“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, a not-particularly-religious-blog that explores controversial aspects of Christianity, (and Judaism too, but in a much smaller way.) This is the text of a talk I gave at the 10th European Christian Anarchist Conference held at the Catholic Worker farm outside London in June 2016. It is a slightly modified version of a post I wrote 2 years ago entitled “Two red Jewesses.” The theme of the conference was ‘Migration’.
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”
This weekend we are thinking about migration, and in particular immigration and refugees. It is worth recalling that Jesus was a child refugee, a documentless child refugee who fled persecution with his mother, who might have been a single mother, into Egypt. I have often wondered where Jesus picked up his radical social attitudes, and in this essay I propose that his mother, Mary, had a close affinity with a modern feminist/anarchist called Emma Goldman. Jesus must surely have been influenced by Mary, as many of her anarchistic views appear later in Jesus’ teachings such as are found in the Sermon on the Mount. Recently scholars have drawn attention to the form of “regulated anarchism” under which ancient Israel lived for many centuries. I shall come back to that in another Post.
I will start with a quote: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution!”
Guess which red Jewess said this: Emma Goldman or the Virgin Mary? Right first time!
Yet actually of course we can’t tell whether Mary liked dancing or not – for all anyone knows she danced more than her co-religionist did 2000 years later! And her words quoted below show definite revolutionary tendencies while she was still an alma or young woman, (usually mistranslated as “virgin”). In this essay I am suggesting that these two women who at first glance had nothing in common were in fact on the same wavelength.
Emma Goldman was born in a Russian ghetto in 1869. Her family was so poor she had to leave school at 13 to go and work in a factory. At 15 she went to live with a sister in the slum and sweatshop area of Rochester in the US, where she worked as a seamstress.(i)
Mary was likewise born into extreme rural poverty in a jewish community in first century Palestine. Her main claim to fame is probably giving birth to a certain “Yeshua” as she called him (Jesus to you and me) although she does merit celeb status in her own right for her radical left-wing political views.
Both Mary and Emma were undoubtedly aware of the radical side to their people’s history. “…the first form of social organisation indigenous to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible was a tribal confederacy that bears some resemblance to the ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ vision in modernity.” (ii) Eventually it succumbed “to the monarchic Temple-State of King David and his successors”. (iii) The Hebrew Testament (Old Testament) clearly condemns the division of society into rich and poor implying that it is only possible to reach a higher economic level than that of the majority by using illicit means. (iv) This approach is illustrated in Psalm 34:11 “The rich will be left poor and hungry.”
Emma soon got involved in advocating anarchist action against american capitalists. In fact she went into prostitution for a while to earn the money to buy a gun to shoot one particular boss, Frick. Her lover, Alexander Berkman, was sentenced to 22 years for firing at the target, who was not seriously hurt.
Mary is not known to have been particularly violent. However she was prone to disturbing visions of angels who told her amazing things such as that she was going to be the first example of human parthenogenesis (virgin birth). As any biologist will tell you virgin birth in animals implies absence of a Y chromosome and invariably produces female offspring; so if Mary had produced her firstborn by parthenogenesis like the bible says, Jesus would have been a woman. Now that’s a really revolutionary idea!
The bible records at least 6 other boys and girls in Mary’s family besides Jesus (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55) , but the catholic church teaches that her relationship to her husband Joseph was a chaste one, so are they implying that Mary was on the game too?! (v)
“Red Emma” as she was called, was described as “one of the most magnetic and volatile orators in America.” But J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, labelled her “One of the most dangerous women in America.” She lived in a ménage à trois, publicly discussed homosexuality, advocated free love, atheism and revolution, and got a year in prison for publishing information on birth control .
Her powers as an orator just came to her as if from above:- “Something strange happened. In a flash I saw it—every incident of my three years in Rochester: the Garson factory, its drudgery and humiliation, the failure of my marriage, the Chicago crime…I began to speak. Words I had never heard myself utter before came pouring forth, faster and faster. They came with passionate intensity…The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared; I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.”
Mary too sang an ecstatic song: The Magnificat (Lk 1:46). A voice from above had told her “The holy spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. ” Wow!
Mary’s song says, in part,
“My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has shown consideration for the lowly status of his handmaiden. As a consequence from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me…”
While Mary used Jewish religious metaphors, Emma had completely rejected religion:- “Consciously or unconsciously, most theists see in gods and devils, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment…. The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind. The philosophy of theism, if we can call it a philosophy, is static and fixed.“
Emma continued to advocate use of collective violence to overthrow the state and capitalism. She endorsed class war, direct action and industrial sabotage. From atop her soapbox she would call out to crowds of thousands who came to listen to her: ” Ask for work. If they don’t give you work ask for bread. If they don’t give you work or bread then take the bread.”
Thousands too sing out the words of Mary in church services everyday.
In the radical core of the Magnificat Mary cries:- “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:51-53)
“Mary is here speaking not of individuals undergoing moral change but of the restructuring of the order in which there are rich and poor, mighty and lowly.” (vi)
This must surely rank as one of the most militant passages in the gospels. Perhaps the woman whom Christians like to call “the holy mother”, “our lady”, and “the blessed virgin Mary” should simply be called “Red Mary” because that’s what the written record of Luke suggests she was. Like mother like son? Sadly, some churches in the UK (like St Paul’s cathedral where Occupy London took place), choose to protect the ears of their congregations from the Magnificat’s radical message by singing it in Latin!
In case anyone in the congregation decides to take this woman’s message to heart, 2 pages later in the Anglican evensong one will be asked to prey for the Queen. The notion of hierarchy is reaffirmed as worshippers entreat the deity for the monarch’s wealth and prosperity. And of course the Magnificat is probably sung in the first place by a bunch of macho men and boys as the church still so often excludes women from participation in its music and from leading its worship.(vii)
“She was a woman of total sincerity, warm-hearted and cultivated. Many were impressed by her unfailing courage in support of freedom in all its forms.” Which woman does this refer to? (viii)
Before being deported from the US back to Russia, Emma wrote political analyses that harmonised surprisingly closely with the Magnificat. She believed that the economic system of capitalism was incompatible with human liberty: “The only demand that property recognizes,” she wrote in Anarchism and Other Essays, “is its own gluttonous appetite for greater wealth, because wealth means power; the power to subdue, to crush, to exploit, the power to enslave, to outrage, to degrade.” She also argued that capitalism dehumanized workers, “turning the producer into a mere particle of a machine, with less will and decision than his master of steel and iron.” (ix) also
“Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.”
This is so similar to some of the Hebrew prophets and to Red Mary’s son’s description of the Kingdom of God. Jesus preached a ‘kingdom’ which, as mentioned in an earlier blog the ‘Zingcreed’ (See Zingcreed.Wordpress.com), is like a utopian democratic republic where no-one has power over anyone else and which will only come into existence by our own human actions.
Emma died on a speaking tour of Canada in 1940.
Mary outlived her son who was crucified in his thirties. Crucifixion was the penalty the Roman Empire imposed for political subversion. If his ‘crime’ had been judged to be religious, then the penalty would have been stoning to death.
(i ) Marshall, Peter “Demanding the Impossible” Harper Collins (1992)
(ii) Myers, Ched in the foreword to “That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism” by Mark Van Steenwyk, Missio Dei (2012)
(iii) Myers, op. cit.
(iv) Miranda, José Porfirio “Communism in the Bible” Wipf and Stock (1982) p.24-25
(v) The weekly newsletter of the pro cathedral of our lady of perpetual help, San Fernando, Trinidad, W.I. for 17 March 2013. An article headed “Solemnity of St Joseph, Husband of Mary” says, in part, “St Joseph. Renowned offspring of David, Spouse of the Mother of God, Chaste Guardian of the Virgin, Foster father of the son of God, Head of the Holy Family, Joseph most chaste, Guardian of Virgins.” So who is supposed to have fathered Jesus’ six plus siblings?? Talk about tying themselves up in knots – you couldn’t make it up!
(vi) Tamez, Elsa “Bible of the oppressed” Orbis Books (1982) p.68
(vii) Rowland, C. “Radical Christianity” Polity Press (1988)
(viii) Joll, James “The Anarchists” Methuen (1964) p.189 (writing about Emma)
Images : “Hippy Mary” by Sarah Fuller of London Catholic Worker, based on an idea from Martin Newell (also LCW); photo of Emma Goldman from www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk
Related Zingcreed Posts:
Red Christian Documents #7: The Magnificat (Galilee, ca 4 B.C.E.)
Similarities between Christianity and socialism
Rosa Luxemburg’s insights on Christianity and socialism
Red Christian documents #1: Socialism is practical Christianity
Marx’s 3 criticisms of religion
Karl Marx’s personality
Marx’s Christian roots
The Christian roots of communism
Alienation according to Karl Marx
Jesus’s real political message
Jesus’s communist brother James (i) his life
Is communism a religion in its own right?
The opium of the people
Jesus or marx? A fun quiz for all the family
Alphabetical index for ‘Red Christian’ and ‘Red Christian document’ Posts