As you might have noticed, there has been a lack of recent updates here on The Light Invisible — I’ve been very busy with a number of other projects. Readers of this blog might be happy to know that most of my esoteric work at the moment has been directed toward writing a book manuscript on Western Esotericism as a Theology of Liberation, which will hopefully see publication next year.
But the primary reason I’ve been unable to write for the blog has been my day job in communications and organizing. Through my work with the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, I’ve been engaged in communications work for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the effort to reignite Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign for today. I outline the approach of the new PPC — specifically, the necessity of the unity and leadership of the poor for any attempt at national moral revival — in a recent piece for Religion Dispatches.
I’ve primarily been busy with promoting, live-tweeting, and, in coming weeks, traveling to, the Poor People’s Campaign Mass Meetings that we are organizing throughout the country for the next few months. Yesterday, while covering the public event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was especially struck by a comment Rev. Dr. Barber made — that the Poor People’s Campaign is “a traveling course in public theology.”
Rev. Barber made the comment while preaching the Campaign from the pulpit of Central United Methodist Church in Albuquerque. This was only our second stop in a series of public events this summer and fall — maybe fifteen total, probably more.
“A traveling course in public theology” — though the immediate comparison we have consciously been making is to the history of American tent revivals, my mind went to the long history of radical priests and religious leaders preaching peasant revolts throughout the Europe of the feudal period. The most famous of these preachers was John Ball — the equally vilified and celebrated fourteenth century English preacher who helped to spark the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
In an open-air sermon at Blackheath (a rendezvous point for the rebels south of Greenwich), John Ball famously preached:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
In other words, in the time of Adam and Eve, there were no class distinctions between peasant and nobility. Now, then, is the acceptable time: the kairos moment in which we must cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
The parallels between John Ball, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the new Poor People’s Campaign are not exact. The Peasants’ Revolt was a highly violent movement, and ended in violence, while the PPC — like our inspiration and namesake, Dr. King’s 1967-68 PPC — is dedicated to nonviolence. And though John Ball has been hailed as an early socialist hero by artists and thinkers such as William Morris (who wrote the fantasy time travel story A Dream of John Ball in 1888, which included his artwork featured on the side of this post), he has also been condemned for inciting revolutionary violence — usually, of course, by upper-class chroniclers and historians.
But the notion of traveling the country, preaching a campaign of the poor and dispossessed, and citing Biblical warrant for our moral revolution — all of this has a lot in common with what we are doing today with the PPC. Furthermore, our movement emphasizes the need to situate our work in the history of poor people’s movements — struggles like the Peasants’ Revolt that have often been ignored or vilified.
There’s also another parallel between the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the PPC — this one a bit more esoteric in nature. After that Revolt, confessions during the trials of its participants consistently mentioned a shadowy group called the Magna Societas, or ‘Great Society,’ a nationwide organization or secret society that helped to organize the Revolt.
Mainstream historians suggest that this amounts to nothing, that the struggle in 1381 erupted spontaneously out of widespread economic frustration, rather than any kind of nationwide organizing. But conspiracy theorists and esoteric historians such as John J. Robinson — whose amateur history Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry received a surprisingly positive reception for a work of conspiracy literature, even in Speculum, the official journal of the Medieval Academy of America — have made much of the possibility that the Magna Societas was a real secret society.
Robinson’s thesis in Born in Blood is that the ‘Great Society’ was a clandestine survival of the medieval Knights Templar, which had been wiped out only two or three generations earlier. This would explain the rebellious peasants’ deep enmity toward the Knights Hospitaller in England, as that order contributed to the plot to frame and destroy the Templar Order some years before. According to Robinson, following the Revolt of 1381, the Magna Societas eventually developed into early Freemasonry.
Robinson’s book is an exciting read, but his thesis is dubious historically. Still, if only on a mythic level, it reminds me of a further parallel between the Poor People’s Campaign and the Peasants’ Revolt: the importance of an organization like the Kairos Center, which — though not quite a medieval chivalric secret society — nevertheless is responsible for helping to organize, educate, and guide the development of the Campaign as a national movement. A few months ago, Rev. Barber compared Kairos’ role in the new PPC to the Highlander Center in the 1950s and 60s:
I am grateful for my sister, Dr. Liz Theoharis, and many friends at the Kairos Center who have laid the foundation for this campaign over the past decade. Much like Septima Clark and the Highlander Center’s Citizenship Schools in the 1950s and 60s, they have identified and connected grassroots leaders across the nation who are ready to join hands with new allies for sustained direct action that can fundamentally shift the narrative about who we are and who we want to be in this land.
A lot less romantic than a secret society emerging out of the Knights Templar, but still an exciting and important role to play in the growing movement.
In any case, as I have pointed out many times before, one of the primary goals of the Western Esoteric Tradition is Universal Reformation — the total restructuring of our whole society and its institutions in order to better reflect God’s just design for God’s creation. When John Ball asked, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” he was reflecting this impulse.
Whether or not the Great Society ever existed, and whether or not it really was the precursor to the Freemasons, one integral teaching of that latter order — a system of morality veiled in allegory — is that we must hew our rough ashlar in order to shape and finish it for its place in God’s Temple, the moral Temple we build within our hearts. As Rev. Barber often preaches, we likewise must have a moral revival in our nation today — but it is the rejected who must lead the revival, the stone that the builders rejected which must become the chief cornerstone:
In America and in the world, the rejected are gonna lead the revival. I need to know, are there any folk that know what it’s like to be rejected? But in your rejection, God has revived you and reconciled you and redeemed you and there is a rejoicing that only the rejected can do. I wonder is there is a rejection praise in here? They said I’d never make it. They said I wouldn’t be nobody. They said I was too gay, too radical, too lesbian, too poor, but look at what the Lord has done! The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone! Somebody just ought to stop talking and start praising it! And give him glory! And say neighbor, watch a rejected person rejoice!
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” — through the leadership of the poor and the rejected in this new movement, may we continue to hew the rough ashlar of our broken society, so that it may become the perfect stone fit for its place in God’s Temple, restoring that divine estate in which all persons “by nature were created alike.”