Why the radical student left has more in common with the Christian Union than you might think - and how the two can learn from one another
Disclaimer – the basis of this article is my experience as a student in Cambridge; it by no means claims to speak for the nationwide left-wing student movement or other Christian Union groups.
I wrote the headline of this article with no intention of it being an incendiary statement. I fear the group more likely to take it as such is the radical student left, a movement whose members would view an association with such a conservative religious student society as an automatic blot on their seemingly untarnished reputation. The Christian Union, on the other hand, may welcome it as an opportunity to guide another set of disillusioned and spiritually lost young people to the fold.
It is true that many churches affiliated with the Christian Union have outspoken views on homosexuality and women in ministry, which quite frankly turned stale long ago and are a blatant misinterpretation of scripture. I have been told many a time that whilst my feelings for other women are merely a manifestation of human imperfection, akin to the ‘vices’ of jealousy and pride, acting on them would be a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. As a person who is both gay and unapologetically proud of the fact, it seems that my chances of salvation are nil.
However, my experience of the radical student left is that as a movement it too is extremely judgemental. And unlike the Christian Union, which adopts the attitude that the mistakes we make stem from inherent imperfections that can ultimately be overcome, its stance is one of absolutism. In a left-wing ‘safe-space’ there is no room for error, even if one’s intentions are completely in the spirit of the movement. For people new to the scene, the left very quickly becomes a minefield of jargon, in which one false step leads to marginalisation. I foolishly considered myself an informed feminist and left-wing activist before coming to Cambridge, but I quickly grew to feel incredibly intimidated by the masses of confident doc-marten wearing radicals who bandied around terms like ‘colonialism’, ‘cissexism’ and ‘heteronormativity’ with the assumption that anyone who couldn’t speak their language was unworthy of their time and attention. Whilst the Christian Union may use the Bible to legitimise their outdated beliefs, at least they explain it in a way which is comprehensible to those who are unfamiliar with Christianity. It seems to me that in a militant attempt to dismantle patriarchal capitalism, the student left creates a new form of elitist capitalism, in which the currency is language.
What is more, this is elitist not only in an academic sense, but also in a socio-economic sense. Whilst differing access to wealth is an issue my university seems to combat relatively well with its bursary system, differing access to knowledge continues to be a striking cause of inequality. Even as I write this I have to make a conscious effort not to become infected with the condescension and disparagement with which those who have not been privileged enough to move in middle class left-wing environments are often treated. Whilst I am a proudly radical feminist, I try to keep to the forefront of my mind the alarming statistic that working-class white boys are now least likely to go to university, and the horrific reality that suicide has become the biggest killer of young men in our country. These issues resonate with me personally; I went to school in a deprived town in the North East, a region in which some areas see more than half of children grow up in poverty, and lost a male friend to suicide when he was only sixteen years old. So whilst I am encouraged to wear my minority status as a badge which gives me automatic right of passage within left-wing student circles, I can’t help but feel incensed by the fact that the people who we have abandoned on the wayside are some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Even more incredible to me is the unconscious blindness towards economic inequality among some people in Cambridge vegan and vegetarian activist groups, which seem to draw their impetus from guilt, self-deprivation and competition. Whilst members of these groups may be the first to denounce the ideology and methods of the Christian Union, they themselves often employ the same evangelism to promote their ethical code. Several times I have talked to people who have preached (deliberate word choice) that eating meat is socially irresponsible and morally indefensible. I am a vegetarian myself, but what these people fail to grasp is that this lifestyle is a blatantly enormous privilege. For those living under the poverty line, the ingredients which form the basis of a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet are too expensive, and often only available in supermarkets too costly for them to reach by bus or by car, if indeed they have a car or live in an area with a regular and reliable bus service. Cambridge has turned morality into an economic privilege, allowing left-wing groups to justify their exclusion of those from deprived economic backgrounds on the basis of their ‘unethical’ ideas and actions.
What the radical left-wing movement seems to lack is compassion, a quality which the Christian Union has in abundance. Whilst many members of the Christian Union hold views that are completely at variance with my core beliefs, among them are some of the most kind and generous people I have met at Cambridge. Whilst in left-wing spaces I am often made to feel that I am not radical enough or not queer enough to be worthy of anyone’s attention, speaking to these people makes me feel affirmed. During these conversations I feel that I have inherent value in my mere personhood, rather than simply being a piece of human capital to be fitted into the radical left’s utilitarian jigsaw. Moreover, the Christian Union, whilst conservative on many issues, has among its members volunteers for homeless charities, human rights’ campaigners, environmentalists, to name but a few. As it does with many individual people, the radical left has rejected the Christian Union at face value, judging it purely on its ideology rather than on its actions.
Even the self-care movement, which is a branch of left-wing student campaigns, seems to me to be devoid of kindness and comes with its own rulebook of content warnings, pronouns and politically correct language. Whilst these are very important and perfectly legitimate, the left-wing movement has turned adhering to them into a condition of worth, expelling many people who need the movement most after an innocent slip of the tongue. am yet to meet somebody who belongs to both of these groups, but I believe that this would be a radical and fruitful pairing. I believe that the student activism movement could really take a leaf out of the Christian Union’s book, and replace their toxic morality with radical kindness. I would wear a badge of compassion over one of ideology any day…