Roger Ballenger is a State Senator whose district includes Okemah, from where Woody Guthrie hailed. He told the Ventura County Star of Guthrie that his:
popularity rose, as many do, after he passed away … He would be seen as an extreme left political thinker, I’m sure
The Republican Steve Kouplin went as far as to say:
A lot of people thought he was Communist-influenced. Time has changed all that
I’m not sure time has changed how influenced by Communism Guthrie was (he is after all dead) but perhaps what he means is that people have looked past that now, and that we concentrate on his being a good folk musician.
When I see these descriptions of Guthrie, I can’t help be reminded of how Guthrie saw Jesus. For Guthrie Jesus was both misunderstood in his own day (it goes without saying that he gained his popularity after his death) and that today, if he was to preach what he preached in his day, would have been seen as politically dangerous.
In the song, aptly called Jesus, Guthrie sings:
This song was written in New York City,
Of rich man, preachers, and slaves;
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like He preached in Galilee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.
What was Jesus’ message? “Give your goods to the poor”, says Guthrie. But this was not an empty threat, because as Guthrie focuses, Jesus ”I come not to bring you peace, but a sword”.
The threat that Guthrie himself delivered was the following:
When the love of the poor shall one day turn to hate,
When the patience of the workers gives away;
“Would be better for you rich if you never had been born”
Jesus’ crime was that he was a political rebel, that he was targeting those who did wrong towards the poor. As Terry Eagleton has once pointed out “driving out the money changers and overturning their tables, was probably enough to get him executed.”
To carry on the work of Jesus today, in the way in which Guthrie highlights, would not be love turning to hate, but the highest form of what we know as agape – the love of God and the vision to ensure the very best for all mankind.
This is where we must part ways of GK Chesterton’s reading of the sword in Christianity. In his classic text Orthodoxy he notes:
…the Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity as a divine love…
It’s not necessary to be religious to echo this (indeed I’m not religious at all), but the political Jesus and his political project was inherently violent – but it had nothing to do with hate. It was solely predicated on love, indeed this was the entire point.
The Christian sword is a weapon, but it is not means to lop the heads from individuals, but a literary device, the separation from which proves the difference between the Christian project (agape) and hate itself.
Guthrie made an error here. But in the way he has described Jesus is very intriguing.
It is intriguing too because much of it can be then reapplied to himself. The reason US politicians can talk about him fondly without worry is because Guthrie’s gained the status of the folk singer. But he was more than that, he was a socialist whose songs meant something to people then, as they do now.
Happy birthday Woody Guthrie – Republicans are still trying to deny who you really are. Which must mean you did something right.