I have been thinking about our (often hysterical) response to the growth of Islamic extremism/militancy/activism/fundamentalism. Religion (particularly the religion of the other) as always portrayed as a force for bad, a force for evil even. It is impossible to envisage a militant Islam that sweeps into an area an brings good things. I am afraid I can not comment in any detail about the degree to which this might or might not be true now, but I do think we would do well to consider our own history…
A good place to start might be to look back towards Wat Tyler and in particular, John Ball, key figures both in what came to be known as The Peasants Revolt. There is a great programme by Melvin Bragg dealing with this period available on the I player.
The Key thing about the Peasants Revolt all the way back in 1381 is that the ideology that brought about a mass consciousness towards change was simply this- Christianity. It ended in dreadful persecution, mass hangings and a re-assertion of the power of Kings and Bishops and Lords, but it also changed the political landscape for ever.
What we know about John Ball is mostly told from the perspective of those Kings, Bishops and Lords that survived the Peasants revolt, but there is no doubt that for him, Christianity had only one logical outcome- something that we might recognise as an egalitarian state of equality re-envisioned by Marx. Rather than the opium of the people, religion was like gun cotton. This was the cry of ordinary people; When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
Here is an excerpt from one of John Ball’s sermons, used to convict him of sedition;
‘Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.’
John Ball, in J Froissart, Froissart’s Chronicles (1385) translated by GC Macaulay (1895)
Ideas are dangerous- religious ideas are perhaps more dangerous than most. But when faced with such manifest injustice and inequality, how we need dangerous ideas. How we need troublesome priests and prophets who will challenge us to take another look at ourselves.
There is a famous song about John Ball, written by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who also wrote other Christian standards such as ‘The Lord of the dance’, ‘When I needed a neighbour’ and ‘One more step along the world I go’. Here is one of my favourite (and avowedly atheist) musicians singing it;
Or by way of poignant contrast;