Book Review by John Pietaro-RADICAL JESUS: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor; Art by Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm and Nick Thorkelson
(2013, Herald Press, Virginia)
Although noted Left-wing historians such as Paul Buhle aren’t normally seen as devout in their religiosity, a read through of RADICAL JESUS could lead to the assumption that the revolutionary intellectuals in our midst have “seen the light”. But here, Buhle and a company of underground comic artists are instead offering a vision of Jesus Christ (and religion itself) that was clear all along to anyone who looked beyond their hymnal. What comes to life in the course of these 128 pages is what political radicals have always asserted: Biblical figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist and Martin Luther were not only revolutionary in their spirituality but in their actions.
The book opens with “Radical Gospel” and offers the ‘downtown’ art of Sabrina Jones to Biblical excerpts. But as one may expect, it wouldn’t be the stuff of underground comicdom without the proper irony, so Jones mixes contemporary imagery morphed into the Greatest Story Ever Told. Quotes such as “blessed are the poor” are paired with visuals of a union strike, and “blessed are those who mourn” with the parents of Trayvon Martin. These are in excellent company with frames that depict Occupy Wall Street, the homeless, peace demonstrators and Middle Eastern families faced with armed US troops. And as the Bible is filled with symbolic tales of faith, these sections RADICAL JESUS are fully engaged with expanding on the common symbols to denounce capitalist greed and high-priced televangelists. But what’s in store for the reader here is not necessarily what we may have guessed: in a discussion between Jesus and an apostle about the great power, wealth and towering temples around them, Jesus warns that “The day will come when there isn’t one stone left on top of one another that isn’t thrown down”, and Jones bravely recreated the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11.
“Radical History” is the next lengthy segment and it brings us through the Lollards journey (one of the early radical Christian organizations), the Catholic Church’s base of power, the burning of “heretics”, and the radical reformation founded by Martin Luther. These sections are not from the Bible at all, but history itself. Drawn by Gary Dumm (with vivid coloring by Laura Dumm) and often scripted by Buhle, Dave Wagner or Dumm himself, we are taken through some harsh and some revelatory scenes. Peace activists and members of AIM will recognize the roots of their struggles in chapters on the Quakers’ relationships with Native Americans and the Abolitionist movement. Without much difficulty one can of course see a connection to the struggle of the Palestinians and others of the First Nation.
The final segment, “Radical Resistance” was written and drawn by Nick Thorkelson. It explores faith-based movements in modern times and in doing so, ties together the struggle for human rights and equality throughout the ages. There is a special focus on slavery and African American freedom struggles and Sojourner Truth is heroically depicted as are multiple figures we recall from the Civil Rights years (yes, there’s Dr King tearing down the walls of Jericho). But it surely doesn’t stop there: check out the story of the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day’s quote: “…The class structure is of our making, not His….So we are urging revolutionary change”. Hey, this kind of dangerous talk can almost bring ME back to church! And Thorkelson shows how the line went from Haley House to the Catholic Worker to Plowshares. We also see Mennonites, various levels of peace protests around the world, Conscientious Objectors, Aboriginal movements, and the struggle for ecology and a sustainable world.
Taken literally, the messages of Jesus’ teachings should always reflect a visions of a shared planet and an economy not designed by and for the wealthy few. As a child at weekly Catechism classes I had to attend, we were constantly taught that “God is love” and that Jesus was “the Prince of Peace”. But this was during the climax of the Vietnam War and when we asked the nuns or lay-teachers why God has allowed this ongoing horrific violence that came home to us on the television news each night, they only answered that we must have faith, and that God works in mysterious ways. I am sure that none of these intended guides to my religiosity considered the figure of Jesus as a revolutionary nor the symbolism in the Bible to have more in common with Marx than Pope Paul, but then RADICAL JESUS had not yet been published at the time. After reading this book, however, I would argue that it surely had been written ---a millennia ago, with a message still urgent after King James had his way with the words and church corruption attempted to refigure it, sore afraid of a fully awakened populace.