Guest Columnist #79 - Jim

    I grew up in a very, very right wing family.  I mean, they just had all their bases covered: racist, sexist, homophobic, they were even anti-semitic!  "Geez, mom, didn't anti-semitism go out of style even for bigots?"  The were also Christians.  Being raised in such a home gave me a lifetime of work to do deprogramming myself.  But I never, even when I was little, believed in the god stuff.  It just seemed too ridiculous for words--- my Christmas presents gave me at least some conflicting rational evidence of a deity named Santa Claus.  But god?  No way.  Then, as now, I was an agnostic.  I do not believe in god.
    After I got into punk in the mid-90s, my lack of religion took on a different tone.  What started as a personal spiritual decision of agnosticism, now became political too--- part of a bigger refusal of a world run on hate and hypocrisy.  All those great punk bands, coming out of the dark days of the 80s, had at least one great anti-religious song. ìAll religions make me sick, all religions make me want to throw up!î  My favorite was Blasphemy, by Cringer. 
    But punk, then as now, was a mixture of rebellion and elitism.  After refusing to participate in the fucked up ideas and institutions of mainstream culture, it was a natural step to also considering myself better than anyone who did.  With respect to religion, this manifested itself in a lasting attitude of superiority towards anyone in the world who wasn’t irreligious like me.  They were the mindless fools led by idiotic myths, basically sheep.  Actually, what with the animal-rights movement and all, I think us punks probably had more respect for actual sheep than for muslims or christians.
    In recent years, however, as I go to less and less shows and find myself more and more immersed in the mainstream world I once considered myself so superior to, I’ve been forced to get rid of the snob act.  Many people of faith, especially in the realm of radical politics, have with their actions proven to me that I have no reason to snicker about what lies in their heart.  For instance, when I moved here to Richmond, VA, I met anarchist Catholic Workers who had served jail time for sabotaging a bomber during the first Gulf War.  And a Christian anarcha-feminist who was in training to become a Methodist preacher, who *did* more organizing than all the punks in town put together.  Then I found myself meeting Jewish folks who saw resisting the occupation of Palestine as central to their faith, and Muslim organizations and Mosques under bigoted attack who were still fighting US imperialism in the middle east.  It seemed like the more I got out of my punk anarchist clique, the more I found people of all religious faiths acting in line with the revolutionary ideals that first attracted me to punk (and atheism!).  It didn’t make me want to be religious (or give up my roots in punk culture), but it convinced me that my bullshit attitude against religious people had to go.
    The biggest event that convinced me of this was when one Sunday I went to see my anarcha-feminist friend preach, in the black Methodist church in Richmond’s East End where she works.  It was a Sunday, which is usually Food Not Bombs day here in Richmond.  The experience at the church was honestly great, I’d describe it with the Onion’s headline ìSoulful Gospel Choir Makes Area Man Almost Wish He Believed In That God Bullshitî; an opportunity for me to see an ordinary working-class community of color come together to rejoice and reflect on values like redemption, peace, and resistance.  It was so good that in the end I didn’t even mind having to wake up early hung over and wear itchy pants and a nice shirt, to be welcomed as a guest in another community’s social and religious life.  ìIf us anarchists were half as friendly, or could sing half as good, the revolution would be here already!î I thought.
    I got to Food Not Bombs late that day, and knew people would be asking about my nice clothes, and I was so excited to shock my friends by saying I’d been ìin Churchî.  But what I got was a taste of my own medicine--- more than half the folks I told treated me the way I’d always treated religious people, with disdain, condescension, or disgust.  In fact, the reason I decided to write about this for Slug and Lettuce is that this paper’s awesome editor, Chris, who’d always been supportive of any crazy political thing I was getting involved in, immediately seemed suspicious and put off by me going to church.
    I realized that if our punk culture’s attitudes towards someone going to church, even from as kind and down-to-earth a person as Chris, were this alienating, imagine how elitist and snobby *I* must have always acted in my life towards religious folks. This experience forced me to reflect deeper on exactly why I’d rejected religion, and figure out to what extent those reasons should or shouldn’t mean still respecting the beliefs of people who were religious themselves.
    Now, the big reason that I think us punks dislike religion is fairly obvious--- because religions have done SO INCREDIBLY MANY FUCKED UP THINGS!!  This point can’t be overstated.  Much of the history of human civilization is the history of religions being used to justify and promote any and every kind of fucked up thing people have ever done to each other.  In the past millennium, this has especially been the story of Christianity being used to extend colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism over the entire world, with consequences too horrible to ever fully list. 
    A lot of punks, me included, experienced some of this on a personal level--- growing up in conservative or fundamentalist families or communities.  Being queer-bashed by god-fearing homophobes, indoctrinated with hate and repression in a church, abused at home as part of a 'good Christian education'.  A lot of my personal disgust at religions was an understandable reaction to the personal pain oppressive their institutions have caused me and the world in general.  Looking back over this history of oppression and religion, I want to emphasize something that can be a bit complicated: maintaining a basic respect for a religious person's choice of faith NEVER has to entail respecting oppression.  
    Closely reading this history of the use of religion by oppressors, however, sheds light on another tendency.  In every setting where religion has been used as a form of social control, different interpretations or uses of religion have emerged to contest that control--- this radical religious tradition is generally now called ìLiberation Theology.î  This conflict, between religion of oppression and religion of liberation, has been a ceaseless one, an integral part of countless social struggles and revolutionary movements--- at times becoming battles for control of churches and religions themselves.
    There are too many examples of this to list, but perhaps giving a few will give us a sense of their breadth and range. The place where I live and this zine is produced, Richmond VA, was founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans for the profit of a small cotton planting elite.  But increasing numbers of slaves appropriated ideals of Jeffersonian democracy and Christian equality, eventually leading to the planned slave revolt called Gabriel’s Rebellion (which, if it had not been crushed by bad luck and informants, would have been the largest slave revolt in north America).  Also in the southern US, but a different time period: during the Great Depression, when the US was wracked by labor militancy and threatened with revolution, the impoverished and historically racially divided poor cotton sharecroppers of the Deep South gave birth to the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union--- a multiracial, Christian, revolutionary mass movement of cotton farmers who nearly brought down the powers that be in the most conservative part of America.  And, for one last southern example, hopefully no one has forgotten that just forty years ago a network of black churches across the southern US turned itself into a mass civil rights movement, fighting first to overturn Jim Crow racist terror and segregation, and then giving birth to and influencing the other radical social movements of the 1960s.
    The incredible thing is that the unjust social conditions of the southern US are a direct result of the history of religion there!  European conquest, indigenous genocide, male supremacy, capitalist exploitation and African slavery were all actively promoted by the Christian church there throughout history.  This is the great irony of history--- rulers' structures of oppression create contradictions they cannot resolve, leading to their own ideologies and religions being taken up by and used against them. 
    Latin America is a similar story.  There, the Catholic church was an integral part of Spanish conquest and genocide of indigenous nations, and continued to legitimize and profit from injustice and exploitation there for the proceeding 500 years.  But wouldn’t you know it--- in the 60s, so many catholics and priests became revolutionaries in there, that radical Christians played central roles in literally every social movement and revolution since!  In fact, much of the philosophy of liberation theology (even the word itself) originally comes out of the radical Latin American church.  Many of the original organizers of what became the Zapatistas in Mexico were radical priests scattered throughout the state of Chiapas, angered at the poverty there and convinced armed struggle against those conditions would be ‘legitimate violence’.  In Brazil, the Landless Movement, which is the largest radical social movement in the hemisphere, was largely initiated by Brazilian radical Christians (to this day, a majority of it’s 800,000 member-families families identify as Christian and socialist).   
    Liberation religion is not just a christian tradition either; far from it.  From groups like the People's Mujaheddin in the Iranian revolution to today's Progressive Muslim Network and anti-imperialist movements, Islam (which will soon outpace Christianity as the largest religion in the world) has it's own radical history (sure to grow now that the US is embarking on vicious colonial adventures against much of the Muslim world).  And Buddhists consistently played a part in national liberation struggles in southeast Asia and in today's peace movement as well.  Almost any religion which becomes embedded in the social fabric of our world eventually finds itself politicized in some way.
    So why do I write all this?  To convert you?  Hell no.  I am, and will remain, an atheist.  But I realize I've been a real snot to religious people for years.  And my actions, in part, came out of the fact that our punk culture has a really good and healthy criticism of religion's long history of oppression.  What I am saying, is that we as a community would be better off also recognizing the long and presently continuing tradition of liberation theology and revolutionary religion; it would help us, in our social justice goals, be more relevant and in-touch with the billions of people in this world who do have religious faith.  Our arguments against oppressive aspects of religions will carry more weight when backed up by a starting point of respect for that most personal of decisions, faith.  Punk's tradition of elitism is a bad one, and one we should get rid of.  Respect for other communities' religious beliefs is a good place to start. 
    Blasphemy is still one hell of a good song though. 
—jimstraub@riseup.net