theology


I am working my way through Farnham Maynard’s Religion and Revolution (1947). He was canon of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, from 1926 to 1944. He saw socialism arising from Christianity, especially the Anglo-Catholicism he championed. Indeed, he managed to escape the Australian government’s ban on people travelling to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He toured for eight months in 1952, moving across eastern Europe, through Russia and then to a conference in Beijing.

Anyway, in Religion and Revolution he traces the roles of Christianity in the French and Russian revolutions, arguing that it mostly missed the opportunity to be constructive contributors to the establishment of new modes of production. I am particularly taken by a discussion of the League of the Militant Godless in relation to the Soviet Union.

Maynard begins by noting Stalin’s response to a question from the First American Labour Delegation to the Soviet Union in 1927. He was asked about religion and repression of the church, to which Stalin replied in his typical fashion: ‘Have we repressed the reactionary clergy? Yes, we have’ (Works, volume 10, p. 139).

And then Maynard writes concerning the League itself: ‘Let us note, however, that a substantial part of the work done by the Anti-God League consisted in bringing about reforms which in the West had been brought about by Christians themselves’ (Religion and Revolution, 1947, p. 45).

I am writing an article on Farnham Maynard (1881-1973), who was a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. He wrote a number booklets and contributions to books on Christianity and communism, which were texts of speeches he gave: Economics and the Kingdom of God (1929), ‘Christianity and Socialism’ in A Fair Hearing for Socialism (1944) and Religion and Revolution (1947). More on this material soon, but I am quite intrigued by a forword given to the final work by none other than the secretary of the Victorian branch of Australian Communist Party, Jack Blake.

This foreword manifests the tensions of Marxist approaches to religion, found in the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, does so in a rather sharp fashion:

The Communist Party welcomes the growing interest among Christian people in the popular striving for a new social order as revealed in this collection of lectures which correctly set forth the Marxist viewpoint.

The Communist world outlook is based on dialectical materialism, which means that the Marxist does not include religion as part of his mental outlook.

Precisely because we Communists base ourselves on the dialectical materialist outlook, we are strongly opposed to any kind of persecution of religion, or attacks upon people’s religious beliefs. Frequently it is said that this is merely a tactic of the Communists to dupe innocent Christian people; actually it is a matter of deep principle with us; it arises from the fundamentals of our Marxist outlook on life.

Marxism teaches that religion arises from the economic and social foundations of society, and as society is changed and reaches the highest pinnacles of human attainment and enlightenment, religion as such will wither away.

Christian people believe otherwise, but the great question now posed before them is whether they are so lacking in faith as to defend an outmoded form of society as a means for preserving their religion, or whether they have enough faith in Christianity to play their part in the advance to a new form of society for the betterment of mankind: a society in which all religious freedoms will be preserved and even increased.

No person is excluded from the ranks of the Communist Party because of religious beliefs. For our part, we gladly welcome any steps to increase co-operation between Christians and Communists having a common interest in the advancement of mankind.

I have been discussing the Danish election results with Christina this afternoon. For a small country, the results may not seem important, but they may be read as harbingers of the situation in Scandinavia more generally. Initially, the results may seem depressing for anyone with sympathies vaguely on the Left. The ‘blue block’ seems to to have won the election with the slimmest of margins, 90 seats to the ‘red block’s’ 89 seats. Why depressing? The Danish People’s Party (DF) has won more than 21 percent of the vote, becoming Denmark’s second largest party in the Folketing (parliament). This is the party that has campaigned on three issues for the last 20 years: anti-Muslim propaganda, a wider xenophobia and a rhetoric of watching out for the ‘little people’ who are ‘suffering’ from the EU’s policies. This party has now become the king-maker, nominating Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Ventre Party as Prime Minister.

But let us look a little deeper into the election results. The Social-Democrats actually improved their standing, cementing their position as Denmark’s main party. They now command about 27% of the vote. However, their various allies in a conventional bourgeois democratic system did not get enough votes to get the ‘red block’ coalition over the line. The second most popular party is the Danish People’s Party (as I mentioned, with more than 21% of the vote), a kind of neo-fascist bunch with a populist appeal. The two main parties would seem to be the antithesis of one another. But at a deeper level, they have much in common. Both have played the xenophobia card. The Social-Democrats have pointed the finger at ‘Eastern Europeans’ as the bane of Denmark, while the People’s Party likes to target Arabs, Muslims and people with obvious skin colouring that is not white.

Why are they so close to one another? I suggest it has to do with the infamous Scandinavian welfare state. The Social Democrats have been the architects of the welfare state in Denmark (and also with similar parties in other Nordic states). The catch is that the welfare state can only function by means of strict controls as to who is eligible for its benefits. The boundaries have always been clear. The Danish People’s Party plays on that theme: they promise to care for those who have been disadvantaged by aggressive EU policies aimed at bringing in cheap labour to undermine the very structure of welfare state. In that sense, the Danish People’s Party is the child of the welfare state, laying bare its incipient xenophobia.

The upshot: the natural alliance should be between the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party, since the latter is the child of the former. In that way, they could easily form government (at more than 48% of the vote) with one of the other minor parties.

Most would hold that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) bans religion of all sorts, indeed that it has become a truly atheistic state. However, the various constitutions (1948, 1972, 1992) guarantee freedom of religion and non-religion. It may seem that such statements are not worth the paper on which they are written, but let us look at some facts.

To begin with, the local Chondoism – or ‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’ – is recognised and in fact favoured by the government. Based on the teachings of Choe Je-u (1824-1864), it melds Confucian influences and local religious traditions. It inspired the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 and is seen by the current government as a revolutionary and thereby anti-imperialist movement. In an echo that will be familiar to many, this religion is characterised as minjung or ‘popular’. It has about 2.8 million adherents and 800 places of worship, and is led by Ryu Mi Yong, who ‘defected’ from south to north. Indeed, they even have a political party, called the Chondoist Chongu Party, or The Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way.

But what about Christianity? Surely it is severely repressed. To be sure, its fortunes have been varied and its appeal has never been very strong. However, I am most intrigued by an article by Dae Young Ryu, ‘Fresh Wineskins for New Wine: A New Perspective on North Korean Christianity’, Journal of Church and State 48 (2006), pp. 659-75. It begins by noting a new openness of Christianity in the 1980s, with new churches built, a strengthened Protestant theological college in Pyongyang, and an increase in worshippers, now put at about 12,000. (This does not of course include foreign evangelical missionaries, who seem to want to spoil the party).

Is this a recent phenomenon, especially since the government itself has constructed the new churches? Not according to Ryu. He suggests it has a much longer history, going back to Christians of the 1950s who opted for Marxism-Leninism and supported the leadership of Kim Il-sung. This development is even more remarkable, since it took place in a context where Christianity was widely viewed as an imperialist, American phenomenon. Indeed, evidence indicates that the government tolerated about 200 pro-communist Christian churches during the 1960s. He writes:

Contrary to the common western view, it appears that North Korean leaders exhibited toleration to Christians who were supportive of Kim II Sung and his version of socialism. Presbyterian minister Gang Ryang Uk served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 until his death in 1982, and Kim Chang Jun, an ordained Methodist minister, became vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They were buried in the exalted Patriots’ Cemetery, and many other church leaders received national honors and medals. It appears that the government allowed the house churches in recognition of Christians’ contribution to the building of the socialist nation (p. 673).

From this background, the role of the Korean Federation of Christians (a DPRK organisation) makes some sense. They established the Pyongyang theological college in 1972, published Bible translations and a hymnal in 1983, and oversaw the building of three new churches in 1988 with state funds. In all, five churches now exist in Pyongyang: three Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox (completed with state funds in 2006). The rise in numbers worshipping is attributed to the active search for Christians who are now enabled to worship openly. Even more, the Federation of Christians was crucial in enabling massive amounts of foreign aid into the north during the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Ryu writes that the ‘Federation has successfully established itself as a valuable organization that works for the greater good of North Korean society’.

church

Above all, the Federation has been actively working with the south on a consistent campaign for reunification. Given that this is state policy in the north, it should be no surprise that the Federation has been seen in a positive light. Recently, on 15 August 2014, a worship service was held in Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, with prayers for peace and reunification. It was organised by the National Council of Churches of Korea (from the south) and the Korean Federation of Christians (from the north).

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DPR Korea, Pyongyang. 18 Oct. 2009 Visit to Bongsu Church with Secretary General Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia.

The new issue of Critical Research on Religion is generating a good deal of debate, or at least the editorial is on the journal’s facebook page. The editorial is called ‘How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical’ and was written by Warren Goldstein, Jonathan Boyarin, Rebekka King and me. We deal with studies in religion, theology, biblical criticism and sociology of religion. Here we develop a little further a key feature of the journal, which is that critical means not only careful ‘scientific’ analysis and self-criticism of the scholar (and discipline), but also discernment. On the second sense, we draw from the Greek kritikos, in which one discerns what is beneficial and harmful, or – as we interpret it – between what leads to human and natural flourishing and what does not. Some of the new ‘critical religion’ people seem to have taken exception to the second use of the term ‘critical’.

But I have been thinking a little more about this ‘critical religion’ approach, beyond the obvious turf war dimension, in which it attempts to sniff out yet another theological corpse beneath the floorboards or perhaps a ‘theo-sympathetic’ understanding of religion. I cannot help being reminded of the efforts by the nomothetic disciplines such as neoclassical economics, sociology and political science in the early twentieth century to divest themselves of ethical concerns, values and political agenda – so as not to be involved in any project that might improve the world even a little. They sought new homes, away from the arts and moral philosophy and among mathematics, physics and applied sciences. They saw themselves as doing no more than applying techniques, and thereby felt that they had become ‘professional’ and ‘scientific’. But the politics was not so much banished as redirected, so as to provide policy directions for the status quo under liberal democracies. I like Wallerstein’s observation on this process: such disciplines (and I would include the ‘critical religion’ approach here) take the form of university disciplines in which the ‘Western’ world studies itself, explaining its own functioning, the better to control what is happening. Obviously, there is something rather conservative about this, even forming the basis of a new kind of imperialism.

I am also somewhat bemused that such an approach seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis of history, society, politics and economics – precisely when those disciplines have become acutely aware of the importance of religion. Practitioners in those areas are actively exploring religious questions and seeking the assistance of specialists in religion. Why? They divested their own approaches of religion some time ago, but now realise it was a mistake and often do not have the requisite skills to deal with it. On this matter, a ‘critical religion’ approach seems both unhelpful and somewhat behind the times, for it is trying to do to the study of religion what these disciplines did to themselves some decades ago.

As I work through the material concerning the industrialisation and collectivisation drives of the 1930s (actually starting in the late 1920s), it is becoming clearer that it this period and its enormous upheavals were crucial for Stalin’s rethinking of Marxist theories of human nature. During those intense periods of extraordinary reconstruction – literally unleashing the forces of production in a way not seen before (no ‘Great Depression’ in the USSR) – there were many who were wildly enthusiastic about the process. This was the time of the ‘foi furieuse’, of Stakhanovism, of mass enthusiasm and emulation. But there were also many losers, since it was a profoundly disruptive time. Many lagged, were doubtful and came actively to oppose the process. This is when what I would like to call a ‘materialist doctrine of evil’ really comes into its own. Ultimately, Stalin would come to see that such evil was deeply internal, within the collective drive, within the party and within each person (himself included). On the way to seeing this stark reality, he can certainly call up word-pictures like the following:

People look for the class enemy outside the collective farms; they look for persons with ferocious visages, with enormous teeth and thick necks, and with sawn-off shotguns in their hands. They look for kulaks like those depicted on our posters. But such kulaks have long ceased to exist on the surface. The present-day kulaks and kulak agents, the present-day anti-Soviet elements in the countryside are in the main “quiet,” “smooth-spoken,” almost “saintly” people. There is no need to look for them far from the collective farms; they are inside the collective farms, occupying posts as storekeepers, managers, accountants, secretaries, etc. (1933, Works, volume 13, p. 235).

Stalin was not averse to taking the piss out of trendy Bolshevik talk. As part of his typology of useless Bolsheviks, he speaks of the bureaucrat, the red-tapist, the big-wig and the wind-bag. Here is the characterisation of the windbag:

I have in mind the windbags, I would say honest windbags (laughter), people who are honest and loyal to the Soviet power, but who are incapable of leadership, incapable of organising anything. Last year I had a conversation with one such comrade, a very respected comrade, but an incorrigible windbag, capable of drowning any live undertaking in a flood of talk. Here is the conversation:

I: How are you getting on with the sowing?

He: With the sowing, Comrade Stalin? We have mobilised ourselves. (Laughter.)

I: Well, and what then?

He: We have put the question squarely. (Laughter.)

I: And what next?

He: There is a turn, Comrade Stalin; soon there will be a turn. (Laughter.)

I: But still?

He: We can see an indication of some improvement. (Laughter.)

I: But still, how are you getting on with the sowing?

He: So far, Comrade Stalin, we have not made any headway with the sowing. (General laughter.)

There you have the portrait of the windbag. They have mobilised themselves, they have put the question squarely, they have a turn and some improvement, but things remain as they were. (Works, vol. 13, pp. 378-79)

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