How would you describe your personal beliefs in relation to religion?
Progressive, feminist Christian.
What made you adopt or retain this identity?
I grew up in the Church of Scotland and made a conscious decision to be a Christian in my early teens, and since then tried to work out how that what that means when you also hold progressive views. So I always say that I am a progressive Christian, because just saying ‘Christian’ comes with a lot of baggage.
Do you mean progressive in the political or theological sense?
I say progressive rather than liberal, I don’t like the world liberal, because it is so vague. But I am both politically and theologically left wing. Although the church I grew up in was not very conservative, by going to Christian youth events you are still exposed to harmful messages like ‘sex is shameful’ or ‘gay is wrong’. I rejected these, and I asked myself if I didn’t believe that, could I still have a faith? I decided yes, and that progressive Christian was the best label I could think of.
Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, especially in reality to religion and belief?
I don’t think it’s possible to assess Great Britain as a whole, because there are marked differences in legislation and attitude between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Scotland seems to be more progressive and tolerant – obviously as a Scot I have a bias, but for example, we have a First Minister who not only describes herself as feminist but has put this into action with a gender balanced cabinet and money towards domestic violence prevention strategies. Another example would be that the Scottish Government has a positive and welcoming stance on immigration – so different from Westminster. When you listen to Radio 4 in the morning you get a real sense of how vastly different the political climate is down there.
Are there any challenges?
Attitudinally there are definitely challenges, I almost don’t ‘come out’ as a Christian until I know people quite well. The people who speak loudest about Christianity call for oppression of other people, of minorities, and I don’t want to be associated with that. I think it is important that there are counter-examples of people who are Christian and progressive, but sometimes you just don’t even want to go there. There are a lot of loud voices around gay marriage in the Church of Scotland, and that is very tiresome because the rest of the world outside of the Christian bubble doesn’t think it is an issue.
It’s a challenge as a younger person because you are a Christian living in the real world, which is not all that comfortable with Christianity any more. But you’re also a progressive Christian not at home in most Christian circles. I have more in common with atheist activist pals than Christians who are not activists.
How does Christianity regard human rights? Has it contributed to them?
In theory, Christianity is of foundational importance to human rights, in that people are valuable and valid by their very existence. However in practise Christianity has a very mixed record. It is quite clear in the New Testament that there is neither man nor woman, neither slave nor free, yet Christianity has been the religion of many misogynist and slave-owning governments. Throughout history colonising Christians have been the oppressors, over-riding indigenous rights and forcing conformity to one belief system. What enrages me about the current debate in the church around homosexuality is that one side claims the right to have their beliefs respected, but refuses to acknowledge the power differential at play, and refuses to acknowledge that those beliefs cause harm. Beliefs are not neutral or passive or practised in a vacuum – the Churches’ historic stance on sexuality actively causes harm, and actively contributes to the oppression of other people. And the LGBT community is just the latest target, the Church of Scotland has scapegoated the Irish in the past in the same way. Christians oppressing others is not a new thing.
Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good think of society?
Can you think of any ways in which the Church of Scotland has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Scotland?
The Church is doing some brilliant things about food and fuel poverty. It has a real opportunity to be a loud voice saying that austerity is not okay and that poorer people are being affected more. The Church should have a lot to say about poverty and injustice because it walks alongside those living in poverty in local communities every week. I wish the church would stop being so timorous and shout louder, especially as austerity grows.
Are human rights generally respected by public bodies?
Look at the treatment of minority communities, asylum seekers- children are still been detained, women are forced to try to ‘prove’ they are lesbians, people are detained indefinitely. And detention centres and prisons are being privatised and that is terrible for human rights. Prison officers are not being sufficiently trained or supported, and people with severe mental health problems are detained. We use solitary confinement for young offenders…..you can’t tell me that that isn’t abuse of power.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is positive? What you consider any form of government preferable?
It’s the best we have got, though I believe strongly in further reform to make the current set up more democratic.
Do you believe that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
My immediate reaction is yes, I feel that I have a responsibility to vote. Because that is how I was brought up, because I believe in active citizenship, because I’m grateful to the women who fought for me to have the vote, and because as Christians we are called to work for justice and peace and you cannot do that without participating in the process. But I don’t believe that people don’t vote because they can’t be arsed, they don’t vote because they believe it doesn’t make any difference. If you live in a community where nothing has changed for generations what do you expect? There are ways of changing this, but those in control are not going to want to divest their own power so it is not going to change easily.
Should Parliament have the final say in making or changing law, would you like to see the judiciary having greater power?
I would have to think more about that. One hesitation is that the judiciary is like 95% straight white ex-private school boys, and they seem to be from the same pool of people as the cabinet, so it wouldn’t necessarily change where power is concentrated in our society.
Do you think that it is problematic that the House of Lords are not elected?
Yes, hugely problematic. If we as a country claim democracy then our representatives must be democratically elected.
What do you think of the Lords Spiritual?
I find the concept incredibly problematic. Either you have representatives of all religions and atheism, or you have none. Currently it’s disproportionately weighted towards Christianity – another way in which the parliaments do not look like the populace. But there is another problem in the Lords Spiritual are only Church of England – any one group cannot speak on behalf of all Christians. Christians have wildly different views, for example, compare Quakers and the Free Church. To claim or to expect one group of men – and it is all men – to speak for everyone is ludicrous.
Do you think that public authorities respect the democratic will of the people are expressed through legislation?
Just because a law is passed it doesn’t mean that things change. For example, rape within marriage is a crime, but the police have only recently begun to take seriously all forms of domestic abuse. Or take the laws governing prisons. You might have a Governor doing their best to abide by the law, but funding cuts, overcrowding and functional issues mean the law is broken. Prisoners on remand and those who have been tried and sentenced shouldn’t occupy the same space at the same time, but overcrowding means they can’t be held separately. Also we have creeping privatisation in detention, in the NHS, in education, other public services – where the bottom line is profit, not the law.
What do you think of devolution?
Devolution is very positive for Scotland, and is a positive principle. During the independence referendum process, I started from a gut feeling that we should be independent, but with more critical thinking I solidified my belief in the need for an independent Scotland, because I wholeheartedly believe that power should be held as close to the people as possible. But national devolution isn’t enough- our local authorities are huge and need reform – I want meaningful decision-making powers in the hands of the people.
What does your faith teach you about people with power?
Jesus was a servant. That is the example we are given, he gave up power. He was born as a baby, dependent on others, as a refugee, to an unmarried teenage woman. God’s bias is always towards the poor and not the powerful. There is also a feminist conception of power as capacity, capacity for bringing about progressive change, and you can’t get away from that in Christianity either. My faith teaches that human beings are supposed to live in community as equals, and that each is held accountable to and by that community.
Would you say that progressive Christians are proportionately represented in public life?
There might be progressive Christians in public life, but it’s hard to say as those are usually the ones trying not to shout about it. Traditional Christians are visible, protesting about gay marriage and ferries on Sunday, progressive Christians are less visible. But if you want change to happen you need it in the corridors of power but also in the community – perhaps progressive Christians are found more working in the community?
Do you think that public authorities understand the needs of Christians?
I don’t think it is the role of public authorities to understand the needs of Christians, and certainly not over and above the needs of any other arbitrary group. Christianity has been embedded in our power structures for a long time, and is therefore disproportionately represented. I think this is anachronistic in the modern world.
Is it important to you always to act within the secular law?
A load of my pals have been arrested demonstrating or doing direct action. Protest and public disobedience is part of activist life – highlighting your cause is more urgent than the need for cars to go through a particular junction. For me the law is a tool, not a higher power.
How do progressive Christians campaign for change?
In activism and work for justice and peace, like nuclear disarmament, rights for the marginalised, gender justice… Environmental justice is a big theme, because the Christian calling is to be ecologically responsible. We should be stewarding the Earth, we have a Biblical mandate to do that. It is not an optional extra.
Do you beliefs require you to speak for third parties, especially the vulnerable?
Yes. My work for peace and for social, economic, environmental and gender justice is both inspired by and required by my faith.
Would you that the rule of law is applied equally?
It’s massively unequal. If you don’t have money and privilege to protect yourself you fall through the cracks. If you look at the number of people employed in HMRC to pursue tax avoidance, compared to the number of people employed to crack down on benefit fraud, you are forced to conclude that it’s unequal. It has to be ideologically driven.
How do you feel about the gradual increase in police powers? Should they be allowed to suspend some rules?
Terrorism being used an excuse for the suspension of human rights is a very worrying development. Detention without trial, increased use of surveillance; prevention strategies that are clumsy at best and Islamophobic at worst – all of these contribute to the problem, not solve it.
I have other concerns about police powers – stop and search being disproportionately used on working class boys for example; the criminalising of football fans; centralisation leading to a less locally-sensitive force. We must be vigilant against abuse of power in any setting, including the police.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?
There are certainly laws I find deeply problematic. Off the top of my head – the Offensive Behaviour in Football Act. The fact that abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland, which is misogynistic and dangerous. Women’s bodies are not the property of legislators. There is work to be done on greater legal recognition for non-binary and transgender people. I think access to high quality, evidence-based, consent-based, inclusive sex education for every young person must be enshrined in law and not left to a school or parental lottery. And I think we need to treat drugs like a public health issue not a legal one.
Anything that you would like to add?
The ECtHR just ruled that prisoners not having a right to vote is illegal, though I think that the government are going to ignore that for a while because prisoner rights are a vote loser. This is a clear example of how marginalised groups don’t have the same access to rights and nobody gives a shit. Anything about prisons…even if you take compassion out of the equation, on a purely economic level there is overwhelming evidence that our justice system is not working. Look at reconviction rates. Look at how impossible it is to get a job after the jail. But we are not pursuing community based initiatives or restorative justice approaches, because there is no political will. The UK picks and chooses when to enforce human rights.
Kimberley Long is a community worker, facilitator and activist. She leads creative work with girls and women in Glasgow and works to bring music to prisons across Scotland.