Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

American Democratic Socialist Heroes

Yes, I’ve learned from Karl Marx.  Though never considering myself any kind of doctrinaire Marxist, I find Marx’s critique of Capital unanswerable, especially the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  I’ve learned from heterodox, creative Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (escpecially Habermas), British Fabians and others.  But when I call myself a democratic socialist and think of myself as standing in the democratic socialist tradition of struggle for economic democracy to complement political democracy and for a free, non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist, ecologically sound, non-heterosexist society, it is primarily the home-grown American socialist heroes and heroines of whom I think.  Below are a few that have been especially influential and inspiring to me.  There is no order in the listing except who I think of first, etc.

  • Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).  A prominent labor leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his youth, Debs founded the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) (1905).  He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket, winning millions of votes, though never a single electoral vote. (The Electoral College and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are the two most anti-democratic features of our republic’s structure and both need abolishing.) A pacifist, Debs openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I which, because Congress had passed an Espionage Act which made any opposition to the war effort the equivalent of treason (a law which was clearly unconstitutional), landed Debs in prison for 10 years. He ran for president from prison and won over 2 million votes!  He was not pardoned and released until 1923, when Pres. Harding pardoned him as an old man.  His particular Socialist Party had since died, torn itself apart while he was imprisoned over support or opposition to the new Bolshevik regime in the USSR.  But Debs’ ideals of economic empowerment, organized working people demanding justice for their labor, and international movement of workers, opposition to war as a tool of capitalist oppression, and the dignity of common people live on.  Favorite Debs quotes include “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a “criminal element,” I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 
  • W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). First African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was a historian, sociologist (including sociologist of religion), criminologist, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, who flirted with Communism, but returned to democratic socialism.  He once ran for NY Senator on the American Labor Party ticket. 
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930). Labor leader and organizer famous for her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  Considered the “Miner’s Angel” because of her strong advocacy for miners against exploitive bosses, dangerous working conditions, child labor, bad wages, poor benefits, etc.  Yes, she is the inspiration for the magazine, Mother Jones.
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935), Nobel Prize Laureate, who founded Hull House in Chicago and with it, social work in the United States.  An early feminist, she worked to end poverty in the United States and to advance the cause of women worldwide.  Also a pacifist, she was the founding head of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Norman Thomas (1884-1968).  Son of an Ohio Presbyterian minister, Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, before following in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Union Theological Seminary of NY and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  A pacifist, Thomas preached against the U.S. entering into WWI and became an early member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He soon became a major leader of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president 6 times. 
  • Dorothy Day (1897-1980).  She flirted with Communism in her youth as a radical, anarchist, journalist, but after a conversion near the time of the birth of her only child, Tamar, she became a baptized Catholic.  Then, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, combining democratic socialism, pacifism,  with teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic social encyclicals.
  • Michael Harrington (1928-1989) , trained at Yale as a lawyer, this founder and chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (not a political party, but a movement), he was an early participant in the Catholic Worker movement, but lost his faith in God.  A writer, political activist, professor of political science, radio commentator, Harrington’s The Other America:  Poverty in the United States, inspired the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major labor and civil rights leader.
  • Pauli Murray (1910-1985) first African-American woman to earn a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.  A civil rights activist, writer, poet, feminist, and one of the earliest women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Murray was always a democratic socialist.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), although never the Communist that J. Edgar Hoover and others charged him with being, was attracted to socialism and, after his visit to India in 1960, and  Sweden and Norway in 1964, became a democratic socialist in thought, though never part of any Socialist party or organization.
  • Cornel West (1954-), Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the great public intellectuals of our day.  Has been a co-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • Gary J.  Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, theologian, and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.  He is a strong advocate of economic democracy and historian of the Social Gospel and of socialism in the United States.
  • UPDATE:   I forgot to include:
  • Ella Baker (1903-1986), civil and human rights activist. Never part of any socialist party, she worked for labor and economic justice causes and shared socialist ideals and convictions.
  • A. J. Muste (1885-1967) began as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) who went to Union Theological Seminary of New York. As a student he became involved in labor and social gospel causes and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Later pastored a Congregationalist church while working on labor issues–led to loss of his church. Temporarily, he lost his faith and adopted the Trotskyite form of Marxism.  On a visit to the USSR and then a meeting with Trotsky in the latter’s exile, Muste was dramatically reconverted to pacifist Christianity.  He became a Quaker and the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joined the Socialist Party of America and campaigned for Norman Thomas. In retirement from the F.O.R., Muste went to work for the War Resisters’ League.
  • Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), gay African-American Quaker who was imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII.  Former communist who broke with the Communist Party over Stalin and joined the Socialist Party of America.  Rustin was prominent in peace and human rights issues–and was the behind the scenes planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

These are but a few of the many key thinkers and activists in the American tradition of Democratic Socialism.  I place myself with the experimental, non-dogmatic, pragmatist and pacifist strand of this heritage.

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November 13, 2009 Posted by | biography, economic justice, heroes, labor, poverty, Religious Social Criticism, social history, U.S. politics | | 7 Comments

Spiritual/Theological Memoirs–and Theological Biographies

I love to read spiritual or theological memoirs.  This type of literature has been around almost since the beginning of Christianity (although found in some other faiths, too).  One of the great classics is St. Augustine’s Confessions which also includes his theological concept of time.  Others include St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself, John Woolman’s Journal, George Fox’s Journal, and so many others.  The Baptist tinkerer-turned-preacher, John Bunyan, wrote two, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress. 

 I got hooked on spiritual/theological memoirs in college.  I was attending a conservative evangelical college (now university) in South Florida and I didn’t really fit in–my style of faith and spirituality (not to mention my politics) went against the stream of the cookie-cutter conservatism that was the official ideology. (I really should have transferred to another college.)  The major target was “liberalism.” I was a political liberal, but not a theological one. One day I came across Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Living of These Days. I loved it.  Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just adopt Fosdick’s theology as my own.  That’s not the value of spiritual or theological memoirs.  They help you get past the stereotypes and see the other’s struggles and God’s presence in the person’s life.  You get to wrestle with their questions and your own and find your own answers. So, I have found help in theological memoirs from many places in the theological spectrum, including those far more conservative and far more liberal than I am.  Here are a few of the contemporary spiritual/theological memoirs that I have found especially fascinating.  Please, tell me your list.

  • Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Harper, 1967.
  • F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect:  Remembrance of Things Past. (Posthumous Edition). Baker Book House, 1980, 1993. I read the posthumous edition right after finishing my dissertation–as a break. Wow. Bruce is so chock full of pastoral wisdom that I wish was more widely shared by his fellow evangelicals.
  • Ray S. Anderson, Soul of God:  A Memoir.  Wipf and Stock, 2004.
  • Frederick Beuchner, The Sacred Journey:  A Memoir of Early Days.  Harper, 1991.
  • Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets:  A Memoir. Harper, 1992.
  • Frederick Beuchner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.  Harper, 1993.
  • James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back.  Abingdon Press, 1982. 
  • Lesslie Newbingin, Unfinished Agenda:  An Updated Autobiography.  Wipf and Stock, 2009.  This Anglican missionary bishop has had one of the largest impacts on the shape of Christian missions and interfaith dialogue. A truly amazing life.
  • Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever:  One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church.  Pilgrim Press, 1999. Originally published in 1976, two years after the ordination, with a new forward by Heyward, now an out lesbian and a famous theologian, and an afterward by one of the other 11 women ordained that day in 1974.
  • Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I:  A Spiritual Memoir.  Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Samuel D. Proctor, My Moral Odyssey Judson Press, 1989.  A major memoir from one of the most important African-American pastors and educators in post-WWII America, a one time president of the Peace Corps, president of two historic black colleges, and of Rutgers University.  I have ordered his second volume, finished just before his untimely death, The Substance of Things Hoped For:  A Memoir of African-American Faith (Judson Press, 1999).
  • Hans Kung, My Struggle for Freedom:  Memoirs. Eerdmans, 2003.  Just finished this. Very powerful.
  • Hans Kung, Disputed Truth:  Memoirs II. Eerdmans, 2005.  Looking forward to this, which is on order.
  • Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place:  An Autobiography.  Fortress Press, 2009.  Halfway done.  One of my biggest theological influences. 
  • Cornel West, Brother West:  Living and Loving Out Loud:  A Memoir.  Smiley Books, 2009.  On order. Cornel West is one of my favorite Christian public philosophers.
  • William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith:  My Experience in Mourning.  Wipf and Stock, 2005.  In some ways all of Stringfellow’s writings were autobiographical, but this is expressly a memoir from this brilliant lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian who was a guide for many in the ’60s and ’70s.
  • Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story.  Mercer University Press, 2006.  Yes, Barnette was my teacher, but this incredibly moving memoir would touch many others who never knew this gentle saint who died only weeks before its publication.  One of the best saints Southern Baptists ever produced–and the kind of life the current SBC CANNOT produce without changing what the SBC has become.
  • Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness.  Harper & Row, 1970.  Repr. HarperOne, 1996. The deeply honest story of the conversion of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
  • John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down.  1976. Repr., Wipf and Stock, 2006.  The memoir of one of the most amazing African-American Christians. His brother shot down in his arms by a racist white sheriff in the Civil Rights era, Rev. Perkins never stopped believing in the humanity of white people and the triumph of gospel grace. Founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, which combines evangelism with community development–a pioneer in faith-based (no government aid) anti-poverty efforts.
  • Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Speech, Silence, Action:  The Cycle of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1980.

Of course, many important Christian leaders are far too shy or modest to write personal memoirs or autobiographies.  Sometimes outside biographers have shed important light or have created a classic that is almost as helpful as the author’s own writings–a major example is Peter Brown’s biography on St. Augustine, which is a major companion to Augustine’s own Confessions. Another is Roland Bainton’s unforgettable biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand!   The kind of biographer that is especially helpful to people of faith is sympathetic with the object of the biography (one doubts seriously that Brown could have written so helpful a biography of Augustine’s nemesis, Pelagius!), but has enough critical distance to show the warts and feet of clay. Hagiography, uncritical “lives of the saints,” that make the subject seem like plastic statues, are really not helpful, but nor are vicious attacks.  Here are a few theological biographies I have found especially helpful:

  • Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.  Eerdmans, 1975.  Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005.
  • Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  A Biography.  Eerdmans, 1970.  Revised and Supplemented, Fortress Press, 2000.
  • David Garrow, Bearing the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.  Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
  • William D. Miller, Dorothy Day:  A Biography.  Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions.  Cascadia, 2000. A revision of the author’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, the opening chapter is the most complete biography available to date of JHY, whose writings are still being published posthumously.
  • John Allen, Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography.  The Free Press, 2006.  Authorized biographies can be “tame,” but they also usually have greater access to private sources.  This is the best biography we have to date of Tutu.
  • Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming:  A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Eerdmans, 2004.  This is a great supplement to the earlier work by Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer.  Macmillan, 1988.
  • Daniel P. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller.  Fuller Seminary Press, 2004. Reprint of an earlier edition by Eerdmans.  This is an intimate but fair biography of the radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Seminary by his son, Daniel–who changed its original shape and reshaped it to the “progressive evangelical seminary” it has become.
  • R. Alan Culpepper, Eternity as Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper.  Mercer University Press, 2002.  In similar fashion, New Testament scholar (and founding dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), Alan Culpepper has written a sympathetic-but-fair biography of the amazing life of his father, Hugo. Hugo Culpepper, NT scholar and missionary to the Philippines, captured by the Japanese during WWII and held for 4 years, and later professor of Greek and Missiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbingin: A Theological Life.  Eerdmans, 2000.  An excellent complement to Newbingin’s own memoir.

Please, Gentle Readers, share your favorite spiritual memoirs and theological biographies.

 

October 4, 2009 Posted by | autobiography, biography, books, testimony, theology | 2 Comments