Like any great cause, Christianity has been used for dubious and sometimes cruel purposes that are wholly at odds with its essential message. At its best, though, it has inspired people for almost 2,000 years to believe in and work for a better, more humane and more just world.
To radicals, Christianity has always had especial validity. Radicals want change, and change - personal and social - lies at the heart of the Christian religion. But it is change based on a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature. It accepts the existence of our faults and our weaknesses; it is not in any sense Utopian, but it believes there is a potential in human beings to do good that can be brought out, developed and made real.
Central to Christianity is the belief in equality. This does not mean that we are uniform in character or position but rather that, despite our differences, we are entitled to be treated equally, without regard to wealth, race, gender or standing in society. Christianity is about justice. We should all have the opportunity to make the most of ourselves. The waste of human talent in our country and in our world today is an affront. It is shameful that millions of our fellow citizens are out of work, that many of our young people are left without hope and opportunity. And it is a brutal outrage that countless millions starve to death in a world that has abundance and plenty.
It is also about compassion, the recognition that we will have to - and should - pay a price to help those less fortunate than ourselves, not as an act of charity to help them in their dependency upon our bounty, but as a means of allowing them to achieve a better life for themselves. It is about liberty - personal and social, freedom from unnatural restraint and freedom to enjoy and develop character and personality.
But above all, it is about the union between individual and community. It enshrines the belief that we are not stranded in helpless isolation, but owe a duty both to others and to ourselves and are, in a profound sense, dependent on each other to succeed. This philosophy is sometimes seen as the opposite of selfishness or even individualism. In one sense it is indeed distinct from the notion of life as being about nothing more than personal acquisition or consumption. But this can give rise to a false choice between self and others. In reality, the Christian message is that self is best realised through communion with others. The act of Holy Communion is symbolic of this message. It acknowledges that we do not grow up in total independence, but interdependently, and that we benefit from that understanding.
In political terms, this belief in community expresses itself through collective action to provide the services we need; the infrastructure of society and government without which modern life would be intolerable.
Thus the values of democratic socialism, founded on a belief in the importance of society and solidarity with others, are closely intertwined with those of Christianity - and this is hardly surprising in view of the Christian beliefs held by many of the Labour Party's historical and present-day members. By rethinking and re-examining our values, and placing them alongside those of the Christian faith, we are able, politically, to rediscover the essence of our beliefs. This lies not in policies or prescriptions made for one period of time, but in principles of living that are timeless. Such a re-examination allows us to distinguish better between values themselves and their application; the first is constant and unchanged, the second changes constantly. To a Labour Party now undertaking a thorough and necessary analysis of its future, this is helpful.
IT IS also a powerful compass for the direction of change in our country as a whole. The new agenda in politics will reach past old debates between economic ideologies and state control and laissez faire and embrace different issues: the development of new economic opportunities for the individual; the environment, the Third World, the international economy, the creation of modern, efficient public services. These issues must take their direction from some political values and we should be sure of what they are. A return to what we are really about, what we believe in, would be a healthy journey for our country as well as the Labour Party.
It would also help us to comprehend more fully the importance of personal responsibility in our lives and its relationship to society as a whole. Christianity is a tough religion, even though it may not always be practised as such. It places a duty, an imperative, on us to reach our better self and to care about creating a better community to live in. It is not utilitarian - though socialism can be explained in those terms. It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian socialism.
The author is Labour MP for Sedgefield, shadow home secretary. This article is an edited version of his Foreword to 'Reclaiming the Ground: Christianity and Socialism', by John Smith and others, published by Hodder & Stoughton/Spire on March 20, pounds 5.99.