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Notes on the issue of class – work in progress

Firstly, this is NOT an academic document, one day it may be, but that would require adding lots of references and bringing those I have used into one of the various referencing schemes. This is a working document.  The larger study it is part of is on the ‘separation of the church from the poor’ and it is requiring me to think in terms of social classes – but I don’t have a definition for the particular group of people I am concerned about.  As it is a working document, an effort to ‘feel my way’ towards a point, I would really appreciate constructive criticism.  There would be no point however in criticising it as if it were a finished piece of writing – it isn’t!

 I was reading Social Change and the Middle Classes – Butler and Savage, which started a chain of ideas.  I note that I need to read their references: Giddins and Margaret Archer.


These days I often come across the suggestion that the whole concept of ‘class’ is no longer relevant.  [refs]  This seems to result from a definition of class as a political self-awareness developing within a group which shares a socio-economic status.  The definition is usually rooted in an understanding of a developing politicization of the ‘working class’ with all other classes defined in relation to it.  Clearly there have been some changes in class patterns, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a politicized working class any more compared to previous generations but that doesn’t mean that class itself has gone away.

 I have a very different interest in the whole issue of class.  I do not require a group of people to be politicized or to be aware of itself as a group with the potential of collective power.  I need, merely, to recognize and acknowledge the existence of groups with shared socio-economic circumstances in order to study the tendencies which exist for relationship between the group and the power-structures of the society of their time – in particular the church, since my study is in the social history of that organization.

 It is undeniable that in every era (certainly, in Britain, since 1300 where my studies have effectively begun) there have been people for whom their economic existence was, to say the least, precarious.  People who, if not destitute, lived just one disaster away from destitution.  And the potential disasters have always been many: a bad harvest, an unusually cold winter, epidemic, loss of a bread-winner (a variety of possible causes), eviction by landlord, downturn in trade, loss of employment etc.  All of these potential disasters have been, through the ages, of sufficient likelihood that between them they must have produced a tendency for people to live in constant awareness that they were ‘on the edge’ – that the boundary between themselves and destitution was very thin indeed.

 In previous times, before the politicization of the working class (described so ably by EP Thompson) they were much more likely to be aware of themselves as ‘folk of this parish’ (Pounds, The English Parish) or at a later stage, of ‘this mine’, or ‘this factory’ than as a politico-economic class. 

 So, I can’t possibly use the term ‘working-class’ to describe the mediaeval poor, since I have no reason to suppose that they had any political self-awareness of themselves as a group.  And it appears that it doesn’t seem to work as a descriptive term today either – the people who would come within my field of interest can see the unions, supposedly representing the working class, as relating to those groups who, to a large extent through union action, now have secure, relatively well-paid jobs.  While the people I am concerned about are in insecure employment, working irregular hours either part-time or on so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts and on very low wages indeed. To them, the salary and conditions of employment of a teacher, nurse or train driver is beyond their dreams – and, largely, these are the sort of people they will see the unions representing.  Butler and Savage include these types of employment within their description of a new class – the ‘service class’ – a subset of middle-class.

I am left with two possible terms to use to describe this group of people which has existed through the ages.  The ‘underclass’ or the ‘precariat’. 

 The term ‘underclass’ is sometimes used dismissively or pejoratively which certainly counts against it.  And yet it does adequately describe a group of people who are simply ignored when class structures are drawn up according to people’s long term employment.  A person who has (relatively) secure employment as a nurse, or a carpenter, a shop assistant or a cleaner can have an economic status defined by such a structure.  The person who manages to get a few weeks or months work in one form of employment and then some time later a short period in another – interspersed by periods when it becomes necessary to fall back on whatever safety net may be provided by society at that time – that person is simply missed out of class structures when they are defined by type of employment.

 The term ‘underclass’ is however defined in terms of a politico-economic structure of society and although such a definition could be used in all periods it would require re-definition in each period to relate to the political realities of the time.  In other words, defining people as being part of an under-class is time specific – it begs the question, in each period – ‘under what class?’  I therefore choose, for simplicity’s sake, not to use this term.

 The term ‘precariat’ however seems to describe the circumstances that I am concerned with.  An existence which hovers on one side or the other of whatever line, at the time, defines the minimum for existence.  While it might (or might in fact be very difficult) be possible to define that line for any period it is the insecurity of such a life which is its distinguishing feature – and that is so for any period.

 So when the Webbs (History of the English Poor Law) talk of what they describe as the ‘labouring classes’ of the 18thC, being largely dependant on poor relief regardless of employment status, they are describing a precarious existence. Their ‘labouring classes’ could be defined as members of the Precariat, just as today’s benefit claimants, many of whom we are told are in fact working (Refs) who live in fear of whatever scheme may be brought in next by the government to reduce or remove their benefit, may also be so described. 

 I do however, have an interest in the politicization of the working class.  In previous eras, much political activity among the sub-gentry levels of society was at least to some extent in relation to the church.  Noticeably however, from the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ (1381 Ref) to the chapel revivals of the early 20thC, the people concerned are consistently described (refs) are being of the ‘middling sort’: yeomen, small traders, artisans etc.  If these were to be considered as the ‘working-class’ equivalent of their era, there were definitely people in more constrained economic circumstances than these.

 And so I have to consider what the impact of the politicization of the working class was on the precariat.  To what extent it involved them?  It certainly did, but in what manner?  Did it have the effect of lifting some forms of employment from precarious to secure status resulting in what is perceived today as a reduced relevance of the whole concept of working-class? Is the precariat something which re-forms in every generation as working practices change?  Or is it more continuous, with a culture carrying on from one generation to the next?


Christ the King

Psalm 72. 1-7

1 Samuel 8. 4-20

John 18. 33-37


This is all about the difference between secular rule and the Kingdom of God. We’ll start with Samuel.

The people wanted a King
Up until this point the people had been ruled by Judges. Judges who operated the Law of God in its day-to-day application for the people. While they might be warriors, it wasn’t a necessary part of the role. They might not be recognised by other countries about as people who could represent the land, and whom treaties could be made with. The people wanted a King – someone who could stand as the acknowledged leader, who could lead them in war and negotiate for them in peace.

Foolishness of wanting a King
But Samuel warned them that this would not, in reality, be good. A King would treat the people like slaves, would take the best land for himself, would tax them to pay for his luxuries, would take their sons to fight and their daughters for service. But they wanted a King, just as the countries round about had kings. Just imagine for a moment, if the countries round about had had democracy. And the people, wanting to be like other countries, had asked for a system of electing representatives. Similar warnings might well have been given: they will form an elite, they will expect the best of everything for themselves and their families leaving little for the rest of you. They had had the Law of God, and now they wanted the rule of men, raised on a pedestal above them. Samuel was telling them that they were foolish.

The Law – equality
Up until that time, the Law regarding land had been a system of distribution and sharing. Land, given out at the end of the Exodus had been by Tribe, not to individuals. Tribes were expected to share the land among themselves so that all could be provided for. Supplementing that were laws which provided for those who for whatever reason found themselves without land – if they had sold it because they were in debt – then after 7 years they could have it back. If in desperation they had sold themselves or their children into slavery – again, after 7 years they could have their freedom back. Those who had no land and therefore no crop had the right to gather whatever was left after a harvest which was not to be too efficient – leaving plenty for the gleaners. Widows were a particular point of honour since they had no means of survival – they were to be provided for by their late husbands nearest relative. There were many other laws which ensured that all could survive and no-one fall into dire poverty. And these laws had been administered by the Judges – but a King would be more concerned about his own status and the luxury which could demonstrate it; he would be more concerned about demonstrating his power both within the land and to other countries. He might have a general willingness to ensure that no-one starved, but it was no longer going to be at the top of the agenda. The people were not content with God’s law – they wanted secular rule. And Samuel told them they were foolish.

The Psalm – for a Fair King
And then we have a Psalm. I wonder how long after they found themselves with a King this psalm was written? The notes in my Bible suggest it may have been a Coronation Song. If so, then either they’d already had experience of how unfair life under secular rule could be, or they were seriously taking Samuel’s warnings to heart! The song asks God that the King be fair in his dealings, be supportive of the poor and maintain peace for ever. ‘Peace’ of course, would have been the word, ‘Shalom’ and we should remember that that is much more than just an absence of obvious violence. It is that peace which arises when people are content with the situation they find themselves in. So it requires an absence of greed and ambition, and a sufficiency for all, of the resources required for survival and even, at a basic level, comfort. That is, it requires a society without vast inequality.
The Gospel – Jesus the true King
And so, we move on to the Gospel. Where God has indeed given us a King, a true King who operates by the Law of God and has demonstrably little interest in the ‘law of the land’. He doesn’t set out to disobey it but if he does so as a result of maintaining God’s law, well, that’s the way it goes.

God’s Law – or the Law of the Land?
Since he is capable of healing the cripple or the leper before him then he should – he does, since God’s law says to ‘love your neighbour’, care about the people around you – how could he obey God’s law if he doesn’t heal them when he can. Where there is no conflict with the law of the land, he clearly knows it and operates it, sending lepers off to the temple to make the appropriate offering for healing. But where there is conflict it is God’s concern for the sick that matters – and so he heals on the Sabbath, he is not angry when a woman touches him for healing, although her haemorrhage means that her touch, even just of his robe, means that he is now unclean, and he tells the story of the Good Samaritan which demonstrates God’s abhorrence of the need to maintain social norms rather than help the vulnerable and needy, in this case the need for ritual purity. We don’t need ritual purity today, but we can see the same concept in many modern forms.

A kingdom – out of this world!
So Pilate asks Jesus ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus answers, ‘My Kingdom does not belong to this world’. We could understand that as him being King of a Kingdom located entirely within Heaven, and not upon earth at all. But, remember, he taught us to pray, ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ The kingdom coming is dependent on God’s will being done on earth – it is not independent of the earth that we live upon.

So if Jesus is King, here on the earth, but his kingdom is not of the earth – there where is it? Or perhaps, more appropriately, what is it? A place where God’s law rules? More accurately the state of being where God’s law rules.

It’s a difficult difference to grasp, especially considering he clearly considered the law administered by the temple as not being God’s law, and more than Roman law was.

English/Scots understanding
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another difference – the difference between the understanding of kingship in England and Scotland (I can’t use Welsh law here, I don’t understand it well enough, but it was probably more like Scots law than English). Did you know that there was never such a thing as a ‘King of Scotland’? Scottish law was always different from English. A Scottish Laird was not the same thing as an English Lord. While a Lord was appointed by the King to have control of an area of land, and that land could be reallocated from one lord to another, a Laird was the head of his family and there was nothing the king could do about that. His power, was not in the land, but in the loyalty of the people. Similarly, the king, was King of Scots, not of Scotland. His status was as a leader of the people, not owner of the land.

Jesus’ Kingdom
Jesus has no kingdom in the world as Pilate would understand it. Pilate’s idea of kingship would relate to power, taxes, status and military might. Jesus had no interest in such things. Jesus had come to bring in a different kind of kingdom. A kingdom of hearts and minds, a kingdom of attitudes, not one of obedience or resources.

God’s Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is one where we are free in our hearts, free from social conditioning, free from the demands of the law wherever they conflict with God’s law to love him, and to love our neighbour. That doesn’t mean, as some churches have interpreted it that you can be cruel to someone because they’re not observing God’s law as an individual church may understand it. God’s law cannot be obeyed by breaking the law that tells us to love our neighbour.

The Kingdom of which Jesus is King is not one which demands of us our money, our sons to be sent to war, or our daughters into service. It does not demand of us obedience or that we support anyone’s status. It demands one thing of us only – Love.