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April 22, 2010

Where Marx and Christianity Meet

Don't scold me! I know I need to update my blog more. This summer I have a goal to keep up this blog (which I call my "personal" blog-the blog no one should really care about because I seem to just vent on here all the time!) and perhaps my book reviews blog that I started last year and never kept up. I love blogging, and I have so many ideas of what I could write about, but it's just the discipline that I lack. Isn't that true of anyone who goes into the world wishing to accomplish something, but comes to the end of his/her life finding it wasted? I don't want to be one of those people, and today I am having a rare moment of vigor and hope, in the midst of usually depressed, pessimist, as Cody likes to call it "negative self-talk" days. I like these days better. So here I am. Posted below, as I have wished to do for a little while, I have posted my Marx essay that I wrote for my Selected Authors philosophy class when we talked about-you guessed it-Marx. He was such an interesting man, with such a scary prophetic outlook on capitalism and how it would progress. I tried to write it in a simple manner that an average person who doesn't know anything about Marx's philosophy would understand. So-if you dare-enjoy, and give me feedback if you wish! I love to hear critiques and/or thoughts on your part.
Where Marx and Christianity Meet
Through the 20th century, Christians have seen Communism take on a totalitarian form, more specifically in Vietnam, China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. Many Christians confuse Communism with Fascism, thinking that the Communist Party is out to take over the world and rule over classes. They don’t know the truth behind the idea Karl Marx had in mind: a true liberation of the oppressed proletariat, a prophetic ushering in of Communism after capitalism fails, a world revolution of social justice, and a repossession of capital into the hands of the proletariat. He was not out for complete government control of the people, but ironically the people’s complete control of the government and economic system. So, considering the ideas Marx and Engels brought forth in the nineteenth century through their writings, how is the Christian to identify with communism? Perhaps a more concrete question an American Christian in a globalized society should consider is how we should understand and face capitalism in light of Marx’s critique. Should we ever participate as a part of the bourgeois, knowingly oppressing others as Marx’s predicted? Can Christians participate in a capitalist economy, own a plethora of private property, own capital, and not inevitably immerse oneself into oppressive forces? Confronting this political and economic reality as a Christian and reckoning with it from a Christian perspective may be one of the most difficult, but necessary, aspects of being a Christian. Today, Christians need to take seriously what they do and believe politically and economically, not sacrificing Christian beliefs for a different telos, but participating in the world’s struggles and living on earth for what is and will be the kingdom of God.
            The Bible has a lot to say concerning the oppression of the poor. Nehemiah 5:1-13 reads one specific instance that happened during a famine that is relevant to understanding what God thinks about the oppression of the poor and usury. Many families were starving; doing everything they could to work for grain, but still couldn’t make ends meet. Some were asking to gather grain from fields they didn’t own, some were mortgaging their fields, and others were borrowing money to pay for their fields. Some were even resorting to selling their children to slavery. As a result of these outcries, Nehemiah was enraged and the first thing he did was approach the nobles and officials and scolded them. He said,
“You are exacting interest from your own brothers! The thing you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them. (Nehemiah 5:7-10)”
            In this situation, the Jews were being exploited by their nobles and officials. The officials were gaining profit from the Jewish citizens’ labor, living in prosperity, while the Jewish people paying the interest were being forced to sell all they had, even selling their daughters into slavery. God was praised when the officials gave the people their land back and the usury was stopped.
This situation sounds like the “class struggle” Marx spoke of in his works, the tension between the bourgeois agenda and proletariat struggle. Under capitalism, as Marx argues, the proletariat is inevitably exploited as the capitalist market’s law of supply and demand continually separates the worth of the work from the worth of the worker. Marx saw a problem in valuing labor as a means of production, since humans were behind that labor. He saw an inherent problem with the fact that the workers produced all the goods of a company and literally kept the company alive, but the owners of the company owned the all the profits of the workers’ labor. The working class owned nothing but their labor and even that was (and is) treated as a commodity under capitalism. Marx pointed this out clearly in Estranged Labor,
Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labor by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production. It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.”
            Christians cannot, or should not, deny the obvious truths found in Marx’s critique of capitalism. Whether or not they participate in capitalism is a moot point: everyone participates in capitalism in some way or another. One cannot go out for coffee, shop at Meijer, or even shop online without taking part in the exploitive capitalist system. Capitalism is what makes the United States the attractively disfigured country that it is. Capitalism means we have a monstrous variety of materials available to us for our consumption, but in this “freedom of choice” and excess amounts of goods, there is a cost. We turned the rich natural fields and forests of Indiana into corn field after corn field for profit. One might argue that this is necessary, because corn is also used to feed millions of people and livestock. But where is the line between necessity and greed? Where is the line between necessity and exploiting the land? Where is the line for a Christian between godly stewardship and ownership of goods and capitalist materialism that suggests there is no end to the need for more and more commodities and profit margin?
            The one critique Christians can have about Marx’s theory is that of dialectical materialism. He believed in a Hegelian sense that history moved in dialectic, but under a materialist dialectic rather than spiritual or idealist dialectic. He thought that history is driven by the conflict not of spiritual ideas, but rather through concrete compulsions. He thought the material realm, money and power, was the single driving force of the human race. As Christians, I believe there is a connection to be seen in the way Marx thinks about material impulses. There is a healthy way to view the material world; it is not evil in and of itself in a Gnostic sense. From the Christian worldview, though, there exist sins called envy, greed, and depravity, which have to do with material. The distinction between Marx and Christian thought about the material realm is that, for the Christian, the material is not the ultimate telos.  “Class struggle” is not the ultimate struggle, but for the Christian it is the struggle between human corruption and redemption in Christ. The problem with the Christian community is that many look toward the future redemption without responding now. As Tiran Nersoyan said in his book A Christian Approach to Communism,
“The reasoning of some Christians may have been vitiated during these last centuries by their reactionary mentality…Nevertheless, Christians as a whole will have to make their position clear; either with or against Capitalism as this word is commonly understood at present. They cannot stand aloof in a world faced with gigantic social problems. The choice is already imperative.”
Redemption and social action for Christians should begin here on earth, which requires Christians to be aware of world influences and powers, have political opinions, and face the struggles the world is facing. Being “in the world but not of the world”, as the Bible suggests, I do not believe means that we completely separate ourselves from the world’s situations and struggles. God created humans ultimately for this world and we are to live and grow as His followers and creations in it. I think Christians should take to heart, rather than combat and defame, Marx’s critique of religion, that it is the opium of the oppressed and a hindrance to social struggle. We should understand this and sympathize with what Marx was trying to say in context, that he saw the church as a reactionary force against the proletariat struggle. Not only were many religious people of that time a part of the bourgeois, but he also saw the church preaching to the oppressed a “hope for life beyond the grave.”  The people Marx envisioned should stand up against the bourgeois were comfortable living on as exploited people because “life would be better in heaven.” Historically, the Bible has been divorced from politics partly because of this reason and partly because of the Church’s alliance with power. The church has tried to use political power to further their own religion, which is also wrong because then we only become a part of the problem. We become an exploitive, not redemptive, force.  People should not use faith as a means for power.
In this world, I think it is clear that we are in a struggle against good and evil, against Christ’s redemptive power and human’s depraved mind. Marx saw in the material world alone and in observing the industrial revolution a continual ownership of the bourgeois of the means of production and continual use of humans as machinery. He saw a crisis in a progression of capitalism from feudalism, and saw communism as the ultimate end of capitalism. In the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution, merchants had emerged and instead of slaves owned by masters in a feudal society, the bourgeois owned the means of production and the proletariat only owned their labor and the ability to sell it.  Capitalism, as Marx saw it, was simply a different embodiment of feudalism, and perhaps more dangerous because the proletariat are disillusioned into thinking they are freer.
“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general. (Estranged Labor)”
                The Christian community needs to become more proactive instead of simply settling with capitalism “because that’s just the way things are”. We should be an active force in reconciling oppressive forces with the oppressed, like Nehemiah did when he saw a problem. He recognized the outcries of the oppressed and acted on them. Not only did he listen to them, but took initiative and advanced toward a positive solution.  Even if we can’t start a revolution and turn the world upside down in one generation; even if one Christian person cannot eliminate capitalism’s oppression altogether, Christians as a whole can become less of the problem and more of the solution by being aware of the issues of justice in the world, being stewards of their own money and possessions, caring for the weak and oppressed, and by recognizing and not defaming the critiques Marx made about capitalism, we can act, one step at a time,  as a redemptive force for the kingdom of God here on earth. 
 Works Cited
Cuninggim, Merrimon. Christianity and Communism: An Inquiry into Relationships. Dallas:
            Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1958.
Lyon, David. Karl Marx: A Christian Assessment of His Life & Thought. Downers Grove, Ill:
            InterVarsity Press, 1981.
Miranda, José Porfirio. Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression.
            Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1974.
Nersoyan, Tiran. A Christian Approach to Communism; Ideological Similarities between
            Dialectical Materialism andChristian Philosophy. London: F. Muller ltd, 1943.
Vardys, Vytas Stanley. Karl Marx: Scientist? Revolutionary? Humanist? Lexington, Mass: Heath,
Villa-Vicencio, Charles, and John W. De Gruchy. Doing Ethics in Context: South African
            Perspectives. Theology and praxis, v. 2. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994.

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