Whose Bad Books?
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:36

Whose Bad Books?

Published in Poetry

Whose Bad Books?

by Christopher Norris, with image by Martin Gollan

1

Our pastor, he said ‘Praise the Lord,
Give praise unto His name,
And spread the gospel news abroad:
To save your souls He came!’.

He said ‘The grapes of wrath are stored
For those who bear the blame
That drags us mortals Satan-ward
To feed the Devil’s flame’.

I harkened, took it all on board,
And told my kids ‘For shame,
Listen up else you’ll be zero-scored
When God decides the game’.

But then I thought: ‘There’s things ignored
In all that he’d proclaim,
Things apt to strike a jarring chord
With folk outside the frame.

2

That Jesus, he had stuff to say
That goes for black and white,
Good news our pastor could convey
And help set old wrongs right.

You know, the bits not only they
But us black folks can cite
Because there ain’t no earthly way
They’ll spread the racist blight.

Truth, justice, peace on earth - let’s pray
Those words shed kindly light
And quench the flame whose kindling may
Burn fierce in darkest night.

A good man, Jesus, when he’d play
It down, that touch of spite
That blasted the fig-tree to pay
Those chatterers back alright!

3

But Christ-as-God’s the one who’ll see
You burn in Hell should you
Risk any word or deed that He
Deems wicked or taboo.

Old monks devised the Trinity
In hopes that it might do
To silence such rank heresy
Amongst the errant crew.

Still look around and you’ll agree:
It’s God, not Christ, that slew
Those legions of the damned whose plea
The wrong God listened to.

The one to whom they bend the knee,
The God of Soldier Blue,
Is He whose old book’s held to be
The sole book good and true.

It holds the one and only key,
The single passe-partout
Vouchsafed by Him to guarantee
They pay the homage due.

And when the tribal lords decree
Some holy war or new
Crusade to wage they’ll soon make free
With Joshua’s hullabaloo.

I hear it in their hymnody,
With our old pastor, too,
When he takes such unChristian glee
In tales of butchery.

It’s in the blood-filled oratory,
The martial tropes on cue,
The monotheists’ battle-spree
To get a God’s-eye view.

4

But nearer home I saw it fill
The airwaves, tv screens,
And op eds: ‘they went out to kill,
Those two black female teens.

A woman elderly and ill
They killed by brutal means,
A Bible teacher who’d instil
God’s grace in wolverines.

Don’t blame their parents’ lack of skill,
Don’t blame it on their genes,
Don’t say it’s what their home-lives drill
Them into - death-machines!

No, we’ll not walk safe streets until
We’ve junked those childhood scenes
Of violence, want, and horrorsville
So justice intervenes.

5

For the Lord tells us: eye-for-eye
And tooth-for-tooth’s the law,
And those two girls have got to die
To quit the moral score’.

That’s what he said, the lawyer guy,
And the DA then swore
That it would anger God on high
If sins weren’t answered for.

It’s how they think, the folk who buy
That vengeful line - what more
Effective way to block the cry
Of conscience they ignore?

It’s him, the Moloch-god, who’ll pry
Into the hate-filled core
Of minds long driven far awry
By that god-awful lore.

Those old books have the sinners fry,
And their god wipe the floor
With infidels who dare to try
The penalties in store.

O there’s good bits, you can’t deny,
Like passages that soar
On prophet-wings to touch the sky
Or heaven’s gleaming shore.

Yet always there’s some sinner nigh,
Some tribe to shock and awe,
Or angel to touch Jacob’s thigh:
‘Not yours but God’s, this war!’.

Our pastor has his own supply
Of bible-quotes he’ll draw
So swiftly on you never spy
Some massacre in the raw.

But that’s the itch they satisfy,
The itch of tooth and claw
To hear him conjure deeds we’d shy
From once through the church-door.

6

And now each latest bulletin
From Gaza lets us know
Once more how massacres begin
When preachers run the show.

The same old talk - ‘wages of sin’,
‘God’s children’ or ‘God’s foe’,
‘We chosen ones’, ‘you devil’s kin’,
And suchlike to-and-fro.

It’s still the same old tales they spin,
The tales that strike a blow
For each hate-manual and its twin -
Two creeds, same war-tableaux.

Sometimes I think the guys who’d pin
The death-rap on those low-
Life scapegoat girls are mirrored in
The siege of Jericho,

Since that’s the mythic origin
Of what the victims owe
To bible-lore when victors win
On points scored long ago.

The truth ‘all one beneath the skin,
All kindred, bro and bro’,
Gets lost each time the trumpets’ din
Brings yet more grief and woe.

For it’s the vengeful god within
That answers when they blow
And spike some war-primed endorphin
With carnage to bestow. 

7

I catch the bible-bashing tone
In that DA’s appeal
For the death-sentence to be thrown
At those too hurt to heal.

I catch it in the battle-zone
Reports of those whose zeal
For far-off kills by bomb or drone
They’re hard-put to conceal.

But you’ve a language all your own,
You holy men who deal
In sanctifying missions flown
Or fusillades of steel.

It’s your God churns the flesh and bone,
Whips up the hate they feel,
His chosen ones, or sees them blown
To bits unless they kneel.

He taunts the victims as they groan
On the inquisitor’s wheel,
And tells his flock ‘Let them atone
Beneath the Seventh Seal’.

For it’s a savage seed they’ve sown,
Those scriptures that reveal
Depths of malignity unknown
Till blind faith makes them real.

The Fall of Adam and Eve
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:36

Marx's revolutionary reading of the Bible

Published in Religion

Roland Boer continues his series on Marxism and religion with a look at some examples of how Marx interpreted the Bible.

The mention of Marx and the Bible will evoke in many readers the famous family Bible in Capital, where it becomes a commodity – along with the piece of linen and the coat. Marx wrote:

Let us now accompany the owner of some commodity – say, our old friend the weaver of linen – to the scene of action, the market. His 20 yards of linen has a definite price, £2. He exchanges it for the £2, and then, like a man of the good old stamp that he is, he parts with the £2 for a family Bible of the same price. The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates.

I cannot help wondering whether these examples were actually drawn from the Marx family’s daily experience. They may well have been the objects regularly taken to the pawnbroker to meet immediate costs of food and rent. Yet, the Bible is far more pervasive in Marx’s works than this reference in Capital. Allusions and references appear in many different guises. They appear in efforts to outwit censors; to attack the ruling class; to attack opponents in the communist movement; as personal references; and as economic allusions. Out of these myriad references, I would like to give three examples.

A Bullet for the Prussian King

In mid-1844, the Prussian king – Friedrich Wilhelm IV – wrote a public letter. It dealt with a recent assassination attempt, which he had survived. Marx offered a sustained criticism of this letter, full of theological allusions. For example, the king wrote: ‘when the hand of the Almighty cast the deadly bullet away from My breast to the ground’. In response, Marx comments:

It does not seem altogether appropriate to cause the ‘bullet’ to be warded off directly by the hand of God, since in this way even a slight degree of consistent thought will arrive at the false conclusion that God at the same time both guided the hand of the criminal and diverted the bullet away from the king; for how can one presume a one-sided action on the part of God?

Of course, God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mathew 5:45). But Marx’s polemic – in the Rheinische Zeitung which he edited in the early 1840s – was dangerously subversive. Further, the Prussian king states that he always goes about ‘while looking upward to the divine Saviour’. Marx responds:

That His Majesty ‘goes while looking upwards to God’ ‘to complete what has been begun, to carry out what has been prepared’, does not seem to offer a good prospect for either the completion or the carrying out. In order to complete what has been begun and to carry out what has been prepared one must keep one’s eyes firmly fixed on what has been begun and prepared and not look away from these objects to gaze into the blue sky.

Moths and Rust

A second example concerns a favoured biblical text, dealing with moths and rust and treasure in heaven. Marx writes:

Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour [den weder Motten noch Raub fressen] – your capital.

The reference is to the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 (see also Luke 12:33-34), where Jesus says:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Marx’s sense of the biblical text is quite astute. The text itself is situated in a collection of sayings concerning prayer, fasting and avoiding worry. Indeed, we should not concern ourselves about food and clothes and dwellings, since birds and lilies care little for such things since they receive them from God (Matthew 6:25-34). In other words, our hearts are so often where our treasures are. Yet Marx also gives it one of his typical turns: he speaks not of the treasure in heaven but of the treasure on earth. This is no ordinary treasure, a collection of material possessions which may rot, mould or be eaten by vermin. It is nothing less than the ‘eternal’ treasure of capital.

I would add here that this passage in Marx should also be understood in light of personal circumstances. Marx was hopeless with money, for he spent what little the family had without thought for the morrow. He was usually in debt, with he and Jenny continually fighting off creditors. They could hardly afford to sing, dance and go to the theatre. One wonders whether this passage also expresses a utopian wish for what they could not do.

The Devil and the Truth

My third example is an interpretation of Genesis 3 – the story of serpent and eating of the forbidden fruit. In the early 1840s, while he was the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx mercilessly attacked the activities of the Rhine Province Assembly (largely filled with nobles). On one occasion the speaker of the Assembly quoted the words of the serpent, addressed to Eve, in Genesis 3:4-5: ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.

Marx replies that ‘the devil did not lie to us then, for God himself says, “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”’ (Genesis 3:22). With this observation, Marx has picked up a long tradition that recognises the truth of the words of the serpent (who is usually understood as the devil, but is not so designated in the biblical text). In this crucial story at the beginning of the Bible, it is the serpent and not God who speaks the truth. Indeed, the fact that the woman listens to the serpent was understood by some alternative (or ‘heretical’) groups, as a genuine rebellion against an oppressive god. In this light, other references in the Bible to serpents were seen in a new way: Moses’ staff turning into a serpent (Exodus 4:2-5; 6:8-12); the bronze serpent set up by Moses in the desert for healing (Numbers 21: 4-9); or John 3:14 in the New Testament, which reads: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. At this point, Marx’s satirical response actually touched on a revolutionary reading of the Bible.