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Liberation theology in the Bible belt.

For thirteen years, a local United Methodist congregation in Camanche, Iowa, has maintained solidarity with local, national, and international struggles for liberation. -- Time and again the congregation spoke out and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam; -- members of the congregation picketed locally in support of Native Americans at Wounded Knee; -- the pastor, with congregational support, went to Wisconsin in solidarity with members of the Menominee Tribe who had seized a Roman Catholic novitiate; -- members picketed local department stores for the boycott of Farah slacks; -- the congregation as a whole channeled strong financial support to the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe; -- the 1979 Communist Party State Convention was held in the church fellowship hall; -- the congregation supported a local wildcat strike, and later a year-long strike through weekly picketing, donations, and public advocacy; -- in conjunction with the strike it hosted Angela Davis at the church when she came in support of the union; -- the pastor was beaten by the police, arrested on charges of riot and interfering with the police, put on trial, and later acquitted of all charges by the jury, all the while whole-heartedly supported by the local congregation.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list, but is indicative of the range and depth of concerns commonly responded to by this congregation. As a result of such stands, the group was sometimes jokingly referred to by its friends as "St. Mark's with a 'k'." Its enemies usually called it "that Commie Church."

To most people, the description above is almost unheard of for a church in this country. It is perhaps conceivable in some well-endowed, large West Coast church, or in a campus ministry at a university in a metropolitan area. But the church in question acted out of very different circumstances. It was a group of 170 members, located in a small town of 5,000 in the heart of the Bible Belt. It is part of a larger industrialized area along the Mississippi River, known for its reactionary traditionalism.

The existence of such a progressive Christian community in that setting was not an aberration, nor a fluke. It came about as a result of deliberate planning, hard work over many years, and sustained effort in the face of relentless opposition.

The history of the area in which the church is located has not always been conservative or reactionary. Iowa was part of the abolitionist movement during the period preceding the Civil War. One of the trunk lines of the underground railroad was the Mississippi River, with the Clinton area being one of its stations. The Methodist church itself had split over the question of slavery 15 years before the Civil War, and did not reunite as a denomination until 1939, nearly 100 years later. The local congregation in Camanche began meeting in 1839, with visits from a roving circuit rider. However, there is no indication what position, if any, the congregation may have taken regarding the issue of slavery.

By the turn of the century the area was divided over a number of issues, including that of slavery. The Reconstruction era following the Civil War gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan not only in the South but also among this northern river population. Its target for intimidation was not just the few black residents, but an immigrant population of Catholic background, and the growing movement for unions. On one side this struggle was a socialism that spawned two local newspapers (the Clinton County Socialist, and the Merry War) and elected members to the city council. On the other side of the struggle, along with the KKK, was the American Protective Association, born in Clinton, Iowa, and spreading from there across the nation. Coming out of a reactionary business sector, the organization compiled the blacklists used by Attorney General Palmer to round up, detain, and in many cases deport an estimated 10,000 activists.

Though union organizing began around the turn of the century and maintained a lasting presence in the area, the strength of the local establishment, along with Iowa's "right to work" laws, has preserved a business stronghold. Any hint of the early socialist movement has long been forgotten. Following the McCarthy era the place would have been described by most people as a typical "redneck" river town. The churches do not seem to have distinguished themselves in any way from the usual evangelistic and moralistic participation in the status quo. The church in Camanche was a garden-variety small town congregation, made up primarily of working-class people, with a few professionals and a handful of management and farmers. It swung between outright fundamentalism and confused liberalism, depending on the theological leanings of the pastor at the time. It was hardly considered a plum of an appointment, and had during its entire existence until 1971 been part of at least a two-point circuit. Since the town seemed to be growing in population as a kind of bedroom community for the Clinton area, the denomination decided to make the local congregation a single appointment, with missionary support to get it off the ground. It was at that point that I was designated as pastor to the congregation in Camanche. That fact was not considered a stroke of luck for the congregation nor a feather in my cap. Camanche was viewed as a kind of cultural desert, in spite of local pretensions to the contrary, and I as a returned missionary from Latin America had been making speeches since my return derogatory of U.S. foreign policy. The hierarchy of the denomination seemed to be of the opinion that the congregation and I deserved one another!

For my part, the pastorate in Camanche was an experiment to see if Christians in a typical small town setting in the United States would respond to the Gospel message from a liberation theology perspective. My feeling was that "if it played in Camanche," it would play almost anywhere. This was not an academic experiment with me, but something to which I had been deeply committed for a number of years. I knew that Christians in Latin America responded to that message, but I did not know if, given the same opportunity, North Americans would do the same. Was the local church a lost cause, as most progressive Christians and non-Christians seemed to feel, or was it an untested mission field in both a theological and ideological sense? I had to know the answer for myself. I could not justify from either a Christian or a Marxist point of view wasting my life on something that would be unproductive from either perspective.

"Productive" for me did not mean having the freedom to act in a "Lone Ranger" individualistic sense. It meant creating a community of faith in action. Knowing the religious roots of this country, and having grown up in Iowa, I was convinced that such an effort was crucial. It was clear to me that unless such a religio-political connection could be made, fundamentalist Christianity had the very dangerous potential of becoming the mythological base for an American fascism. In Nazi Germany the mythological component of fascism had been the Germanic tribal myths, but here it would clearly be fundamentalist Christianity. I had seen U.S.-based fundamentalism operating as blatant religious imperialism in Latin America where it served to justify capitalist domination and U.S. foreign policy. At the very least, it was important to split that fundamentalist monopoly on religous myth and symbols. So Camanche was a test for some very far-reaching questions!

The first thing I did in Camanche was to request that we put Bibles in the pews, so that people would see as well as hear. I said, "You're not going to believe what you hear unless you see it with your own eyes!" Whenever I read the scripture lesson for a particular Sunday, it was as part of its larger context. There was to be none of that fundamentalist habit of stringing quotes together out of context! By "larger context" I mean not only the setting within the Bible itself, but also the historical moment out of which the book and specific concern had originally come. From this approach to the Bible and the socio-economic and political history out of which it arose, it became clear that we were taking the Bible more seriously. This was not the old fundamentalist "hunt and peck" literalism, nor the liberal "topical" approach. Only when this was clear did we move on to ask about the meaning of a passage for our present historical situation.

Obviously, such a different approach is not something that can occur as a result of twenty minutes sermon time per week. Even when the sermon was followed, as it always was, with a time of questions and clarification relating to the biblical text and my interpretation of it, it simply was not sufficient. Out of this need for further reflection came the weekly Wednesday night study group. In that session, the first hour was used to study the biblical passage that would be used as the basis for the sermon the following Sunday. It would be read aloud, historical background and clarifications would be given, and then we would discuss its meaning and significance in the original context and now. Background included such things as the fact that Moses' time was one of slave revolt in Imperial Egypt, that Jesus lived during a time of protracted insurrection against the Roman Empire, and that the Protestant Reformation cannot be understood apart from a class war that included the Peasants' Rebellion. The value of all of this was not just a more lengthy explanation of my viewpoint, but a shared understanding of our biblical and theological roots. I learned from them and they learned from one another, and on many occasions their insights and questions caused me to change the direction of my remarks for the sermon the following Sunday.

The second hour of the study group each week was spent in a sharing and analysis of current events and trends. The presupposed question underlying this part of the session was: "What important things have happened locally, nationally, and on the world scene this week?" The key word of course is "important." It meant that we had to learn to distinguish what was important from the unimportant. Week after week and month after month, as people shared with one another their idea of what they thought was important, some viewpoints proved to be accurate in the long run as explanations of what was happening, and others did not. This meant that on a weekly basis we were undergoing an ideological transformation together. When trends began to appear, raising questions for which we did not have adequate answers, we would do a study of that specific concern. One of the concerns that came up repeatedly was the lack of accurate information about other social, economic, and political systems. As a result, we studied Introduction to Socialism, by Huberman and Sweezy; World Hunger: Ten Myths, by Lappe and Collins; Peoples and Systems, a study of the United States, the People's Republic of China, Tanzania, and Cuba; and The Enemy, by Felix Greene.

These two aspects of the study group, the theological and the ideological, were not kept strictly separate, but were often woven back and forth together in the discussion. What evolved from this form of study and its content was an awareness that the Greek division of life between mind and matter, body and soul, flesh and spirit, individual and community, was a false division. It further became clear that the early church, as it moved out into the commercial cities of Asia Minor in the Roman Empire, had become synthesized with Gnosticism and the mystery religions, with their underlying philosophy of Greek dualism. We saw that historically Hebrew theology had struggled against that dualistic worldview arising out of Greek philosophical idealism. The Judaic understanding has as a result been called the most materialistic of all religions. This was also the base of early Christianity, but our discovery of that fact was due to a study of Marxist critiques of later Christianity. We came to see that the Kingdom of God movement with Jesus and the early church had formed a primitive communist subculture which persisted to varying degrees for several centuries. It came naturally out of the wilderness sects, such as the Essenes and John the Baptist's movement, but it also took a significant step beyond them. For the first time, primitive communism was not based on the extended family, tribalism, or a federation of tribes. In effect, these discoveries meant that Marxism was not just a channel for the expression of our Christian motivation, but also a means to understanding our Judeo-Christian roots.

Clearly, the discussion of such themes made the study group very lively. It was serious, but it was also enjoyable, because we could argue and laugh as well. That kind of development allowed us to become a community of faith in action. The sizable percentage of the congregation that participated regularly in the study group became the core group that knew what it was doing and why. The members could "give a reason for their faith" on theological and ideological grounds.

Since not everyone was willing or able to participate in the study group, it was necessary to create a means for those who were sympathetic to be a part of things beyond mere attendance at the Sunday service of worship. What evolved was a coffee hour in which 40 to 50 people would stay to discuss in an informal setting following the Sunday worship service. While the children were in Sunday School, the adults, including high school youth, would start with the subject of the scripture lesson and sermon, but go on from there in a wideranging discussion. It was exciting enough that it was difficult to get adults to teach Sunday School since it meant that they would have to miss the coffee hour. As a result, we had to rotate Sunday School teachers frequently.

The adult education resulting from the study group, Sunday worship hour, and the coffee hour following was sufficiently effective that visitors assumed that they had stumbled into a discussion among college-educated people. The fact was that very few had a college background, some had not finished high school, and a few were totally illiterate. These differences in formal education did not create a barrier to discussion in the group because the subject was life as people had experienced and understood it.

From an organizational point of view, the coffee hour formed another concentric circle of commitment around the core group at the center. Sympathizers who participated helped to inform those whose only contact was the worship service and those who lived in the community but who had no direct relationship with the church.

If the study and discussion had not been followed by appropriate action, the course of events at St. Mark's would have inevitably gone in circles. Without testing of conclusions and persons, we would have simply developed in ivory-tower or stained-glass separation from reality. As it was, the actions described at the beginning of this article carried us to deeper understanding and questioning with each step. With most of the actions described, individuals would leave the group, but those who stayed and participated were strengthened. People also were added to the church with each of the public actions.

Evangelism by deed is more powerful than that of the word. Our understanding was clearer and our commitment to a Christian and a Marxist perspective was successively deeper each time it was put to the test. That is not to say the process we experienced was easy or painless. Each time someone left, it was very painful because we had become very close. In fact, the division between family and friends is probably the hardest thing such a group has to face. The words of Jesus about the inevitability of division in the family as a result of such commitment had particular significance for us after going through that kind of experience each time we practiced what we preached.

The reflection and study which the congregation did was crucial to tie the various causes on which we decided to act into their common root. Without such study, people would soon burn out in the effort to pursue the myriad of seemingly unrelated concerns. Both liberation theology and Marxism, each from its own point of departure, is radical in the sense of going to the root of the problem. Each attempts to pursue things to the point where they come together, so that as we traced particular issues, they broadened and deepened our understanding and strength rather than weakening us. A liberal approach to the same causes usually leads to burnout, because there is no alternative vision that ties the pieces together. As a result liberalism either has to limit the depth or the number of concerns on which it will act.

Defining who we were as a group resulted not only from studying and acting together. It also came about over against opposition. From the very first Sunday I preached in Camanche, that opposition made itself known. The wife of a local lawyer and slumlord, who had been one of the self-appointed pillars of the church, began a whispering campaign to the effect that I was "a communist." Since I had not used any scare words in the sermon, and clearly was basing what I said on the Bible passage, this left other people with questions about her rather than about me. Their reaction was to say, "I don't know who he is or where he is coming from, but if she is against him, then we're for him."

The next stage of opposition was a financial boycott by conservatives unhappy with the direction of my preaching. These were people who condemned the idea of boycotts by working people against companies, but the idea didn't bother them when they used it to make me shut up or get out. Though their financial withholding was felt in a small congregation, it was not decisive. In fact, it proved to the rest of the group that it was not the wealthy, but the workers and poor who carried the financial responsibility for the church. When the working people found out what was happening, they increased their giving to offset the loss from the boycott by the wealthy.

When the financial boycott didn't work, the next step was withdrawal of leadership by those who were thought to be indispensable to the running of the church. Though this was somewhat frightening to those who remained, it soon became apparent that others could do the jobs, and that for the first time in years there was a spirit of cooperation. Things never ran better!

Beyond the opposition within the congregation, the business and social "elite" tried to pressure the bishop to move me elsewhere during the time of the wildcat strike. On one occasion this came to a crisis, and I was requested to appear before the bishop and the 13 district superintendents of the state. This was an unprecedented kind of demand on the part of the hierarchy of the church, so I responded that I would like to bring a fellow pastor to the hearing with me. My district superintendent replied that that would be impossible because it would "violate the confidentiality of the appointment process." I answered that perhaps he could sit in on the discussion until the question of appointments came up, but was told, "absolutely not!" At that point I said that I would like to record the meeting, since it sounded like a labor/management meeting in which I was outnumbered 14 to 1. In shocked tones I was told that this seemed to indicate a lack of trust in the brotherhood, and that I most certainly would not be allowed to record the discussion. Finally I said, "I guess you leave me no option but to speak to the news media." They ignored this comment as inconsequential.

That afternoon I participated in a rally of some 1,500 strikers in which the business agent for the union announced my summons by the church hierarchy. The strikers immediately responded saying, "Let's take a bus caravan to Des Moines and picket the state headquarters of the church, talking to the news media outside while Gil talks to the hierarchy inside." An informer apparently called the bishop immediately, because when I got home the phone rang and the district superintendent said, "That meeting has been indefinitely postponed--we weren't planning a media event."

The significance of describing the kind of opposition we faced is to point out that its result among us was to clarify our minds and strengthen our solidarity. It made clear to all that a class struggle was taking place in the church as well as in the community, and this in turn made such struggle around the world much more understandable.

Two years later, having stayed on as pastor to help people put the pieces of their lives together after the strike and decertification of the union, I voluntarily requested transfer to another church. I had been in Camanche for 10 years, and felt that it was time for a change, both for myself and the congregation. In my place, the bishop appointed a young pastor, with the instruction to bring back and "reconcile" those who had left St. Mark's with those who had remained and gone through the struggle. This class collaborationist approach of "unity above all" was pushed by the opportunistic young pastor over against the solidarity of the existing congregation. Within a few months, those who had experienced a new understanding of Christianity during the years of study and action together decided to leave St. Mark's, and organized themselves as a subgroup of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. For the past three years, that group of 70 to 80 persons has continued to meet and carry on as before. They have no pastor, but they take turns leading the study group on Wednesday night and preaching on Sunday morning. They have experienced many kinds of harassment and opposition, but they are now free to use their time and money toward the concerns and actions they believe in rather than in keeping up a building or in paying per capita to the denominational structures. They have clearly learned that "the church" is not to be equated with the pastor, a building, or a denomination, and in so doing they are stronger than ever before.

We have all learned that the Gospel which is good news to the poor is usually experienced as bad news by the rich; that our lives are not "justified by faith" but by faith in action; that Jesus and the prophets lived and died for the sake of God's rule of justice on earth in which there is to be "abundant life" for all, and in which "the last shall be first, and the first last." Finally, we learned that Christianity and Marxism are not antithetical, nor simply two sides of the same progressive movement in history, but complementary aspects of who we are in the struggle.

For myself, the questions I had about the church 13 years ago have found some answers. Yes, it was possible in Camanche, beyond all my expectations or those of others. Yes, it is possible to split the monopoly of religious myths and symbols intended by fundamentalism and the "Moral Majority." Yes, liberation theology can take root here. Furthermore, it gives promise around the world as far-reaching in its impact toward the rise of socialism as the theology of the Protestant Reformation was for the rise of capitalism.
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Author:Dawes, Gil
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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