A Protest Against Real Distress: Religion and Revolutionary Struggle by Charley Earp


Image by Androjinn via Flickr

by Charley Earp
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
Radical Progress
Originally published on www.thenorthstar.info, Feb. 22, 2013
Feb. 27, 2013

In response to Dario Cankovic’s Socialism and Religion, Redux:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”
— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right

I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.

Why would atheist Marxists not eagerly embrace and recruit working-class Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Neo-Pagans into their revolutionary organizations? Why would they not encourage the elaboration of Communist principles that speak directly to potential revolutionaries of all religious and irreligious traditions using language that makes the claim that, yes, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, the Goddess, and Marx are all important in the historic human struggle for emancipation? I have no hesitation in saying that Jesus was a proto-Communist. His mission in the gospels is the “liberation of the oppressed” as so richly developed in the Liberation Theology movement that was a significant force in the Nicaraguan revolution and other radical movements in the region.

Although Liberation Theology is not well-known on the left, its origins can be seen as far back as the 1524 Peasants’ War in Germany or the English radical Diggers in 1649-50. Each of these groups called for the overthrow not only of the State and institution of a radical new economy, but also appropriated the religious traditions of Christianity as ultimate support for revolution; God was on the side of the poor and oppressed, not the ruling classes.

The modern Liberation Theology movement also takes in various struggles such as the slave rebellions in the US and elsewhere, which explicitly referenced the story of Moses freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a paradigm for a Divine revolution. In Latin America in the 1960s, radical priests and even a few bishops began to protest the crushing poverty of their region in terms that identified the suffering of Jesus with the suffering of the poor. This was greeted with ambivalence by the Vatican leadership. In the US, Black Freedom Struggles were led by ministers such as Dr. King and Malcolm X, who each demanded that racism fall before Divine Judgment. James Cone of Union Seminary wrote several influential books, such as Black Theology and Black Power in 1968. This theology was a direct influence on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor.

Does not the primary importance of praxis over theoria demand that we subordinate abstract questions such as whether God or Heaven exists to the practical mobilization of militant activists? If religion inspires many to dedicated struggle on behalf of the oppressed of the earth, why force the expression of that dedication outside of Communist organizations? I consider the hostility of atheist Marxists (and anarchists) to religion to be one of the most critical factors in the failures of the Communist movement to win world support.

I am quite convinced that miracles do not happen and that invisible intelligent beings do not interfere in the ordinary world. However, if 79% of French Catholics consider “God” to be an impersonal “force, energy, or spirit” who says that those Catholics don’t have the right to forcibly take over the Catholic Church and throw out the old supernaturalist definitions and promote their more modern interpretation of religious narratives? This has already happened within the Unitarian Universalist congregations of the world and in fact within many progressive protestant traditions. Georg Hegel himself can be credited with offering significant contributions to rethinking the meaning of the Christian tradition. Long live God(dess) as the World Spirit of Revolution!

The Pope, the creeds, and the accumulated dogmas of the ages mean very little to the average parishioner and never really did, even in the 4th century when the Nicene Creed was adopted. If one values the views of the average church-goer over the arcane and intricate proclamations of scholastic theology, then in France at least, the masses have decided that God is what they want to call what they believe, not what the church tells them to believe. In other words, the “Fathers of the Church” have already lost mass legitimacy and religion is being redefined — though not discarded — in favor of creative re-imagining by the majority of believers. My point should be easily understood by Communists who struggle on behalf of the oppressed; religion and its fundamental aspects rightly belongs to the masses, not hierarchal elites who prevent the people from having any voice in the matter!

In fact, there has been throughout the history of Christianity, and all other religious traditions, a continual struggle from below against dogmatic ideologues of privilege who insist that only their view of religion can prevail.

Charley Earp is a Quaker Communist living in Chicago. He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics. His father was a Pentecostal preacher.

From the archives:

Defeating Single Issue Politics by Luke Hiken

Occupy Sandy–Recovery From The Bottom Up by Peter Rugh

The Black Elite and the Legacy of MLK + Martin Luther King: Organized Non-violent Resistance Is The Most Powerful Weapon

Sainthood cause for Dorothy Day + Who is Dorothy Day? + Dorothy Day’s unpopular stance

Christianity and Anarchism

Jesus was a Communist by Darren Pedigo

Jesus Christ, Revolution and Socialism (subtitled)

Romero (1989) + Chomsky on Oscar Romero + Massacre during Romero’s funeral (must-see)

14 thoughts on “A Protest Against Real Distress: Religion and Revolutionary Struggle by Charley Earp

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  7. Great short column, very thoughtful and thought provoking. Thanks Charley.

    It’s a pretty bold statement though to assert that the majority of humanity is religious. You might equally assert the majority are superstitious or instinctive; or even ignorant ~ how else could dogma that is already rejected in in one place, be slavishly consumed in another?

    It seems to me any creed is either imposed or revealed. In the former case by institutions or by force; in the latter: “revealed by” or “revealed to.”

    In other words ideas spread somehow; we get some kind of message whose power depends on its source, its authenticity, quality and subtlety.

    I would say every authentic spiritual innovation is by definition revolutionary. How effective that message is, must be a function of its time, place and context. Any new idea even a full-blown religious “doctrine” has a natural time span, and I think the historical experience of the past century has demonstrated just how exhausted our moral and philosophical universe has grown. We are weary of the same old lies and deceptions, the illusions of power, our redundant systems and even the enthusiastic fantasies of youthful error.

    My view is that all the ancient creeds are now worn out, either through misuse, abuse, misappropriation, misunderstanding or just sheer exhaustion. Old ways belong to the old days, but even in the old days, there were older ways..!

    Devotees will always cling to eternal verities, but upon close examination there really are no such certainties, only new ways of re-interpreting our experience. Everything is contingent and contextual; our understanding is phenomenological therefore subjective and always provisional and only ever heuristically consensual. That is what science is and does. If something works why fix it, or change it? A wheel is useful. So is a bucket. If the fundamental idea works, we only need to improve the design.

    Consensus can only be arrived at through shared symbolic understanding born of common experience beyond any immediate sense of a “separate” self. It requires political compromise or tribal acceptance through indigenous species mind. What is unique about our times, is the growing sense of cosmic allegiance to a shared planetary reality beyond species boundaries, or cultural difference.

    We still live in a profoundly myopic universe however, that is obviously limited by our own temperament and inherited prejudice. If we have learned anything “as a species” in recent years, it is the realization that change is an evolutionary event that occurs within us as individuals, but in a shared (ecological) context. This emergent cognitive “consciousness of our consciousness” is profoundly rooted in our evolutionary biology and thus in the universal life force. We know something of our parent, but what do we really know about ourselves?

    Where do we go from here, if here is just the unknown place we’ve already got to?

    • David , it really is not so far fetched a statement to say that man is a religious animal . it does surface in so many different forms . even atheist … Hedges says are religious , and that their atheism is just as religious as the religious .

      what we need to do is not seek to destroy those who are religious but point them in a constructive direction . and that that the kingdom of heaven is not a battle out there , but within . Jihad that exists outside oneself by externalizing evil upon others misses the point . the true struggle of holy jihad is WITHIN. the Sufi s get this . the Buddhist get it . the christian mystics get it . in fact –the mystics understand the mystics . its every one else who is missing it . hence our quandary on planet earth today.

      it is not effective to seek to take spirituality desires away from humans with some kind of biological or territorial imperative .

      • I’m gratified that you grapple with some of my nonsense Rocket, thanks!

        Very seriously though, it all depends on what we mean doesn’t it, by religious? You seem to be saying with Chris H. it can depend on some kind of belief in something, even if that something is “no God.”

        I’m not sure that is entirely so, unless we accept another hypothetical, namely that some innate need does indeed exist, that can manifest in many ways, and likewise be corrupted or “transferred.” Then I think I agree with you insofar as I “believe” it is actually the essence of humanity to aspire to real knowledge through self-transcendence, but that the many are not “religious” per se because they have been put through the cultural grinder and made cynical by organised dogma, by cant and superstition.

        I have no agenda to disabuse anyone of real spiritual desire, indeed I suspect I am a total advocate for its exercise. No, you are right. The greater jihad is a spiritual reality no matter in what cultural context we find it, So I am not suggesting we substitute that pure impulse for some arbitrary imperative, only that it helps us on our way if we can factor in the cognitive neuro-psychology, the sociobiology and the evolutionary background stuff. It may not be for everyone, but it is “out there” and that deep ecology or ecosophia, can be interesting, inspiring and informative.

        • David , i am all for factoring in the neuro-psych, socio-bio ,eco evolving ..etc. if and only IF there is a spiritual center at the core of all of this . I know that the Dalia Lama did this with his dialogue with science in his book ”the universe in a single atom ”.

          If we dont factor in the nuema –spirit , then where is the core of a man ?or should i say ”what is the core of a man ?” if that question is ignored , then we get thrown back to the vapid modernism as expressed so well in the Picasso paintings of fragmented self , or Becket’s ”Godot ” in its listless waiting for who knows not what …drifting along having no tonal center.

          Vico the great Italian historian predicted that after the various ages of Literature ; Theocratic , Aristocratic , Democratic , Chaotic , that Lit would reflect a new center back to the Theocractic . i am crossing my fingers for that . That is evolution at its finest , and it takes into account a wholeness of the very things you mentioned working under the rubric of divine providence. to me that will be effecatious .

        • I think we actually agree!

          I could even endorse Vico ~ whom McLuhan quoted a lot, ~ if his progression is spiral and evolutionary, as you say, in a spiritual sense; lest we slip back into cyclic kali yuga mind…

          I am beginning to surmise that Islam’s most enduring contribution to humanity’s ethical development was the emergence of this idea/concept of Greater Jihad, that you mentioned before.

          If so, our task must be to select our (metaphysical) “weapons” wisely. Nicht wahr?

        • yeah . an historian friend of mine said that Vico has been really underestimated.
          Islam has a lot of contributions . its amazing art at Alahambra Spain. Its mystic poetry. its struggle against oppression . .Its hospitality that keeps people from dying in the deserts. M ‘s 10 year pacifism in Medina .

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