Religion


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.

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Christianity is the real loser in the Hong Kong protests of the last few months. It has become clear that some Christian groups continue to be at the forefront in organising and supporting the protests. The groups are mostly of a Protestant evangelical variety, but they include some Roman Catholic leaders. Others are opposed, producing sharp divisions within the churches. But those who foster the protests have also been providing a dimension of the theoretical justification for the protests, especially through biblical interpretation. This is not a recent development. These groups have been active since the restitution of a stolen Hong Kong to China in 1997. Over almost two decades they have engaged in low-level protests, brought in outside advisors, engaged in extensive organisational efforts to link the various organisations, and sought to develop a theological framework for their efforts.

Their efforts have been detrimental to Christianity, particularly in a Chinese situation. There are three main reasons.

Colonial Christianity

The Hong Kong protests have confirmed the connection between Christianity and colonialism. In Chinese collective memory, Christianity is primarily seen as a colonial ideology (yang jiao). It is associated with the humiliation of China in the nineteenth century, at the hands of European colonial powers. The gunboats of the British Empire, which imposed a semi-colonial status on China, also carried with them Christian missionaries. The opium wars, the destruction of the summer palace in Beijing, the imposition of unfavourable conditions, and the religious ideology of a foreign empire – these and more became signals of that humiliation.

Some missionaries did much good, seeking to understand China, to introduce its culture and history to Europeans, and undertaking translations of classical Chinese texts. Yet most were seen as ideological agents of British colonialism.

This memory has overlaid other and more beneficial dimensions of Christianity. Thus, the efforts by Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century have been eclipsed. His efforts to develop a form of Roman Catholic Christianity – ‘with Chinese characteristics’ – no longer determine the perception of Christianity. Further, very few are aware of the development of a Chinese Christian materialism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of leading Chinese Christians – W. T. Wu, W. T. Chu and Wu Leichuan – sought to engage with Marxism. They developed unique formulations that were specifically concerned with a Chinese situation. Forgotten too is the significant assistance given to the Red Army during the Long March (1934-1935) by Christian groups.

Instead, the colonial connection dominates Chinese perceptions. And the Hong Kong protestors have reinforced that impression. The active support of the protests by the UK and the USA – by means of statements and the presence of personnel to advise and assist the protestors – makes that impression difficult to deny.

Threat to Social Harmony

A central plank of Chinese government policy is a harmonious society. It may not aspire to the near utopian Confucian image of the Datong, the Great Harmony in which social strife gives way to a harmonious mediation between opposites. But the government has expressed quite clearly the desire for xiaokang, the less ambitious aim of general prosperity, peace and relative harmony. Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ is a more recent development of this theme.

Recent statements concerning the different religions in China have emphasised this desire for harmony. The China Committee on Religion and Peace regularly encourages religious leaders and believers to contribute to ‘building a moderately prosperous society in all respects’. This entails both religious freedom in accordance with Chinese law, and guiding religious groups to adapt to a socialist society. Tellingly, this policy also explicitly seeks to withstand ‘the infiltration of overseas-based hostile forces that make use of religion’.

Christianity and Liberal Democracy

Above all, the Hong Kong protests have cemented the perceived connection between some forms of Christianity and liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. A key slogan of the protests is ‘one person, one vote’, which sounds innocent enough. They also demand no restrictions on the candidates for elections in Hong Kong. Again, that sounds to an outside observer reasonable enough.

The catch is that most Chinese are not interested in liberal or bourgeois democracy. Again and again, I hear from people in China that they have seen how liberal democracy works, with its in-built corruption, its advertising campaigns, its policy inertia, its blocking out of real alternatives, and its significant restrictions as to who may vote. Thus, when President Xi Jinping says that liberal democracy is not appropriate for Chinese conditions, he is expressing a generally held opinion and not some evil desire by the Communist Party to retain its hold on the reins of power. China has tried various approaches, he points out: ‘Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multi-party system and a presidential system, we considered them, tried them, but none worked’. And if they were to try liberal democracy, it would lead to chaos and catastrophe. Instead, what works in China is the long tradition of socialist democracy.

As Suzanne Ogden points out in her study of Chinese governance, for the Chinese leadership and most Chinese people, ‘the insistence on democratization for all, and right now, has led to a clichéd intoning of the words freedom, human rights, and democracy, which provide ever more ragged clothing for the export of formulaic Western political values throughout the world’.

After the Hong Kong protests, the Chinese government may well view many forms of Christianity with greater suspicion. The connection with Western colonialism, the threat to social harmony, and the linking of Christianity with bourgeois democracy, may well ensure that this is the case. I hope that this is not the case. I hope that research centres and projects on Christianity and the Bible will continue to be funded, that churches will continue to be approved and be built with government funds, and that the Christian churches will continue to explore creative ways to be part of the Chinese project.

On 30 November, I will be be part of a panel on ‘Religion and Marxism’. It is part of the ‘Sunday Marxism’ series here in Newcastle, organised by the Socialist Alliance.

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Political progressives often associate religion with bad things like imperialist crusades and wars for oil, attacks on women’s freedoms and moral/political brainwashing.

In recent weeks we have seen reactionary fundamentalists decapitating ‘infidels’ and misogynistic homophobic varieties of Christianity receive the endorsement of government ministers.

At the same time it is also often assumed that all Marxists/Socialists abhor religion and spirituality.

Of course, dig beneath the stereotypes and you will find a rich current of dialogue between anti-capitalist activists and revolutionaries and socially minded followers of various religious faiths.

This session on Religion and Marxism will feature a panel including Roland Boer who directs the ‘Religion, Marxism and Secularism’ project at Newcastle University, Farooq Tariq, General Secretary, Awami Workers Party (AWP) of Pakistan, and Malik Mohamed Aslam, Senior Advocate, Lahore High Court and AWP leader.

PS. Of course, I voted for Steve at our recent by-election in Newcastle, after the former Liberal who held the seat was called out for systemic corruption.

The more I read and hear about it, the more I am puzzled: the new secularist fad in religion studies and biblical criticism. Studies in religion has been engaged in a turf war for some time, or, to shift the metaphor, in teenage rebellion against its parent, theology. Some biblical critics have been scurrying around making similar noises, forgetting that biblical criticism broke with theology more than 150 years ago. This approach has the same form as other disciplines that saw the need to hive off from theology some time ago: denigrate the parent and say loudly and frequently that theology is not even a scholarly pursuit. So also with studies in religion and secularist biblical criticism. But a few items are now added to the list, the most curious one being the hypothesis that religion is a ‘construct’ and that therefore it doesn’t exist sui generis. Instead, we should study how it is constructed. But since when is a construct unreal? A similar silly suggestion is made concerning the Bible.

However, I am interested in another part of this argument: theology or the Bible or religion isn’t going to save the world, or even make things a little better. A few points need to be made here. First, it is an old move, which took place in other disciplines in the earlier part of the twentieth century: remove any political agenda from a discipline, call it ‘scientific’, and set about explaining the world as it is (that is, the world viewed from the Atlantic). Second, it is deeply conservative, for it supports the status quo with such a move. Third, it is a very bourgeois project, which Marx, Engels and Lenin derided: targetting religion is a diversion from real socio-economic problems. Finally, and for me most importantly, it seeks to negate the religious revolutionary tradition that Kautsky first mapped out. In the end, the problem is not religion, or indeed theology and the Bible, but rather the radical political possibilities they may have.

We – Sean Durbin and I – are putting the final touches to a new book series with Palgrave Macmillan. It is called ‘Religion and Radicalism’ and will publish monographs and edited volumes. But what does religion and radicalism mean in this case?

This series arises from the international Religion and Radicalism project. It is primarily interested in left-wing religious radicalism and the way it relates to progressive politics. This under-explored tradition has two main dimensions: a) profound criticism of an oppressive status quo in light of religious alterity (claims to a higher reality), which entails often revolutionary means for overcoming that situation; b) alternative forms of social life that value justice, equality, and collective endeavour.

Religion has been inextricably part of radical political movements since such movements began. The Peasant Revolution led by Thomas Müntzer in 16th century Germany, the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China, and Liberation Theology in the 20th century are only the most well-known of a myriad of such movements. However, in recent years scholarly inquiry has tended to focus squarely on reactionary religious movements, their political consequences, and their threats to the status quo. Relatively little attention has been given to radical left-wing movements. This series directly addresses that lack in research and assessment.

The volumes respond to a growing thirst for critical knowledge of the religious heritage of radical movements. Members of radical movements seek to draw insights from this heritage; progressive political philosophers have begun to engage in detail with various religious traditions; many are inspired to become involved in such movements due to religious inspiration. The time is ripe for a comprehensive and sustained engagement with that rich radical tradition in its many dimensions.

Five volumes are ready to be published, but we are – obviously – interested in further volumes, especially monographs. So, if you have a book in mind or in hand, contact us and we can discuss a proposal.

Neil Harding’s great 2-volume work, Lenin’s Political Thought, may be a little flat at times, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the dialectic in Lenin’s hands. Yet his ability to deploy earthy images is of the same calibre as Lenin’s:

The revolution was not like a plum falling into the hand when fully ripe without so much as a shake of the tree. It was, to characterise Lenin’s account, more like a turnip. It would swell and ripen in the ground but would take a stout pull to harvest it—otherwise the action of the elements and of parasites would combine to rot it away (Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, vol. 2, p. 73)

Can you tell I’m doing the proof corrections for Lenin, Religion, and Theology? Good news: the cover is out too:

Lenin, Religion, and Theology