By Li Onesto
Revolutionary Worker #903, April 20, 1997
Mumia Abu-Jamal's new book, Death Blossoms, takes us on a personal journey. Once again, as in Live from Death Row, this brilliant wordsmith paints a vivid picture of the brutality and racism of the capitalist system. But here we get to know another side of Mumia, as many of the short essays in this new collection explore Mumia's views on god and religion.
In Death Blossoms, Mumia takes us through his youthful search for a guiding philosophy. As a young kid, Mama took Mumia to Baptist service every Sunday to hear ministers "preach to congregations whose spirits had been beaten down and battered all week long." But by the time he was a young teenager, Mumia decided to "try out" different religions. Or as he put it, "I began to seek my own spirit-refuge, going wherever I felt the spirit lead me."
He looked for answers at a local Jewish temple. He went to Catholic catechism. He "tested the waters" at a local mosque, that was "little more than a store-front on an out-of-the-way street in South Philly." But none of these places provided the answers Mumia was looking for, and "the search would continue."
Mumia's search revealed that throughout history, religion has been used as a tool for oppression. At one point, Mumia says, "the reality of religion is this: it has often been less a force for liberation than a tool of oppression." And in addressing the "proposition that America is a Christian nation" Mumia says, "If this be so, then it is Christian to wipe out whole native peoples and commend their ravaged remnants to barren reservations; it is Christian to steal millions of people from their overseas homelands and hold them in bondage for centuries; it is Christian to cast thousands of Japanese into concentration camps and to seize their properties on the pretext of that magical word `security.' If it is really so, then it is Christian to vaporize hundreds of thousands of fellow humans by dropping an atomic bomb on them, as a global `demonstration' of power; Christian to cage millions and execute thousands; Christian to devise a socio-economic system that marginalizes the weak, the awkward, the inarticulate, the downtrodden poor."
He goes on to say, "For those faceless, nameless black, brown, and yellow millions who have been savaged by America, it might even appear that the course of its history has been guided by some demonic orientation. Instead of Christ, perhaps Dracula should be substituted for this nation's guiding god--for has it not sucked the blood of the planet's other peoples for two centuries?"
Later, Mumia discusses the particular role religion played in upholding slavery in America. He says: "Christianity became, in America the faith of the slavemaster, the alleged belief of the rich, the protector of the propertied. For the slave, though, it was more farce than faith; in his eyes what was truly worshipped by all was wealth. Indeed, `Christianity' became cultural shorthand for the status quo, the existing system of naked, race-based oppression. The fiction that the Euro-American conquest of the New World was motivated by efforts to `convert' indigenous peoples, or that African slavery was necessitated by a desire to bring `the gospel' to the `natives' is rebuffed by the hand of history. One need only examine the past five centuries from a native perspective--centuries that brought devastating disease, bloody persecution, rampant alcoholism, and ultimately, confinement in concentration camp-like reservations--to understand why the god of the pale-faced invaders seemed less a Great Spirit of goodness than a demon of destruction."
In other parts of the book, Mumia exposes the hypocrisy of religions and religious people who talk about being a force for good, but support the death penalty and "go on fighting wars of avarice, campaigns of greed, legalized land-theft, and regulated robbery."
Reading about this search for answers about "god and religion"--especially where Mumia discusses his disillusionment with organized religion--I was reminded of my own youthful search for a guiding philosophy. And since Mumia and I are the same age, his remembrances recalled for me the whole climate of the times in which he and I lived our restless and questioning teenage years.
This was the late '60s and early '70s--a time of great rebellion and turmoil in the United States. A time when millions of people came to oppose the government over the War in Vietnam. A time when Black people and other oppressed nationalities waged mass struggle against the system.
Growing up in Berkeley, all this dramatically unfolded right before my eyes and in a way that compelled me to question just about everything I had been taught--in school and in church. I was a PK (preacher's kid) and so, like Mumia, had gone to Sunday school throughout my childhood. Now, the images on the nightly news beckoned me into the streets--anti-war protesters fighting the police at the Oakland draft board, students at UC shutting down the campus, and the Black Panthers marching in the streets with their badass leather jackets and clenched fists.
In Death Blossoms Mumia recalls these exciting times and how he joined the Black Panther Party. After growing up without his father, he says he found a new family in the BPP: "I sought and found father-figures like Black Panther Captain Reggie Schell, Party Defense Minister Huey P. Newton and indeed, the Party itself, which in a period of utter void, taught me, fed me, and made me part of a vast and militant family of revolutionaries."
Many churches and church people, including my own father, were profoundly affected by all this and came to identify with and support the struggle of the people. I remember the folk-songy church services and weekend retreats that mixed prayer and social activism. I remember the controversy stirred by churches that took anti-war positions and opened their doors to the "rabble-rousers." This kind of church activity was certainly more interesting and relevant--and more in line with the religious message I had been raised on which emphasized compassion for the "poor and oppressed."
But, like Mumia, I felt a restless need to search for something more radical. And along with a whole generation, I was swept up and into a movement that raised the possibility of a whole new kind of society. World events were exposing the brutal nature of the system. And millions of people were asking, how do we get real liberation.
In an interview at the end of Death Blossoms, Mumia recalls, "I remember it was probably one of the most exciting and liberational times of my life. Of course, for most people, their teen years are a time of freedom. Mine were a time of ultra, super freedom. It was a tremendous learning experience. The very fact that I, even from this place, am a journalist who writes and communicates with thousands and thousands of people every week--its embryo can be found in the fact that I worked as a Panther in what's called the Ministry of Information.... I was trained as a revolutionary journalist, trained to present the positions of the Black Panther Party from that revolutionary--black revolutionary--perspective."
One of the things about the Panthers that was really challenging was that they didn't promote religion. In fact, one of the great strengths of the '60s overall, was that, after a certain point, "god" and religion were not a leading factor in the movement. And this was a time when a lot of people, including myself, came to reject the notion of a "god" that shapes events in the universe. More copies of Mao Tsetung's Little Red Book were being sold than the Bible!
Like Mumia, I came to see how Christianity and other religions have always played a role in upholding exploitation and oppression. Or as Marx put it, is an "opiate of the people." The Bible and the Koran uphold slavery, insist on the domination of men over women and foster a belief that human beings, particularly the poor and powerless, must submit to a divine authority and accept their fate in life.
For those of us rebelling in the '60s, this was unacceptable thinking! We wanted to question authority. We wanted to end racism and male domination. We wanted to change the world. And we certainly were not into accepting the "fate" of the poor and oppressed.
All forms of religion preach idealism and the notion that there is some unknowable force--above and apart from the material world that ultimately shapes everything. In his essay "Liberation without Gods" RCP Chairman Bob Avakian talks about how throughout history people have spontaneously looked for some kind of supernatural help in dealing with the oppressive conditions they face: "The yearning for solace in times of despair, help in desperate times, solidity in times of insecurity and instability. The vague feeling of `spiritual emptiness' that comes with acquiring material wealth in a parasite like fashion. The searching for consolation in conditions of oppression or help in fighting such conditions--help beyond human limitations. The thirsting for spiritual sustenance in a world that seems so cold. The felt need for some `other-worldly' outlet for frustration, or a momentary transformation of anguish into joy, however short-lived."
I can't remember the exact moment I stopped believing in a god. But as I became a revolutionary, and then a communist, I learned that God didn't create human beings--human beings created "god." I came to see that god does not exist. I realized that if I wanted to know and change the world, I had to stop searching for a "god of liberation" and fight for "liberation without gods." And I remember how liberating it was to grasp the truth that there's nothing that exists but matter in motion, assuming many different forms. Unlike idealism, Marxist materialism recognizes the material basis for all human thinking. And for the first time, I came to understand the role that ideas, feelings, emotions, dreams and desires play in human society. In one of the first political study groups I went to in the '60s we read an essay by the great revolutionary Mao Tsetung which said, "Where Do Correct Ideas Come From? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone...the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man's social being that determines his thinking." For me, this was a profound and revolutionary truth because it revealed that the masses of people, through struggle, can come to know the world in order to more consciously change the world.
In Death Blossoms Mumia discusses how he has come to a different conclusion about god and religion: "God comes, in various faces, and numerous personalities, depending on our myriad perceptions, needs, and histories. Yet if there are any miracles left, it is that GOD IS ONE." And in another piece which recalls a conversation in prison, we hear Mumia tell another inmate, "God is divine intelligence. God is life. God is the force that keeps this creation in existence."
This spiritual/religious side of Mumia is part of what he says helps him stay optimistic, even in the face of the most brutal and isolating conditions on death row. In an essay that starts with the question, "What keeps me alive?" Mumia answers: "My belief--my religion, which I call Life--the teachings of John Africa and the example of my MOVE brothers and sisters across the state, many of whom have survived imprisonment for years and years. Their example has buoyed me up over fourteen years behind bars. Also, my faith in the power of commitment, in the power of family, in the power of love, of community, of God."
In Death Blossoms Mumia talks about how "life" is central to his religious beliefs. He asks, "Where is the religion of Life? A religion that sets forth all the living as sacred? A religion that sees the human experience as only one paradigm in the whole connected web of nature?" And later he asks, "Don't they--doesn't every lifeform--have an intrinsic right to exist?"
Perhaps this view that all life is sacred is reflected in the essay where Mumia discusses violence. He says: "Violence violates the self. Yet that's exactly what the system believes in, what the system preaches, what the system practices: violence. Certainly I believe in the necessity of fighting the system, but one thing I'm not going to do is employ the same tactics and methods the system uses every day. Why replace the system with the same thing? We need a new system, one where people are free of all violence of the system. I would hope for a day when there are no bombs, no guns--no weapons whatsoever--no war, poverty, or other injustices; no social and class hatreds; no crime and no prisons. I reject the tools and weapons of violence."
When I read this essay by Mumia I was immediately reminded of the famous statement by Mao that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." This was a quote that Mumia himself used in an article he wrote when he was a Black Panther. And in his trial this article was brought up and used by the prosecution to argue for the death penalty. Mumia discusses this quote in the interview at the end of Death Blossoms and talks about how the capitalist system has used violence to maintain its rule. But there is another side to Mao's quote that I think is crucial. And this is that the masses of people cannot get rid of this oppressive system without overthrowing it through the use of revolutionary violence. To deal with the fundamental reality of this system, the real choice is not violence vs. nonviolence, but revolutionary violence vs. counterevolutionary violence. As Mao said: in order to get rid of the gun we have to pick up the gun.
One of the features of capitalist society that Mumia hits really hard in Death Blossoms is the obsession with ownership and material things. He captures the disgust many people feel at how material things are put above everything else in this society--how "the dark force of international corporate power--decides, hour by hour, how destructive the day's economic engine will be; how much long-term gain will be destroyed in the race for short-term profit." And Mumia talks about how capitalist values can leave people feeling empty and unfulfilled. He says:
"America exists in a virtual sea of materialism. Here, one sees material excess in the midst of utter poverty. Here, in the cradle of global capital power, one finds more food, more clothing, more creature comforts, more material wealth than almost anywhere on this planet. Ironically, the lives of many surrounded by opulence are awash in unhappiness. This nation eats most of the world's food. It consumes most of the world's energy. It treats the vast lands and seas of the earth as if it were a toilet bowl. It gains its material wealth from the theft of other people's lands and the exploitation of other people's labor... If material things are not our salvation, why do we spend our energies in endless acquisition? If wealth makes us more cruel, more calloused, and colder, what is its good?"
Mumia argues that, in opposition to greed and hunger for material wealth, "We are in need of a religion of Life that sees the world in more than merely utilitarian terms. A religion that reveres all life as valuable in itself; that sees Earth as an extension of self, and if wounded, as an injury to self. We need a religion that recognizes the interdependence of man and this world; which sees that the atmosphere surrounding our globe is the same air we breath, and part and parcel of our lungs--that Earth's water is no different from the saliva in our mouths..."
After I read this part of Death Blossoms, I went back to read "Putting an End to `Sin,' Freeing the Spirit" by Bob Avakian. In that essay, he discusses the difference between Marxist materialism and the common meaning of materialism that Mumia talks about. Avakian points out that people look to religion to oppose the materialism of capitalist society but, in reality, "It is Marxism that points the way to the creation of conditions where not only will `the love of money' no longer be a motivating factor, but money itself--and all the unequal and alienating relations between people of which money is inevitably a concentrated expression--will be abolished."
I really share Mumia's anger at the way this system perpetrates death and destruction on the people and the planet. And I welcome further dialogue on what politics and ideology the masses of people need in order to get rid of this capitalist madness.
I found Death Blossoms important reading. The struggle to free Mumia is one of the most important battles for the people to fight and win. And this book gave me a better understanding of Mumia's philosophy. I've only touched on some of the political and ideological questions he raises in this book. And I encourage people to read Death Blossoms as well as Live from Death Row.
Mumia and I have different philosophies. But I know we are shoulder to shoulder on the same side of the barricades in our determination to fight this bone-crushing system and get rid of exploitation and oppression. And I'll close here with Mumia's words at the end of Death Blossoms:
The choice, as every choice, is yours:
to fight for freedom or be fettered,
to struggle for liberty or be satisfied with slavery,
to side with life or death.
Spread the word of life far and wide.
Talk to your friends, read, and open your eyes --
even to doorways of perception you feared to look into yesterday.
Hold your heart open to the truth.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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