Yesterday I heard an anarchist preach in song about the Robin Hoods of the world–linking them to Jesus in ways that should put the pause button on for all of us who see in Jesus a liberator who (like the God of the Jewish prophets) sides with the underdog, the oppressed, the poor.
The context was a concert after a peace rally to mark the 6th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq (and to interrogate the US presence in Afghanistan). The singer was internationally-known Dave Rovics, based in Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t expecting him to be quite as radical as he turned out to be. But I have never seen such a clever political use of music, even as I felt uneasy about the patterns he was inviting us to see AND embrace in US and world history.
Most of the songs were his own. He began with a quite funny song that noted the acronym for Operation Iraqi Liberation was OIL. Then he moved to a song about a piece of US history I had not known: Irish immigrants to the US who formed a brigade called St. Patrick’s and fought on the Mexican side of the US war (feeling that the Mexicans were the ones getting beat up on, just as they themselves had been back in Ireland). Then Rovics sang a song praising the pirates of Somalia, who he felt were really just “taxing” corporations and who never killed, but instead made fine international dishes for their hostages (borscht, for example), while waiting for their hostage money. He sang a children’s song–union organizing 101–about a group of children who peacefully stop bullies from running the playground, then notice a polluting factory nearby and decide that, before it’s dark, they’ll march over there and block entry to it. Then he moved back into 19th century American history and sang a song about John Brown, a white man who–before the civil war–incited direct action against slaveholders, forcibly freeing slaves on plantations. Abraham Lincoln called him a terrorist and John Brown was hung, but when the civil war began, northerners marched south singing Brown’s praises. Rovics noted that Brown was a preacher, motivated by his understanding of the Christian faith. Eventually Rovics sang a song praising the actions of those anarchists who take part in direction action against corporations by blowing up condominium developments and Wal-Marts.
Few in the audience of gathered Macomb liberals agreed with his version of anarchism. But I noticed that everyone was as utterly attentive as I was, curious to see how he would defend violent forms of civil disobedience. He was naming an underside of the history of social movements that raises unsettling questions about the place of violence in social change, and that prods us to ask why many of us accept the violence of nation states in war, but not the violence of those seeking to redress a perceived injustice as a vigilante group (like the American revolutionaries who took up arms against Britain).
He did sing “What Would Jesus Bomb?” But other songs linked Jesus to Robin Hood figures, past and present. While it wasn’t the first time I’d heard these connections made, it was the first time I heard them in a space that invited sympathy with violent direction action in the name of social justice–including in the name of Jesus. Selectively violent, perhaps; targeting property more than people. To resist that invitation meant doing a lot of intellectual and moral reflection that was not present in those songs.
I was reminded of the struggle many white Christians had when I was in seminary and we were studying African American religious history with Lewis Baldwin. Many of my classmates felt it was wrong for slaves to steal, to cheat their masters, to develop an alternative Robin Hood morality. Many felt dismay with how John Brown used his Christian faith to justify violent opposition to human inequality. But what I found Baldwin inviting us to do was to BEGIN in a different place: to begin by recognizing, naming, and identifying with the anger against racism and dehumanization that motivated individuals to resist slavery in violent ways, before the civil war. Isn’t there a problem if we begin with queasy discomfort about vigilante justice, instead of with anger at the injustice targeted in that violence? Is it because “we” implicitly identify more with those in positions of privilege?
It’s hard for me to see capitalistic corporations as evil in the way slavery was evil. It’s hard for me to see logging old growth forests as something evil enough to justify acts of eco-terrorism. But it’s harder still to discern how much to identify Jesus with Robin Hood. Jesus did, after all, throw the moneychangers out of the temple, and send someone’s herd of swine into the sea (clear cases of property damage). Inspired by this Jesus, and by his clear preference for the poor and marginalized, it’s not hard to see why Christian Nicaraguan peasants felt inspired by the gospel itself to take part in the Sandinista communist revolution which overthrew an oppressive regime, and forcibly redistributed land.
Little in the rule of Benedict would seem to invite this view of Jesus; the rule of Benedict can seem by contrast so inward-looking, so focused on the alternative community of Benedictines themselves–at least if we read the rule out of the context of the social history of monasteries, and the history of Benedictines wrestling with social questions. It’s tempting to forget that monastics over the centuries have enthusiastically supported (or enacted) riots, mob actions, torture, and murder against Christians with whom they disagreed–and supported the crusades and the inquisition. There is no innocent thread of history, no innocent tradition, be it monastic or a progressive social justice movement (or the two combined).
How best to open ourselves to anger at injustice? Many people of prayer engage this question in creative ways. I am curious how you have done so.