How Christianity Created Marxism

29940916I didn’t anticipate writing more about Marx beyond my comments last week about how despite being an avowed critic of religion, Marx has had profound impacts on Christianity, but here we are because I couldn’t help notice some parallels between the Europe of Marx’s time and the America of ours.

In honor of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, I’m reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion.

As a philosophical biography, Stedman Jones’ work is focused beyond just the nuts-and-bolts info of Marx’s life; instead, he takes pains to paint the social and philosophical context into which Marx was born and raised. This is very helpful, as no one thinks in a vacuum, and if we are to understand Marx and what he believed, we should also understand the currents into which he was born.

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How Marx Changed Christianity

Image result for marx religious iconSaturday was the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, occasioning a slew of think pieces and hot takes (he was a genius! he was a monster!) – but here’s one that rarely gets made: Marx, that notorious skeptic of religion, was arguably one of the most influential figures in shaping 20th century Christianity.

On the one hand, this is obvious – Marx’s influence on world history generally is hard to overstate, and to the extent that Christianity partakes in world history, it must also have been influenced by Marx. Likewise, because so much of American Christianity, especially the fundamentalist and evangelical strains, embraced anti-communism, Marx obviously exerted a significant, albeit negative influence in the development of those traditions.

But I mean something more specific, and more positive – that Marx’s critique of capitalism’s inherent depredations and his yearning for a better, more just society shaped at least two significant Christian movements in the 20th century.

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Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

Book listFor the past few years, I’ve been posting quarterly updates of what I’ve been reading on Facebook with little two- or three-sentence reviews of what I thought. And now I transliterate it here, so that the five people who read me on my Facebook page can see the same post on my blog! It’s called cross-promotion or something. Deal with it. (Links go to my typically more in-depth Goodreads reviews.)

1. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956) – This retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid is quite good. It gave me a whole new respect for Lewis as a writer of more than “just” children’s fantasy and Christian apologetics. If you liked Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, you should give this a read because it’s better. *ducks*

2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017) – Easily one of the best novels of 2017, if not the entire decade, if not this generation. Everyone should read it. Everyone.

Continue reading Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy

When Billy Graham was born in 1918, American Christianity was engaged in something of a civil war between Fundamentalists and modernists.

As Christians, mainly in colleges and big-city churches, increasingly accepted scientific explanations for the origins of life and accordingly changed the way they viewed the creation and transmission of the Bible, they were subjected by conservatives within their denominations to heresy trials, sometimes successfully ousted from positions of leadership.

That division was memorably described by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famed pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York City, who in 1922 – when Graham was a toddler – delivered his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Their apparent intention,” Fosdick declared, “is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions.”

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The Power of Fear in Politics

The other night, I went to a local candidate forum organized by the various Republican Party groups in the county where I live. It featured people running for offices from justice of the peace all the way up to U.S. senator.

Where I live in Central Texas, the Republican primary functions as the general election for local races. Even this year, in what seems to be shaping up as a big election for Democrats, the chances are minuscule that any of the small handful of Democrats running for county-level races will win any of them.

The ideological hegemony here is smothering. In November 2016, the least-supported Republican in any race on the ballot received 63 percent of the vote. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here by 50 points.

Meanwhile, the county sits within various districts that also are overwhelmingly Republican. In the Texas Legislature, it’s part of the 73rd House District, where no Democrats were on the ballot in 2016, and the 25th Senate District, where the incumbent, a hard-core Tea Party conservative, won re-election in 2014 with more than 76 percent of the vote. On the federal level, infamous climate-change denier Lamar Smith has represented the bulk of the county for three decades, defeating his Democratic challenger in the county by 60 points.

The point is: This is a conservative county in a conservative state. Republicans have nothing to fear here.

Which is pretty much the opposite of the message several hundred attendees heard at this forum.

Instead, they were told they should in fact be quite afraid.

Continue reading The Power of Fear in Politics

Alabama and the Power of the Vote

Capture

Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.

Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.

War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.

At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.

For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.

Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.

They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.

By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Why the Government Shutdown Makes Me So Mad

1_photoI think about health care a lot. We are blessed with three healthy children – but not so healthy that there haven’t been scares and emergencies. We’ve been to the hospital at least once with each child in the last five years, not to mention the hospital visits to actually give birth.

So I think about health care a lot. Because many families are not as lucky as we have been. Their children need many more hospital visits, or round-the-clock care, or expensive medication taken every day. And that’s expensive, more than they can afford.

Continue reading Why the Government Shutdown Makes Me So Mad