Revolutionary Emancipation and Religion

Religion and left revolution may seem like opposite ends of an insurmountable spectrum.  After all, today’s media reminds us constantly of religion’s intolerance regarding the lives of women and its various justifications for war whether it’s waging holy war or justifying imperial ones.  Realistically, though, religion is not always reactionary.  Indeed, if one looks at history, it has often been used to justify liberation and social justice.  From the revolutionary writings of Thomas Muntzer and the actions of his followers during the radical reformation of medieval Europe to Gustav Gutierrez and his Catholic theology of liberation, religion has proven its revolutionary possibilities.  Other historical examples include the words and actions of the slavery abolitionists in nineteenth century United States and the words and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights workers a century later.

Like Christianity, Islam has served as both a reactionary and revolutionary force in its history.  There are elements of this tradition that uphold ideals of economic justice and social revolution.  There are other elements that serve the wealthy and powerful.  The same can be said for every religion known to humanity.  To put it succinctly, the words of the prophets are subject to interpretation.  Indeed, it is this very aspect that has helped fuel everything from endless debates to brutal wars.

Like I noted before, religion can play a revolutionary role.  Jesus himself understood why the power elites of his time aligned themselves with the powerful religious leaders—the Scribes and Pharisees.  It was this understanding, in fact, that inspired him to overturn the tables and throw out the vendors in the Temple in Jerusalem when he was barely a teen.  Despite the revolutionary power of religion — something that one should expect given the often radical nature of various prophets’ pronouncements against their rich and powerful contemporaries — the historical fact is that when all is sorted out, religious forces usually end up on the side of power.

Karl Marx wrote that 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.”  With this in mind, along with the aforementioned anecdotal evidence of religion’s potentially revolutionary character and the prevalence of religion in so many people’s lives, it is important that non-religious folks understand why religion has the power it does.  Equally important for those working to effect some kind of social change is determining how to work with religious people similarly inclined. In the United States, those on the right wing side of things tend to talk believers into voting against their economic and political interests by manipulating their fears around issues of sexuality.  This manipulation, of course, is cynical at its core and essentially elitist.  If those of us on the Left want to engage religious people who believe in the social justice teachings of their religion, then it is essential to focus on the points we have in common with those beliefs.

I wrote back in 2006:

In short, we make god in our own image, no matter what form he or she may take and irrelevant as to whether or not one (or more) even exists. Yet, as implied at the beginning of this piece, skeptics would be foolish to ignore the power this concept holds over humanity and, even more importantly, the power that believers wield on the human stage.

Cornel West is a Christian who is also a radical leftist.  His approach to Christianity can perhaps be summed up by his own words:

To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.

His life has been spent opposing capitalism and its various manifestations, foremost among them racism and imperialism.  Most recently he was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri during a direct action protest against the police murder of Michael Brown.

Bob Avakian is an atheist who has been a leftist revolutionary since the 1960s.  His revolutionary faith rivals the religious faith of any religious person.  Indeed, one could argue that his belief in Marxist revolution surpasses religious faith in a nation where Marxism has never flourished at a tenth of the scale that religion has. A quote that represents his approach might be:

If you want to eliminate a problem or an evil, you must get to the root of it….. You cannot get rid of a poisonous plant and create something healthy in its place just by pulling off the top of the plant. You have to pull it up from the roots and then grow something completely different and change the soil too. That is what a radical solution is. Radical means having to do with the root. And this is why a real revolution is needed and this is what it’s all about.

Both men have spent their adult lives working for the emancipation of oppressed peoples. Both have been maligned and ridiculed.  Both have spent years thinking, talking and writing about the nature of human existence in the modern world. Their writings and lectures cover history, philosophy, and economics; spirituality, oppression and emancipation. Both continue their investigation to this moment. Equally important is that they not only engage in the intellectual challenge involved in such an investigation, they are also engaged in actions to change that existence. Their motivation is similar to the motivation of those dedicated to human emancipation throughout history. Although their understanding of the spiritual may be situated in different spheres, both place their ultimate faith in humanity.

On November 15, 2014, these two men will meet at the historic Riverside Church in New York City to discuss the revolutionary emancipation of humanity from capitalism and imperialism and the role religion might play.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.