourse is an illusion:

One of these illusions—the teleological illusion—consists in reading history backwards, beginning with the consensus that exists today concerning human rights and the unconditional good they entail, and reading past history as a linear path inexorably leading towards such a result. Related to the teleological illusion is the illusion of triumphalism, the notion that the victory of human rights is an unconditional human good. It takes for granted that all the other grammars of human dignity that have competed with that of human rights were inherently inferior in ethical and political terms. This Darwinian notion does not take into account a decisive feature of hegemonic western modernity, indeed its true historical genius; namely, the way it has managed to supplement the force of the ideas that serve its purposes with the military force that, supposedly at the service of the ideas, is actually served by them.

Santos’s critique is in line with contemporary theological critiques of rights discourse, including those of Rowan Williams, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Santos’s main problem is not with the impetus for liberation, but that human rights discourse – as it currently stands in its Western imperial garb – is not liberating enough.

An Advent prayer from The Curator:

I know that what I am asking is impossible.

But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can

and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in

and American Negro history in particular,

for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the

-James Baldwin


Compelling story from Father Paul B. Bull of the Community of the Resurrection:

In Glasgow, a labour leader read out twelve propositions on property to a meeting of communists and extreme socialists. Each proposition was greeted with enthusiastic cheers by this revolutionary audience. The speaker then said: “These propositions are taken verbatim from the Archbishop’s Report on ‘Christianity and Industry,’ as the teaching of Jesus Christ. So don’t let us hear any more about Religion being an opium for the people.”

“The Kingdom of God and the Church To-day,” in The Return of Christendom, 229.


This morning I stumbled across a free copy of Christianity and the Working Classes. It seems that the book was serving no other purpose than taking up valuable space in our tiny parish library, and so was destined for the Goodwill bin. Thankfully, the title caught my eye. The book is a collection of essays from 1906 probing a series of difficult questions: has the church become a church for the well to do at the expense of the working class? Is religion, at least as far as demographics go, the prized possession of the middle to upper classes? Why does the church fail to speak to those who need it most?

The answers vary and the solutions offered by each contributor are eerily similar to our current debates about declining membership and mission strategies. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

One essay in particular stands out. The Rev. J.G. Adderley of the Christian Socialist Union writes,

Our worship seems to many remote from life. Men ought indeed to feel that in church they are away from the wicked world, but not that they are away from what is human. It is at this point that we see how the Christian Social movement is the legitimate outcome of the Tractarian.

As Adderley explains,

We are learning that the creeds and sacraments have been rescued from oblivion not that they may be looked upon as interesting discoveries to be deposited in a museum, but that they may be used and realized for twentieth century human progress.

It is significant that the first modern Socialist Society in England was a “ritualistic” one, the Guild of St. Matthew. The Guild has always put prominently forward the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as the basis of a true social life. It has taken Baptism very seriously, and treated the bulk of the working classes as having been admitted while infants into the great democratic society of the Catholic Church. It has exalted the Eucharist as the great protest against luxury, snobbery, and competition, the demons which have made havoc of society.

Over a hundred years after Christianity and the Working Classes, we in the Anglican communion seem to have come full circle. The brief postwar boom has all but ended in the West, leaving profound economic and social questions again at the church’s doorstep. Issues surrounding class and the morality of the workaday week grow more pronounced with each passing year as the numbers joining the ranks of the “working poor” continue to swell. Will we today take seriously that fact that Baptism and Eucharist, rather than being “interesting discoveries to be deposited in a museum,” are in fact “the basis of a true social life?” And not only for our Sunday worship or internecine debates, but for the working world as a whole?

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Arthur Henderson remarks in his contribution, it is the

want of a true Christian idea that has led to the alienation of the working classes from the Churches and strengthened the ranks of distressing indifferentism, deadly materialism, and doleful pessimism. Not until Christianity is shown in its real nature as an aggressive force, destroying the evil of the individual life, transforming the character of the workers’ environment, taking cognizance of social defects, seeking to right industrial wrongs and remove the injustices under which the workers suffer, will it command the sympathies of the common people.


By the time of Maurice Reckitt the Christian Socialist movement had taken an interesting turn. Reckitt, along with Anglican Socialists Charles Gore and Percy Widdrington, began equating authentic socialism with “Christendom.” Contrary to Marxist or Fabian socialism, only a religiously inflected socialism could stand as the one sure counter-offense against capitalist property relations, plutocracy, wage slavery, and dehumanizing labor. If there ever was a reason to get behind the ideal of Christendom, then I suppose this would be it.

In appealing to Christendom, however, Reckitt was not summoning that which provokes the ire of Stanley Hauerwas or John Howard Yoder. The term does not denote the idea of a foundational secular order on which one superimposes sacred or Christian principles. Christendom, rather, is the rejection of any such neutral social plane. As such, there is no daylight between economics and faith, no hinterland between the spiritual life and politics. Most importantly, as can be seen below, Christendom rejects the protestantization of faith.

As Reckitt writes,

The failure of the Christian witness in the world has been largely due to the readiness of its disciples to urge their fellowmen to “find Christ” without any effort to reveal to them that thus they may find Christendom. Christianity so presented affirms indeed the soul to be precious; yet for all that, it leaves personality frustrated and isolated. It may lead men to hunger and thirst after righteousness, but it tempts them to rest content with a purely subjective realization of it. Hence the impression which remains with the world outside that Christian, in proclaiming “salvation,” assert nothing but the possession of a kind of spiritual patent-right, the privileges of which they are prepared to conceded, but on their own terms. The faith thus never appears as a clue to the problems which bewilder and terrify mankind, but merely as a drug by which the weak may hope to gain some degree of oblivion (153-154).

It’s safe to say that we’re now familiar with the dangers of an apolitical Jesus or regarding belief as a “spiritual patent-right,” but we still seem to be a long way from grasping the social nature of the faith.

For Reckitt and other contributors to The Return of Christendom, “Christian Sociology,” as they called it – not to be confused with the sociology of Christianity or religion – meant a direct assault on the anti-Christian notion of private property and the evils that follow in its wake. Talk of saving souls or “everyday spirituality” abstracted from the diurnal round of labor amounted to nothing more than “ambulance work.” Just as one cannot build sacred principles upon a prior secular foundation, one cannot spread a thin veneer of spiritually upon the world of industrial capitalism. Otherwise, the church misunderstands the meaning of baptism. According to Reckitt,

Into a social order so compounded how can God’s Kingdom come? Plutocracy (and the capitalist fabric through which it operates) does not merely constitute a force hostile to religion: it is a religion… At the moment when the boy (or girl)in a working-class parish is being urged to make recognition of the tremendous claims made for him at his baptism, he is going forth into a world which by every manifestation of its public life denies and frustrates every one of them, and makes plain his fate as a member of the proletariat, the child of Mammon and the inheritor (if he lives long enough) of nothing but the servile dole of an old-age pension. How can the priest bid the wage-slave commend his vocation to God, or serve faithfully a Fraternity in which he has neither status nor honor? He cannot find these things in his work: but till he can do so, the Church which sends him forth can never rightly be other than a foe to the social order which so tragically engulfs him (7-8).

The Christian Socialist movement and its unique appeal to Christendom, however unhelpful the term may be, reminds us that the Church Catholic has always been at her best when she takes an active stand against Mammon.

Tawney sketch

If men are not intrinsically of equal worth, as Christianity teaches, why should rewards not go to the brightest and best citizens, without regard for the resulting gap in living standards between them? And why think it bad, as Tawney did in stressing dispersion of power, that certain people should have the power of live and death over others?

If it is not in men’s nature to need and cooperate with his fellows, why put special value on solidarity, and consider it regrettable that people are not within reach of each other? If there is no reason, based on the doctrine of God the Creator, for man to respect nature as sacred, why should he not endlessly exploit nature for material progress, at least until he has so fouled his cosmic nest that prudence dictates curtailment?

Ross Terill on the foundations of R.H. Tawney’s Christian Socialism in R.H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship.

How’s this for an opening?

Economists think of themselves as scientists, but as I will be arguing in this book, they are more like theologians. The closest predecessors for the current members of the economics profession are not scientists such as Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton; rather, we economists are more truly the heirs of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.

Robert Nelson, Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, xv.


John Milbank has an excellent post up at the ABC Religion and Ethics page called, “Can the Market be Moral? Peace and Prosperity Depends on a Reimagined Socialism.

Along with socialist historians R.H. Tawney and Karl Polyani, Milbank argues that capitalism in the west began as a result of systematically dividing morals from markets. Rather than the inexorable logic or march of history, capitalism was founded on a debased understanding of total depravity bequeathed from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Unlike today’s economists, Milbank argues that the medieval era maintained an oikonomia “grounded in the view that there is an abundance of divine grace that is adapting itself to our finite needs. This is exactly the opposite of what we have come to think of as the economic, where we have infinite needs but the resources are scarce… This debased conception is precisely an inversion of the original meaning, in theology, of oikonomia.”

The solution for today then is a “civil economy socialism – if socialism is exactly the right word. That would be a socialism that would see the economy as fully part of civil society and would try to redesign the economic contract itself. It would be a socialism less inimical to the co-priority with production of exchange. A socialism still suspicious of usury like Thomas Aquinas, but also accepting, like Aquinas and unlike most classic socialisms, of returns on shares, if real risks have been undergone and real responsibilities co-shouldered.”

As Milbank concludes, “turning from the impersonal machine to the living but crafted social organism of interlinked personal relations in connected continuity with the organism of created nature is not merely a necessity of justice, but also of future world peace.” Amen.

Or so argues Heather Havrilesky in her recent New York Times article, Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness?

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

It makes sense that for those segments of humanity who aren’t fighting for survival every day of their lives, the new definition of fulfillment is feeling as if you’re about to die. Maybe that’s the point. If we aren’t lugging five gallons of water back from a well 10 miles away or slamming a hammer into a mountainside, something feels as if it’s missing. Who wants to sit alone at a desk all day, then work out alone on a machine? Why can’t we suffer and sweat together, as a group, in a way that feels meaningful? Why can’t someone yell at us while we do it? For the privileged, maybe the most grueling path seems the most likely to lead to divinity. When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches [emphasis mine].


In 2008 John Milbank claimed that Charles Péguy “is the man for the hour.” In his latest book, Beyond Secular Order, Milbank again evokes Péguy, writing, “there can be no storming of the Bastille as a historical event without its annual commemoration” (8). The quote in many ways paraphrases Milbank’s entire political theology.

It’s clear that for those interested in Anglican social thought – or, indeed, any form of social or political ecclesiology – that Péguy might indeed be the man for the hour. Consider this passage from Temporal and Eternal where Péguy discusses the true cause of the church’s decline in France.

All the Church’s difficulties stem from the point; all its real, profound, popular difficulties: from the fact that in spite of some so-called works among the working-class, under the cloak of some so-called social workers, and a few so-called Catholic workers, the factory is closed to the Church and the Church to the factory; that in the modern world, it too has suffered a modernization, has become the religion, almost solely the religion of the rich, and is no longer, if I may so express it, socially the communion of the faithful…

Thus the whole tension of the modern world, its whole tendency, is toward money and the whole drag toward money ends by contaminating the Christian world itself, causes it to sacrifice its faith and its morales for the sake of maintaining economic and social peace (55, 64-65).

The culprit – bourgeoisie capitalism – has been in plain sight all along for Péguy, which is why it is so difficult for so many to see.

Péguy’s analysis rings true for today, especially as we debate the issue of declining church attendance. Interestingly, Joel Kotkin discusses this topic in his latest book, The New Class Conflict. Declining church attendance is a product of a rapidly declining economic order. Although Kotkin doesn’t drill down on the reasons why, it’s clear that for most working class folks the weekend, let alone a Sunday, has all but been obliterated. We know that the fastest growing job market is the service sector, which often means late Saturday night and Sunday day shifts. Unless one’s parish celebrates a weekday Eucharist, one can be out of luck when it comes to receiving the body and blood of Christ.

So what is the solution? Do we take the Benedictine option and form communities of virtue? If not Benedict, then do we opt for the Dominican option? Or do we seek to re-enchant the world through a mystic Christendom?



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