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When Jesus was Left: Christians, Socialists and the Masses

Once many people who showed their religion in public were on the left. Churches and church-run campus coffeehouses hosted rock bands playing benefits against the Vietnam war. This historical tradition stretches back to World War One, when Masses magazine sentimentally appreciated Jesus, and featured Jesus in anti-war and anti-capitalist cartoons.

Mike Mosher

Issue #72, February 2005

When I was a kid in a university town, first aware of politics, people who showed their religion in public were usually on the left. Black ministers spoke truth to power about racial inequality, and led marches and campaigns demanding social justice. Rabbis and white mainline Protestant ministers lent support to open housing initiatives. Churches and church-run campus coffeehouses held symposia and musical benefits (The Stooges! Commander Cody!) against the Vietnam war, and the Unitarian minister displayed a big illuminated peace sign on the front of his house. My Republican mother angrily left St. Mary's parish when the church held a benefit for a North Vietnamese hospital destroyed by American bombing, though she never attended any of the more conservative churches across town.

Activists coming of age in the 1980s found an American political landscape dominated by stern Reagan-supporting Christian radio evangelists. Synagogues turned their attention to Israel, or injustices against Soviet Jews, and away from local issues. With the exception of the sanctuary movement — those few parishes, like Rev. Cuchulain Moriarity's in San Francisco, that offered solace to refugees of oppressive Central American regimes — if Catholics got involved in politics, it was to prohibit abortion choice. In recent years, a few ecologically-minded Christians asked "What would Jesus drive?" and momentarily questioned SUVs. A guardedly optimistic pre-election essay in the New York Review of Books in 2003 looked to southern evangelicals to fight for social justice. Yet in the Bush era, where religion enters politics it is usually, thunderingly, from the right.

Unlike later Jewish intellectuals Marx and Freud, Jesus of Nazareth never wrote down his views. The differing accounts left by others have been used to justify various contradictory positions, including progressive and radical ones. Anarchist Emma Goldman and her magazine Mother Earth was skeptical of Christianity at its root. Yet like their contemporary, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, The Masses magazine generally embraced Jesus, sentimentally appreciating his philosophy and reported acts but not the twentieth century churches that preached in his name. One of its writers called Jesus "the first socialist" to be celebrated not for divinity "but his carpentry". The hobo poet Harry Kemp hailed him as the "super-tramp" and "divine hobo" for the man Jesus preached a social gospel, and consorted with outcasts and criminals. It wasn't Jesus' fault if the chuches that claimed him had grown repressive and corrupt. He had stood for voluntary poverty, not self-satisfied greed. He had stood for justice and identified with the downtrodden, saying that what you do the least of God's creatures, you do to me.

While there were notable priests in solidarity with organized labor, like Father Peter Yorke of San Francisco, churches were rarely progressive. Art Young (1866-1943) drew Trinity Church — which had been exposed as an exploitative slumlord in articles by Ray Stannard Baker — dwarfed by neighboring financial district skyscrapers, with a caption "Nearer My God to Thee". Maurice Becker drew the well-fed clergymen of the 1913 Episcopal Convention in New York dining and guffawing beneath a gaunt Jesus hanging on a life-sized crucifix. That same year, Young drew a bourgeois crowd, prosperous and crabby, dressed in silk top hats and spats, entering the Church of the Holy Name to listen to Rev. "I. Piffletalk".

Art Young cartoon

John Sloan (1871-1951) drew "Calling the Christian Bluff", showing the wintry day in 1914 when police were called to remove homeless unemployed protestors by the Church of St. Alphonsus after the church refused to provide food and shelter for the men. In a play about the incident performed in Provincetown that summer, the protestors' leader Frank Tannenbaum was compared to Jesus.

John Sloan cartoon

The Masses was notable for antiwar cartoons during the first World War. In a 1916 cartoon called "The Deserter", Boardman Robinson (1876-1952) depicted Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers of five different European armies. At that time the US had not yet entered the war, yet the drumbeat of support for American entry was growing louder. Young American adventurers were dropping out of Ivy League colleges to go fight.

Boardman Robinson cartoon

Rev. Dr. William T. Manning, Rector of Trinity Parish, New York City, had declared "Our Lord Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price...Every true Amercan would rather see this land face war than see her flag lowered in dishonor...I wish to say that, not only from the standpoint of a citizen, but from the standpoint of a minister of religion...I believe there is nothing that would be of such great practical benefit to us as universal military training for the men of our land." Boardman Robinson illustrated Manning's quote, showing the preacher getting a long and dirty look from Jesus and his Apostles, outraged at such militarism coming from a supposedly Christian man of the cloth.

Boardman Robinson - cartoon of Reverend Manning

A year later, the US entered the Great War. The General Wartime Commission of the Federal Council of Churches groups sold Liberty Bonds, openened canteens, entertained servicemen abroad, and provided educational and religious programs for the military. Cartoons and opinions like Young's, Sloan's and Robinson's resulted in The Masses being banned from NY subway kiosks for "irreligion". One issue was banned from the US Mail in 1917. When that ruling was overturned, the publication was indicted and tried for having "conspired to obstruct enlistment and recruitment". In this context, George Bellows (1882-1925) drew Jesus in prison stripes and detailed the Nazarene's seditious crimes.

George Bellows cartoon

Ninety years ago, the American radicals who were cartoonists for The Masses lived in a different visual culture, but the faith-based intolerance they critiqued persists. Tom Frank (in What's the Matter with Kansas?) noted how many Americans are turning rightward to rally around "traditional moral values" while their material lot worsens by corporate design. Yet a Christian response remains open to debate, as was shown in a cartoon from Drawing Blood . This cartoon was circulated on a Michigan Democrats Yahoo list in November 2004, after the successful constitutional initiative to prohibit gay marriage in Michigan. Simlar initiatives passed in fifteen other states.

moral values cartoon

And after looking at all these Christly cartoons, I was taken aback by the photo from Abu Ghraib that appeared in the Economist of October 23, 2004. In the photo, a middle-eastern man, a prisoner with arms outstretched as if awaiting crucifixion, suffers torment at the hands of a guard from the army of the imperial occupier. Haven't we heard this story before...?

Abu Ghraib photograph

The Masses graphics and history from Rebecca Zurier, Art for the Masses: a Radical Magazine and Its Graphics 1911-1917, Temple University Press 1988. Thanks to Rosalie Riegle for the Masses book, and to Leo Romo for the Drawing Blood cartoon.

This issue marks the tenth anniversary of the first publication of Mike Mosher in Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2005 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.