Since the end of 2016 I’ve been reading a lot about religion and revolution. It began when I found the New Oxford Annotated Bible that was my father’s “bible” in his last 25 or so years. I found it about a year after he died among a pile of books of his I had brought home from his funeral.
I was first struck by the fact that my mother had given it to him as a Christmas present in 1990 with the inscription, “For your enjoyment and illumination, Love, Barbara.” I was further struck by the underlinings, markings and pieces of paper all throughout it which made clear he had used it a lot.
And so, finally, about 66 years after I started going (being taken) to church at a very early age, I decided to read the Bible from beginning to end, and I did, over a period of 4-5 months.
This experience got me going with what has become my “religion and revolution,” long-term reading and writing project. I’ve read about 25 other books since then, some about the Bible and religion, especially liberation theology, some about the historic practice and theoretical debate and interaction between God believers and secular socialists and revolutionaries over the last 170 years, since the publication by Marx and Engels of The Communist Manifesto in 1848.
As I did this reading I began to focus on one key personal objective for all of this past and future reading: to try to pinpoint what is at the root of the failure, by and large, of both organized religion and organized Marxism/socialism to do what Marx called for in words inscribed on his grave: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Neither those who follow the teachings of Jesus, the Hebrew Prophets, the Prophet Mohammed or Buddha, nor those who use Marxist tools of analysis and see themselves as socialists, have been able to prevent the destructive and dehumanizing corporatization of much of the world. More urgently, the world as a whole is facing the very real and immediate threat of societal and ecological unraveling as extreme weather events grow both in frequency and in destructive impact. These are happening as the atmosphere and oceans are heated up, primarily because of the production and burning of oil, gas and coal.
Despite this very serious reality, our situation is not hopeless. There is concrete evidence that large numbers of people around the world want and are willing to organize for much more just, democratic and earth-protective societies. Two of the most recent examples are the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns, happening within two countries that have been leading the corporatization and imperialist charge for a long, long time.
Then there is Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, saying this, and so much more, about our situation:
“All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. We need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” P. 78
And Fidel Castro, unquestionably the most prominent Marxist revolutionary of the Western Hemisphere, had this to say about religion and revolution:
“The Church says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ this is exactly what we preach through feelings of human solidarity, which is the essence of socialism and communism, the spirit of fraternity among people, which is one of our most valued goals. The Church says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness;’ well, lying and deceit are among the things that we most severely criticize and censor.’” (Fidel and Religion: Talks with Frei Betto, p. 243)
I hope that this essay helps to advance the unity in action between those for whom spiritual beliefs are core personal beliefs, those who identify with one of the several secular, revolutionary traditions going back to 1848, and all those who fall into both categories or neither but who agree that revolutionary change is badly needed in our beautiful, wounded, struggling world.
Marx and Engels on Religion
Karl Marx and early scientific socialism, beginning in 1848, were antagonistic to organized Christianity because, in the main, it was a supporter of an economic system which was exploitative, oppressive and dehumanizing. Yet Marx appreciated that for people weighed down by day-to-day realities of suffering, religion offered something.
In his famous “opiate” quote in “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” he explained it this way:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and 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 a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” (p. 42, Marx and Engels on Religion)
Something which embodies heart and spirit, even if a drug, can be a positive thing, something to hold on to at the least.
Marx himself had a religious background as a young person. Yet he saw no hope for world-changing for the suffering masses coming from religion. He saw criticism of it for its collaboration with injustice as a necessary thing: “The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason. . .” (p. 42) And again: “The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for men, hence with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence.” (p. 50)
For the next 100 years or more, as scientific socialism took root and grew throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world, “criticism of religion” and, particularly after the Bolshevik revolution, atheism became a staple of the dominant political parties of that movement. Yet even Frederick Engels understood that from within organized religion there had been people and movements which were motivated by similar sentiments as those that motivated socialists.
In “The Peasant War in Germany” Engels wrote approvingly about the leadership given by a Catholic priest, Thomas Munzer, to a peasant movement in the 1520’s which emerged as an outgrowth of Martin Luther’s challenge to Papal authority with the 95 Theses posted on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Here is how Engels described Munzer:
“To hold up the Bible against reason, [Munzer] maintained, was to kill the spirit by the letter, for the Holy Spirit of which the Bible speaks is not something that exists outside; the Holy Spirit is our reason. Through this faith, through reason come to life, man became godlike and blessed. Heaven is, therefore, not a thing of another world, and is to be sought in this life and it is the task of believers to establish the kingdom of God here on earth. . . (ibid, p. 111)
“Munzer’s political doctrine followed his revolutionary religious conceptions very closely. . . This programme demanded the immediate establishment of the kingdom of God. . . By the kingdom of God Munzer understood a society in which there would be no class differences or private property and no state authority independent of or foreign to the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown, all work and all property shared in common, and complete equality introduced.” (pps. 112-113)
Engels had more to say along these lines, in “The Book of Revelation:”
“[Quoting Ernest Renan] ’When you want to get an idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Man’s Association.’ And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views. . . but all opposed to the ruling system, to ‘the powers that be.’” (pps. 205-206)
Karl Kautsky’s Analysis
“Foundations of Christianity,” a Marxist analysis of Christianity by Karl Kautsky published in 1908, is probably the most definitive work produced by the socialist movement on this question prior to the emergence of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1960’s. Kautsky at the time was a top theoretician and practical leader of the European socialist movement and a leader of the German Social Democratic Party.
The book, all 472 pages, is impressive and comprehensive. Before analyzing Christianity, Kautsky analyzes the economic, social and political dynamics of the Roman Empire within which Christianity emerged and developed in the first century AD. In the three chapters in this section, he analyzes the slave-holding system, the life of the state, and currents of thought in the Roman imperial period. In the section following, he analyzes the history of the Jewish people as they migrated to the Palestine area, militarily conquered other peoples, and created monotheistic, religiously-suffused societies.
Kautsky, like Engels, is clear that early Christianity was all about raising up the lives of the poor and oppressed. He comments favorably on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “The reader will observe to be rich and enjoy one’s wealth is regarded as a crime, worthy of the most cruel punishment.” (p. 328)
More than this, Christianity, with its “outspoken proletarian character,” naturally “aim(ed) to achieve a communistic organization. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘And all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as very man had need. Grace was among them, because none suffered lack, for the reason that they gave so generously that none remained poor.” (pps. 331-332)
Kautsky refers positively to the impact of early Christianity upon women: “With the dissolving, or at least the loosening, of the traditional family ties, there necessarily resulted a change in the position of women. Once she ceased to be bound to the narrow family activities, she was enabled to devote her mind and her interests to other thoughts, outside the family sphere. Their unselfish solicitude for the daily satisfaction of the needs of husbands and children became a solicitude for the liberation of the human race from all its wretchedness.” (p. 353)
Kautsky, understanding the importance of organization to efforts to transform society, identified this reality of early Christianity as the reason why the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had such an impact not just in the early first century AD but for the last 2000 years. “If Jesus had merely gathered together bands for the purpose of insurrection, his name would have disappeared without a trace after his crucifixion. But Jesus was not merely a rebel, he was also a representative and a champion, perhaps even the founder of an organization which survived him and continued to increase in numbers and in strength. . . It was the organization of the congregation that served as a bond to hold together Jesus’s adherents after his death, and as a means of keeping alive the memory of their crucified champion. . . It was not the faith in the resurrection of the Crucified which created the Christian congregation and gave it its strength, but, on the contrary, it was the vigor and strength of the congregation that created the belief in the continued life of the Messiah.” (pps. 376-378)
Things began to change, however, over time. As Christianity grew, as more people were drawn to it, the demands on the organization increased. They needed to expand what Kautsky called their “charity work,” which he likened to “the system of insurances in a modern nation. In the Gospels, it is the observance of this mutual insurance system that entitles one to the life eternal. When the Messiah comes, he will divide men into those that are to share in the splendor of the state of the future and life eternal and those destined to eternal damnation.” (pps. 416-417)
The belief in the “second coming” of Jesus was central to the belief systems and theology of early Christianity. It wasn’t a unique belief for that period of time and that part of the world. These kinds of mystical, eschatological beliefs were prevalent, kind of like Marx’s “opium,” giving people hope for something different than the hard lives she and those around her were living.
As Christianity continued, going strong into the second century AD, “the expectation of the coming of the Messiah in all his glory dwindled, as the congregation became more and more convinced that it was necessary to acquire property in order to carry out its program of assistance. The proletarian class character of the Christian propaganda was violated. More and more effort was directed to the recruiting of wealthy members whose money could be put to use.
“As the number of the wealthy increased in the congregation, there was also an increase in the number of those participants in the common meals who were concerned only in the gathering and its symbols, not in eating and drinking. Therefore, in the Second Century, the actual common meals for the poorer members were detached from the purely symbolic meals intended for the entire congregation, and in the Fourth Century, after the Church had become the dominant power in the State, meals of the former kind were eliminated from the meeting houses of the congregation, the churches.” (pps. 417- 418)
Kautsky’s Christianity and Socialism
In Kautsky’s concluding chapter he begins with a long quote from Engels written in 1895, the year he died. Engels in this introduction refers glowingly to the takeover of Christianity as the religion of Rome as a result of its growth from below, emphasizing that “it had a strong representation in the army; entire legions were composed of Christians.”
Kautsky, a close friend and political comrade of Engels, makes clear that Engels, and he, Kautsky, did not believe that Christianity in any way overcame the Roman Empire—just the opposite. “Christianity was not victorious as a subversive force, but as a conservative force, as a new prop of suppression and exploitation. The Christian organization, the Church, attained victory by surrendering its original aims and defending their opposite.” (p. 461)
He goes on to ask the question: is this what will end up happening to the socialist movement, “the Social-Democracy,” in the 20th century? He says no. He says that although early Christianity and 19th century socialism “have many elements in common,” this will not be socialism’s fate:
“One has only to examine this contrast to become aware that the development of Socialism cannot possibly deviate from its course as did that of Christianity; we need not fear that it will develop a new class of rulers and exploiters from its ranks, sharing their booty with the old tyrants.” (p. 466)
Given what has, indeed, happened since Kautsky wrote in 1908—the eventual emergence of a Stalinist dictatorship out of the rubble of the civil war in Russia after the 1917 revolution and, ultimately, after 1991, a capitalist takeover of the former Soviet Union, as well as similar developments in post-revolutionary China—these words of Kautsky’s are very poignant, and very wrong.
One reason for Kautsky’s huge historical error can be found when he writes further along about the primary objective of revolutionary socialists. He writes that “modern communism can no longer think of an equal distribution of wealth; its object is rather to secure the greatest possible increase in the productivity of labor and a more equitable distribution of the annual products of labor by pushing the concentration of wealth to the highest point, transforming it from the private monopoly of a few capitalist groups into a state monopoly.” (p. 467)
Workers of the world, solidarity forever in support of a state monopoly of concentrated wealth! Not exactly an inspiring vision, or, more to the point, a vision of the future that can lead to the kind of classless and democratic society found among early Christian communities.
Kautsky had another blindspot, and as is true of the one referenced above, it wasn’t just his; it was one of the European socialist movement as a whole. This was a blindspot concerning the question of religious thought and spirituality.
There were many things I appreciate about Kautsky’s analyses in Foundations of Christianity, but there are aspects of it that have not held up as human history has unfolded. Another one, besides his belief in a state monopoly of wealth as the key to avoiding corruption and degeneration of the revolutionary cause, is his view of religion as a “backwards” thing of the past of no use for those interested in forward progress.
Here’s a sentence which sums up this view of religion: “The religious mode of thought was superseded by the methods of modern science, with the result that it [religion] is cherished only by backwards classes and strata of the population, or backward regions, and may not in any manner continue to serve as an envelope for new social goals.” (p. 171)
The Russian Revolution in 1917, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, was motivated by similar sentiments regarding religion
Lenin and Communism’s Militant Atheism
The victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia after a bloody and destructive civil war between 1917-1922, a civil war which saw military intervention against that revolution on the part of Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Japan, Greece and other capitalist countries, led to a Soviet government under the leadership of VI Lenin.
Lenin was a hard-liner on the question of religion. Although he supported the official position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of that time which prohibited discrimination against anyone on the basis of religious beliefs and did not force members to be atheists, he wrote and spoke critically of religion and positively about atheism.
Here’s what he wrote in 1905 in the December issue of the newspaper Novaya Zhizn: “Religion is an instrument of spiritual oppression weighing everywhere on the common masses burdened by work and want. Religion teaches submission and patience, and promises consolation in a heavenly reward. Religion is spiritual alcohol, in which the slaves of capital drown out their human identity, their strivings for a life worthy of man.” (“Communism and Religion,” in Bolshevik Visions, edited by William G. Rosenberg, Ann Arbor Paperbacks)
Without question, the fact that almost all of the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church bitterly attacked the revolution in 1917 and the new government which grew out of it during the Civil War did nothing to moderate this sentiment, and much to harden it.
For Lenin the socialist revolution was a full-scale alternative to any form of spirituality or even morality, as he said in 1920 at the Third All-Russian Congress of the Young Communist League: “We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle. Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.” (ibid)
According to John C. Bennett of the World Council of Churches, writing in 1948 in the book Christianity and Communism, “Lenin’s opposition extend[ed] even to new forms of religion that were developed by sympathizers with Communism. Maxim Gorky had been interested in a new religious movement that resembled what we call in America non-theistic humanism, and it was oriented toward the spiritual support of the Revolution, but even this Lenin dismissed with contempt. Any form of spiritual faith that broke with the negations of dialectical materialism was regarded as an entering wedge for the reactionary forces of idealism and religion.” (p. 33)
Within a few years of the Soviet consolidation of power after the civil war, there was also a consolidation of the theoretical and practical positions of the party on the question of religion. Up until that time there had been some debate internally over the issue. In 1923, for example, a Zeth Hoglund, a founder of the Swedish Communist Party and early supporter of Lenin, wrote the following as published in a Soviet publication: “As soon as the Party declares atheism to be an indispensable element of the Communist world view, then it will undoubtably fall to the level of a sect.” (“Communism and Religion,” in Bolshevik Visions, edited by William G. Rosenberg, Ann Arbor Paperbacks)
This position was opposed by EE Yaroslavsky, who later became head of the League of Militant Atheists. He asked, “Must our party wage a war with religion? Yes. It must conduct a war by means of propaganda, agitation, the preaching of atheism, the uncovering of ties between religion and the exploiting ruling classes. Should the communist party refuse admission to people with religious views? As a general rule, yes, because religious people will confuse and disturb the struggle of the working class, will introduce an idealist jumble where a clear materialist conception of the world is needed.” (ibid)
Yaroslavsky’s article was written and published in 1925. By this time Lenin had died and an internal struggle for power was underway. Within a few year’s time this struggle was resolved when Joseph Stalin became the head of the party and government, never to relinquish power until his death 25 years later in 1953. Under Stalin, there was a concerted attack on religion, causing the decimation of the Russian Orthodox Church and an official policy of active atheism on the part of the party.
When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 with a similar political and anti-religious ideology, the future for organized religion, or even for those people who had spiritually-grounded beliefs, in the developing “socialist world,” as it was called, did not look good.
Christians Respond to Socialist Upsurge
However, the socialist ideological criticism of organized religion beginning in the mid-1800s, and especially the victory of the Bolshevik party in Russia and its efforts, with mixed results for sure, to transform society in a more just and equitable direction, had an effect on Christians and other religious believers.
John Bennett wrote that “communism has acted as a reminder of the responsibility of Christians and of the Church to seek the realization of more equal justice in society. Its bitter attacks upon conventional religion have had a measure of justification because of the excessive individualism of evangelical Protestantism and because of the identification of Protestant Churches with the middle classes and of both Roman [Catholic] and Orthodox Churches with the established political and social orders of the various countries in which they have been dominant.” (Christianity and Communism, p. 47)
There is a thousands-of-years history of the Christian church and other major religions making peace, compromising, with the secular powers-that-be even if those powers are fundamentally unjust and oppressive. But throughout that time there have always been individuals, small groups and even large groups within them which have found in the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, or other foundational sources inspiration to speak truth to power and advocate for justice and human rights.
This was true in the Europe of the time Marx and Engels were writing. It was true in the 1500’s in Germany as seen through the life of Thomas Munzer. It has always been true, because however much the religious and political powers that be have tried to suppress the truth about who we are as human beings, twisted spiritual teachings into the opposite of what they originally were, tried to obliterate the central role that conscience plays in our lives, oppressed and killed out of greed, or suppressed our innate desire for love and connection to others and to Nature, those efforts never succeed completely. This is an historical truth.
Even before the Russian Revolution in 1917, a devout Hindu named Mohandus Gandhi in South Africa, beginning in the first years of the new century, had begun to lead oppressed Indians in a campaign against racist discrimination by the white European government. Though he was a lawyer and not a religious leader, Gandhi’s activism was deeply rooted in his Hindu religious beliefs. And it can be argued that this particular religiously-grounded individual who led the Indian independence movement had long-term political and social impacts worldwide, through his life example and his writings, which rivaled those of Lenin.
Belgium, Italy, France
In Western Europe, particularly the countries of Belgium, Italy and France, the Russian Revolution and the resulting upsurge of different varieties of socialism eventually led to organized efforts within the Catholic Church to put it explicitly on the side of oppressed working people.
These organizing efforts emerged out of a shift spearheaded in part by the then-Pope himself, Pope Pius XI, in the late 20’s and 30’s. Progressive theological developments led to demands for powers within the Church to be shifted downwards, toward the grassroots, and for a “return to the source,” particularly the life and teachings of Jesus.
Philippe de Soignie, a Jesuit who was national chaplain of the Belgian Mouvement Populaire des Families (MPF), wrote about it in this way, as quoted in Gerd-Rainer Horn’s book, “Western European Liberation Theology, 1924-1959”: “The working class, especially here in Belgium, still sees in Christ the model of all perfection. If the masses are socialist, Christ is regarded as the first socialist; if they are communist, Christ is the first communist. . . One may make these people believe that the Church betrays them, but one will have a difficult time convincing them that Christ was not the friend of the powerless and the humble.” (p. 78)
In Italy, Catholic priest Don Zeno Saltini, wrote a pamphlet, The Social Revolution of Jesus Christ, “which gave written expression to his conviction of the inevitability that capitalism—‘the capitalist tyranny’—would be superceded by a social system which was clearly inspired by socialist visions, in which bonds of human solidarity would replace the cash nexus. ‘And by economic fraternity I understand a system where wealth is treated as something created by everyone, so that no one feels justified to use for their own advantage that which belongs to all brothers, according to the criterion of dignity.’” (p. 158)
The most well-known of the organized efforts supported by the church, for a while and not always enthusiastically, was the worker priest movement centered in France beginning in the early 40’s, but this was not the only one, and not the biggest. That designation, according to Horn, belongs to France and Belgium’s Mouvement Populaire des Familles (MPF), which from small beginnings in the 1930’s became a major force in the 1940’s. By the end of the war they had more than 100,000 members and had engaged in numerous actions in support of working and poor people in various ways.
The MPF began in 1931 as a women’s organization, the Ligue Ouvriere Chretienne Feminine, opening up to men by mid-decade. It began as a Catholic social service organization but became something much different. As everyday life deteriorated under Nazi occupation and World War II, “one of the very earliest engagements of the MPF was the provision of its offices and mailing addresses as communications conduits which could serve isolated members of families dispersed by the ravages of wartime incursions and refugee movements. ‘But very rapidly, this service also takes into account the situation created by the imprisonment of husbands in Germany, the insufficient level of wages, and the lack of an adequate food supply.’” (p. 180)
The MPF helped organize workers’ and family gardens to deal with food shortages, which “mutated from sources of food supply and leisure-time association into locations of anti-Vichy and anti-fascist sociability.” (p 182)
The MPF became a key group defending homeless people via the tactic of squatting, particularly toward the end and just after the war. This tactic was used in more than 50 towns and cities. “Once, in Marseilles, dressed in working class blue, MPF activists carried out a sit-in in the bishop’s residence to draw the church hierarchy’s attention to the plight of the homeless.” (p. 186) In Marseilles alone, upwards of 2500 families obtained housing through squatting.
The MPF played an important role in supporting the leadership and the needs of women. The top leadership positions were always equally divided between men and women. At national MPF gatherings 2/5ths of the attendees were women. “MPF-related meetings, whether held in a private home or in a designated office space, became the spawning ground for a gradual raising of women’s individual and collective consciousness.” (p. 190)
How did the MPF relate to the French Communist Party (PCF), which was a strong political force within the working class? Here is how Horn described it:
“The MPF stressed the interests of class above those of party, whereas with communist activists—in the views of MPF members and others—the welfare of the party appeared to be often more central than the welfare of the class. ‘Grassroots activists within the PCF found that within our [the MPF’s] ranks sentiment in favour of promotion of the working class as such was much more pronounced than within the party,’ recalls Alphonse Garelli, who for some time had been a member of both PCF and MPF. An additional important difference was the tendency for communist activists to prioritize state intervention as a magic wand, whereas MPF militants saw salvation in self-organization.” (pps. 196-197)
Over time, the influence of the Catholic Church over the MPF declined. “The first national leadership gathering in free France, meeting in Paris on December 9-10, 1944, saw no priests or representatives of the church hierarchy in attendance.” (p. 206). From a movement created by the Church it evolved into a workers’ movement in which the role of the Church was significantly lessened. However, by the early 50’s, for a variety of reasons, the MPF had markedly declined in both numbers and social and political impact. One reason was a post-war French government which took action on many of the MPF’s core survival issues. Another was the loss of support from the Church as the MPF became increasingly more autonomous.
The Church did, however, decide to give support for a number of years to an initiative which began in the early 1940’s: the French worker priest movement.
Worker Priests in France
A Catholic priest by the name of Jacques Loew is widely credited with being the first worker-priest. He began working on the docks of Marseilles in 1941. However, it was the decision in 1943 of the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Emmanuel Celestin Suhard, to publish a book by Henri Godin and Yvan Daniels, “La France: pays de mission?,” which gave a real boost to this effort.
The book was a “call to action to construct ‘genuine life communities’ that are Christian, Christian ‘communities deeply anchored in the working-class milieu.’ The Church had to create ‘communities based on affinity (base communities) or it would remain an institution of little relevance to the most dynamically expanding and numerous component of contemporaneous industrial society, its blue collar working class.” (pps. 231-232)
Led by Suhard’s Mission de France initiative, the training of worker-priests moved forward. By 1946 there were 40 teams agitating throughout France and by the early 50’s close to 300 priests who had gone through seminary training were operating in 27 dioceses.
Key to this work was what was called the “cultural immersion strategy.” “The vital ingredient of missionary activity [to the working class], once one had integrated oneself into the life-world of these largely ‘pagan’ neighborhoods, was the construction of lived Christian communities which showcased the possibilities of a better kind of world, base communities, consisting of clergy and laity, which would demonstrate in daily concrete practice, but also by their inner spiritual life, that Christian beliefs and the Christian way offered tangible and positive alternatives to the status quo.” (p. 252) By1956, 285 base communities existed in both urban and rural areas.
Worker-priests largely emerged out of this movement. They were priests who “took the ultimate step and became workers themselves.” They worked in factories, wore the clothes of fellow workers, not priestly garb, and engaged in manual labor. “By 1949 in all of France combined about fifty worker priests had been deployed. This first generation of French and Belgian worker priests never numbered more than one hundred in toto.” (p. 270)
Some of these priests became involved with organizations connected to the French Communist Party, “no doubt in part a consequence of the growing social weight of communist parties in the aftermath of anti-fascist resistance which had given a tremendous boost to communism across the continent, a deepening influence of communism which was most heavily felt on the factory floor.” (p. 276)
The degree of the impact of these connections with communists upon worker priests can be appreciated by this 1953 statement approved by all worker priests in the Greater Paris area:
“’We now know that the proletariat, left to its own devices, without a class consciousness, without organization, will never succeed in conquering its enemy, who is leading a many-sided assault and who is a hundred times stronger, if not in numbers and in quality then at least by its control over the means of oppression and repression, which run the gamut from open and brutal struggle to hypocritical ‘good intentions’ and the narcotic of religion. . . We have also learned that class struggle is not a moral choice which one can accept or reject, but that it is a brutal reality imposed on the working class. It is a struggle engaged in by the united camp of the rich against the working class, aided on all sides by those forces constituting its pillars; and for the moment, in the eyes of the workers, the Church is one of those pillars.’
“Small wonder then that, by 1952, moves were underway to hem in the worker priest experience which, rather than a promise to extend the influence of the Catholic Church, became increasingly seen as a danger to Christianity within the most influential circles of the Church.” (p. 277)
By the end of the decade of the 50’s, the Vatican in Rome “closed all loopholes for priestly industrial missions,” and the era of the worker priest operating with Church approval, however uneven, was over, even if left Catholicism was not.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany
It was not just Catholicism, however, that was buffeted by powerful political currents, from the left and from the right, after the 1917 revolution and the rise of fascism and World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leading Lutheran minister in Germany, found his religious convictions deeply challenged by the rise of Hitler and the concomitant surrender to him by the dominant forces in the Lutheran Church of Germany.
In the mid-20’s Bonhoeffer was writing about the need to “dissociate the Church from dependence on the State and State privileges; its having the courage and determination to make sacrifices in many fields to achieve concentration, its understanding the essence of the Gospel in confession.” (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eberhard Bethge, p. 40)
In 1928, while working as an Assistant Pastor in Barcelona, Spain, he wrote about the need to “regain understanding of the meaning of solidarity among mankind. God wants to see men, not ghosts who shun the world. He made the earth our mother.” (p. 81)
After spending a year in the United States, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin in 1931. While lecturing at Berlin University, working in a church at Wedding and becoming more active in the ecumenical, inter-church movement, he attempted to be assigned to a parish in the working-class section of East Berlin. He also began speaking and writing about the centrality of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for contemporary Christianity.
Upon the ascension to power of Hitler, Bonhoeffer played a leading role in a split within the German Lutheran Church. In 1934 the Lutheran Confessing Church was formed. It explicitly rejected, at that time, cooperation with Naziism. “Free and legal representatives of all the German regional churches proclaimed a confession of the fundamental truths of the Gospel in opposition to the ‘false doctrine’ of the German Christian Government, and in doing so severed themselves from the teaching and practice of the ‘brown (Nazi-supporting) Church.” (p. 297)
As Naziism took over Germany and after it launched its blitzkrieg war for world dominance, Bonhoeffer, though a proclaimed pacifist, decided to join the underground German resistance. His work with it consisted mainly of traveling, inside and out of the country. He made various contacts with people outside of Germany, serving as a carrier of messages about the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and attempting to establish ties with the British government. This work continued up until the time of his arrest in April, 1943, on charges of helping Jews escape from Germany. A year later, on July 20th, 1944, after an unsuccessful attempt to kill Hitler, the Nazis learned of Bonhoeffer’s role in the anti-Hitler underground.
While in prison, and before his killing in April, 1945 just before the Allies liberated the concentration camp where he was held, he wrote extensively. Most significant were his writings “against” religion, “religion meaning that human activity that seeks to reach the beyond, to postulate a divinity, to invoke help and protection, in short: religion as self-justification.” (p. 775) “It is not the beyond that we are concerned with, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the Gospel, intended to exist for this world.” (p. 777)
He was an advocate for action: “We have spent too much time in thinking, supposing that if we weigh in advance the possibilities of any action it will happen automatically. Your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action.” (p. 784)
These two quotes of Bonhoeffer make clear the radical trajectory of his thinking:
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” And: “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.” https://sojo.net/articles/11-bonhoeffer-quotes-remember-pastor-who-resisted-evil-unto-death
And Bonhoeffer wasn’t just thinking of individual Christian behavior. In one of the letters in Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer puts forward what he intended to write about in more depth and scope if/when he got out of prison as far as what should happen to the church:
“The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” (p. 381)
Without question, Bonhoeffer’s example and his critical, forward-looking writing from prison, once it was published in the early 50’s, had a decided impact upon religious believers worldwide. By the end of that decade, however, a revolution in Cuba led by someone raised in a very religious, Catholic family and educated in religious schools had a much bigger effect.
Cuban Revolution Marks a Turning Point
On January 1, 1959 the revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, among others, entered Havana, and many things were affected, not just in Cuba but in other parts of the world.
One of those things was the approach to religion on the part of socialists and left revolutionaries.
Just two months after entering Havana, in March of 1959, Castro articulated an approach to religion different than Soviet and Chinese socialists when he stated in a press interview that, “Christ was sacrificed because he spoke the truth to an insensitive and indolent society. They crucified Christ simply because He defended the truth; because He was a reformer of contemporary society; because in that society He was the lash of all their Phariseeism and hypocrisy.” (Christian-Marxist Unity, Raimundo Garcia Franco, p. 27)
Castro did not see himself as a religious person, despite—or probably because of—spending years of his childhood being taught in Catholic religious schools. But he had been affected by the “fervent” religious beliefs within his family. In 1985, in an interview with Chilean priest Frei Betto, he spoke of his mother and grandmother:
“I always listened to them with great interest and respect. Even though I didn’t share their concept of the world, I never argued with them about these things, because I could see the strength, courage and comfort they got from their religious feelings and beliefs. Of course, their feelings were neither rigid nor orthodox but something very much their own and very strongly felt. It was a part of the family tradition.” (p. 101, Fidel and Religion)
While in the Sierra Maestra mountains fighting against Cuban dictator Batista’s regime, a Father Sardinas joined the group. This revolutionary priest, according to Frei Betto, had the support of his bishop in his action. Castro reported that he was “warmly received by all the troops. A lot of families wanted me to be their children’s godfather, and Father Sardinas baptized scores of children there. I’d say that his presence and his work helped to strengthen the people’s ties with the Revolution.” (ibid, 180-182)
After the revolution, the right of individuals to hold personal religious beliefs was enshrined within the Cuban Constitution. In 1975 the Cuban Communist Party, at its First Congress, took this position: “We depart from the Marxist criterion that conventional Christian faith is rooted in ignorance alone. We assert that it developed principally from the material conditions of the societal milieu of the past. Therefore our ideological task should involve working intimately and energetically with our allies to construct and develop a socialist society.” (Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 55) In 1991 the Cuban Communist Party decided to allow religious believers to join it.
Castro was critical of the Latin American “Marxist-Leninist left” which “preached atheism to the masses. They weren’t being sensitive to the people’s religious concepts, and, by acting in that way, they were, in fact, foreclosing the possibility of establishing a link between their political outlook and the masses.” (ibid, p. 265)
This distinctly different approach to religion on the part of the revolutionary government of Cuba had a big impact throughout Latin America. Penny Lernoux, in “Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America – The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy,” asked the question, “Why did the Church suddenly regret its traditional alliance with the conservative rich? In the beginning, at least, it was fear of communism, and for this Fidel Castro must be thanked. The Catholic Church’s experience in Cuba after Castro took power, when 70% of the clergy fled the island, profoundly shocked Latin America’s bishops, many of whom were jolted out of their complacency.” (p. 24)
The Growth of Liberation Theology
Lernoux also ascribes the development of what became the liberation theology movement to the Vatican’s Second Ecumenical Council, held between 1962-1965, as well as the encyclicals by Pope John XXIII in 1961, Mater et Magistra, and 1963, Pacem en Terris, “which emphasized the human right to a decent standard of living, education and political participation.”
A turning point in Latin America took place in 1968, at the Colombian city of Medellin. There the Catholic bishops of Latin America met in an “extraordinary assembly for the second time in their history. Medellin produced the Magna Carta’s of today’s persecuted, socially committed Church, and as such rates as one of the major political events of the century: it shattered the centuries-old alliance of Church, military and rich elites.” (Lernoux, p. 37)
Since that time this movement has sunk deep roots within Latin America while expanding into a world-wide phenomenon. By the end of the 1980’s, in the country of Brazil alone, there were estimated to be more than 4 million members in liberation theology “base communities.”
Base communities were one of the expressions of left Catholicism within France in the 1940’s. Lernoux described them in Latin America as “spin-offs from the local parish churches. Because the orientation is a liberating one based on the techniques of consciousness-raising, particularly in the reading of the Bible, these groups develop a dynamic of their own. They soon add appendages such as schools, cooperatives and health units. Members of Christian communities pray, work and live together, sharing their material and spiritual resources much as the early Christians did. Each is his brother’s keeper.” (p. 41)
Other continents developed similar if distinct liberation theology movements: in Africa, particularly Zaire, Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa; in Asia, particularly India, Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan; in North America, particularly among African Americans; and in Europe, particularly in Spain. (Leonardo and Clovodis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, pps. 80-81))
Today, in the second decade of the 20th century, the most significant indicator of the political strength of this kind of an approach is the fact that former Argentinian Catholic Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as Pope in March of 2013. Six months later the new Pope Francis met at the Vatican with Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest and one of the most prominent founders and writers of the liberation theology movement.
As reported in a New York Times article on May 23, 2015, “Pope’s Focus on Poor Revives Scorned Theology,” the meeting with Gutierrez was not an isolated incident:
“The first pope from the developing world, Francis has placed the poor at the center of his papacy. In doing so, he is directly engaging with a theological movement that once sharply divided Catholics and was distrusted by his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Even Francis, as a young Jesuit leader in Argentina, had qualms. Now, Francis speaks of creating ‘a poor church for the poor’ and is seeking to position Catholicism closer to the masses — a spiritual mission that comes as he is also trying to revive the church in Latin America, where it has steadily lost ground to evangelical congregations.”
Pope Francis is also playing an outspoken role addressing the climate crisis and the myriad environmental crises which are having such a damaging impact upon ecosystems, animal and plant species and human societies worldwide. His 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” addresses both the world ecological crisis and its connection to poverty and oppression.
“Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (p. 63)
“The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.” (p. 39)
“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.” (p. 23)
“Unless citizens control political power—national, regional and municipal—it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.” (p. 118)
And, as quoted toward the beginning of this article, “All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral. We need to look at reality in a different way, recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (p. 78)
Continuing Hold of Patriarchy
However, it is unfortunately the case that Pope Francis is the leader of a thoroughly male-dominated, patriarchal institution, the Catholic Church. All formal decision-making power is in the hands of only men. As a result, on issues related to women and sexuality, issues of importance to women and men both inside and outside of the Catholic Church, there are very problematic organizational positions.
In 2016 the Vatican published a book, “The Joy of Love,” the result of two synods, organized discussions, among the church’s Bishops about marriage, family and related subjects. In it, in addition to a reaffirmation of their opposition to abortion, birth control and homosexuality, there is a disturbing support for mothers and fathers playing particular roles that are presented as biologically-based: “A mother who watches over her child with tenderness and compassion helps him or her to grow in confidence and self-esteem and, in turn, to develop a capacity for intimacy and empathy. A father, for his part, helps the child to perceive the limits of life, to be open to the challenges of the wider world, and to see the need for hard work and strenuous effort. The clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child.” (p. 135)
The Marxist/socialist left historically has had its own problems as far as male domination. However, in response to the rise of the women’s movement worldwide over the last 50 or so years, there have been substantive changes both in terms of consciousness of these issues and in terms of more women in leadership, as well as in other ways.
And there are certainly more positive currents at work within Catholicism. One indication of that is these words of Pope Francis in The Joy of Love: “Much remains to be done to promote [women’s] rights. History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior. There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of female emancipation. This is not valid, ‘it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.’ We must see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.” (p. 48)
What is our path forward at this time of great danger and great opportunity? Clearly, that path must be wide enough to allow secular and spiritually-grounded revolutionaries to walk it together.
This is in no way a new concept. For decades, since the 60’s at least, there have been substantive interactions between religionists and socialists, and there is much more appreciation by both sides of the need for unity in action, if not ideological or theological unity, in the struggle against injustice and for a new world, a world based upon higher love.
Most immediately, there is an urgent need for sustained organizing and activism on the climate emergency, an existential threat to the possibility of ANY kind of future for massive numbers of plant and animal species and billions of people and their descendants. Worldwide, we are experiencing a growth in both the quantity and severity of extreme weather events: massive floods, wildfires, storms, and tornadoes, and long-lasting heat waves and droughts. The seas are heating up, acidifying and rising at a deeply concerning rate. The ice mass in the Arctic is about 70% reduced, on average, from what it was just 50 years ago. Glaciers everywhere are rapidly shrinking, and water supplies in a number of countries of the global South are increasingly threatened. This situation is only going to get worse before it, hopefully, gets better.
The primary cause of this crisis is the economic and political power, particularly in the United States, of the oil, gas and coal industries. Their continuing efforts to expand, particularly the gas industry through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of methane gas, must be fought with every organizing tactic available to us, including nonviolent direct action, as was used so effectively in 2016 in Standing Rock, North Dakota to combat the construction of a dirty oil pipeline.
The present objective must be a halt to the expansion of mining and drilling for fossil fuels and no granting of permits for proposed, new fossil fuel infrastructure. Jobs-creating and affordable renewable energy, especially locally-owned and community-supported wind and solar, must be actively assisted and expanded.
These are objectives that people of faith and people seeking transformational, systemic change, as well as many others, are already supporting. We need to keep broadening that essential clean energy movement and underlining its urgency through visible demonstrations and nonviolent action.
Through the building of and the victories won by this movement, we are also laying the groundwork for the continuing mass campaign for revolutionary change, in the best sense of the word.
In this work it is absolutely essential that this new people’s movement, this movement of movements, deal with the worst cultural values of mega-corporation-dominated capitalism, the economic system currently ruling the world: individual advancement more important than the common good, greed and power-seeking, oppression and exploitation of others and the Earth for private gain and selfishness, interwoven with and supporting white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and other backwards ideologies and practices.
In this critically-needed cultural work, this cultural revolution, leadership from women, indigenous people, people of color and “the least of these” is absolutely essential. Rich or well-off white men cannot lead it, as made clear by Jesus of Nazareth in his Sermon on the Mount, though individuals from those backgrounds can be part of leadership if they reject their privileges and are committed to working in an empowering-to-all, group-centered, higher love-based way.
Our Current Situation in the US
Where are we in this essential work in the United States?
The fact that a person as retrograde as Donald Trump could be elected President is a sure sign, a maddening sign, that US culture, and the politics that come with it, are seriously infected with the worst aspects of capitalism.
However, there’s another side to this. Prior to Trump’s electoral college, not popular, victory, black man Barack Obama was President for eight years. Obama was not a socialist; he was a liberal, unapologetic backer of capitalism, and his overall record was very mixed. But the fact that he could be elected and then re-elected President in the United States of America was a sign that there are cultural and political changes happening at the grassroots.
Recent polling about attitudes toward “capitalism” and “socialism” reinforce this. The Washington Post reported on a poll in early 2016 which showed that, among the upcoming millennial generation, socialism is seen more favorably than capitalism by 43 to 32 percent. 30% of US Americans of all ages hold that view.
And we must not forget the amazing political strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign for President in 2016. The people’s movement that supported democratic socialist Sanders continues to be active on a wide range of issues, winning both policy and electoral victories since Trump’s election.
The fact is that a different kind of movement is building in the US and elsewhere for fundamental social change. And because the US is a wealthy society, it is practically possible for that movement, when it wins, to rapidly take steps toward a much more just distribution of wealth and power, much healthier social and economic relationships based on cooperation and higher love instead of individualistic competition, and protection for and healing of our threatened climate and environment as a top-level priority.
How are we going to win, and build upon that win to transform society?
Building Qualitatively Higher Organizations
There are many aspects of a winning strategy, but the one that I have come to believe is most fundamental, the one that is the key link to the social transformation process so urgently needed, is this: building and deepening a way of working together and developing organizations which is collaborative, respectful, democratic to its core and which, as a result, is truly transformative, built to last.
I have been a community and political activist for 50 years, and so many times I have experienced groups falling apart or blowing up because people just don’t know how to give good leadership, or how to work in a collaborative way, or how to submerge ego on behalf of the common good, or because of personal racism or sexism, all of which ultimately derail the best intentions. And since there is no hope, zero, for transformative change without effective organizations that are deeply rooted among our peoples, it is essential that we identify this problem as fundamental if we are to win.
We need organizations where everyone in a meeting feels welcomed and empowered to speak, with no one or no group (like white men) dominating the discussion.
We need organizations which know how to mix broad democratic discussion with decision-making based on the will of the group that allows for effective follow-up, action and movement-building.
A healthy group will be conscious of who is and who isn’t present. From what I’ve experienced and observed, for most groups, including progressive groups about transformational, systemic change, they tend to be predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, from one cultural group—European American, African American, Latina/o, Indigenous or Asian/Pacific Islander. I am more sure of this when it comes to white groups, less so for people of color groups, though my experience is it’s also often true there too.
The reality of white supremacy and racial segregation has a lot to do with this, but it’s also the tendency of most people to feel more comfortable with people from similar backgrounds.
But progressive social change is not going to happen unless we build an effective and internally healthy alliance across race/culture and other lines. That is why good organizations, no matter their composition, will have no problem talking about issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism or other negative ideologies that prevent unity among people who should be allies. In such organizations individual members will be open to constructive, not destructive, criticism when they say or exhibit these negative ideas or practices. None of us are perfect!
A healthy group will always look for input from those it is working with and make time as necessary for collective evaluation of how the group is functioning, how its decisions are being carried out and how effective it is being.
Finally, a healthy group will find ways to deal with serious differences or sharp divisions over strategy or tactics that don’t have those on one side demonizing or aggressively putting down those on the other side. The possibility of this kind of antagonistic situation developing is an additional reason why it is so important that organizations consciously create a healthy, community building, mutually respecting internal culture. It’s not the main reason to do so, but it’s an additional reason.
The main reason is this: without a growing network of these kinds of organizations all over the world, we have little chance of bequeathing to our children, grandchildren and the seven generations coming after us a livable world.
We must learn from the checkered history of the human race in its efforts to create just and peaceful societies. In the words of the late Rev. Paul Mayer, “What history is calling for is nothing less than the creation of a new human being. We must literally reinvent ourselves through the alchemy of the Spirit or perish. We are being divinely summoned to climb another rung on the evolutionary ladder, to another level of human consciousness.”