Religion and Revolution: The Promise of a Fresh Look

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For students of religion and students of revolution, the upcoming dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian should be a valuable lesson. Taking place at Riverside Church in New York City, this meeting of the minds has tremendous potential to advance understanding on the relationship between religion and revolution, which conventional wisdom tends to hold as mutually exclusive.

Cornel West is arguably the most important African-American intellectual alive today. His works are standard fare in African-American Studies, Religious Studies, and Theology programs, and he has been involved in movies, recording projects, and other activist work. His involvement includes projects like the Million Man March, Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit, and working with religious leaders from different backgrounds, including Minister Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, and Rabbi Michael Lerner.

Bob Avakian is the same age as West, but comes from a different era. Avakian has been the Revolutionary Communist Party’s national leader since 1979. Like West, Avakian has lived a controversial life and has spent decades organizing his political party in America. Prior to his leadership role in this organization, he was involved in the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party.

Although this dialogue promises to tread new theoretical terrain, it will be successful only as much as it can keep its eye on the prize. That is, the talk must avoid getting bogged down in debates on the existence of God, theism v. atheism, or such other fruitless discussion. As these questions have been pondered by the best minds in world history since time immemorial, there is little likelihood that much more will be resolved in just a few hours.

Instead, the discussion should by-pass these tired theological quagmires, and focus on the ways religion and revolution are complementary, and specifically, how one can advance the other. This rare opportunity for genuine dialogue must not be consumed by retrenchment, neither by West’s will to preacher-man nor Avakian’s to toe the party line.

Finding common ground may seem impossible due to the gulf between Marxism and religion. After all it was Karl Marx who famously wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature…” This assertion, from history’s perspective, is unimpeachable since religion has always been manipulated as a means of social control. In the same breath, however, he claims religion is “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” These conciliatory statements point to another undisputable truth: religion can be the heart and soul of revolutionary movement.

The takeaway from history is that theist and non-theist alike stand on common ground within a revolutionary framework. Hence, if the meeting begins on this premise, religion and Marxism may be presented more properly as different species within the broader genus of revolution.

To sight the most obvious example is the American Revolution. It is impossible to understand this era without a cursory understanding of religion’s role, which involved, according to the Library of Congress, “offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British.” Indeed for some, resistance to tyranny was a Christian duty, yet it is crucial to recognize that not everyone shared this religious fervor, and indeed some were religion-less. The point is that both contributed to the American Revolution’s success.

Beyond this revolution, it might be argued that every social revolution in the United States has a corresponding public theology. Whether considering the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, environmental justice, LGBT rights and more, it is clear that all have their genesis in the American church.

A dialogue between West and Avakian that is guided by a complementary ethos promises a better understanding of religion’s role in revolution. It has potential to build bridges where typically none exist, despite that revolution and religion at times are inseparable. Hence, this is an opportunity to expose why creating false binaries is flawed. The history of revolution belongs to both religious and secular thinkers alike, and building on this fact will itself advance the revolution.

This article was originally published by Huffington Post on 11/20/14.  Read it here.