RELIGION AND REVOLUTION
Written by Ember Kelley
I have spent much of the last 9 years of my life on a journey of trying to come to understand myself better. In this journey, I have come out as a queer transgender woman. In learning to understand myself, I have also had to think about how I relate to the world around me. Am I working for change? Can the world be a better place? Am I comfortable with the status quo?
That journey has led me on a path from a childhood of Republican allegiance, to a loud Obama supporter, then to Bernie (in 2011, before it was trendy), and then ultimately on a path to radical politics. That radical politics has led me to join a socialist party and identify myself as a communist.
I am a queer transgender woman, and I am a communist; and for most transgender folks, that probably isn’t a shocker. Our existence challenges the norm and can easily push us into radical activism. Yet my life feels like a paradox, because I also find myself in my final year of Seminary, pursuing study of religion, and considering whether I want to become a Christian pastor. Because of this I seem to be in a constant state of questioning, both internally and from others, of whether religion can truly be compatible with revolutionary change.
Religion, and especially Christianity, has often been the tool of reactionary power. It has been used to enforce hegemony and justify numerous atrocities. I am not going to try to dodge that by saying “well those weren’t real people of faith.” Christianity and religion must account for that reality.
Yet, at the same time, I look at history and see people of faith confronting empires, overthrowing monarchs, and finding ways to be subverting the dominant hegemony. I think of liberation theology which reminds me of someone like Camilo Torress Restrepo, whose theology motivated him to become a guerrilla fighter and revolutionary martyr in Colombia.
I choose to remain in the paradox of being a communist and a Christian. Living in that paradox, I must continually look for ways to avoid having my faith become simply reformist. But what does it look like to struggle a revolutionary theology? I would like to share with you 4 basic recommendations that I believe can help push faith towards a more revolutionary path.
First, as a communist I am concerned with the material world and material analysis. I want to analyze the world around me, and then struggle with the people to make concrete improvements towards a better world. Faith can often get trapped in a heavenly idealism that moves all hopes and concerns outside of this world. If religion truly is concerned with real change, there must be a willingness to struggle in the here and now, and we must find ways to make theology more grounded and focused on fighting for change.
Yet even in progressive churches, there may be a tendency to simply make pronouncements about big issues. While these pronouncements can begin the push for serious change, they have to be pair up with actions. A revolutionary faith would mean living not for slogans, but for concrete material changes.
Secondly, in pursuing real material change, we must acknowledge the way that religion played a role in colonialism, and in creating a culture of white supremacy. This burden is especially heavy on Christianity. Decolonizing religion would mean making material reparations for the damages done to indigenous communities and to black communities . It would mean advocating for real political change, dismantling of white supremacist laws and institutions respecting treaties, returning land, and promoting indigenous sovereignty. A related change would be creating curriculums to address the true narratives of recent history, instead of the Christian framed Manifest Destiny that we are often taught. Faith communities can be a place to challenge the narratives we are sold in mainstream education. Then as Christians grow understand the role faith played in colonialism and white supremacy, perhaps we will also stop glorifying groups like the Pilgrims as heroes of the faith.
My third recommendation is related to that decolonization process. To truly promote revolutionary theologies, we must be have the work of doing theology done by people in their own contexts. Theologies should arise from our diverse contexts, rather than our beliefs being a top-down Euro-American framed theological hegemony enforced on all other contexts.
This process has already begun, with revolutionary insights coming from liberation theologies, indigenous theologies, womanist theologies, queer theologies, and many other unique ways of doing theology. However the faith communities themselves, especially those with dominating platforms, need to catch up to this theological work that is already happening. They must do this if they truly want to speak to all people and not just white middle class Americans.
If people of faith and faith communities begin taking these steps, then the fourth recommendation is also key. We must be aware of the realities of Imperialism around us, especially if we are living in the United States. Just as religion has played a role in colonialism, so evangelical Christianity now plays a role in enforcing the hegemonic power of the United States. The rise of a figure like Mike Pence, or the evangelical love of Donald Trump, makes more sense when you realize that Christianity in the United States has embraced the cause of imperialism out of love of power. Many Christians have embraced Islamophobia in the name of a war of cultures, seeking to use political power to “civilize” the Middle East. And even progressive Christians practice a form of colonial imperialism when using the United States’ political power to push countries on social issues.
People of faith, especially Christians in the United States, must actively confront this. Anti-Imperialism is not a term common in faith communities and theological circles, but it must become one.
Developing theologies based on Anti-Imperialism, Decolonization, and Anti-Racism is a vital step towards creating a truly revolutionary theology.
Sometimes my hope is clouded, and I am unsure of why I continue the fight. People will ask me “Why do you still call yourself a Christian?” and I can’t give them an answer more than that I see a small spark of hope. I look at holy texts or religious histories, and see the spark of revolution in there. So I hope for and struggle for a revolutionary theology. I believe we, as people of faith, must be doing this as part of a broader revolutionary political, economic, and cultural struggle. We must give the power to the people.