There’s been some recent debates on the internet about whether or not Jesus was a Marxist. I’ve found some of the arguments quite interesting. Of course, ideas like “Red Theology” have been going around since the 19th century. I guess these questions are coming up because of some of the discussions around social justice issues. The problem I see in these discussions is that no one is really trying to define what a communist or capitalist is. Everyone is trying to take modern categories and impose them on Jesus, who was living in 1st century Palestine under Roman rule. As a Baptist I have to mention Walter Rauschenbusch, who was probably the most influential pastor and theologian that pushed the “Social Gospel.” So there is definitely a Marxist thread within my own tradition that I have to grapple with. Ultimately, we have to see if Jesus promulgates a Marxist ideology in the Gospels.
In the thread on Twitter the statement was made that Jesus was not a Marxist. A fella then asks, “So when Jesus said to welcome the stranger and ease the pain of the suffering, that was… What, exactly?” There are some problems with this question. First, he’s assuming that helping the stranger and easing the pain of people suffering equates to being a Marxist. Aiding the foreigner goes all the way back to the Old Testament law (Ex. 22:21) and I don’t think anyone would think that the ancient nation of Israel was Marxist in any way. That along with helping the oppressed and suffering is common in many ancient cultures. It in no way defines what a Marxist is. In fact, it is the complete opposite position that Marx holds. In order to entirely revolutionize the means of production he wrote in chapter two of his Communist Manifesto 10 measures (I call them his 10 commandments) that are necessary for Communism. Measure 4 states, “Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.” That is not christlike at all.
The second question came after a response from someone who claimed that Jesus was a “rugged individualist” who didn’t pass on the responsibility of helping others to the government. The same fella then asks, “And the part about rich people not getting into Heaven? I didn’t mention the government, so not sure where you’re getting that from. And if Christians have a responsibility to the poor and suffering they seem to be doing a poor job, especially in the US. Again there are some assumptions that need to be addressed. First, Jesus does not say that rich people don’t get into Heaven. Zacchaeus was wealthy (Lk. 19:1-10), Joseph of Arimathea was also wealthy (Matt. 27:57) and there are many others from the Old and New Testaments that had many possessions. Jesus does say that it is difficult for wealthy people to enter into the kingdom of God but all things are possible with God (Mk. 10:23-27). He is not saying that wealthy people are inherently wicked but that due to their riches they don’t see a need for salvation in the same way that the poor and oppressed will. He certainly doesn’t set up a class dichotomy. Marx believed on the other hand, as Hegel did, that “the individual must thus all the more forget himself (Phenomenology of Spirit: Preface).” He saw the world in classes and he believed that the existence of the bourgeoisie “is no longer compatible with society (Communist Manifesto: Ch. 1).” Jesus certainly never called for the end of any group of people. The second issue with his response is that he says he doesn’t understand why the other guy mentioned the government. This is the naivety of our age. Communism only exists within a nation state that is or is being industrialized. Marx says of the revolution, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class (Communist Manifesto, ch. 2).” None of these things have anything to do with the ministry of Jesus. I didn’t even touch on Marx’s materialism. Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36)” basically rules Him out of being a Marxist in the proper sense.
Reading all of these conversations makes me realize how little people seem to know about some of these ideas. For instance, many people and groups of people have been communitarians or even utopians. That does not make them Marxists. Peasants who worked under feudal lords were not capitalists. We need to understand these systems and ideas in much better ways before we start assigning those labels on people from the past. The Puritans were communitarians but they were in no way Marxists. Rousseau was a utopian but he certainly is not a Marxist. Jesus transcends all of our categories and directs us toward the eternal. It is in Him alone that we will find rest from the vagaries of life.