Power to the People
One Hundred years ago this week came the breaking point. They’d had enough.
Enough of land being stolen out from under them.
Enough of the exploitation.
Enough of being treated like disposable machinery and property rather than human beings.
Enough of being harassed, beaten, and killed by the police state apparatus set up by their colonizers.
Enough of their families being evicted from their homes and intentionally starved in refugee camps.
So they took up arms and marched for their dignity. Marched for their humanity. Fought for their freedom.
You probably assume I’m speaking of some armed insurgency halfway across the globe – a revolution somewhere in the global south where the oppressed natives rise up against their European imperial overlords.
You’d be wrong.
I’m referring to the culmination of the southern West Virginia Mine Wars, what’s come to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain…the largest American armed insurrection since the Civil War, when coal miners fought for their civil rights against their corporate colonizers to be liberated from a system of industrial enslavement.
Never heard of it?
You’re not alone.
Heck, even those of us that grew up in Blair Mountain’s shadow (I’m composing this approximately eight miles from the site) only heard about it in whispers and half truths.
To this day the Coalfield labor struggle has never been a staple of public school curriculum here where it took place. Never did I learn anything about it in a classroom, and I was born and raised in the town which was the march’s ultimate destination.
What the Company Thinks
And I certainly never heard any sermons preached on it.
Because even though the “company system” of control over the Coalfields theoretically was broken in the 1930s with the coming of unionization, we’re still living with its toxic residue. One that permeates every aspect of life just as it did a century ago…including religion.
Carl Sandberg, known as “the workingman’s poet,” perhaps sums it up best in a piece he called Company Towns:
You live in a company house
You go to a company school
You work for this company
According to the company rules
You all drink company water
And all use company lights
The company preacher teaches us
What the company thinks is right.
“You piss in my boot and tell me it’s rain” – The Local Honeys
Suffice it to say that the institutional church didn’t stand in solidarity with the miners. Didn’t speak out against the existing injustice. Didn’t support them in their bid for freedom.
No, the church had a vested interest in the company and therefore a vested interest in the status quo.
After all, the churches were built by the company, and the preachers were hired and paid by the company.
So the company preacher preaches and teaches what the company thinks is right…a company gospel that’s really no gospel at all, built on a foundation of impoverished theology more in line with slaveholder religion of the antebellum plantation than the religion of Jesus.
A gospel of control and manipulation meant to keep folks compliant, docile, and above all else subservient to the principalities and powers, the rulers of the world’s darkness, spiritual wickedness in high places: King Coal.
It’s not your place to question God (the company). God (the company) has ordained your lot in life. God (the company) provides for your every need. Therefore be satisfied with what you have, work hard for God (the company) and God (the company) shall give you an eternal reward.
A Spiritual Opioid Crisis
When Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses, he was prophetically calling the company church and gospel into existence. He had to have us in mind down here in the Coalfields, a people and a region all too familiar with the devastation of opioid abuse.
Folks who are introduced to opiate-based substances experience a euphoric high that brings relief from physical pain. That euphoria can serve as a temporary detachment, an escape from reality. All of your pain, along with the cares of this world, are gone for the moment.
And with that masked pain comes soothing contentment…a lulling to sleep.
But the danger lies in the powerful addictive nature of opiates.
Once hooked, it changes brain physiology to the point that the body depends on its presence, in the very same way it depends on oxygen.
Those addicted require more and more of the substance to maintain the euphoria, thus increasing the risk of overdose.
The substance once thought to bring healing now breaks down the body, bringing disease and ultimately death.
In the same way Big Pharma intentionally targeted the Coalfields with opiate-based painkillers, the Company Church has been selling us euphoria for a century, masking our pain with a religious Band-Aid that’s brought a soothing yet deadly contentment with the way things are rather than leading us forward to the way God intends things to be.
For a century the Company Church has been lulling us to sleep in opium dens masquerading as sacred spaces. And we’ve been overdosing ever since.
Recovery, however, is possible.
The Fullness of Time
A funny thing happened down here during the Mine Wars.
The Company’s church houses began emptying. Miners and their families began to see them for what they were.
When they realized that the institutional church wasn’t going to stand with them in their struggle to be recognized as beloved children of God made in the divine image, but rather take the side of their oppressors, they abandoned those whitewashed tombs in droves.
In the meantime, a God-breathed movement from below began to take root.
What came to be known as the “organized church,” led primarily by lay people, began meeting outside the fences, outside the suffocating constraints of the conventional church.
The People’s Church, the antithesis of the Company Church, was born.
Folks got free from their opiate-like religious addiction. Folks began to realize that God was on their side.
The God of the Exodus was their God. The God of the oppressed came to set the captives free and ring in a new society.
A spiritual uprising arose among the castaways who now had a fresh understanding of God and their own identity as children of God. They discovered God on the margins, outside the Company Church walls and the manipulation of the company gospel.
“The Holy Spirit got holt of us now,” says the miner-preacher in a famous scene found in Denise Giardina’s masterpiece of historical fiction on the Mine Wars, Storming Heaven.
“Why now?” I asked. Why not ten year ago, or ten year from now?”
“Hit’s the fullness of time,” he said.
Marching to Zion
In the aftermath of the famous 1965 voting rights march at Selma, Alabama, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on the sense of holiness he felt while participating in that demonstration. In his estimation it was an event of prophetic significance, one that carried a moral imperative for people of faith.
“At Selma,” he said, “I felt my legs were praying.”
100 years after the fact the Miners’ March to Blair Mountain serves to starkly remind us that the church has a moral imperative to do as Jesus did and stand on the side of those whose backs are against the wall.
To walk with those in whom the image of God has been diminished.
To march alongside them to the Promised Land of freedom, the City of God called Beloved Community.
To do anything less is to forfeit our identity as the people of God.
To be complicit in systems of oppression.
To be part of a religious apparatus designed to uphold the powers at the expense of the humanness of God’s children.
To deny justice.
Put on your marchin’ shoes ya’ll. The fullness of time has come.
Rev. Brad Davis (he/him) is the founder of The New Society, a grassroots Central Appalachian kingdom movement. A native of one of the nation’s most economically and socially exploited regions, Brad’s passion is connecting its people to a holistic, therapeutic, liberating message of salvation he calls the Holler Gospel. Click here to read more of Brad‘s work.
Feature image: artist’s rendition of miners at Lorado Camp, Buffalo Creek, Logan County, WV, by Chris DeMaria courtesy of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. Used by permission.