[Marxism] Shackles in the Bible Belt
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 2 20:04:34 MDT 2008
"Didn't You see that Spirit Descend?" Shackles in the Bible Belt
By Mike Ely
I'd like to share some experiences around the collision between
revolutionary communist work and fundamentalist religion in the
coalfields during the high-tide of wildcat strikes there in the 1970s.
I was working in a large mostly Black mine at the southernmost edge
of West Virginia, near where it butts into Virginia and Kentucky. As
the wildcat strikes heated up and spread, as our communist
organization started to play a more and more active role in them, and
as we started carrying out open communist work, the management of my
mine quickly identified me as a radical, and quickly realized that
they would have a hard time driving me out of the mine. They wanted
to set me up for firing.
And so one of their moves was to have me work (on a big double-headed
Fletcher roof-bolting machine) with Don, who was a preacher of the
Jimmy Swaggart variety. Don, a Korean war vet, and his twin brother
Ron alternated preaching at a church over in Virginia, in a very
conservative area famous for its "sunset customs" (where Black people
risked death if they stayed in the county past night fall). Don's
religiosity was extreme and sincere. His whole waking life was a
constant dialog with a part of his brain which (he believed) provided
gifts from his God. So he would walk over to a broken machine,
praying to himself "dear god, give me the power to fix this" and he
would walk away from the fixed machine praying "thank you god for
giving me the insights to fix this." His own remarkable mechanical
skills (and everything else in the universe) were, to Don, a gift
from God that could be suspended at any moment.
And this kind of beliefs had all kinds of terrible consequences for
example Don was lax in setting protective roof supports as we worked.
He used to say to me "The days are numbered, verily, as are the hairs
on your head." Meaning: that the day of our death was set by God, not
by our own actions, and so it really didn't matter what precautions
we took. Naturally, as a militant materialist, I thought that was
crap, and was rather determined that we would have all the protection
we could get from falling rock.
In ways that the pigs running this mine could not have imagined, Don
and I became tight. We argued about religion constantly, hour by
hour, lunch break by lunch break raging over morality, and how the
people knew and accomplished things, and what was happening in the
country and world. And he came to appreciate and respect (in a way
that surprised him, naturally) the rigor and depth of our communist
convictions, and was deeply surprised at our ability to be moral and
consistent without god (even while knowing that OUR morality was
different in so many ways from his.)
One day, Don was riding out of the coal camp where he lived and
crossing the railroad tracks to get up to the main road. And his
truck stalled on the tracks, just as the scream of an approaching
train could be heard coming out of a nearby tunnel on those tracks.
Don and his ten year old son ran away from that truck, and about a
hundred feet away turned to watch as the train hit their truck square
crushing it as the locomotive's brakes screamed by in a vain attempt to stop.
The bumper on that truck flew off like a spear and struck Don's son
in the head. He died on the spot, as Don looked on in disbelief. It
was truly horrible.
And it had happened before that trains at that crossing had
endangered people because there were no crossing lights or warning
to keep people off the tracks. A meeting was held in the coal camp,
to demand a crossing light, and a petition was taken up. And there
was a great deal of bitterness spoken about how little the
authorities cared about people's lives.
And Don stood up, with great emotion, to speak about the loss of his
son. And then, to everyone's astonishment announced that he would not
sign the petition. And no one should either. And the reason, he said,
was that the whole meaning of this incident and this death was being
misunderstood by everyone. And that it had nothing to do with
railroad companies or the disrespect shown to people living on the
river bottom. Don said that he believed that his son had died because
God had wanted this boy's great goodness to be with God in heaven.
And his son had died to punish him, Don, because his love of this boy
had come to rival and even eclipse his worship of God. And that there
was a lesson here about the larger meaning and plan behind all
events, even when they seemed so horrific and painful.
Now obviously, the protest of the people there was no great moment or
leap in the class struggle. It was one of a thousand protests
breaking out at that time, and was (in its own way) part of the much
larger events of the 1960s. But clearly this was a moment when a
religious belief (and complex and deeply held fatalist philosophy
rooted in Christianity) was a "shackle" on a righteous protest of the
people, and represented a way of thinking that would obstruct even
more class conscious struggles and ideas that might emerge.
And as much as I knew Don, and as much as we had argued over
religion, this incident shocked me. And while trying not to belittle
his grief, I had to struggle with him over this view, and tried to
bring out how the truly great crimes against humanity around the
world could be excused by arguing they were part of God's larger purpose.
* * * * *
A little later, a great strike swept over the state, as the federal
judges started jailing local mine officials for breaking anti-strike
injunctions. And so tens of thousands of us were on strike to demand
the right to strike. And where I worked (like so many places) this
was very controversial with groups of men determined to scab, and
also determined to speak out against this rebellion against the law
and the courts and the coal companies. And so one Sunday we gathered
at our UMW Local's hall, down the hill from the mine parking lot,
with an overflow crowd, and huge arguments broke out. And fists were
thrown. And some very angry (and very drunk) brothers were ejected.
And had my moments of going nose to nose too, since i was singled out
(by that point) as one of the leading activists of the strike in that
county, and so was a rather notorious symbol of the strike.
As we all left the meeting, a young miner i knew came over, stood
behind me for a moment and leaned by my ear to whisper: "How, after
seeing all that, can you imagine there isn't a God?"
I was confused, not really understanding his point. And asked, "Ok,
how did you see all of that as a manifestation of God?"
Tommy replied, "Didn't you see the spirit of disunity descend on those men?"
And (as often happened) my secular brain was slow to wrap itself
around this. Because to Tommy, this had been a supernatural event. We
had gathered to make plans for this strike, and (in his mind) a
spirit had come into the room, a spirit dedicated to disunity, and it
had taken over the men and caused them to argue and fight.
There is a famous bible verse from Ephesians 6:12 that says:
"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against
principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of
this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places."
And Tommy was bringing out what that passage meant to him: That when
we saw conflict among men, and violent acts, it is not really (as it
seems to me!) acts of "flesh and blood," but it is (to him and others
who believe like him) really manifestations of evil spiritual and
supernatural forces who cause so much suffering. And to him, we live
in a "age" dominated by "the rulers of darkness" and that is how to
see (and understand) the things around us, including the "wickedness
in high places." These are, to him, spiritual problems, not the
inventions of human beings.
And I have to say, I think we have to see his system of beliefs as a
real obstacle to "knowing the world to change the world" because
for Tommy (just like for Don) the world around him was seen through a
spiritual glass that made it impossible to understand real causality,
or to identify the actually available means of influencing events.
It struck me then, perhaps for the first time, why religious miners
demanded that our meetings open with a prayer. I had seen it just as
"a custom" but for someone like Tommy it was literally a spiritual
attempt to keep bad spiritual forces from dominating us, and to keep
the decision of people in line with God's divine plans. And so
preachers would often pray "Our heavenly Father we pray for unity
among us today, and that Thy will be done
." and so on.
And (while we are talking), it was often a way of telling whether a
meeting (a rally or a strike gathering) was led by communists or not
because where we had any influence or say, there were no prayers. And
really, most miners didn't give a shit, and were quite happy to meet
and decide without trying to drive out the Prince of Darkness first.
But there was a section of people (i'd guess 20 percent) who really
were in the grip of particularly intense idealist thinking, and were
trained to apply that as a method to all kinds of events around them.
And they were determined there should be prayer (in meetings, in
school, at sports events
) and were disturbed if there wasn't cuz
they thought evil would reign.
* * * * *
The struggle of these kinds of ideas were rather sharp.
There would often be lively debates where i worked, before we went
into the drift mouth, over many things but often over religion. And
(I have to say) many workers just LOVED to hear me take on the
preachers, because the discussions were so outrageous, and because
many people had often never HEARD anyone take on the religious
mythologies straight on (the way some of us communists did).
Obviously the "sinners" and "hellers" were taking on religion in
their own way by ignoring it or defying it. But that was different.
So we would stand around, and someone would shout, what about Noah's
flood? And the preacher would explain that the coal seam we worked in
was evidence of that flood. And I would say, Nah, you will never see
the bones of a cow or a man in the fossils or in the coal because
this coal was laid down hundreds of millions of years before humans
(or any modern vertebrate animal) walked on the earth.
One preacher got very heated, once, INSISTING that the coal had been
laid down while humans walked the earth, and while all the animals we
now see existed. And so I made him a bet: I said if he or anyone
could find a fossil that was recognizable as a tree or a plan from
today, I would join his church for life.
The preacher was very sincerely excited by this
because he assumed
that this was a piece of cake. And so there were for several weeks an
organized effort by the most religious guys working there to find
fossils as they worked anything that was clearly a cat, or a bird,
or a dog, or any modern animal. And of course they couldn't, even
though people brought out various fragments and we would all lean
over to see if it was clearly an imprint or fossil of something modern.
And after a while the preacher was getting frustrated, and a bit
demoralized by this. And suddenly one day he called off the search.
And when I asked about that he said "Wisdom with man is foolishness
with God" (a verse from the bible).
And what he meant was that he had been seduced by me onto OUR world
of experiment, and evidence and proof, and that once he and the other
religious believers had been trying to proof their faith on THOSE
grounds, they were sunk (as I knew all along) because that evidence
would not be found. And so he was announcing a shift of framework: He
would no longer argue that the fossils MUST uphold genesis and the
Bible, but that it didn't matter what our little investigation showed
since we could tell what was true by reading Genesis.
And it was not lost on others watching this, that the preachers had
lost this round, and that the Bible had not held up to scrutiny.
* * * * *
In his memoir, Avakian retells a story i once shared with him (page 294):
"I remember a funny story that one comrade told later this was a
person who'd done a lot of theoretical study and understood a lot of
different scientific questions very well. So he was able to argue
very strongly about why evolution was a fact and take on all this
fundamentalist religious nonsense. One time, everybody had cleared
out of the shower room except this comrade, and then just as he was
getting ready to leave, one of the miners came back, looked around to
make sure nobody was there, and then said to this comrade: "I'm only
gonna say this once. I think this religion stuff's a bunch of
bullshit too." And then he walked out. So this gives you a sense of
both the atmosphere and some of the ideological work and struggle
that our comrades were carrying out within it."
As a side note: I can't help notice the irony here, now that I am now
being accused in our ongoing two-line struggle of having "opposing
ideological struggle over religion" and so on
. while Bob himself
(and lots of other comrades in the RCP) know very well that it is not true.
* * * * * *
At one point, as the strikes became very powerful and waves of
anti-communist red baiting broke out in the media, there was a
campaign in our county aimed at the two communists there, my wife
Gina and I. And one spearhead of it focused on denouncing us as atheists.
And one night, driving home from work, I heard this same preacher on
the local radio denouncing me
saying that I was undermining God, and
that it cast a suspicious light on what was behind the larger
disturbances that were happening (and he meant the 60s generally, not
just the strikes growing in the coalfields). And so when I went to
work the next day, I took with me a bright red baseball cap I had,
that had two orange horns coming out either side. And I had it next
to me as i changed for work.
and when this preacher came in, I put on my devil had and went to
confront him. It just so happened, that i was otherwise naked at that
moment, so it was a pretty startling for him to see me walking
towards him, with horns coming out of my head, and shouting, "Hey,
Jimmy, I heard you calling me an agent of Satan on the radio last night
And I didn't get much further into it, because everyone around,
dozens of guys dressing in that bathhouse for work, just started
howling with laughter, at the round-eyed, spooked, speechless look on
Jimmy's face, and me standing there butt naked, ready to have
challenge his bullshit.
We each just turned around and finished getting dressed, and nothing
more was said between us about this, but I think he was more careful
about making charges in his radio sermons after that.
* * * * * **
These were the years when the religious right was just getting
organized as a militant force, and we were among the first to run
into it. And at a certain point one of the larger and more extreme
churches in my town decided to run out the communists (inspired I
suspect by by people connected with the local coal companies and
police, and larger reactionary political forces). And a campaign of
attacks started coming down one of our cars were destroyed, our
house was spraypainted, our friends were threatened, and things were
generally building up in a way that might have ended with a shooting or arson.
And in the middle of this, there erupted a huge fight within that
church. I didn't know the details at the time, but soon learned all
about it. For one thing, a section of that church split off,
explicitly because they opposed the mounting anti-communist attacks.
It was led by a slim young man named Kenny, a miner where I worked,
who had been quite a "heller" in his teens, and who had a dotted line
tatooed across his belly that said "cut here." And Kenny pulled about
forty people out of the church and started his own congregation in a
trailer in Gary Holler (the heart of the U.S. STeel mines).
On a theological tip: Kenny started developing a doctrine for this
new church (together with others). That Jesus had been a carpenter,
and had come among the poor. That salvation would come from from a
"kingdom of God on earth" not from some magical event of trumpets and
rapture. That the measure of saintliness was the relations among the
"body of Christ" in other words, that godliness resided in how
people treated each other. And this church abandoned the polyester
suits and ties, and long dresses on women that characterized the most
conservative churches, and started dressing in jeans and casual
clothes of our generation. And it is interesting to notice, that
these views (developing quite spontaneously from Kenny's evolving
beliefs) were parallel to the kinds of theology that emerged whenever
people formed a christianity that was focused on "social justice":
they stressed the humanity of Jesus and his lower class origins, and
moved away from the most mystical and magical expectations.
Kenny and I would often lie on his lawn, and debate these things, as
I tried to argue that once you question the divinity of Jesus, you
should also question the very existence of God. But he remained a
preacher of his pro-communist little church, and never moved closer
to our materialist views.
But he did tell me how the split had happened in the larger church.
It has happened when my co-worker Don and Ron (the twin holly rollers
of the Jimmy Swaggert camp) had asked to come preach (as often
happens in these church circuits). And when they got to the podium
they had launched a huge attack on the reactionary campaign this
church was waging. I later learned that Don had spoken quite boldly
(given the times and the kinds of red-baiting going on) about working
with me, and knowing my wife, and learning what our views were. And
without, for a second (!), retreating from his own, very extreme and
conservative views, he lay tore into (and he could be scorching!) how
ignorant and wrong it was to launch a campaign against people active
in the cause of working people.
And by the time he was done, folks in that congregation who were
uneasy about all this, were embolded to walk out. And the folks left
were never able to escalate their attacks on us any further.
Don later said to Gina, "You know we form a bond underground, when we
hold our lives in each other's hands. You really get to know
somebody." I have never thought that working people were only
characterized by "nothing to lose" there is also a common
experience that people have together, in work and life, that give
people an important if embryonic sense of "we."
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