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Can the church become a force for justice in this world?

You can’t say ‘hereafter’ without saying ‘here’

The role of faith in our nation’s politics and governance has long been contested, even though the separation between church and state is a founding principle. In practice, the two, religion and governance, have always been intertwined. We might want to explore what that means by asking what we would be doing if we were a “Christian nation.” And then to contrast that with the direction that religion has prescribed for us.

Pro-life rally at the state capitol in Olympia. Photo by Paul Peck

Fredrick Douglass wrestled with this question in 1852, in an eloquent address entitled “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” In that speech, Douglass names the many accomplishments and values of the founders of the country; and then poses his challenge: how can he, a former slave, celebrate anything when the very principles and practices that are being celebrated have been deliberatly designed to rob him and other African Americans of their rights?

Douglass makes clear the complicity of the Christian church in maintaining unjust and racist structures. Douglass was speaking two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. That act obliterated the Mason-Dixon line, Douglass said:

…New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity.

My experience with American Christianity introduced me to political awareness when I attended the Quaker meeting in Ann Arbor, MI, in the early 1980s. In Ann Arbor I met individuals whose spiritual commitments as Quakers were connected in material ways to civic and political practice through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Their faith-based activism oriented towards social justice might have given Fredrick Douglass reason to amend his condemnation to some degree. In fact in the past activism had earned Quakers and others the label of “communist sympathizers.”

Since its origins in 1917, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has come under attack by conservatives, particularly but not exclusively during the Cold War when AFSC advocated for de-escalating tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.

AFSC has challenged the Department of Defense and the US Patriot Act for infringing on civil liberties. More recently, the AFSC has helped to establish the Bill of Rights Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for teachers and students about the Bill of Rights.

Communism and Christianity: MLK’s view

In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr gave speech called “Can a Christian be a Communist?” In the first half of the speech, King explained why communism and Christianity are incompatible. In essence, King said, “Karl Marx was a materialist, and he believed that the whole of human history moved on, driven by economic forces. This was his idea. There was no place in that system for God, and so from that moment on, communism became an atheistic system.”

And yet, King continues, there is something in communism “which challenges us all” because it emphasizes essential truths.

According to King, communism should challenge Christians to become more concerned about social justice. He explained to his listeners that the Communist Manifesto, published in 1847 by Marx and Engels, emphasized the exploitation of the lower class by the middle class, and that communism sought to transcend the superficialities of race and color. King also suggested Marx drew on religious teachings to inform his thinking:

Karl Marx was born a Jew in a rabbinic family. Somewhere along the way as a child, he must have heard his parents reading the words of Amos: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Then, when he was six years old, his parents became Christians, and somewhere along the way he must have heard them reading over the New Testament: ‘Ye do it unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.’”

King reminds his audience that “Christians are always to begin with a bias in favor of a movement which protests against unfair treatment of the poor” and in that way, Communism is not compatible with Christianity. But if Christianity fails to accomplish its mission, communism may be the necessary corrective. Echoing Fredrick Douglass’s critique of American Christianity, King tells his congregation:

“We must admit that we, as Christians have often lagged behind at this point. Slavery could not have existed in the United States for almost 250 years if the church had really taken a stand against it. Segregation could not exist today in the United States if the church took a stand against it.”

A high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds

For King, as for Douglass, to the extent that American Christianity serves the status quo, it’s a lie. King characterizes the church as having a “high blood pressure of creeds” and an “anemia of deeds” saying that this is the tragedy facing us today. Yet, when church-based groups attempt to challenge the status quo and its anemia of deeds, they risk being labelled as non-Christian at best, communist at worst.

JustFaith as a case in point

I participated in a JustFaith group hosted by St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Olympia about ten years ago. As the JustFaith website puts it, “JustFaith is an intensive, small-group process for faithful Christians looking to deepen their commitment to care for vulnerable people and our planet.”

The three components of the curriculum are caring for the poor, caring for each other, and caring for the earth. Each section has diverse readings, and discussions include seminars, reflections, and community-based actions. It’s as if it’s a program aimed at rectifying the wrongs King pointed out when he said, “this is what we’ve done to Christ. We robbed him of his good name. And we’ve identified that name with segregation. We’ve identified that name with exploitation and with oppression and with so many of the evils of history.”
The JustFaith curriculum is designed to help participants understand the forms and the causes of oppression and injustice. Paradoxically, according to its critics, that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. Writing for CatholicCulture.org, William A. Borst critiques JustFaith because it is designed to “stress more the divisive needs to reveal class antagonisms and to restructure society along Marxist lines.” In other words, Christians are better off sticking to dogma, and not to deeds.

Christian is a euphemism for what?

Donald Trump invokes the US as “a nation of true believers” and cites the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase “under God” as evidence that this has always been so. Trump and Borst, critic of JustFaith, are united in their belief that the right of private ownership is inscribed in dogma, and the government’s role is to protect that right fiercely, not withstanding the claims of justice and the evil of injustice.

Douglass, King, and current groups like JustFaith and the Poor People’s Campaign are driven by a different interpretation of dogma. As King put it, in his inimitable cadence, in 1962:

This is why Karl Marx one day looked out, and this is why others following him have looked out and decided to say, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” It has too often been the opiate of the people. Too often the churches talk about a future good over yonder and not concerned about the present evil over here. …But I’m tired of people telling me about the hereafter and they don’t tell me about the here. (Yeah) You can’t say hereafter (Yeah) without saying here….It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey over yonder, but I want to see men living in decent homes right here in this world. (Amen) It’s all right to talk about all of these things in terms of a new Jerusalem, but I want to see a new Atlanta, a new New York, a new America, and a new world right here. (Amen)

Or as Douglass put it over 150 years ago:

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty,.. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that ‘pure and undefiled religion’ which is from above, and which is ‘first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.’ But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.”

Emily Lardner lives in Grays Harbor and is a member of the WIP Publishing Committee.

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