05/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Holy Week Revolution: How My Faith Was Built Up At Left Forum 2010

I first want to say that I'm grateful to everyone who has become a fan of this new blog. The social technology at Huffington Post shows the revolutionary power of the new technologies. Web 2.0 social networks don't just share information; they make that sharing the basis of a real community. And this is where I want to start today, on the topic of new notions of society and community.

It's Holy Week, after all. Christians worldwide are celebrating the mystical climax of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. No matter what you believe, there's something here for all of us, in the story of how a peasant carpenter from the backwater became the greatest punk rock philosopher.

In that spirit, last week I enjoyed "Capitalism, Economy, and Religion: A Christian-Marxist Dialogue," a panel discussion at Left Forum 2010. The conference was impressive, especially for those who remember its old incarnation, the Socialist Scholars Conference. Attendance this year was a record-breaking 3500, up 800 from last year. Big names Noam Chomsky and Reverend Jesse Jackson gave rousing keynotes.

And in a new twist, presentations like "Christian-Marxist Dialogue" sought to find a bridge between faith and secular political organizing -- where the future of the revolution of peace may lie. The Great Recession, the "War on Terror," the failure to prosecute the felonies of Bush and Cheney, and the slack moral relativism of Obama all show that our system of American capitalism is in its deepest crisis. In the West, two alternatives exist: Marxism and Christianity. This panel sought to point out common ground between the two.

Brigitte Kahl from the Union Theological Seminary was the first to speak. "The place where the Marxist and Christian critiques of capitalism intersect," she said, "is "idolatry." In the final book of Das Kapital, Marx points out that we fetishize things like cars, houses, and products. (Fetishize here means that we give them a life spirit.) This corresponds with the ancient prophetic call, from Moses to Isaiah to Jesus, to turn away from worshiping the glamour of the "things made by our hands" and seek higher.

Their call to abjure idolatry was intended to prevent the ancient Hebrews from returning to the slavery from which they had just fled. The idols of the pagans weren't the danger; the danger was the Hebrews' own idolatry. When Moses' brother Aaron lost faith, he collected the Hebrews' gold and forged a bull-calf, and idol that demanded blood sacrifice just as today's Wall Street bull demands war, invasions, empire, and a slack moral relativism.

Panelist Jan Rehmann backed up Kahl's thesis, pointing out that God's first self-definition in Exodus -- "I am the God who led you out of slavery" -- is telling. It means that God is primarily a Great Emancipator, not the vengeful, belligerent, heteronormative patriarch of the Michelangelo paintings. God wants us free, not enslaved. And God's freedom is total: spiritual, political, and economic.

It's slavery that the prophets are still targeting at the other end of the Bible, in the visionary book of Revelations, offering further indictments of our system's idolatry. Revelations is a more focused attack on the economics of oppression. While a state prisoner of Rome, John, the author, envisions the destruction of Rome and its empire. As anarchist theologian Michael Iafrate once wrote, the target here is all empire, subtly cloaked as "Babylon." Why?

Because your merchants were the great ones of the world. All nations were led astray by your magic potion. In her was found the blood of prophets and holy ones. And all who have been slain on the earth.

John's point was that suddenly being number one in business worldwide isn't something to brag about, not if business means that you traffic in unjust wages and the bodies and souls of human beings, and that you kill prophets and activists as a matter of daily practice.

Kahl pointed out that the Left engaged in a grand journey, a kind of "Exodus from Capitalism," with the Soviet experiment of 1917-1989. But that experiment is over. The Left is now in exile. The only way to come back stronger is to learn what we did wrong. Kahl's humility was a refreshing break from the hubris and sectarianism that dominates the American Left. The anti-war movement in the USA is desperate for new ways to build the mass movement against empire. This panel was a bright signal on a hill.

Capitalism itself is a religion, as Rick Wolff, the vivacious professor and self-described "high priest" of economics, pointed out. The mystical power of "the Market" is taught at all levels of our society. "The Market" is revered as a kind of mysterious god, never explained properly. (And did you know? Adam Smith was a professor of religious studies, not economics!)

Wolff pointed out that whether one is religious or not, the language of religion saturates our culture. All activists must know how to connect with as many people as possible, including passionate, spiritual people who feel the call to work for justice. That call is very real. Wolff sees revolutionary potential in the fact that "many people are aware that their religious values are not consistent with the values of capitalism."

After all, there's an inherent rip-off in capitalism: any owner willing to pay a wage does so knowing that he can get more value out of the worker than the owner has to pay. Wage labor is a kind of "short-term slavery."

As a former entrepreneur myself, I want to point out that Wolff is assuming here a big, profitable company, when in reality, five out of six start-ups fail, painfully. Most new employment comes from small businesses, and small business has the flexibility to incorporate new and better ethical practices.

But here's where we all agree: there's something heartening and joyful when you can read the Bible not as a false master narrative of oppression and sexual repression, but as a document of a people suffering and seeking freedom. This panel pointed out that the world's religions are not fixed. Religion is a human construct, and it adapts to changing technologies and social needs. God is well pleased the closer we get to God. God wants us to discard all disfiguring idols and seek higher.

The anthropologist side of my training tells me to look at a cultural practice and seek the reasons for it beneath the culture's own stated reason. Christianity in America for the past two centuries has been dominated by the ethos of capitalism. The religion of capitalism is one devoid of redemption; its only sacraments are debt and guilt. If you fail, it's all your fault. Never question the Almighty Market. Never seek to change the system.

That Christianity worked for the period of the robber barons, and for the wild frontier. But that period is over. The USA and the world are on the verge of a whole new paradigm. The internet has created a new ability to connect, to share, to freely give the best of our hearts and minds to each other. God is at work here.

In his opening speech, the Reverend Jesse Jackson pointed out that "the Left" is somewhat misnamed. Really, we are the moral core. We are the emancipators. We are in the mainstream, especially when we can connect to the power latent in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.


This panel was also reviewed at The Mantle, A Forum for Progressive Critique