Radical Religion: A Comment

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Gloria Albrecht

[The following is an excerpt from Dr. Gloria Albrecht’s paper “Labor Radicalism, Spirituality, Scholarship and Activism: Reactions to Paul LeBlanc’s Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience,” which she delivered October 19, 2006  at Wayne State University in Detroit. Professor Albrecht is Professor of Religious Studies at University of Detroit-Mercy and a Christian feminist ethicist specializing in the study of social justice.]

PAUL LE BLANC begins by noting that his book is full of “odd combinations” (1). For example, the inclusion of both secular political theorists and Christian theologians: Lenin and Tillich….

Paul defines what he means by “religion,” essentially, by naming certain values. These include a sense of awe before creation (51), the equality of all people, the absolute value of persons, human unity based on love and justice, democracy, peace. I believe Paul is claiming that these values are “transcendent” in a certain sense. I believe he wants to argue that they are the ground of our being, as Tillich would say — or the thrust of history.

Of course, this opens up the problem of evil — theodicy. At its core, Paul’s book wrestles with this question. Why does Lenin lead to Stalin? Why does Jesus lead to — Jerry Falwell? And can we learn from the failures of these movements how to make revolutions that don’t degenerate into dogmatism, totalitarianism, and murder in the name of a higher good?

Paul argues that Christianity began as a revolutionary movement celebrating human equality and degenerated (60) in subsequent centuries until it becomes the church of the empire, of hierarchy, of authoritarianism. I would argue that this way of interpreting history is too embedded in the myth of the Garden of Eden: that is, the myth of perfect beginnings that fall into sin. And that is really the crux of my own disagreement with Paul’s presentation of Christian history.

I would argue that biblical scholars (as distinct from the theologizing of theologians) find a much more complex history in the 1st century of the Common Era. Among those biblical scholars who practice a critical analysis of Christian origins, such as Richard Horsely, George Pixley,  Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others, the argument is made that there is an egalitarian thrust within the Jesus movement — this prophet and his message.

However, this thrust is not uncontested even within this group as evidenced in both canonical and non-canonical  literature: Who is the greatest, they ask? Can gentiles be included? What is the role of women? Of slaves? Schussler Fiorenza’s point (In Memory of Her) is that by the time the gospels are written in the second half of the 1st century, two of three major social divisions (Jew/gentile, male/female, free/slave) are firmly back in place: “slaves be obedient to your masters as unto the Lord,” “wives obey your husbands,” “women keep silent in the church,” etc.

My point is only that contemporary biblical scholarship sees disorder, contentiousness, conflict in the Jesus movement and in the 1st century Christian communities. They might point out the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of John: “No one comes unto the father but by me…” to counter, Paul, your focus on a religion that knows no dogma. Or to Matthew’s rendition of the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” to counter your focus on material poverty.

They would certainly remind us that the canonical literature is itself the record of the winners. Yet, it is useful. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza points out that when the text says, for example, “Women are to keep silent in the church,” it is evidence to us that some women were not silent, but were being silenced. What appears like description is actually proscription — revealing conflict.

So my point would be that the inability to embody radical equality begins at the beginning — and we need to look to the particular social and economic and cultural barriers that constrain both the imagination of well-intentioned people and their actions. To defend certain values today as “Christian,” must we prove that they existed “in the beginning.” I don’t think so. There was no Garden of Eden for Christianity.

Social Contexts

Similarly, can we claim that Christianity originated as a proletarian movement? I don’t think so. During the lifetime of the apostle Paul, Christians met in the households of affluent women; Paul chastises the affluent Christians in Corinth for beginning the common meal without waiting for the workers to arrive. The better scholarship today sees a mixture of people from different social locations in the early churches.

I think this is a product of the different type of social organization that existed in 1st century Palestine and Rome. I would question whether it is appropriate for us to try to apply class distinctions that arise out of a modern capitalist form of social organization to a social organization in Palestine that was based on patronage and loyalty in extended familial networks.

Rome, for example, had legally defined classes. Slaves and freedmen were at the bottom of these social classes — yet either a slave or a freedman might be well educated, wealthy, and of high social status.

This is not to deny that the prophetic tradition in the Bible, and some of what gets recorded as teachings of Jesus, have subversive potential for the political economy. But how it was understood in Jesus’ day, or in the European Middle Ages, or in the rise of modernity, and how we understand that potential today, all depend on who we are in our historical context.

As examples, let me mention some of those Christian theologians you quote in your text. Walter Rauschenbusch, of Social Gospel fame, was a good “pie in the sky” Christian until he pastored a church in Hell’s Kitchen. Even then it took him several years to find a theological justification for arguing that the material wellbeing of people, not just their souls, is the church’s business.

Martin Luther King, Jr. read Rauschenbusch, but it was not until 1965 and his visit to Watts after the riot there that he realized that formal, legal racial equality did not touch, much less change, the material conditions of the residents of Watts —.something that Malcolm X knew from the get-go.

Paul Tillich considered himself a socialist all his life, but after writing The Socialist Decision in the early ‘30s in Germany, he came to the United States and never theologized about socialism again…and I might point out that the heroes of Christian liberation theologies, both here in the United States and globally, have been pretty blind when it comes to women’s equality, or the equality of gay, bisexual and transgendered persons.

I would turn to another question that you ask: can people who are themselves distorted by oppression create a just society? As you point out, it leads to a discussion of the concept in Christianity of social or structural sin. It leads to a discussion of the concept in Marx of the social formation of consciousness…All arrogance is misplaced. And yet we must take responsibility for shaping the society that shapes us.

So, yes, there are interpretations of Christianity that are quite welcoming to Marxist and democratic socialist projects. And there are mainstream positions in Christianity that socialists would, or should, find good enough for strategic partnering — especially the social justice writings in many mainstream denominations.

But whether the welcome flows in the opposite direction, I don’t know. Is there a place for the transcendent in Marxism?

ATC 128, May-June 2007