Vaneesa Cook, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2019. 272 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 9780812251654.
Philip Turner, Christian Socialism: The Promise of an Almost
Forgotten Tradition, Cascade, Eugene, Oregon, 2021. 236 pp. $29.00. ISBN: 9781725259409.
Roland Boer, Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition, Haymarket, Chicago, Illinois, 2020. 294 pp. $19.60. ISBN: 9781642593723.
Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 3rd ed., University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2021. 496 pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-4696-6372-2.
Socialism is having a moment in the West. To be sure, that moment is shared along with a number of movements protesting the present social, political, and economic order. The rising polarization of social movements is contributing to a haze of understanding around just what is meant by the term socialism within this milieu. If you listened to Fox News or various alt-right media outlets, you would understand that a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for socialism. Left-leaning activists and academics, on the other hand, were trying to clarify that Biden was simply an extension of the capitalist status quo.
Churches have also taken sides. Duke sociologist Mark Chaves notes that churches have become more explicitly political since 1998, with left-leaning churches showing dramatic increases since 2012.1 Recently, many of the most active political expressions have included explicitly Christian expressions, whether marching on Capitol Hill on January 6 or in the streets supporting Justice for Black Lives Matter.
A number of recent publications have attempted to shed some light on the relationship between Christianity and socialism, demonstrating a long and diverse history of engagement. I will briefly summarize three such books, saving a fourth—the one with the least religious focus, Black Marxism—for the end. What we find in these sources is diversity, not only in understanding socialism between the right and left wings of contemporary politics but also within expressions advocating for socialism. One common strand within that diversity, whether embracing or denouncing socialism, is an acknowledgment that socialism stands as some form of protest over the present state of the world.
Of the four books reviewed here, Spiritual Socialists by Vaneesa Cook and Christian Socialism by Philip Turner are the most tightly focused in terms of time and place. Christian Socialism names an identified movement in England that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, while “spiritual socialists” is a term Cook gives to a group of individuals in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. These movements filled the space between left-leaning liberalism, on the one side, that focused on individual rights as well as the belief in incremental, even inevitable, progress and, on the other side, the more radically oriented Marxists, who sought revolutionary overthrow of economic and political structures.
These works reflected clear divergences in both understanding and focus of study. On the American side, this ranged from distrust of political institutions, as seen in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, right up to the “Kingdom” politics (and policies) of the eventual vice president of the United States Henry Wallace. For Cook, a common core can be found in the fundamental commitment to change in individual lives and the belief that from this change small seeds of the Kingdom could grow. So while spiritual socialists might have used laws and policies to address what they considered to be a social problem, they did not understand the laws and policies as ends in themselves; for them, it was important to understand God’s Kingdom as separate from specific political forms. The Christian Socialists of England were mostly ministers and academics who focused on matters of moral regeneration and social duties instead of focusing on institutional changes in law or economics. Many of them explicitly rejected support of state socialism. For them, moral persuasion and education served as the primary agents of change and formation through the activity of the church. Common to both movements was a sort of idealism that believed the church could express its values outside the influence of existing social structures. That is, the church, either in thought or deed, needed to maintain clear boundaries from that of the world and its structures.
This tight and focused picture of socialism and Christianity in England and America at the turn of the twentieth century stands in contrast to Roland Boer’s sprawling account of what he calls the Christian Communist Tradition. In Red Theology, Boer begins with the locus classicus of the tradition being found in the call to have all things in common as recorded in the book of Acts. To be clear, Boer is not claiming an exhaustive account of this tradition. He acknowledges that various times and places have been well documented elsewhere, such as the liberation theology and politics of many Latin American church movements.
After addressing aspects of the Apostle Paul’s political theology, Boer spends most of his time on the period of the Reformation to the present day. He speaks to two major themes in the Christian Communist Tradition: (1) the common critique and protest of the state of the world and (2) the political ambivalence within the biblical and theological tradition through which runs various forms of protest. This ambivalence, he states, could lead groups to communal escapism or revolutionary violence. Here Boer maintains that the Bible does not definitively answer the question of politics or protest but rather contains fragments and gestures of various forms and expressions regarding such. He traces the impulse of Acts 2 and 4 through monastics, revolutionaries, and reformers who all had their own way of temporarily resolving the political ambiguities and contradictions of the Christian tradition. Moving into the modern period, Boer takes seriously the theological convergences and divergences of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, as well as the Christian influences at the margins of the Russian Revolution.
What is most interesting about these three books is how each charts its particular understanding of Christian-inflected socialism into the present. Christian Socialism affirms the church’s call to refrain from directly engaging matters of social policy and politics and to focus instead on the work of cultivating social ideals rooted in understanding oneself in need of grace and therefore ill-equipped to bestow salvation to self and others—instead, viewing salvation as a gift that can only be given by God. (It should be noted that Boer’s notion of grace actually enhances one’s freedom to engage politically). Turner concludes with sustained attention on British theologian John Milbank, who advocates for a virtue ethics that relies on transcendence outside the all-encompassing pressures of our current socioeconomic forces. Milbank, while offering practical critiques of contemporary society and some outlines of potential policy changes, reaffirms that, in the end, “common good” is a gift of the church still to come and so one must faithfully wait and cultivate virtues in the meantime.
Spiritual Socialists ends with a focus on the role of race in America in the past fifty years, in the midst of individual minority groups gaining political power through self-identification with movements such as the Black Panther Party or the American Indian Movement. Through the figures of Pauli Murray and Cornel West, Cook offers the image of spiritual socialists attempting to transcend theologians such as James Cone, whose agenda was felt to be “too particularist and too much about power.” In line with Turner’s account, Cook concludes by clarifying the legacy of spiritual socialism as a grassroots vision of the Kingdom of God that must grow up rather than be enforced from the top down.
In stark contrast, Boer concludes Red Theology with a tour of Asia—namely, China and Korea. In these final chapters, he offers a rare, and likely controversial, look at how Christianity came to the East and the political consequences of this expansion, such as the simple translation of the name of God into the vernacular causing a confrontation with the Chinese dynasty. During the
Taiping revolution, the biblical tenets of material distribution and equality became a source for organizing society. In the twentieth century, several Chinese Christians continued to develop revolutionary models from their understanding of Jesus and the gospel. These writers did not abandon the “spiritual” element but understood that the spirituality of Christianity inevitably leads to revolution in the face of imperial violence and injustice.
In the context of North Korea (DPRK, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), Boer identifies the relationship between state socialism and the church in the wake of the Korean war—a period in which Christians tended to focus their energy on rebuilding the nation as opposed to fixing bombed churches. This relationship with the state has continued into the present, with active work toward Korean unification. Boer concludes with the question of what would happen if Christian communism actually gained power. Forcefully pushing past Turner and Cook, he explores the manner in which one must think beyond both cultivating virtues and performing critique, by acknowledging that after the Exodus the Israelites needed to understand what it was to live in the land. Here Boer opens the possibilities of collaboration as seen between China and Korea, as well as possible models that were explored during the German Democratic Republic in East Germany.
To summarize, Turner and Cook outline traditions that used the message of the gospel to protest the material, political, and economic realities of their time and place. Both traditions set boundaries with respect to their understanding of Christianity because to engage too closely in their protest would, in their view, threaten to compromise or contaminate the gospel. Boer is less hesitant in this regard as he tries to interpret the theology of existing historic events while taking seriously theology and political power in the present. He is interested not in preserving orthodoxy but in creating openings for new alliances. Here, he relays a mess of expressions carrying the communist impulse from monastic to revolutionary to collaborative.
At this point, I suggest a fourth recent publication—Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, originally published in 1983 then revised and updated as a third edition in 2021. Subtitled The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, the book charts the lives of Africans since their arrival in the Americas, describing their responses to conditions of slavery and its afterlife. Robinson rigorously denies that either Europe or Christianity served a key role in the formation of this unique tradition. Rather, he describes the tradition as evolving from the “accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle.”
Beginning with a critique of European radicalism and its incipient racism, Robinson documents the erasure of African history in Western consciousness. He then undertakes an archaeology of the Black Radical Tradition, beginning with the expressions of early maroon communities, who had escaped from slavery, then moving to the full-scale revolution in Haiti. Continuing to excavate, Robinson describes experiments in nationalism and internationalism in the United States and then shifts to a more detailed engagement with three key figures of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R James, and Richard Wright.
In Robinson’s account of the Black Radical Tradition, there is no question of preserving canonical purity or of questioning in principle what it would mean to be in power. One simply worked and acted and thought from where one was. Everything of value was formed, tested, and ultimately forged in the struggle—including full-scale victories, as in Haiti, and various collaborations with communism and socialism as well as experiments with nationalism and internationalism.
Black Marxism is duly recognized for demonstrating both to the West and to the Western church how deeply race is implicated in the formation of the modern world. Black Marxism also stands on its own merit as an example of navigating history, theory, power, and practice, with the knowledge that doing so involves neither purity nor neutrality. Robin D. G. Kelley in his preface to the third edition lists scores of modern Black movements and concludes that “all these movements and thinkers have, at one time or another, engaged, embraced, or were influenced by Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism.” This accretion of knowledge was at work on plantations as well as in escape and rebellion, and is now also present through organizing on the streets. It worked in the church and outside of it. It explored well-being within the capitalism of America, traveled to Russia to explore communism, and figured its own plans along the way. Because of the questions of survival that pressed daily, this tradition was never afforded the luxury of asking questions of purity.
In this way, Black Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition remain a clarion call to the church in how it understands its relation to the world. If most iterations of socialism are ultimately a form of protest, then they would do well to learn from Black Marxism specifically and the Radical Black Tradition in general. This tradition rejects the orientation of the Christian Socialists that eschew struggle as a direct form of knowledge and formation. Similarly it challenges spiritual socialists in their general avoidance of particular forms of power that arise at sites of resistance, as well as their avoidance of expressions such as the Black Panthers or even the work of James Cone. Finally, there is some convergence with Boer’s own work of recovering and articulating the Christian communist tradition as he allows struggle and ambivalence to be necessary parts of on-the-ground knowledge and organization.
For Boer the challenge from Robinson is more straightforward: Black Marxism demands that race be understood as central to any conversation around economics and politics. (Nowhere does Boer address the issue of race as it relates to either Christianity or communism.) Robinson notes that Lenin did take the Black population in America seriously as an important group to add to the movement of communism. Robinson is also clear, however, that Black leaders began to realize that a Marxist response to present conditions always fell short in addressing the role race played in forming the world order. With Richard Wright there is a level clarity in the Black Radical Tradition understanding “that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.” (299) The reality of being Black became inseparable from the response to capitalism. It is no longer excusable, if it ever was, to omit an analysis of or grounding in race related to economic and political structures.
Overviewing these recent interventions is the question of how the church should engage present issues of race, politics, and economics. Even within the divisive and often dismissed category of socialism, the church is far from being uniform in agreement. This is important to understand as churches, particularly left-leaning ones, increasingly engage in various forms of protest within the political realm. Boer’s assertion of the fundamental ambivalence of Christian political theology is important here. There is no inspired or self-evident path. You can find precedent or justification for nearly any political form, whether from the Bible or church history. Rather than lament this, we can take our cue from the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “judge for yourselves” (1 Cor 11:13). I would argue that this sort of material responsibility is reflected in the Black Radical Tradition and is precisely what the church needs.
Common to all varieties of Christian socialism is a critique and protest of the world as it is. And that protest must include a thoroughgoing protest of the church’s own supremacist legacy,2 which is still lived out implicitly or explicitly by many of the Christian socialisms. Christian supremacy must be traced back to the very first formations of the church. In its political ambivalence, neither the Bible nor the gospel necessarily lead to the supremacist legacy of the church, but such a legacy can indeed be traced to the church’s earliest formation. In the same way that Robinson’s pursuit of race carried him to the formations of Western modernity, so too must Christians pursue their protest as deep as the logic carries them.
To critique and protest the world (a deeply biblical and Anabaptist posture) means reckoning with the world the church has had a critical role in birthing. We can no longer assume in advance we will know what Good News will look and sound like other than witnessing its fruit among those who have been abused by the world. Many Christian socialist traditions, however, continue to preserve some notion of Christian purity or supremacy within their theological understandings and expressions. The church has still not learned to take its cue from expressions like the Black Radical Tradition—a tradition that never understood itself outside the existing powers of the world but rather learned to fashion a message of protest in the struggle and then was willing to continue learning. It is well past time to discard supremacist theology and take our cue instead from the Black Radical Tradition.
The church does not need to fear contaminating or misrepresenting the gospel for Christ. Socialism is not a compromise of the gospel, but neither is it self-evidently equated with the gospel. Socialism reflects an impulse of protesting a world that refuses to share and that punishes with poverty. Socialism becomes part of the gospel—it becomes Good News—when it meets Christ in the places of celebration and the struggle for another way.
David CL Driedger is Associate Minister of First Mennonite Church of Winnipeg.
Eric Ferreri, “In Trump Era, More Progressive Churches Get Politically Active,” Duke Today, September 15, 2020, accessed April 19, 2021, https://today.duke.edu/2020/09/trump-era-more-progressive-churches-get-politically-active.
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong notes in her theological work on Cedric Robinson that when the Christian Left tries to claim a progressive agenda as the heart of the gospel there remains a risk of “erasing both the history of Christian order as the maintenance of racial order, and the black radical work that went into making black life theologically meaningful, valuable, and a source of theological knowledge.” Armstrong, “Christian Order and Racial Order: What Cedric Robinson Can Teach Us Today,” The Bias Magazine: The Voice of the Christian Left, June 3, 2020, accessed August 31, 2021, https://christiansocialism.com/cedric-robinson-racial-order-christianity-socialism/.