The film focuses on the relationship between journalists/activists John Reed and Louise Bryant. They meet in Portland when Bryant is married to a dentist. She leaves her husband for Reed, and the two live a Bohemian life in Greenwich Village with other radicals of the day including Eugene O’Neill and Emma Goldman. They are concerned with the exploitation of laborers, and are opposed to World War I.
In the film, Reed and Bryant’s relationship is shown to be tumultuous. Bucking the radical social norms of their contemporaries, they are reactionary enough to actually marry one another (in secret). They are then estranged several times. The pair eventually go to Russia together as journalists to cover the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and fall in love again amidst the utopian optimism of the revolution. When they return to the United States, Reed becomes involved in American communism. During this time, American authorities become concerned that a Bolshevik-style revolution might take place in the United States. Reed and Bryant are watched closely and harassed. In the context of that part of the film, there is a really fascinating scene when Bryant has been called to testify before a congressional committee. There is a dialogue between Bryant and an unnamed senator with a Southern drawl who is grilling her about the Bolshevik Revolution and her own beliefs:
Senator: “Do you believe in God?”
LB: “...Well, I have no way of knowing.”
Senator: “Are you a Christian?”
LB: “I was christened in the Catholic Church.”
Senator: “Well, are you a Christian now?”
LB: “I suppose I am.”
Senator: “Do you believe in our Lord, Jesus Christ?”
LB: “I believe in the teachings of Christ. Am I being tried for witchcraft?”
Senator: “Ms. Bryant, tell me, are there no decent, God-fearing Christians among the Bolsheviks?”
LB: “Does one have to be God-fearing and Christian to be decent? Senator, the Bolsheviks believe it is religion—particularly Christianity—that’s kept the Russian people back for so many centuries. If any of you had ever been to Russia and seen the peasants, you might think they had a point. On the subject of decency, Senator, the Bolsheviks took power with the slogan ‘an end to the war.’ Within six months they had made good their promise to the Russian people. Now the present president of the United States of America went to this country in 1916 on a no-war ticket. Within six months, he had taken us into the war and 115,000 young Americans didn’t come back. If that is how decent, God-fearing Christians behave, give me atheists any time.”
I think this scene in the film is intriguing for a number of reasons. Whether the words are actually Louise Bryant’s or those of a Hollywood screenwriter, the words clearly express a great deal of bitterness harbored by the author. I think it is helpful for Christ followers to think about the possible sources of such bitterness.
I’ve long believed that left-wing activists are potentially more receptive to Christianity, than many other people might be. Many on the left have a passionate love and empathy for other people, particularly for the vulnerable in society. Even a quick perusing of the Gospels makes it clear that our Lord shared such a love and empathy. Those on the left also tend to be more vocally opposed to wars and other uses of violence than other segments of society. To me, these tendencies bespeak a great respect for the preciousness of human life, which is a fundamental value of Christ followers.
Dorothy Day was a contemporary of John Reed and Louise Bryant. Like Reed and Bryant, she embraced left wing causes of the day. But unlike Reed and Bryant, Day eventually embraced Christianity. Obviously Day is not the only leftie to take that path. But I think that people on the left too often are repulsed from Christianity and end up following paths that are not grounded in truth, paths which ultimately lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Such people are often attracted on some level to the teachings of Christ, but tend to be repulsed by (vocal) people who hold themselves out as Christians but fall short of Christ’s teachings and/or by imperfect human institutions composed of Christians. As a result, such people get hurt by the imperfections of Christ followers and reject Christianity. This is not just some abstract theory. I’ve witnessed this pattern a number of times in my own life; I’ve known many people who fit this description.
In recent years in the United States, Christianity in many quadrants has become so closely aligned with conservative right wing politics that the teachings of Christ have been misrepresented and misunderstood within the secular society. This situation hardly does anything to attract adherents of left wing politics to the church. It breaks my heart that there would be such a tragic impediment to so many coming to know and feel God’s unconditional, unending love for each of his sons and daughters.
Now in 2010, about two decades after the fall of the Soviet bloc, it is clear to most (if not all) that a religion like Communism that is based on the idolatry of imperfect human beings and/or imperfect human institutions is misplaced and bound to fail over time. In the modern era when Communism has failed so colossally, I’m not sure what then remains for radical left-wingers to believe in if they reject God.
Luke 11:42 (New American Standard Bible)
But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.