Belief

8 Religious People Who Were Not Oppressors

Throughout history, important figures of different religious backgrounds promoted positive change for the world.

Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC. President Barack Obama will lead his nation in homage Wednesday to King at the spot where the civil rights icon voiced a soaring dream of equality 50 years ago.

It isn’t hard to understand why Americans who identify as atheists or agnostics can have a negative view of organized religion. From Family Research Council head Tony Perkins’ nonstop battle against healthcare reform to the Texas Republican Party recently endorsing bogus, unscientific “reparative therapy” for gays, the Christian Right continues to do everything possible to make life worse in the United States. Yet organized religion—be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism—can also be a force for positive change in the world. And as journalist Chris Hedges (who views true Christianity as a left-wing doctrine) has said, a lot more people of faith need to step up to the plate and fight for progressive causes. Hedges has asserted that the moral failure of most modern-day churches is their refusal to help those who are economically oppressed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, is not only remembered for his fight against Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, he also supported a long list of liberal/progressive causes, from the labor movement to fighting poverty to ending the U.S.’ involvement in the Vietnam War (which he vehemently opposed). His role model was Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who led a non-violent movement for Indian independence from Great Britain and struggled against class oppression in India. Gandhi believed in the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, which, in Sanskrit, means non-violence or non-injury—and King, following Gandhi’s example, believed ahimsa should be an integral part of non-violent protest movements and encouraged peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

But King and Gandhi weren’t the only people of faith who fought for progressive causes. Below are 10 more people of faith—some from the past, some from the present—who set a positive example more often that not.

1. The Rev. Willie Barrow

Barrow, who turned 89 last year, has been called “The High Priestess of Protest” and has been fighting for liberal causes for over 60 years. Barrow became a strong ally of Martin Luther King in the 1950s, when she started helping him organize protests and marches in Chicago (her adopted home since 1943).

Chicago was important to the civil rights movement: King knew that racism wasn’t limited to the Deep South by any means, and Barrow was a crucial figure in anti-racist demonstrations in the north. Barrow’s activism didn’t end after King’s assassination in 1968. She has also been involved in everything from labor organizing to fighting for AIDS/HIV research (her son, the late R&B singer Keith Barrow, was openly gay and died of AIDS-related causes in 1983).  

2. The Rev. Addie L. Wyatt

One of Willie Barrow’s closest friends was also a female Protestant minister based in Chicago: the Rev. Addie Wyatt, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 88. Some of the more fundamentalist Protestant churches don’t believe women should be ministers, but not all Protestants are fundamentalists—and Wyatt was both a church leader and a political activist.

Heavily involved in the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, Wyatt was also quite active in the labor movement and stressed that organized labor needed more African-American representation as well as more female representation. When Wyatt co-founded the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974, her belief was that three movements—labor, African-American rights and feminism—needed to join forces.

3. Father Gustavo Gutiérrez

Far-right Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. love to deify the rich and describe poverty as a moral failure, but Verse 10:25 in the New Testament’s Book of Mark certainly doesn’t portray the ultra-rich as morally superior: according to English-language translations of Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” In Latin America, a school of left-wing Catholicism known as liberation theology has taken that idea to heart.

The man who is considered the founder of liberation theology is Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Catholic priest from Lima, Peru. Liberation theologists like Gutiérrez (who is now 86) believe that helping the poor is the duty of all Christians. Gutiérrez explained the liberation theology doctrine in his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, and he practiced what he preached by spending a considerable amount of time among the poor in the slums of Lima and other Latin American cities.  

4. Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan

The civil war in El Salvador lasted 13 painful years, starting in 1979 and ending in 1992. During that time, thousands of Salvadorans were slaughtered by a far-right military junta and its death squads, which went to vicious extremes to combat the leftist guerillas of el Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (the FMLN became a legal political party rather than an armed insurrection when a ceasefire was officially declared in 1992).

The junta wasn’t shy about killing religious figures: San Salvador-based Archbishop Óscar Romero, a Catholic priest who was outspoken against the junta’s brutality and urged the Carter administration to cease all military aid to that regime, was assassinated on March 24, 1980. Then, on December 2 of that year, three American nuns—Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel—and American lay missionary Jean Donovan (who had attended Romero’s funeral) were murdered in El Salvador by one of the death squads while doing charity work in that country. The killings were clearly planned in advance: after Donovan and Kazel (who were under surveillance) picked up Clarke and Ford at the airport in San Salvador, members of the Salvadoran National Guard stopped their vehicle, took them to a remote area, and raped and beat all four women before shooting them. Despite the outcry over the killings, U.S. military support for the Salvadoran junta continued under the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Sr.

5. Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In South Africa, one of the people who has followed King and Gandhi’s example is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an Episcopalian (or Anglican) minister who was one of the leading anti-apartheid activists of the 1970s and 1980s. Tutu, now 82, and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell (founder of the far-right Moral Majority) were diametrically opposed where South Africa was concerned: Tutu encouraged boycotting the South African government as long as apartheid was in place, while Falwell was opposed to any type of boycott and had no kind words for the African National Congress (ANC).

After the racist apartheid system was abolished in South Africa and the ANC’s Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994, Tutu continued to devote himself to a variety of political causes, including gay rights, AIDS/HIV research and environmentalism.

6. Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld

Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, who was a leader of the reform Jewish movement and served as president of the American Jewish Congress from 1966-1972, was not afraid to risk his own safety when it came to promoting civil rights. The Cleveland-based Lelyveld (who was active in the NAACP) was helping to register African-American voters in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1964 when two white segregationists brutally beat him with tire irons. Martin Luther King cited Lelyveld (who passed away in 1996 at the age of 83) as a prime example of the important role non-blacks could play in the civil rights struggle.

7. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy

African-American Baptist churches have had some stellar civil rights leaders. One of them was the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Active in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Abernathy fought hard against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s and risked his physical safety in the process (his church and home in Alabama were both bombed by segregationists in 1957). Abernathy was a strong ally of Martin Luther King, who described him as “the best friend I have in the world.” When he led the Poor People’s Campaign (an anti-poverty program) in 1968, Abernathy said it was his duty as a Christian to help society’s “most oppressed and poverty-stricken citizens.”

8. Vernon Dahmer

In the Deep South, being a civil rights activist in the '50s and '60s was not for the faint of heart: Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers were both assassinated, and Ku Klux Klan terrorists murdered civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner in 1964.

Vernon Dahmer also paid the ultimate price for his civil rights work: he died from severe burns and lung damage after Klansmen firebombed his home in Forrest County, Mississippi in January 1966. Like King and Abernathy, Dahmer was part of the African-American Baptist tradition of nonviolent civil rights work—he served as president of the NAACP’s Forrest County chapter, was a Sunday school teacher for the Shady Grove Baptist Church, and led black voter registration drives in Mississippi. 

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.