“Goodbye, Christ”

That’s the title of Langston Hughes’s 1932 poem that caused a scandal when it was published and that continues to provoke scholarly debate. A brief excerpt:

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all –
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME –

I said, ME!
Go ahead now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.

Wallace Best argues that the poem has long been misunderstood, and should be considered part of the era’s “proletarian” writing about “the exploits of capitalism, how the Depression disproportionately affected the poor, and about the lives and deplorable living conditions of the working class—often with a strident critique of the religious status quo”:

“Goodbye, Christ” was not a declaration of Hughes’s commitment to Communism, nor was it a statement of his disbelief in God.

That contention is an over-simplification and a distraction. What I am arguing is that more than anything it could say about Hughes himself, “Goodbye, Christ” emerged as a perfect expression of what I call “the culture of complaint and critique” of American religion among black writers and clergy during the interwar period. In the aftermath of the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy of the 1920s, the thirties were a destabilizing time for religion in America as notions of American religious identity were being negotiated and contested. The seemingly anti-religious rhetoric of “Goodbye, Christ” doubtlessly appeared shocking to most people, but a number of black (and white) ministers from across the nation echoed the sentiments of the poem throughout the decade of the 1930s. Indeed, in many ways, the implication of their ideas (and the level of their rhetoric) eclipsed those expressed by Hughes in “Goodbye, Christ.” They critiqued and complained about the capitalist system, American churches’ alliances with capitalism, and about what they saw as an inherent insufficiency in religion itself.

Read the full poem here, or in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.