A Gospel for the Left
Mural at St. Nicholas Croatian Church, Millvale, Max Vanko, 1937-1941
by Ed Simon
Visible above the short skyline of the appropriately-named former mill town of Millvale, are the squat, yellow-bricked double spires of the St. Nicholas Croatian Church, which once competed for prominence alongside the iron manufacturers and steel mills. From the outside, St. Nicholas is indistinguishable from other ethnic churches across the western Pennsylvania landscape, but the interior presents what are the most striking set of liturgical murals of the last century, painted by the Croatian artist Maksimilijan “Max” Vanko.
Twenty-five of them produced between 1937 and 1941, Vanko’s style has variously evoked the social realism of the Works Progress Administration, the communist allegories of his Mexican contemporary Diego Rivera, and the iconography of his native Croatia. Vanko’s is the sort of tableaux that is surprising to see in a church, seemingly owing as much to Karl Marx as it does scripture. The artist’s genius is in demonstrating how such a synthesis is anything but contradictory.
His murals bear titles like “The Capitalist,” an image of a vampiric, gaunt, ashen-faced, dead-eyed industrialist in top hat and frock coat, sneering with thin lip while reading stock reports behind a massive feast. For the proletarian parishioners of St. Nicholas, working in the mills of Frick and Carnegie, in homes owned by the Mellons, passing institutions named for Westinghouse and Heinz, “The Capitalist” would have cut a familiar figure. As if to visually embody the dialectic between labor and capital, directly opposite from “The Capitalist” is “Croatian Family,” a depiction of men in overalls and women in babushkas eating from a loaf of bread; the dark, Satanic mills of the Allegheny River Valley in the foreground while Christ ethereally floats behind the shoulder of the father, offering a benediction to the sacrament of this simple supper, as if to signal where his sympathies lay in the conflict between management and workers.
More radical is “Battlefield,” where a purple robed Virgin Mary with tortured face snaps the rifles of two Great War doughboys who’d been lunging at one another, a cloud of shrapnel and debris rising up and visible through the transparency of her halo. Near the choir is Vanko’s depiction of the Crucifixion, the striking, pained greenish face of the Son of God equal parts medieval icon and surrealist nightmare, the centurion who pierced Christ’s side now a soldier with a bayonet.
Across from the church’s pieta, there is “The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Sons for Industry,” with a veiled Croatian woman who looks nothing so much like the Virgin Mary herself crying in front of the taut, muscular body of her son killed in a mill accident; men trudging to work in the background – for not even death can still labor.
Presiding hauntingly over the fallen carnage of industry and militarism is the spirit of injustice, a tall, black-robed, almost avian creature in a gas mask, holding a bloody sword above the scene. Art historians can explain how medieval cathedrals translated theology and biblical narrative into a universal, vernacular code of images; in Millvale, Vanko’s murals provide a similar service, enacting a salient condemnation of injustice while producing some of the most haunting and powerful anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-militaristic art composed in the last hundred years.
Only some four miles from the gleaming glass towers of downtown Pittsburgh, the headquarters of U.S. Steel, BNY-Mellon, PNC Bank, and PPG are visible from the cupola of St. Nicholas, and the interior of the church is illustrated with the half-remembered sketches of heaven and hell, a manifesto against capitalism rendered in the visions of a prophet.
By a fortuitous confluence of reading material and travel, I had the opportunity to contemplate Vanko’s murals when travelling back to my hometown of Pittsburgh for the christening of a friend’s child. The reading material was Jelani Cobb’s astute New Yorker article of May 14th tiled “William Barber takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump,” and which I was reminded of while waiting for the baptism to begin, when I spied a poster advertising a tour of Vanko’s murals hanging in the cathedral’s vestibule. Seeing the slick poster with its closeups of Vanko’s eerie images, from Christ being crucified upon the altar of capital to the industrial face of death, I recalled Cobb’s account of the Rev. William Barber II’s sermon delivered in Montgomery, Alabama for the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which bears witness to the thousands of African-American women and men who were lynched in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Cobb writes that Barber, a North Carolina civil rights leader and the resuscitator of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical Poor People’s Campaign for social justice, reminded the assembled that “Jesus was lynched.” Looking at that poster promoting Vanko’s murals, with its closeup of a bloodied, terrified, gasping Christ being crucified by a representative of the military-industrial complex, it’s impossible not to see the similarity in rhetoric, narrative and significance to Barber’s Christ lynched at the hands of white supremacy. That the story of Yeshua ben Yosef concerns a first century Palestinian Jew executed by Roman occupiers is of no accounting; his narrative may literally not have been about a martyred victim of either war or racial violence, but in all the ways that matter those three different versions of the story are identical.
Barber, who is quickly becoming the most significant figure in the “Religious Left,” was speaking a vocabulary that would be familiar to any graduate of a liberal seminary, any reader of liberation theology, or anybody familiar with the radical black religious tradition. As the recently deceased theologian James H. Cone wrote, “the lynching tree joined the cross as the most emotionally charged symbols in the African American community – symbols that represented both death and the promise of redemption, judgement and the offer of mercy, suffering and the answer of hope.”
In his 1986 Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, Cone explained that “ambassadors of Jesus Christ” must embrace “the movement of liberation on the side of the poor, fighting against the structures of injustice,” where faith must be understood as a “commitment, a deeply felt experience of being called by the Spirit of Christ to bear witness to God’s coming liberation by fighting for the freedom of the poor now.” For anyone familiar with Cone’s contention there would be nothing shocking about Barber’s comparison of the crucifixion to a lynching, or to Vanko’s socialistic murals. Arguably for anyone familiar with Christ’s more radical pronouncements in the New Testament itself there shouldn’t be any surprise in such conclusions, but that’s a separate issue.
Such depictions of Christ as liberator, as a force for social justice, economic egalitarianism, and racial reconciliation may be equally distasteful to both the right-wing evangelical as well as for those on the secular left who proudly trumpet either ignorance or aversion to religion (or both) as part of their political identity. For that later group, especially as fundamentalist Protestants increase their hold on the Trump cabal (particularly in the form of Mike Pence) faith can seem obviously noxious. Evidenced by actions like the geopolitically catastrophic decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem so as to placate their evangelical base. But to reduce all of religion to its reactionary elements isn’t just to preemptively concede the victory of definition, it’s also to misapprehend what faith’s contours can be. As Cobb writes, Barber’s “approach to faith… put him at odds with the Moral Majority version of evangelicalism,” with the minister telling the journalist that in his estimation conservative Christians focus on issues such as abortion, while ignoring issues actually discussed in the gospels, such as poverty. Barber tells Cobb that these churches “say so much about where the Bible says very little… and speak so little about the issues where the Bible says so much.”
Cobb’s essay functions as more than just an astute introduction to Barber as an emerging figure, more generally serving to familiarize a secular audience with the radical potentiality of the Religious Left. Much has been made of how the 2016 elections indicated a significant political realignment. Central to this process has been the horrifying reemergence of open fascism, the welcome arrival of a genuine socialistic left with electoral power, and the collapse of the neoliberal consensus. It is crucial to not overlook the importance of the Religious Left as part of that realignment, especially as conservative evangelicals abdicate any theological or moral ground in their complete ceding to Trumpism, and as campaigns such as those being organized by women and men like Barber have been at the forefront of resistance to Trumpism.
Even with an increasing number of Americans claiming that they have no religious affiliation, it awaits to be seen if the vagaries of the once much vaunted “Secularization Hypothesis,” which confidently predicted the eventual demise of organized religion, has any chance of fruition. I’d argue that not only is the disappearance of organized religion not desirable, but that the very contours of the debate are based on a critically backwards understanding of what “religion” is.
Rather, the significance of the Religious Left is in both redefining perceptions of faith (for both the faithful and the faithless) as well as building a progressive movement able to strategically use biblical narrative and theological vocabulary. Cobb describes Barber’s “Moral Monday movement in North Carolina” which enlisted a “broad based alliance of Christians, Muslims, Jews, nonbelievers, blacks, Latinos, poor whites, feminists, environmentalists, and others to protest the conservative agenda of the state legislature.” Indeed, one could claim that with so much of ideology, secular and otherwise, ultimately finding its basis in a certain religious perspective, that the arena of political engagement where progressives will most need to organize won’t be antagonism between the religious and the secular, but rather between the Religious Left and Right.
What should be made clear is that the Religious Left cannot be interpreted as mere sop to conservatives; it’s important role is not to convince evangelical Trump supporters to abandon their hypocritical candidate (though if they do, all the better). Rather the Religious Left’s role is to organize that broad coalition of progressives, and more importantly to deploy the subtle, nuanced and powerful language of critique which theological terminology offers, or as that terminology itself might appropriately describe such work, “to bear witness.” For I would claim, and have written elsewhere, that theological language doesn’t necessarily convince the opposition, but that it rather offers a vocabulary that is more potent than the necessary but limited terminology of sociologically inflected cultural studies keywords which currently dominate progressive rhetoric.
Rather than just “privilege,” I’d like to hear of “original sin;” more than just “neoliberalism,” I wish to hear about “avarice;” and more than just “redistribution,” let us sing of “justice.” Of course, such language has been the mainstay of progressives from the abolitionists until today, with Barber preaching that “if they were going to crucify the poor, the sick, the children, the unemployed, the immigrants, the L.G.B.T., and the women,” then every crucifixion “needs a witness.” That such language is more potent than anemic graduate school seminar terms which permeate left-wing discussions seems evident to me. As a leftist whose own personal religious convictions are fairly idiosyncratic, and would most likely not be recognized as conventionally faithful as such, I’d like to bear witness to the critical efficacy of such language. I proclaim not to those religious progressives who already know how powerful such speech is, rather the good news I proclaim is directed to my fellow potentially godless. The wider left needs to get good with God (whether She’s real or not).
Both the most astute method of radical critique finds its origins in the religious dimension, and scriptural narrative provides that great code for conceptualizing radical politics. As concerns Pauline Christianity in particular, so much of the traditional, conservative, and status quo has accrued to the gospel message that it’s hard to remember how positively radical the New Testament message is. And while there are historical problems with proclaiming Jesus Christ to be some sort of liberal, a reading of the Beatitudes or of the social organization of early Christians as described in the book of Acts evidences more than a whiff of the socialistic, or even anarchistic.
Certainly, this isn’t exactly a secret. Jesuit-educated Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote in the introduction to Verso Books’ “Revolutions” series edition of the gospels that “Jesus has most of the characteristic features of the revolutionary activist.” Eagleton explains how this “radical resonance” includes the presentation of Christ as “homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal… a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions… a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.”
In his indomitably snarky British style, Eagleton complains that the “problem of much modern Christianity has been how to practice this lifestyle with two children, a car and a mortgage.” But if the innate and essential radicalism of the gospels is clear to a Marxist like Eagleton, it’s also obvious to a conservative theologian like David Bentley Hart, who in the introduction to his remarkable translation of the New Testament affirms that Christ’s opposition to the economically privileged is “so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp” his meaning, condemning “not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but rather the getting and keeping of riches as such.” No political radical himself, Hart observes that the early Christians were “communists” for whom “all property is theft.” With such a perspective we’d do well to figure that the New Atheists can mock all they wish, but the political positions in the New Testament are profoundly more egalitarian than the elitist machinations of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. As such I’d rather caste my lot with Hart than with Sam Harris.
Thus, the program of any Religious Left is partly one of restitution, one of reformation in the most literal sense. That is to say that stripping back the accumulated cultural debris, the veneration of the establishment, and organized religion’s complicity with structures of oppression must be at the center of any radical faith. To fully embody Christ’s mission is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Rhetorically, one of the most powerful means of doing this is in yoking biblical narrative out of its original, ossified context with the full intent of disorienting. Think of Vanko’s Christ pierced by a doughboy, or Cone and Barber’s messiah hung from the lynching tree. Where the mundane facts of history may be literally inaccurate as regards Jesus’ life, the full radical truth of Christ’s is made manifest.
Such a method, of resurrecting the radical social implications of Christianity by modernizing its narrative, is exemplified by an author and thinker of the most unlikely background and the most surprising of places – a mid-Twentieth Century Southern Baptist minister and scholar of Greek from rural Georgia named Clarence Jordan who produced the literary equivalent of Vanko’s art in his under-appreciated masterpiece The Cotton Patch Gospel. Starting in 1963, and then publishing in installments through Jordan’s death in 1969, The Cotton Patch Gospels are a modernization of portions from the synoptic cannon, the book of John, the book of Acts, and the epistles. Jordan’s heterodox “translation” places events like the Nativity during the “fifteenth year of Tiberius as President, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Georgia, and Herod was governor of Alabama… while Annas and Caiaphas were co-presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention.” For Jordan, a white preacher dedicated to racial reconciliation and economic justice, it is only in “stripping away the fancy language, the artificial piety, and the barriers of time” that we can be committed to “justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed” (as the liberal evangelical minister Tony Campolo described Jordan’s mission).
Jordan was a remarkable figure, a studious and analytical minister in the Southern Baptist convention which even during his lifetime was one of the most reactionary denominations in American culture. But Jordan’s politics were radical, not just for the American South of the 1940’s and ‘50s, but arguably for today as well. Founder of an intentional community named Koinonia Farm, part of that venerable utopian tradition from Brook Farm to Oneidia to the communes of the 1960’s, Jordan’s experiment was in communal living, shared property, pacifism, and racial integration in the midst of the Jim Crow South. An idiosyncratic supporter of the Civil Rights movements while the rest of his denomination remained silent or actively abetted white supremacy, Jordan and Koinonia were frequently attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. And from that struggle and ordeal came The Cotton Patch Gospels, which deserves to be considered during our particular moment as a demonstration of how biblical narrative’s latent radicalism can be helpful in illuminating current struggles.
The complete edition as released by the religious publisher Smyth & Helwys doesn’t do the radicalism of either the minister or his ministry justice. The title is rendered in a hokey, corn pone font floating above a depiction of waving cotton fields under a pastel blue sky. No doubt the publisher wanted to convey some sense of the folksiness of Jordan’s language, where John the Baptist was “dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, and he was living on corn bread and collard greens” rather than locusts and honey, or when the book of Romans is rendered as “The Letter to the Christians in Washington,” or 1 Corinthians as “A Letter to the Christians in Atlanta.” It’d be easy to read The Cotton Patch Gospels as gimmicky exercise in revival culture, what critic Greil Marcus has called “that old, weird America.” A type of kitsch whereby Jesus is transformed into a vagrant roaming the dusty backroads of Georgia, John the Baptist into a southern fried rebel with a cause, and Peter a blue-collar worker who goes by the nickname “Rock.”
But Jordan’s genius is that he elevates the provincial to the universal, as indeed so did the original gospel writers, and that his translation is fully a product of the American South as Vanko’s murals were a product of the Rust Belt. As a result, Jordan takes aim at the hypocrisies of white southern Christianity, and of the larger nation that it is a part of. In Matthew 7:21 he calls his own Southern Baptist Convention a gathering of “wicked religious racketeers,” and in Matthew 21:12 he described Christ’s expulsion of the moneylenders by writing that “Jesus went into First Church [of Atlanta], pitched out the whole finance committee, tore up the investment and endowment records, and scrapped the long-range expansion plans.” Dispatched from the distant, monumental, and wholly foreign Second Temple of Jerusalem, Jordan’s Christ might as well be entering the lobby of a mega-church, expelling Joel Osteen, or Jerry Falwell Jr., or Robert Jeffress, telling them “My house shall be known for its commitment to God… but you have turned it into a religious racket!”
What these local illustrations share is a commitment to a universal story, the core of any liberatory politics. Because that’s where the revolutionary potential of Jordan’s translation is made manifest. In placing the New Testament story in Jim Crow Georgia the injustices of Jordan’s (and our) day are defamiliarized and made newly shocking. Jordan’s is not just an example of camp, replacing “Jerusalem” with “Atlanta” and telling his audience that “Man shall not live on grits alone.” His translation is of a more subversive nature in that the New Testament impoverished have been transformed into oppressed southern African Americans, the hypocritical Pharisees are now white Christians, and Christ is racially ambiguous, explaining that in modernizing the meaning of the gospels “there is no adequate equivalent” for those New Testament categories other than white and black, asking “in the Southern context, is there any other alternative?”
The emerging variety of Trumpist Christianity abandons doctrine and scripture in favor of relativistic Christian Nationalism, where the religion is reduced to an ethnically European phenomenon which serves no function other than as a marker of racial belonging. But as a theory of universal liberation, such a circumscribed Christianity contradicts the faith itself, as indeed the ruptures of Jordan’s modernization make clear. The absurdities of ethnonationalist Christianity are illustrated in Matthew 2:7 when the Baptist tells the assembled white Christians “don’t think that you can feed yourselves with that ‘we-good-white-people’ stuff, because I’m telling you that God can make white folks out of this pile of rocks.” Christianity by its nature is a subversive, counter-cultural faith, which as Cone wrote must be “identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience,” as when Jordan has the assembled white Christians in John 8:48 say to Christ “We sure hit the nail on the head when we said that you were a n***er.”
Pause and reflect on the implications of a white Protestant in the Jim Crow South applying America’s ugliest word to Christ, one heard thousands of times before women and men were hung and burnt. As Jordan explained, words like “crucifixion” are too respectable now, he writes that we “have thus emptied the term… of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as ‘lynching.’” The theology of the Religious Left is precisely so strong because as Jordan recognized Christ is in those remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, so we remember Christ as Eric Garner; Christ as Michael Brown; Christ as Trayvon Martin. God, whether real, metaphor, or other, must always be understood as a God of the oppressed, the disposed the marginalized.
Whether we hold to anything recognizable as a conventional faith or not, we must not abandon the language of the sacred, for in abandoning the holy we also cede the ability to speak of the oppressed as made in God’s image. We abandon the possibility of knowing that the most blessed amongst us are the disposed, and thus the betrayal of the sacred becomes a victory for the most reactionary. For whether God is real or not, we must be brave enough to declare that there is divinity in the immigrant, in the Muslim, in the queer, in the person of color, in the worker, in the woman. If any power is to come out of such language, it is to understand that individually we do not require God to be godly, we do not need divinity to be divine, we do not need an actual sacred realm to speak in the tongues of fire, and that whether or not the Kingdom of Heaven is a real place, that while traveling on the road there we can still find that better world.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this December.