David W. Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War: A Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley. London: Victor Gollancz, 1940.
“True religion and undefiled is this, To make restitution of the Earth which hath been taken and held from the common people by the power of Conquests formerly and so set the oppressed free.”
– Gerrard Winstanley, A New Years Gift for the Parliament and the Armie (1650)
As EUrope complains bitterly about a couple of hundred thousand refugees seeking a safe haven within its borders, while over 2 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey and while Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt are providing aid to another 2 million, it is worth thinking about the arguments that EUropeans use to justify keeping their countries to themselves. And who better to help us do so than the English Digger,Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676). A cloth merchant whose business collapsed during the depression of the early 1640s, Winstanley experienced some sort of religious awakening and began preaching that the landless poor should be allowed to farm uncultivated patches of pasture and woodland on estates known as “the commons.” He gathered together a small band of followers known as Diggers or True Levellers and they began farming at St. George’s Hill, in Surrey, until angry locals and soldiers forcibly evicted them.
What makes the Diggers special when one compares them to the other agrarian revolts of the early modern period is Winstanley’s theology. He and his friends wrote in April 1649 that “In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.” But once sin came into the world people began to steal from one another, even murdering so that they could have more and more things just for themselves. The Diggers wrote that “hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others.” Two months later they reminded anyone who would listen that “the earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants, and Beggers; but it was made to be a common Livelihood to all, without respect of persons.”
Winstanley’s arguments are powerful because they are so obvious. Of course God created the earth for everyone. God didn’t create English men and women to sit comfortably in front of their televisions while Syrian refugees – more than half of whom are children – must shiver, starve, and drown because they don’t have anywhere to live. The Diggers believed that “surely, the Righteous Creator, who is King, did never ordain, That unless some of Mankinde, do bring that Mineral (Silver and Gold) in their hands, to others of their own kinde, that they should neither be fed, nor be clothed.” It is ludicrous that I can eat and someone else must starve just because one of us has little pieces of paper with the Queen’s face on them and the other doesn’t. But the world has changed a lot since Adam and Eve, hasn’t it? It isn’t my fault that some people have more than others. Confronted with this problem, the Diggers didn’t sign online petitions, or wax lyrical about “white privilege” or “systemic injustice.” They simply said that “though you did not kill or theeve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand, by the power of the Sword; and so you justifie the wicked deeds of your Fathers.” And they decided to continue to dig the land “unless you by your Laws will shed the innocent blood that runs in our veins.” The poor, they said, would use the land and the only way to stop them would be to commit murder, just as the ancestors of the rich had done to get the land in the first place. The parallel with contemporary refugees is striking. People cry crocodile tears for children who drown trying to get to safety, but they are willing to pull these same refugees off trains in Budapest and tag them with numbers to stop them getting to the West. It is only when the poor, in desperation, demand their fair share of God’s good creation that the people in the rich and powerful societies show themselves to be the true children of their imperialistic and genocidal ancestors.
The Diggers didn’t start farming the commons because they read some fancy theology. Like today’s refugees, they did it because they were desperate. No-one risks crossing the Mediterranean in a leaky boat because they are greedy and think it will add a few extra pounds to their bank accounts. The enclosure movement and the economic crisis produced by the English civil wars increased the number of landless laborers in England, and the crushing of the Leveller movement by the New Model Army ended their last hopes for legal restitution. Similarly, after a long-term drought and an unstable political system feeding off the inequalities produced by European imperialism catalyzed the civil war in Syria, millions of people fled for their lives. And what should worry us is that climate change and global inequality are not going to go away over night. This is the beginning, not the end, of mass migrations, so we urgently need to start examining how we live and ask how we are contributing to the problems we are complaining about. “Fixing the problem at the source” doesn’t just mean defeating the Assad dictatorship or ISIS, it also means ending our own participation in an injust world order. As Winstanley wrote in 1648: “If you desire to know the Beast, that treads you and the holy City underfoot; looke first into your owne hearts; for there she sits; and after that ye have beheld her confused workings there against Christ, then looke into the world; and you shall see the same confusion of ignorance, pride, self-love, oppression and vain conversation acted against Christ in States, in assemblies and in some churches in the world.”
And after you have examined yourself, praise God for the tens of thousands of Europeans who have opened their hearts and their homes to people in need, and join them if you can, “that we may work in Righteousness and lay the foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for all, both rich and poor.”