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Bridging the Gap

by Rosemary Radford Ruether

As a religious socialist and feminist I see my social commitments as an integral expression of my religious faith. Because so much of my social activism has been conducted in the company of like-minded people, this union of religious conviction and social commitment usually does not require explanation. But many secular leftists appear to find it puzzling. They often seem to assume that religion is ipso facto conservative and that people move to the left by "outgrowing" religion.

This identification of progressive with secular echoes the Enlightenment myth that religion is the ideology of the traditional social order, its bulwark in the struggle against liberalism and socialism. Many secular liberals and socialists seem to take this myth for granted. Associating religion with authoritarian superstition, they expect it to be superseded by "rational," secular, scientific culture.

This view of religion is at odds with its history in Western European and American culture, including some very recent American history. Martin Luther King was, after all, a Baptist pastor; much of the civil rights and peace movements in the 1960's were led by clergy and people from churches and synagogues.

The assumption that religion is normatively conservative is not confined to the secular left; it pervades the American secular media. I am on the list of people whom journalists regularly call for background information on religious issues. Their typical line of questioning demonstrates both their ignorance of religion and their operating assumption that conservative religion is "normative" religion. Because I am a religious feminist, they assume I am on the "fringe" and sometimes they try to entrap me into making some "fringe" remark -- like "God is female." When I try to explain that God is not a corporeal being of any kind and thus does not have gender, male or female, they are confused or impatient. This is not what they want to hear.

One especially unpleasant experience with such entrapment came from a major news magazine proposing a story on women in theological seminaries. The editor said he was sending a photographer to take pictures of me and the seminary for a cover story. Both a photographer and a woman journalist did show up. But after the journalist attended a number of classes and sat in on women's groups on campus, I heard nothing more.

Eventually the journalist told me that the story had been dropped. She explained with embarrassment that the editor had gotten the impression that Christian theological seminaries had become bastions of "militant lesbians" who were driving the men out of the schools. He thought this would be a hot story. When it became clear that this was not the case, the editor lost interest.

My own perspective on religion and politics differs sharply from the widespread identification of religion and conservatism. My reading of Christian history in particular tells me that counter-cultural elements have always been central to Christian thought and practice. I see the Biblical tradition and both Judaism and Christianity as having conflictual traditions, conservative and radical, that are in constant flux and tension.

One element of these religions sacralizes the social status quo, mandating racist, classist, imperialist, militarist, and sexist societies as the order of creation and will of God. Civil religion sees God as the creator and mandator of social hierarchy and images God in language drawn from the ruling class, race, and gender -- as Lord, King, and Father. To disobey the Lords, Kings, and Fathers of society is to disobey God. The modern socialist attack on religion was a protest against such civil religion.

But in the Bible and throughout Jewish and Christian history there has been a counter-cultural current of prophetic faith. Prophetic faith sees a God of justice as well as of mercy; it denounces social injustices and calls for a conversion of both the heart and social system to ensure that God's will is truly done on earth -- to bring about a world free of war, slavery, and oppression.

Prophetic faith locates God and the prophets on the side of the victims of society -- the poor, the widows, and orphans. The Word of God, spoken by the prophets, calls on oppressive elites to repent and do justice or be overthrown by a revolutionary intervention of God in history. Prophetic faith also criticizes religion focused on rules and cult; such religion commonly neglects the call to justice and is easily used as a tool of social domination. Thus the words of the prophet Amos often invoked by Martin Luther King: "I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs, to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos, 5:21, 23-24).

These two understandings of God and religious faith -- civil and prophetic religion -- were in tension within the Bible itself. Prophetic faith, by its regularly renewed critique of the civil religion of the state and the ruling elites, spurred the revelatory insight and commitment that shaped Hebrew Scripture and the Christian New Testament. Christianity was born of a new stage of such prophetic vision, though it gradually accommodated itself to serving as the state religion of the Roman empire.

Renewal movements in Judaism and Christianity have arisen from waves of prophetic denunciation of such religious accommodations. In Christianity these movements grew increasingly insistent in the 14th to 16th centuries, giving birth to the mainstream Reformation, as well as to more radical religious movements on the Left, such as Quakers, Diggers and Levellers. These left-wing religious movements, in turn, became the seed-bed for modern revolutionary movements (see my 1970 book, The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope).

In the seventeenth century, Quakers and radical Baptists pioneered democratic, socialist, and feminist thought. One of the foremothers of religious feminism was Margaret Fell, co-founder of the Society of Friends, who, in 1666 wrote her foundational tract Women's Preaching Justified according to the Scripture, expounding the Biblical and theological basis for the Quaker practice of inclusion of women in church government and ministry.

Enlightenment concepts of progress were not only developed by French philosophes who saw themselves as anti-religious (or anti-Christian), but also by English and German thinkers, who saw themselves as restating Christianity. For their part, Christian socialists aimed to reformulate the Biblical heritage of prophetic faith. The belief that Christianity called for socialism was taken for granted by many church leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the United States this was called the Social Gospel. In 1895 Frances Willard, founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and many of her key leaders, as well as leaders in the Settlement House movement, defined themselves as Christian socialists (See Mary Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920, 1981).

It is worth noting that today, when secular socialism, particularly Marxism, is seen as discredited by the fall of the Eastern European communist regimes, it is often Christian socialists who continue to advocate a socialist alternative to free market capitalism. For example, in the British labor party a new generation of leaders who define themselves as "Christian socialists" is offering one of the only thoroughgoing critiques of Thatcherite free market policies.

Coming closer to home, we can hardly understand American history without taking into account that radical Christians led the abolition movement in the 1840's, played a major role in socialist and labor organizing from the 1870-1930's, and were in the forefront of the Civil Rights and peace movements in the 1960's. Today both anti-sexist critique and critique of militarist and neocolonialist policies toward Third World nations have been mediated within the churches by feminist and liberation theologies. It is by reading such theologies, as well as through hands-on work in battered women's shelters, urban ghettos and Third World poverty zones, that men and women training for ministry are acquiring the tools of social analysis.

My sense of the intimate connections between religious conviction and social action is not, however, simply a matter of doctrine and history; it also has deep personal roots. My involvement in the anti-war, civil rights, feminist, and international justice movements has been almost entirely in the company of committed religious people, mostly Christian, of all denominations from Catholic to Quaker. My own family included Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, all of whom took religion as a serious part of their identity and had commitments to social justice. My mother's closest friend was one of the founders of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in the 1920's and was all her life a supporter of political movements from farm workers to war resisters.

When I went to college -- expecting to be an artist -- I was shocked by my encounter with a "value-free" science that seemed to lack any moral foundation or affective depth. I turned to the study of religion in the hope of finding such a foundation and also a more holistic understanding of human beings. And I brought to that study certain assumptions of ecumenical openness and concern for social justice that I had acquired from my family.

After some years of studying the history of post-Biblical Judaism and early Christianity in an effort to understand better the meaning of such key ideas as "redemption," I found myself working on a Ph.D. in religious studies. By that time (1960) I was married, had two children, and was becoming involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965 I spent a summer working in Mississippi with the Delta Ministry against apartheid. After our family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1966 I taught for ten years at a Black Theological seminary, the School of Religion at Howard University. There I was part of the beginnings of Black theology, as well as of feminist theology.

The ten years our family lived in Washington, 1966-75, were a key era for the Civil Rights and Peace movements. Through church groups, my family and I were continually involved in marches and organizing on these issues. My three children grew up on protest marches and church services, often going from one to the other in the same morning.

It was also through church groups that I was introduced to Latin American liberation theology, began a serious study of socialism, and came to understand American foreign policy in the context of a neo-colonial relation to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Much of my current teaching and writing is informed by this interrelation of Christian faith and social struggle for more just societies, both within the United States and in U.S. relations to the rest of the world.

What is the basic vision that connects prophetic faith and social justice, requiring committed action? For me it is a fundamental experience of God as the source and sustainer of life, an understanding that God calls us to redeem the times, and a recognition that pursuing that calling gives life its basic meaning. To be faithful to the Holy one who sustains life is to set oneself against systems of violence that demean or kill any person. The One who is truly God, and not an idol of our self-sanctification, favors no one group against others but is all-encompassing. Thus relation to God calls us into community, and particularly to solidarity with those who are most oppressed.

What does this story of my own development mean for dialogue between religious and secular people on the left? It seems to me crucial that there be better communication and understanding between these two cultural communities in the United States. Generally it strikes me that there is much less understanding of religion and religious people by secular people on the left than the reverse. As a religious socialist and feminist I normally read the secular literature on feminism and on social analysis. I do not have the impression that secular feminists and social critics read feminist or liberation theology. Often they seem unaware of the existence of such movements.

My own early book on the history of religion on the Left in Western Europe and America (The Radical Kingdom) fell afoul of this myopia. I had wished to title the book The Gospel as Revolution. But the marketing department claimed that with the term "Gospel" on the cover, the book would be seen as pious and placed with the prayer books in book stores. They said they wanted it to attract a more general audience than just "religious people." From their perspective, the terms "gospel" and "revolution" did not belong together in "normal" American culture.

The marketing people decided to title the book The Violent Kingdom (misreading the passage from Matthew 11:12-17 used in the dedication of the book to Jesuit anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan). I was horrified and told them I would sue them if they mistitled the book in this fashion. Because the book was already in press, we compromised with the title Radical Kingdom. My original title much better expressed what I had in mind in writing the book, but the market experts believed that the dominant American culture was incapable of understanding it.

Since the 1970s, American society has faced growing movements on the right that wish to turn back the clock on feminism, civil rights, economic justice, and some of the rights won by workers in the 1930's. They also wish to stifle progressive movements within the churches. Increasingly, such right-wing thought presents itself as the true Christianity. Clearly, religious people on the Left are in the best position to challenge these claims. It is they who can deconstruct the assumptions about the Bible and Christianity that inform such fundamentalism. And yet they are seldom consulted when secular intellectuals respond to such right-wing Christians.

It is dangerous when a secular media, largely ignorant of the meaning of debate within the churches, plays into a conservative bias. Although they may not see themselves as supporting the radical right, their assumption that Christian fundamentalism is the authentic American religion -- and that feminists and liberation theologians are "crazies" -- tips their analysis in support of the right.

This pattern in discussions of religion reflects a broader tendency in the media to cover a narrow spectrum of American thought from the right to the right of center, while even liberalism is marginalized. If there is to be some reconstitution of a broader critical dialogue about social and economic options in the United States -- both domestically and in our foreign policy -- there needs to be a coalition of progressive thought that can articulate alternatives to the American public.

I believe this can only come about if the division between the secular and religious left is overcome. More and better dialogue between these two wings of progressive thought is vital to building new coalitions that could spark a desperately needed revival of grass-roots politics. While the dominant cultural and political discourse increasingly blames the poor for their plight, such new coalitions could begin political organizing on behalf of the increasing numbers of Americans living in poverty. Perhaps these articles in Boston Review will initiate such new dialogue.

Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review

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