by Matt Bernico
Cover image: A mural of slain liberation theologist Archbishop Óscar Romero.
Last year, religion journalist Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons suggested: “Christianity’s future looks more like Lady Gaga than Mike Pence.” Set aside what you think about that claim for now. In the beginning, Graves-Fitzsimmons asks his readers, “What type of Christian are you?” Are you the Lady Gaga kind of Christian? The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez type? The Pete Buttigieg type? Are you like the Apostle Paul? Or do you follow Christ?
A recent uptick in the publication of articles on the religious left has ordained a growing litany of contemporary saints, all competing to be a preferable “type” of Christian. To cite just a few examples, in Mayor Pete has been routinely interviewed about his progressive faith, Joe Biden authored a special piece about the “soul of the nation” for the Religious News Service, and a Catholic Worker extols Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s articulation of faith. Each of these articles takes care to elaborate that the right doesn’t own Christianity and argues that these more center-left figures are better models for the progressive faithful. The churn of this election’s media cycle has fashioned these politicians into religious leaders for the U.S. left. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul warned about these kinds of divisions. Paul’s advice was that at the bottom of Christianity is Jesus, so that’s who Christians ought to pay attention to.
No offense to Paul, but this is a rather unhelpful bit of advice in the contemporary moment. Untangling the means by which religious folks interpret and understand their faith, and how that informs their politics, is actually rather tricky. It is hard to apply a book as historically complex as the Bible and a tradition as divergent as that of Christianity to political policy. Faith is an intimate matter, and regardless of the legal separation of church and state, it can be a powerful force behind one’s political will. Though, what exactly that looks like is rather plastic.
For some, faith-motivated politics looks like far-right evangelical Christianity. Others find ways to go to church every Sunday while remaining unconcerned about drone-striking children in the Middle East. Others yet interpret the faithful life as giving it all up to join the guerillas. Because of all of this, it’s helpful to look to some modern-day saints to light the way. Many of the recent articles on the religious left frame the progressive and political interpretations of Christianity as something new and emergent, but there are many past and present leftist interpretations of Christianity, and they’re more radical than anything Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could imagine; this litany of contemporary “religious left” saints needs some reworking. Journalism has the power to shape and limit what can be imagined politically through the construction of a discourse. If the scope of reporting on the religious left limits the expressions of the left to progressive-ish politicians, it forecloses on certain political possibilities.
Beyond contemporary journalism, there are some deeper historical assumptions about religion and the left that can limit political imagination. There’s a common assumption that the left is broadly anti-religious and has historically persecuted its practitioners. It’s no secret that many on the left are atheists who thought that religion would eventually just peter out in the light of scientific socialism. For some, like Lenin, religious belief itself was a personal matter. Lenin thought that while it was worth agitating against religion, it shouldn’t be done in a way that would divide the party.
It’s also true that socialist and communist projects have often taken up adversarial roles against Christians as well as other religions. However, this persecution at times had a lot more to do with connections between Christianity and the imperialism of the United States than the particularity of Christian metaphysics. In a contemporary example, an article in the Cuban Communist Party’s Granma explains the economic connection between ECHO-Cuba, a humanitarian initiative that also trains and supports Protestant churches in Cuba, and their funders in the United States Agency for International Development,. The goal, according to Granma, is to adjust the opinions of Cuban Protestants against socialism. Historically, Christians have often played the role of spiritual structural adjusters in revolutionary countries.
The tension between socialism and Christianity is real, yet many Christians have lifted up and taken part in these leftist political projects. To say that the history between Christians and the left is complicated is an understatement. It’s for these reasons that a reevaluation of this relationship is important. To offer an alternative to the standard religious left discourse, here are three examples of Christians who expressed their faith through radical politics.
It helps to start with a short explanation of what Christianity is about, or at least what it can be about. Christianity has proven to be a flexible religion that politicians and activists of all kinds have used to provide a rhetorical and ethical backing for political projects. At its best, Christianity is a religion built on love. In the Gospel of Mark, a lawyer comes to Jesus and gives him a religious litmus test. The lawyer asks which of God’s commandments is the most important. In response, Jesus says, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Beyond the love for one’s neighbor, the Christian tradition expresses an explicit preference for the poor. In the Hebrew Bible, a writer of a psalm hopes that God will save the poor and “crush the oppressor” (Psalms 72:4). In the opening of the Gospel of Matthew, Mary, the mother of Jesus, foretells that Jesus will “lift up the lowly and cast the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). Christianity is a religion built on love, but the specific character of that love comes down on the side of the downtrodden. While these verses are instructive, they do not specify what this love can mean in practice. Many of the progressive Christians of the contemporary religious left often come to lacking, if not completely wrong-headed, conclusions about how to love their neighbor through political policy. Instead of caring for the poor unconditionally, they would offer loaves and fish only after means-testing.
By contrast, consider the example of Camillo Torres Restrepo, a socialist Catholic priest who sacrificed his status and, eventually, his life to side with the oppressed in Colombia. Torres famously said:
For Love to be real it must seek to be effective. If kindness, alms, the few free schools, the few housing plans, so-called “charity,” do not feed the majority of the hungry, or clothe the majority of the naked, or teach the majority of the uneducated, we must seek effective means for achieving the well-being of the majorities.
For Torres and many others, including famed El Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, expression of true faith meant advocacy for a revolutionary reorientation of society. If charity couldn’t feed the hungry, then the only choice was a more radical option. This expression of Torres’s “efficacious love” often put him at odds with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Eventually, these tensions lead to his resignation from the priesthood and his taking up arms with the guerillas in the ELN in 1965. In his letter of resignation, Torres explains:
I chose Christianity because I believed it to be the purest way of serving my neighbor… I believe that the revolutionary struggle is a Christian struggle, and a priestly one. Indeed, in the present specific conditions of Colombia, participation in that struggle is the only way men can show love for their neighbors as they should.
Not satisfied with reforms or charity, Torres took up arms on the side of the poor whom he’d seen oppressed in Colombia for so long. Only a year later, Torres died in his first armed conflict.
While Torres lost his life in the struggle, his political and religious example would transform into some of the motivating energy behind what’s known as Liberation Theology. This movement, which followed Torres’s death, drew from many of the themes from his life. In 1972, Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote A Theology of Liberation, a book that would set the course for a great deal of 20th and 21st-century theology. Broadly, it merged sociological analysis with class-conscious solidarity and love for the poor. Like Torres, Gutiérrez looked for the ways in which sin could manifest through social and economic structures and recognized the necessity of political action in Christian theology. Over time, Liberation Theology became more than a Latin American phenomenon and gained currency in Christian thought worldwide.
Representing the left wing of the Democratic Party, politicians like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are strong proponents of what they call a “Green New Deal.” As a potential political policy, it’s a good start, but some Christian activists have taken a more radical approach to the threat of environmental catastrophe. The righteousness of taking up arms, like Torres, has always been a point of contention for Christians on the left, and armed struggle is of course not the only means by which Christians have resisted evil and practiced the Christian call to love. On February 4th, 2019, four Catholic Workers, an affiliation of Christian activists dedicated to living “in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ,” carried out a direct action at an Enbridge Energy valve site in Minnesota. Their goal was to disrupt the flow of oil being transported via pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Wisconsin.
After cutting the lock on the gate to the pipeline, the four called the police, ordering the authorities to shut down the pipelines remotely, or they would manually shut them down. They ended up closing the valves themselves, after which the police arrived and arrested them. The group is currently facing a felony charge for ostensible destruction of property.
A short essay in Geez Magazine by Brenna Cussen Anglada, one of the Catholic Workers responsible, cites that the valve turners found inspiration in several similar direct actions by Catholic Workers and First Nations activists. Cussen’s essay points out that there is a connection between the ecocide of climate change and the genocide of colonization. “[W]e have come late to the game of having to face an ‘imminent threat’ to our world. We know that many have already experienced an end to theirs. We hope, therefore, that this act can be a step towards reparations for the damage that colonization has done to the Indigenous peoples of this continent and to the land.”
All Cops are Apostates
In July of 2018, the U.S. left was mobilizing direct actions against ICE and their deportation regime. During the occupation of an ICE facility in Philadelphia, The Friendly Fire Collective, a recently dissolved cadre of Christians, Quakers, and other religious folks, unfurled a banner that read “ALL COPS ARE APOSTATES.” Friendly Fire has a history of making radical faith-driven interventions in the Philadelphia area. Reflecting on their eviction from the encampment by the police, one of the members of the collective writes:
Bike cops began pushing forward. Officers kicked us as they stepped over to arrest us. I had a rosary in my hands. I was praying to Mary, the Mother of Liberation, as officers forced my hands behind my back. I heard them screaming, “She has a rosary! She has a rosary!” I felt them rip it from my hands. They broke it, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it in front of me. I continued to pray as they dragged me through the street… I thought of the thousands of immigrants whose rosaries were taken from them as they crossed the border. I thought of the children who cry every night begging for their parents. I thought of Christ being violently arrested and beaten. And I considered myself blessed to share in his wounds.
In this reflection, Christianity is more than just a religious conviction or an ethical signpost. Rather, it is a vivid way to relate to and be in solidarity with those that Jesus called “the least of these.”
Drawing From A Deeper Well
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons asks the question, “What kind of Christian are you?”—and that’s the right question to ask. Yet the typical answers draw from too shallow of a well. Churchgoing Democrats are far from the only Christians who have articulated a connection between their faith and their left-leaning politics. In a limited sense, the impulse behind contemporary journalism on the religious left is a good one. It’s true that right-wing Christians don’t deserve the media attention that they get, and focusing on more progressive angles to Christianity and politics makes sense in the broader media landscape. After all, readers want to know more about high-profile politicians and activists. But viewed in relief with more radical examples, it’s clear that Mayor Pete, Joe Biden, and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t cut it as the patron saints of the “religious left.” Moreover, their three personal vignettes of faith represent only an infinitesimal fraction of the story of a radical Christianity full of rebellious clergy and revolutionary laypeople.
The stories of saints, Christian or secular, are important because they inform the imaginations of future expressions of faith and activism. Saints give guidance and direction through the examples of their lives, and the religious left, if there is such a thing outside the media discourse, shouldn’t short-change itself by accepting bourgeois politicians as its representatives. Instead, we must draw from a deeper well and demand better from the journalists and others who frame the stories that link Christianity and politics. Left-leaning Christians should learn from the examples of those who made the love of Christianity efficacious as opposed to those who pay it mere lip service. Reclaiming the monopoly over religious discourse from the Christian Right will help the faithful and unfaithful alike articulate their place in the broader moral tradition and negotiate how to live life congruent with their values. ♦
Matt Bernico is an independent researcher and journalist. He has a Ph.D. in Media Communication from the European Graduate School. His primary research interests are at the intersections of religion, politics, and technology. You can hear more of his work on religion on the podcast he cohosts, The Magnificast.