In 1869, a girl was born in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania. She was born into an Orthodox Lithuanian Jewish family consisting of various siblings, an emotionally distant mother, and an extremely abusive father who didn’t think Jewish girls needed an education beyond knowing how to prepare gefillte fish and make babies. This particular girl’s name was Emma Goldman, and she grew up to become — understandably, I think — a women’s rights activist and anarchist.
Goldman is an interesting choice for today’s AfL reading, and one I admit to being uncomfortable with. I grew up in ’80s and ’90s Germany, where we kids regularly saw the messy, circled “A” symbol grafittied in various places, a symbol we were taught was dangerous, a symbol we learned to fear and deride. Furthermore, Goldman was involved in an assassination plot in the hopes of inciting a workers’ revolt. While I’m definitely not against workers’ revolts — actually, I think they should happen more frequently with greater intensity, especially now *gestures broadly at ALL THE THINGS gone horrifically awry in the USA* — I don’t believe the ends justify the means.
All of that said — and I’m not trying to advocate for a pop psychology dismissal of Goldman here, but you really have to squint not to see the connections — when I read about Goldman’s background and the motives behind her actions, I can at least see where she was coming from. I’m trying to keep an open mind and let her views work on me…at least during this week. 😉
Our reflection today comes from Goldman’s essay “The Failure of Christianity,” first published in 1913 in the journal Mother Earth. Here, Goldman argues that the Christian religion is “most admirably adapted” to training people to become slaves. In fact, she says, the teachings of Jesus, the very things that superficially seem to be Christianity’s most admirable qualities, are actually keenly designed for creating a people who are passive, submissive, obedient to authority, and complacent. “Christ and his teachings are the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life….” This denial, in Goldman’s view, leads to lack of independent thinking and lack of true character.
Furthermore, says Goldman, Christianity makes people weak, fearful, and intentionally ignorant of others’ suffering. She theorizes that wealthy individuals maintain their financial realms by cruelly taking advantage of “inferiors” specifically because Christianity has taught the wealthy that they’re going to hell — so they “make hay while the sun shines,” trying to gain as much security in this life as they can. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t repent; instead, they double down; and Christ’s teachings are responsible.
In the meantime, Goldman’s view of the Christian poor is of dispirited, hopelessly frail individuals who “endure and submit” as they wait for “the Christian heaven, as the home for old age, the sanitarium for crippled bodies and weak minds.” What’s more, Christ wants these people to debase themselves and repent!? Goldman demands: haven’t they already suffered enough?
She goes on in this vein for some time, taking aim at specifics from Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” I get her critiques, but I wonder if she missed some contextual background. One of the most famous pieces of scripture that seems to advocate pacifism actually advocates, in my opinion, the exact opposite. I would like to have been able to ask Goldman about it and investigate if other points of her critique might have similar counterpoints.
Here’s one of the lines from Goldman that really strikes me:
“Not because of any reward does a free spirit take his stand for a great truth, nor has such a one ever been deterred because of fear of punishment.”–Emma Goldman,
“The Failure of Christianity,”
Mother Earth, 1913
In the Church of Christ, I was taught — and, for many years, believed and myself taught others — that a person couldn’t truly be moral without the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit received through full immersion in water. Now that I’ve been away from that doctrinal teaching for 13 years, it feels really weird and silly and wrong to say that. Even before I extricated myself from the CofC, I was well-acquainted with atheists who led far more moral and ethical lives than I did. And still, I thought that because I “had the Holy Spirit living in me” and guiding me, that meant I had a fuller understanding of what it means to be a good human than did those people who didn’t have the Holy Spirit.
It’s embarrassing, really. I hate to admit it. But it’s the truth of who I was.
As I grew out of that mindset and recognized my own deep-seated arrogance, I heard Peter Rollins talk about what I remember him calling a “parable.” But he might’ve just been sharing the following:
In the 700s CE in Iraq, there lived a woman named Rabia of Basra. She is considered a Sufi mystic, and during her life, people called her “the queen of saintly women.” She is said to have prayed:
“O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,
then burn me in Hell;
If I worship You because I desire Paradise,
then exclude me from Paradise;
But if I worship You for Yourself alone,
then deny me not your Eternal Beauty”.
In this vein, there’s an anecdote about Rabia that says she was seen walking through her village with a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her why, she replied:
“I want to put out the fires of hell, and burn down the rewards of paradise. They block the way to Allah. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah.
When I first heard this, I identified hard with it. And, several years on, it still resonates with and within me. It’s so similar to what Goldman says: that a “free spirit” will stand for truth because it’s truth, not because that person hopes for a reward, and that same spirit won’t shy away from truth out of fear of punishment. I want to do what’s right, kind, and good — not because I’m hoping God will reward me, but because it’s Right and Kind and Good. And I want to avoid causing harm to myself or others — not because I’m scared of eternal suffering in hell, but because “do no harm” is the moral and ethical position to take. I love others, and I want to love them.
So, in today’s reflection meant to be a “negation of the negation” (negating the mystics who negated the atheists), I have once again found mystical resonance. Oops. Sorry, Dr. Rollins. 😆