Marx or the Light of Day: An Opening Salvo

Jose M. Tirado I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I December 2nd, 2013

"Religion is the opiate of the masses." - Karl Marx

"It is only through religion that communism can be achieved, and has been achieved over and over." - Dorothy Day

Traditionally, a salvo is a "simultaneous burst of fire" by several guns in a salute, or as a warning. I think this image appropriate for my first, introductory contribution as the Hampton Institute´s new Chair of the Spirituality & Religion Dept. because there are several areas I wish to focus on, to make this venture a successful one. And I want to announce it all at once, in a broadside of sorts, and as I write this today, Rosa Parks Day (Dec. 1), it seems as fitting a time as I can envision. Because it is a warning most of all.

But we have a choice.

First of all, I must say what a pleasure it is to be part of the Hampton Institute. Heaven knows we need places where, even if only in a cyber realm, groups of committed activists can explore with some depth the various issues facing us in this crucial period of humanity. But it is not enough to just talk about what is necessary or important in our present condition, this has been done for as long as troubles in our world have bothered people. We need a place where what is considered is not done away from the actual conditions of people, in some remote setting like so many traditional think tanks are situated. We need instead, a think tank for working people, a place where young and old alike can reflect and respond to the challenges of our time and then report back to our colleagues what we have collected. And it must be done in a spirit of comradeship. The Hampton Institute can play a significant role in such a task, and I hope to do my part to add to this discussion some reflections on the role religion and spirituality can play in the struggles ahead.

This is not a good time for those of us on the "religious left". Growing numbers of young people are abandoning what they feel is the intractability of familiar religious institutions, their inability to rise up with the times, "speaking Truth to power" so to speak, and thus there´s a gnawing sense of religion and spirituality´s irrelevance to the cause of radical change. The collective crises of our world: economic, social, political and environmental, all seem beyond the purview of traditional religious examination, of whatever faith. On the one hand, we see an escalation of fundamentalism and religious inflexibility, a dreaming of an old world of certainty. On the other, a growing movement of self declared atheists and a smaller number of those who might be characterized as militant atheists, aggressively campaigning against spiritual ideas and religions is growing and being highlighted among the major media. Religion and spirituality are being challenged to be part of the solution, or to step out of the way. And many people have lived their whole lives seeing that religion was more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

This has to change.

But it wasn´t always this way. Dorothy Day might have been a devout Catholic, but she was also a communist. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been a Baptist preacher, but he was a world-respected leader in the great fight for equality and social justice in the US. Malcolm X might have been a Muslim, becoming even more devout in the last years of his life, but he was a powerful figure in the struggle against imperialism and for Black empowerment. There are many such examples. But where are those voices now? This is one of my questions, and in the coming months, I hope to give voice to some of those people who are out there, by sharing their words, or possibly even in chats we publish here, fighting the good fight, and doing it from a deep conviction we could characterize as spiritual. People like Stan Goff, Matthew Fox, Jeannine Grammick, Robert Jensen, Vincent Harding, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Cornel West, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, are all people whose religious faith informs their activism to make our world better and whose voices should be heard.

While this is no time to lyrically bemoan a "death of God", we are seeing a turn away from religion and spiritual institutions whose value and purpose has come under question and whose ability to respond to the challenges remain in many ways weak, if at all. This is one area I think we need to look carefully at, not for any particular theoretical reasons, but because in the lives of so many workers around the world, religion and spirituality continue to form important aspects of their lives, even if the institutions traditionally charged with fostering them are found lacking in their ability to speak about social justice.

Another area we should look at is the historical failure of religious institutions to assist in the development of what Gramsci called the "organic intellectual". We don´t need graphs and charts to tell us that when institutions become too large, they lose contact with those on "the ground floor" so to speak, becoming disconnected not only from the real living needs of the people at the bottom, but often with their own ideals. Religious institutions are no exceptions and yet, I believe we can play a role in making these institutions more accountable to the people. But do they help people think for themselves, to reach their own conclusions and, by extension, to empower themselves and make the necessary changes to the world they live in? Or are they creating followers only? This too is an important issue I wish to explore here.

It is a glorious thing when people are empowered, and this feeling of empowerment is akin to a religious experience, a spiritual growth into the fullness of one´s humanity.

But people in the US are, by and large, not empowered these days, despite grand flickers of engagement around the world. These grand flickers are the slowly rising embers of an immense dissatisfaction with our present system and a terrible realization that great changes are needed if we are to survive. The anger on the streets of Greece, the frustration which ignited the Arab Spring, the wrenching nationwide disgust of the status quo throughout Egypt, Thailand, Iceland and elsewhere are all related, linking the peoples of the world with the realization that they will not "take it" any longer. And now, there is a Roman Catholic Pope who openly denounces the "tyranny of capitalism", one sure sign that our message, our concerns have traveled to some pretty significant places. "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems," he wrote.

"Rejecting", he wrote, not reforming.

Those of us on the religious Left have a special responsibility because, while we hold up ideals of meaning and universal "moral arcs" to a light greater than what we normally encounter in the material world, it is in the material world where our morality will be tested and it is therefore here in the material world we must find our voice and use it for the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised. But on the other side, we have "prosperity gospels" calling for Biblical justification of greed and wealth creation as a good in and of itself. This is a recipe for disaster and for rendering us even more irrelevant.

We have a long way to go.

I am hoping that with this little piece here, you all know that I won´t be afraid to examine religion and spirituality´s flaws when they defend the rich or advocate for the 1%, or play the role Marx famously described above. Nor will I shirk from praising those who fight for social justice and are on the streets struggling to bring some compassion into a world too filled with anger and violence and insatiable material consumption. Because Dorothy Day too, had a point. And what happens next is up to all of us who care which direction we head: towards being an opiate which poisons people as Marx observed, or a beacon of light from which an authentic communism, can arise.

I think we need a new way, a way out of these terrible economic and environmental crises we face, and a way in, into the hearts of those all around us, working to transform them into places where the evils of greed and rapacious violence will give way to decency, community and social comity.

It´s going to be a long haul, so let´s sit down, take a deep breath, and begin here, right where we are.