Without a Vision the People Perish
In times of crisis, society’s spiritual leaders step forward to address the defining moral issues of the day. This happened in nineteenth century America, when the abolitionist movement arose to challenge the slave power in the years leading up to the Civil War. It happened in the 1930s with movements like the Catholic Worker, in the 1960s with organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and it is happening today. But spiritual and religious groups do not speak with one voice. In fact, their ideas polarize along class lines.
A fundamental dislocation in the economy is causing the profound political, moral, and spiritual crises that we are experiencing today. Advanced labor-replacing technology is creating abundance capable of ending altogether the human competition for material necessities. But powerful economic interests are doing everything they can to block this from happening. The result is deepening social displacement, escalating wars, environmental destruction, unemployment, and poverty. A sharp antagonism is breaking out between the owners of private property and large, increasingly desperate sections of the working class. This is reflected in the intense spiritual crisis that is step by step gripping America and the entire world.
One section of the spiritual community responds to the suffering by speaking up for the status quo, for the government, the rights of property and the privileged. It defends the political measures necessary to protect them, even up to and including a fascist dictatorship. It parrots the corporate agenda and preaches sacrifice, austerity, and obedience. A group that calls itself the Presidential Prayer Team, for example, urges us to pray for cutting regulation and taxes, repealing Obamacare, strict enforcement of America’s immigration laws, building up America’s military and punishing those who “leak” information to the news media.
Another section of the spiritual community responds to the suffering by emerging as a “moral movement” that aligns itself with the workers, the outcasts, the poor, the immigrants, the sick and incarcerated. In the past, this section spoke for the slave in the battle for emancipation. Today it speaks for the millions of Americans of all colors, who make up our working class, especially those dispossessed by the automation of the economy. It strives to practice the ancient religious values of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, without favoritism toward those with temporal power or position. Benjamin Franklin famously summed up its spirit when he said, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Spirituality and Social Revolution
Revolutionaries have long understood that society cannot move forward without the organizing, mobilizing and transforming power of new ideas. In times of social revolution like today, our battles take place in the complex realm of social, political, and intellectual currents that make up our social lives. Spirituality and religion are therefore at the heart of our campaign for the new world that is struggling to be born. Spirituality and religion have historically been the areas where the vision and morality of society are worked out. There can be no revolutionary movement without a moral vision of the new society that is fighting to be born.
For that very reason, these are the identical arenas used by the ruling class in its desperate attempt to retard, divert, and block the revolutionary movement at every step of its development. In recent years, religion has increasingly been used as a “wedge issue” to divide and debilitate the working class movement.
As long as society continues to be divided into classes, neither the ruling class nor the working class can or will retreat from the spiritual and religious arena. In the 1970s, as part of a counteroffensive to shore up capitalist ideology, the ruling class made major new investments in religious organizations and movements, both in the US and overseas. Groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition became significant players supporting ruling class political agendas both domestically and internationally. The government and CIA stepped up their active cultivation of reactionary leadership in the Catholic Church and deepened relationships with Islamic fundamentalist organizations in Iran, Afghanistan, and across the globe.
The working class has been compelled to resist these developments. The only way to fight religious ideas is with other religious ideas, by “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Modern religions all arose from freedom movements, like the historic deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from the oppression of Pharaoh. But religions repeatedly became corrupted when kings and entire ruling classes co-opted them and began transforming them for the uses of power and privilege.
The Biblical teaching that “the poor will always be with us” for example, has been twisted from its original meaning, “to always be generous and openhanded,” to one that justifies exploitation and misery by claiming that nothing can be done about poverty, so it is useless to try. Martin Luther King Jr. rebuked this interpretation when he explained, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
Ideas that appear moral in one context can become immoral in another, if they are not correctly applied. A good example of this is the old Biblical admonition that says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” The origin and spirit of this rule was that in a cooperative, religious community, each person should contribute according to his or her ability. In class societies it was manipulated and distorted to justify one or another form of forced labor. Capitalists used it to advocate starving the poor to force them to work for lower wages. In our modern high technology society it makes no sense at all, since the automated forces of production increasingly mean that all of humanity can eat with virtually no labor expended. As a result, this scripture is now being distorted to justify the system’s abandonment and impoverishment of millions, who have no access whatsoever to land or means of production and therefore are physically denied the ability to work at all.
In American history in particular, religious revolutionaries were absolutely instrumental in the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist movement, the cooperative movement, and the great agrarian and labor movements of the nineteenth century, as well as the labor and civil rights struggles of the twentieth century. Most recently, we have all witnessed the indispensable role of spirituality in the movement of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.
Because we are in a period of social revolution, the antagonism between workers and owners is creating tens of thousands of revolutionaries from all walks of life and all religious and spiritual traditions. When people experience climate change, endless war and the millions being cast into destitution, they question old ideas that would attempt to justify or rationalize such misery in the midst of such abundance. Their conscience does not allow them to pretend to love the people they minister to, if they do not challenge the cause of their suffering. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” wrote King. “It understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” People become practical revolutionaries.
This overarching economic crisis makes it both possible and necessary to break with the religious and political sectarianisms of the past. By driving the masses into poverty, the brokenness of the capitalist system necessarily creates these practical revolutionaries, where earlier periods of economic expansion did not.
By uniting around immediate demands of the people, the most successful efforts have learned to mix and balance spirituality and politics without allowing either to narrow the scope or effectiveness of the movement as a whole. The Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, for example, learned how to organize through churches to advance practical issues, while at the same time not limit their reach or appeal to churches alone, but extend it to the community at large. It practices what it calls “fusion politics” in a deliberate effort to organize across boundary lines of color, religion or political background. Many “faith collaboratives” are arising all around the country to address the issues of expanding homelessness.
Role of Revolutionaries
During this current period of political formation of the newly dispossessed, the role of revolutionaries is to join and assist in the gathering of the scattered revolutionaries on the basis of the people’s demands for the necessities of life. Religious revolutionaries play a key role in this process because of their articulate leadership, deep influence, and connections among the organized faithful masses.
Part of their role is to keep the movement on course. America has built an entire structure of “loyal opposition” organizations that are allowed to enjoy funding and social status, as long as they do not question the fundamental structure of the economy and the government. As Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” But true religion calls its adherents to obey God rather than human beings.
Within the battle for basic necessities, revolutionaries always point out how a cooperative economy can definitively address the spreading poverty and economic injustice, making it both necessary and possible. A cooperative economy can use the same technology that is today destroying our lives to provide abundance for all. Housing and other basic necessities can be transformed from commodities traded for profit, into goods distributed on the basis of each person’s need.
Being true to our calling means working to make that cooperative society a reality. This requires political education and organization of the workers, while participating in a politicization process that moves beyond charity and beyond incremental reform. It means getting involved in the complex and impure political battles necessary to challenge power. Above all it means using our spiritual training and expertise to shape the culture, to create the vision of the kind of society that our deepest aspirations call on us to build.
May/June 2017 Vol27.Ed3
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011