Religion and Revolution

Future Hope column, May 8, 2011

By Ted Glick

There is no doubt in my mind that a primary reason why, 43 years ago, I decided to become an activist and organizer for progressive social change, a revolutionary, was my Christian upbringing. Both of my grandfathers and my father were ministers, and our family went regularly to church every Sunday. Through these experiences and the life examples of my parents, I was motivated to take to heart the teaching of Micah in the Old Testament: “And what does God ask of you but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (chapter 6, verse 8).

But I’ve never been much of a believer in Christian theology. For me, more than anything, it is the profoundly revolutionary (for his culture, and for our culture today) teachings and life example of Jesus of Nazareth that move me, that inspire me, that help to keep me on the path of striving for justice, peace, connection to nature and a world organized on the basis of love.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a major influence in my early years of social change organizing. King’s activism, his willingness to take risks and continue going despite death threats and public criticism from others, was deeply grounded in his Christian faith. And his view of what that faith called for was deep and profound. He once wrote:

“Jesus didn’t get bogged down in a specific evil. He didn’t say, now Nicodemus you must not drink liquor. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not commit adultery. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not lie. He didn’t say, Nicodemus you must not steal. He said, Nicodemus you must be born again. Nicodemus, the whole structure of your life must be changed. What America must be told today is that she must be born again. The whole structure of American life must be changed.”

King was not the only revolutionary—and this is what he became and how he saw himself—for whom a religious background was an essential aspect of their commitment. Mahatma Gandhi in India, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Ella Baker in the USA, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, even Karl Marx in his early adult years—all took the best of religious beliefs seriously. Indeed, for the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s that Dr. King led, critical to its morale despite serious repression was the knowledge that they were on the side of Justice and Right, that their struggle was part of an historical continuum going back thousands of years.

They took heart from the Old Testament book of the prophet Habakkuk, who cried out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee ‘Violence!’ and thou wilt not save? Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. . . And the Lord answered me, ‘Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end-it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

And there are the words of Jesus in the New Testament when he said,

“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.'”

I have personally experienced many times the power of spiritual reflections and teachings to restore my hope, to restore a “right spirit within me,” to use religious terminology. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that it is more than just Christian traditions that play that role. I’ve learned that almost all major religions and spiritual traditions have justice and love as central tenets, whatever the differences otherwise.

Has organized Christianity over the centuries often been an ally of repressive and oppressive governments and corporations, rife with sexism and racism? Yes, absolutely. Has the Hebrew religion been used to justify theft of land and vicious racism toward Palestinians? Yes, absolutely. The only organized religion I can think of that, by and large, has not failed to live up to its own teachings is the Bahai faith. Whether that is because of something fundamentally different about Bahai’ism, its relative youth (150 years old) or its relative smallness (5 million members worldwide), I do not know.

The failure of much of organized religion to consistently practice what it preaches, or much worse, is mirrored by the corruption and failures of many avowed committed-to-democracy, socialist and communist parties and leaders also going back centuries. There are few historical innocents when it comes to the major religious and political traditions that exist in today’s world.

We need to return to the sources. Return to the lives and teachings of those who inspired what became full-blown religions and political ideologies. We will not find there perfect people, but we will find ideas and lives much more in tune with the best within the human race. And when we combine critical reflection on what they said and did with a deep and conscious connection with the natural world, with all of the life forms with which we inhabit this wounded earth, we will find the strength and the vision to do the right things individually and as a revolutionary movement for urgently-needed, justice-seeking change.

Ted Glick’s past writing and other information can be found at