[Marxism] Shackles in the Bible Belt

Louis Proyect 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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