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RBD2021: Fidel and Religion

“To pay a denarius to each one who worked that day implies a distribution more in keeping with needs, a typically communist formula.” –Fidel Castro

When it comes to Christian-Marxist dialogue, Fidel and Religion is a remarkable moment. Collecting conversations between Fidel Castro and Brazilian priest Frei Betto, OP, the book covers a lot of ground. All the usual questions about Christianity and Marxism are brought up. What about atheism and materialism? Does communism need to persecute religion, and can it own up to its historical mistakes? Can Christians be Marxists? What’s the nature of authentic collaboration between Christians and Marxists? But these routine questions are given new relevance in light of the revolutionary history of Cuba. Though Castro has now left this world, Betto continues to be a champion of the fragile, audacious experiment of socialism in Cuba, an experiment taking place less than 100 miles away from the biggest capitalist economy in the world. As the island navigates a new set of challenges in light of the pandemic and the ongoing violence of illegal sanctions, it’s a good time to revisit this classic for Red Books Day. (Note: There are two editions, an older one with an introduction by Harvey Cox and a newer one with an introduction by Betto and a foreword by Armando Hart; both introductions are worth reading, although Cox provides a wider analysis.)

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The book is politically intriguing not only because of its content, but because of the dialogue partners. Betto, who has experience as a journalist and writer in addition to his own political struggle in Brazil, is clearly sympathetic to Castro as an interviewer, but he also puts hard questions to the commandante. Castro is also clearly impressed by Betto and the developments of liberation theology, and on top of his revolutionary achievements, he shines through as a person genuinely curious about the world around him, open to new developments, and well read.

I’m running a bit behind, so I can’t say everything I’d like to about the book, but let me pull out a few passages from Castro that I have saved in my notes to give a little flavor of what emerges through the conversation.

On disallowing Christians as members of the Communist Party

  • “All of the privileged social classes that had a monopoly on the church were against the revolution, so when, in organizing the party, we excluded those who believed in God, we were excluding them as potential counterrevolutionaries, not as Catholics. This doesn’t mean that all Catholics were counterrevolutionaries…. This rule was established as a result of the circumstances. If you were to ask me, ‘Does this have to be so?’ I’d say no, it doesn’t. I’m sure it doesn’t have to be so and that it hasn’t been so historically.”

On the cooperation between Christians and Communists

  • “I’ve said that we [Christians and Communists] should do something more than coexist in peace. There ought to be closer, better relations; there should even be cooperation between the revolution and the churches, because they can’t represent the landowners, the bourgeois, and the rich any more… I could be self-critical in this regard and so could the churches, for not having worked in this direction during the past years but contenting ourselves with coexistence and mutual respect.”
  • “When [confrontations between revolutions and religious beliefs] take place, reaction and imperialism may use religious beliefs as a weapon against the revolutions. Why should we make it easy for them to use the religious beliefs of a worker, a farmer, or a poor person against the revolution? It’s politically wrong to do that… It’s not just a question of political tactics. I feel that every citizen’s right to their own beliefs should be respected, along with their rights to health, life, and freedom, and all their other rights. That is, I believe that the individual has the inalienable right to have or not to have their own philosophical ideas and religious beliefs.”
  • “Personally, what most inspired my respect for you [Frei Betto] was my perception of your deep conviction and religious belief. I’m sure that the other people of the church who have concerned themselves with these problems are just like you. If we revolutionaries thought you weren’t honest, nothing we’ve said would make any sense–neither the ideas discussed nor the idea of an alliance or even unity, as I already said in Nicaragua, between Christians and Marxists–because a true Marxist wouldn’t trust a false Christian, and a true Christian wouldn’t trust a false Marxist. Only this conviction can be the basis of a solid, lasting relationship.”

On discrimination against Christians

  • “In principle, I can’t agree with any kind of discrimination. I say this very openly. If I were asked if any subtle discrimination existed against Christians, I’d say yes. I’d honestly have to say yes. It’s something that we haven’t overcome as yet. It’s not intentional; it’s not deliberate; it’s not programmed. It exists, and I believe that we have to overcome this phase; the conditions must be created and confidence must be built up even though imperialism is still threatening us and many of the people who are over there are the former bourgeois, landowners, and members of the privileged classes that turned religion into a counterrevolutionary ideology.”

And lastly, a little note on Fidel’s political theology

  • “At times I’ve referred to Christ’s miracles and have said, ‘Well, Christ multiplied the fish and loaves to feed the people. That is precisely what we want to do with the revolution and socialism: multiply the fish and the loaves to feed the people; multiply the schools, teachers, hospitals, and doctors; multiply the factories, the fields under cultivation, and the jobs; multiply industrial and agricultural productivity; and multiply the research centers and the number of scientific research projects for the same purpose.’ At times I’ve referred to the parable of the rich man who employed several workers: he paid some of them one denarius for a full day’s work; to others he paid one denarius for half a day’s work; and to yet others he paid one denarius for half an afternoon’s work. The parable implies a criticism of those who don’t agree with that distribution. I believe that it is precisely a communist formula; it goes beyond what we say in socialism, because in socialism each should be paid according to his capacity and work, while the communist formula is to give to each according to his needs. To pay a denarius to each one who worked that day implies a distribution more in keeping with needs, a typically communist formula.”

I’m only scratching the surface here, but the book is a gold mine of insights, and not only from Castro. Betto, too, offers some brilliant reflections on socialism and liberation theology, and the two trade points over the church’s historical injustices, socialism’s challenges and promises, and more. There’s a great moment where Castro talks a bit about love, hatred, and class struggle, but I’ll leave that for you to find.

Apart from the intellectual and theological discourse, one of the other major contributions of the text is its discussion of the history of Cuba’s revolutionary society from the perspective of its orientation to religion. This is an incredible vantage point from which to hear, again, the story of the 26th of July Movement, the burgeoning revolutionary government, the struggles of finding one’s feet after the revolution has won, and so on. There are indeed parts of Castro’s narrative that, with the benefit of historical research down the road, are exaggerated. For example, Castro admits the revolutionary movement made mistakes in its treatment of the church, but also sometimes downplays the disciplinary measures of the state against certain Catholics.

At the same time, a number of Catholics, both in and outside the country, took great interest in religion and the revolution. One surprising case is Dorothy Day, who sent dispatches back to the Catholic Worker newspaper after visiting Cuba, some of which communicate the disciplinary measures in light of the complications of revolutionary moments and the church’s historical decision to side with the bourgeoisie–a point that Castro draws out in dialogue with Betto. So there’s a political context to these issues, which Castro explains, despite what might be interpreted as a lapse in memory, revolutionary nostalgia, or political whitewashing. Most importantly, though, the book is a record of a conversation, not a researched manuscript or an archival project, and one can charitably interpret Castro’s remarks accordingly.

I teach the book in a class on Marxism and Christianity, and the reflections from readers have always fascinated me. Some are simply drawn into the peculiarity of the scene, a priest who had languished in prison under Brazil’s military dictatorship and a revolutionary who led his country to victory in a revolution against its own dictatorship. The tone of the text is accessible and associative, and one can almost smell the cigar smoke between the two revolutionaries as they rehearse the primitive communism of early Christianity, or discuss the hairy days of the Cuban revolution. Others are challenged by a communist leader opening up about his own life and faith background. In at least one instance that has stuck with me, a student on the fence about socialism reflected in class that the book was an eye-opening moment, complexifying his picture of Castro, Cuba, and socialism itself in light of reading Castro’s intelligence and posture on his own terms for the first time.

It’s a special book, and one that some suspect also had a hand in the Communist Party’s eventual admission of people of faith as members. In a later edition reflecting on the book 20 years later, Betto recalls that “the book caused a veritable revolution within the revolution,” a nod to Regis Debray’s famous book on the Cuban revolution. It became a phenomenon across Latin America, sold in large quantities and pirated. “It was the first time that a communist leader in office had spoken positively about religion and admitted that it, too, could help to change reality, revolutionize a country, overthrow oppression, establish justice,” Betto reflects. The dialogue was turned into a play in Switzerland, and a documentary was made about preparations for the book. For Betto, the text also made him an invited consultant for communist governments attempting to think through religion in their own societies. And for Castro and the Communist Party, the book was a prelude to significant changes in policy and practice, along with warming relations between the state and some officials in the Catholic Church.

Fidel and Religion is necessary reading as a red book, then, not only as a unique ideological exchange, or an interesting gloss on a historical narrative, but also as a text that sparked real changes in both Christian and Communist communities. For communists of all faiths and none, the text bucks the adolescent atheism one sometimes still finds among certain segments of the left, and it provides a unique window into the hazards and opportunities of religion with respect to revolution. For Christians, the text is a disarming invitation to reconsider the political dimensions of Christianity and the possibilities for cooperation. Over the course of the conversation, Castro and Betto are not simply representative of what it means to be an honest Marxist on the one hand and an honest Christian on the other, but point the way toward a unity in struggle where honesty blurs these boundaries further.

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