In our society, there are two great dissenting voices. They remain on the outside of our culture, staying just close enough to be heard. From their vantage point, they decry the attitude that profit is everything. They decry our corporate culture. They decry the dehumanization of women as objects of sexual pleasure, the rampant destruction we have caused to our environment, the inability of America to achieve racial harmony, the wanton destruction of human lives due to violent crime, the toxic substances that destroy families, the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that leaves children without health care, and the fact that we can put a man on the moon, but we cannot end hunger. All too often, they also decry each other.
They are the religious and the radicals.
The religious are a large segment of our population who hold to timeless ideals handed down from generations past. The radicals are a much smaller part of our population, seen as a fringe group, who stress that ancient conventions are holding back the forces of human progress. Despite their differences, both groups stand out in materialistic societies by preaching a gospel of humanity.
The differences between the religious and the radicals are not nearly as great as they seem. As an American Catholic monk named Thomas Merton put it forty years ago, “The basic approach to reality which the Marxist takes is that if you want to understand man’s predicament in the world you have to understand the economic processes by which he makes is living… Traditional monasticism faces the same problem of man and his happiness and what his life is for, and approaches it from a different angle. Buddhist and Christian monasticism start from the problem inside man himself.”
Even with this crucial difference, there is an opportunity for radical ideals like Marxism, so long as they are approached from a democratic, and tolerant, perspective, to live side-by-side with the contemplative, religious life. There is reason to believe that the crises of humanity are caused by both external and internal factors. The illness that plagues humanity cannot be solved by a single approach. As the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement and Servant of God Dorothy Day said, “My radical associates were the ones who were in the forefront of the struggle for a better social order where there would not be so many poor.”
Churches continue to decry radical political movements, and radical governments continue to infringe on the rights of religious organizations. They are united, however, in a deep thirst for social and economic justice. They are united in a sharp criticism of a society in which, as Karl Marx put it, “…capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”
I am not suggesting that religious organizations should, in any way, condone the activities of oppressive governments and totalitarian systems that abuse the very people they claim to exist to serve. I am not suggesting that radical groups should bow down to dogmatic conventions and traditions that can be found in the religious world.
I am suggesting that, if the religious and the radicals fought for humanity rather than against each other, we have the power to transform our world. We can change the systems and consciences that humans live with, and attain real and lasting progress as a society. Democracies are the one place in the world where it might be possible to combine the ideals of traditional religion with the ideals of radical politics. The free republics of the world are humanity’s greatest hope. Rather than letting one group control and suppress the other, democracy allows many groups and ideas to flourish.
As Americans, we have a large enough and diverse enough democracy to experiment with religion and radicalism without the threat of theocracy or dictatorship. Karl Marx said that “Democracy is the road to socialism.” He recognized that we are able to try out different ideals, learn about different systems, respect one another, and find ways to live in real freedom. We can become “a city on a hill,” and inspire all of humanity, as Puritan preacher John Winthrop put it, if we can balance the most profoundly human ideologies of all: religion and radicalism.
By combining the radical emphasis on changing the systems people live under with the religious emphasis on changing the people themselves, we can attain a better life for ourselves and humanity.