Interview with Staughton Lynd


Recently, I wrote a paper for a course I took with Harvey Cox on the theological views of the civil rights activist, labor lawyer and radical theorist Staughton Lynd. I interviewed Lynd as part of my research and he’s given me permission to publish the transcript from the interview. I hope to turn the article into a journal article over the summer. As such, I am not posting it.

Reading through your work it seems to me that you place a great emphasis on the centrality of conscience as a source for moral authority. Is that correct?

I don’t think either I or Quakerism is unique in that. Quakerism speaks of that of God that is in every person. Marcus Rediker at University of Pittsburgh uses the big word antinomianism to describe the direct connection between the believer and God. And that too points to conscience because it emphasizes that connection over and above the idea of some sort of institutional church.

You place a great deal of emphasis on spontaneity and, it seems to me, also tradition. Is there a tension between spontaneity and tradition?

I am not quite sure where tradition comes into that. I did not grow up in any specific religious atmosphere. My father had gone to Union Theological Seminary. An experience he had as a summer preacher greatly influenced me. My mother grew up in a congregational church and took that very seriously until she got to Wellesley and read Hegel.

It is also the case that from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade I went to Ethical Culture schools in New York. That was a kind of Reformed Reformed Judaism. Above the platform was the slogan “The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” I am very attached to that place, that school, those words. I have been astonished to speak with some of my closest childhood friends and they do not remember those words. That was, and remains, about all the religion I had. That is, when we gather together to imagine the most, the highest, we can something sacred is going on.

Has Ethical Culture continued to be a factor in your life?

It is a difficult to know what that would mean. There are not very many Ethical Culture societies around. In the early 1960s my wife and I joined the Quakers. The Quakers have a great deal in common with Ethical Culture. So to that extent I did continue in that specific tradition.

Have you experienced a tension between the Left and religion?

It depends on the particular period of my life. In the South from 1961 to 1964 there wasn’t much tension because the Southern Civil Rights movement was permeated with something that could be called spiritual or religious. Its leaders were often ministers. People often met in churches. The moment of the most religious awareness that I experienced in the South was during the orientation for the summer of 1964. It was when, in Oxford, Ohio, word came to us that James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were missing, and, we presumed, dead. There was then a small meeting of SNCC staff and myself. I was there because I was going to play an important role with the Freedom Schools. When I say small I mean no more than a dozen. The very first thing that happened was the singing of a song that to my great anger is parodied as a summer camp song, Kumbaya. [Lynd then recited lyrics of the song from memory.] That was most intensely religious moment of my years in the Southern Civil Rights movement.

When you go onto other movements, it gets more complicated, because there wasn’t the same spiritual or musical component in other parts of the movement. We were in connection with the draft resister movement in Chicago. I remember we gathered to send some young people off to appear in court, where they might be sentenced to years in prison for draft resistance. We sang “Amazing Grace.” That was a song from the 18th century British anti-slavery movement. That was the best we could do in that situation.

In Youngstown, where Alice and I have lived since 1976, what has come closest to that is singing the song “Just my hands/ Just my hands can’t tear a prison down” at the end of a meeting. That song has had a religious feeling to it when we have sung it in a circle. But nothing like the religious atmosphere of the Southern Civil Rights movement has come my way in the last fifty years.

Do you think that it is a reason for, and I am not sure of the right adjective, the success, the strength, of the Southern Civil Rights movement?

There are questions about the right adjectives. In the case of the Southern Civil Rights movement, after obtaining the Federal Voting Rights Act, and even before that, the movement pretty much disintegrated. Similarly the movement against the war in Vietnam, while it was successful, has not prevented what we used to call the seventh war from now. We are now about seven wars from Vietnam.

Alice and I made several trips to Central America in the 1980s. We have since continued and made several trips to Mexico. Our daughter Martha lives in Guatemala. We have had a deep encounter with liberation theology. I would say personally for us, the most important religious experience has been encountering Latin American liberation theology. Not everyone has had that experience and not everyone can go to Latin America.

Although, I have some questions about it. When we attended the neighborhood church in Managua, Nicaragua, they used as their liturgy the peasant mass. Part of that mass says that we know you Jesus. You are with us when we stand in line to get paid at the end of the week and you are with us when we go across the street to get a snow cone. That’s a very attractive image and there are certainly passages in the New Testament that suggest it. But there are also many passages, many parables, that I find baffling, that suggest that we should turn to the master, the absentee landlord, for an answer. I don’t understand how the person of Matthew 25 can dispense that kind of wisdom. Liberation theology has been very influential but I don’t take it hook, line and sinker. If you want an example of the problem look for the parable called the wicked husbandman. That parable, in almost the identical language appears in the synoptic gospels, but also in the Gospel of Thomas. You tell me how the person who took the side of the absentee landlord in that situation could be the Jesus of liberation theology.

I have noticed reading through your work, and certainly in your recent Accompanying, an increasing reference to religion. Has religion become more important to your thinking as you have gone on? Or is that a misreading on my part?

I would put it this way, growing up, although I don’t pretend to have mastered Das Capital, I think was pretty familiar with the Marxist classics and pretty much accepted them. Religion came later. When my father or mother would refer to a particular bible passage we would look at them perplexed. We didn’t go to church on Sunday. We went hiking instead.

Over the years, I have become more interested in the Christian tradition. If someone put me up against a wall I would say that Christian metaphysics strike me as childish. Metaphysically I am more-or-less a Buddhist. The ethics of Christian tradition are stronger than anything else that I have found. I would also say that I haven’t abandoned Marxism. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone can make sense of where this country is at without talking about Marx and Marxism, capitalism and imperialism. However, perennial critic, I very much adhere to the strain in Marxism best represented by Rosa Luxemburg. She said that Lenin had a soul of overseer and was in general much more oriented to working class self-activity than Marx or Lenin. I would go easy on the notion that I have foregrounded Christian New Testament and backgrounded Marxism. We have been to half a dozen retreats by John Dominic Crossan. I am trying to find a way through what is left of my life with the two lamps of the New Testament and liberation theology ethics and Marxism to guide me.

In your recent work, though there are suggestions of it earlier, you emphasize the importance of decency in working for social change. Does that call for decency have religious roots?

I do think, that, Todd Gitlin in his book on the sixties, refers to my sweetness of character. I think it is true that both Alice and I have sought to recreate the group atmosphere that we experienced in the Macedonia Community Cooperative when we were in our mid-twenties. That was more than fifty years ago. We have tried to describe it, in Liberation Theology for Quakers, it just left an impression on us. Sitting in a circle, by a fire, someone would offer an idea and we would listen, put another log on the fire, and someone else would offer an idea or respond. Quaker meetings attempt to replicate that atmosphere, though we never have experienced it as deeply as we did at Macedonia.

Stokley Carmichael has described the seeking of consensus in the Southern Civil Rights movement. He talked about how consensus was important because people were taking risks with their lives and you couldn’t ask them to do that if they didn’t agree with the decision that had been made.

I was distressed beyond the words by the way that the way both SNCC and SDS crashed. I have often said that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when it comes to national meetings and organizations. I have found that young people in the Occupy movement seem to say that it was all Cointelpro. Yeah, Cointelpro was part of the scene but basically we did it to ourselves. I have seen the same thing in the trade union movement. A reform slate gets elected to a local and pretty soon they are tearing themselves apart.

Decency then is very important thing to me. And I don’t think that you can say religious people have any particular claim to it. You certainly don’t find it in all the texts from the first Christians. Also, Alice and I have encountered religious people who have fared very poorly as members of families. I tend to think that nature has given us the family as a sort of first model of the way the world might be. We devote a lot of attention to our three children, our seven grandchildren and our two great grandchildren. That is the model that life provides. At the very least we have the challenge of making something of that model.

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