Jesus and the material world

BY:Brayden Hafner| July 1, 2020
Jesus and the material world


The rise of secularism and socialism in Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and Asia led to the great battle between the two systems of capitalism and communism—the Cold War. U.S. propaganda often portrayed the Cold War in religious terms, as a war between the believers of God and the godless. The Church embraced this framework and engaged in the ideological battles of McCarthyism. In his “Role of American Churches in the McCarthy Era,” Robert Ericksen states, “Conservatives ignored the dishonest and vicious aspects of McCarthy’s behavior in their exaggerated fear of the communist menace.”[1]

The fear tactics of the McCarthy era brought the debate between communism and capitalism into fruition, and the stage was set for one of the largest conflicts between “us,” the Christian capitalists who supposedly value freedom and democracy, and “them,” the socialist atheists likewise hell-bent on the suppression of religious freedom and democracy.

Although the Cold War has ceased, much of its rhetoric around communism continues to this day. Hatred of communism still exists, and the reasons for the hate remain largely the same, that is, communism supposedly is a godless system that promotes stealing, murder, and oppression. One reason for the persistence of this rhetoric is its perpetuation by the modern-day Christian right.

A popular Christian website, the Christian Post, lays out five reasons socialism and Christianity are not compatible. These arguments, which are all too common in the debate over socialism and the church, are based largely on false assumptions and misinterpretations of the analyses of Marx and Engels. Here I examine a few of these arguments and determine the validity they hold against the system presented by Marx.

The Christian right dismisses the horrific material conditions working-class and poor people face every day. But Jesus did not.

The first point made by Julie Roys of the Christian Post is that “socialism is based on a materialistic worldview,” that is, dialectical and historical materialism. Yes, socialism is grounded in real-world conditions, and it is especially rooted in how the material assets are distributed and how power dynamics determine where these assets go (or how they remain where they are). While arguing against dialectical materialism, Roys does acknowledge Christianity’s affirmation of the material world. Yet she continues, “Christianity teaches that . . . mankind’s greatest problems are spiritual . . . [and] the cause of suffering is sin.” In one breath the author acknowledges the material world while dismissing the horrific material conditions working-class and poor people face every day: joblessness, hunger, poverty, and war. But Jesus did not.

Jesus of the Bible was very concerned with the material world, especially poverty, oppression, and how that oppression leads to the hoarding of material possessions and wealth, as in the following from Luke 6:20-26: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

While the Christian Post might not deny the material nature of the world and Jesus’s interaction and rhetoric regarding it, they do deny Jesus’s rhetoric against exploitation of working-class people, themes of exploitation that did not end with Jesus’s death but manifest themselves in the modern system of capitalism.

Jesus . . . is clear in his condemnation of oppressive systems.

Jesus, his followers, the Gospels’ authors, and their audience all lived in the socioeconomic contexts of the times, and all had something to say about the system. Jesus, if the words of the Gospels are to be trusted, is clear in his condemnation of oppressive systems, which give a few, well-off elites most of the economic and social assets and the rest very little. The authors of the Gospels must agree with this, since they are the arbiters of his words, and the audience, in accepting such teachings and continuing the traditions set forth by Jesus and the authors, must also agree with these premises.

The Christian Post‘s separation of Jesus, his rhetoric, and his condemnation of the unequal distribution of material goods from the power dynamics involved in the exploitation of the oppressed and marginalized is disingenuous, especially given the nature of reactionary ideology and its use of faith to enforce status quo politics. This separation, along with themes of spirituality in the Bible, are used by ultra-nationalist Christians to justify the exploitative actions of capitalism (both against citizens of their own nations and the victims of imperialism in other nations).

Another argument of the Christian right is that “socialism endorses stealing,” equating redistribution of wealth with theft. Here we have conflicting definitions of theft. A capitalist is concerned with theft of private property, a socialist with theft of surplus value created by the laborer. Marx stated:

The lowest and the only necessary wage rate is that providing for the subsistence of the worker for the duration of his work and as much more as is necessary for him to support a family and for the race of labourers not to die out. The ordinary wage, according to Smith, is the lowest compatible with common humanity, that is, with cattle-like existence.[2]

Here Marx believed that the money granted to the worker was just enough for them to survive, the value of their work was not recognized through wages, and the surplus value made through said work was seen not by them but by the capitalists. This is otherwise known as wage theft. Under socialism, the surplus value would indeed be appropriated, but it would be returned to society rather than handed over to individual capitalists.

I believe there is little conflict between Marx and the Jesus of Mark, especially in relation to Mark 10:17-31, where Jesus explicitly mentions “defrauding” (a form of theft) in his recounting of the commandments (Mark 10:19), though that concept is undoubtedly different in antiquity as compared to Marx’s times. But in this passage, Jesus is quite clear in the distinction between hoarding wealth and engaging with and being a part of the new community of followers: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”

Capitalism works to prop up economic and social policies contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

The final point in both Julie Roys’s list and this article is that “socialism seeks to destroy marriage and family.” This point is, ironically for a list about the incompatibility of Christianity and socialism, perhaps the most disconnected from the Bible and Jesus. It is also completely unfounded. The problem with this line of argument is that Jesus fits the mold of antagonist far more than Marx or Engels, as he denies his biological family multiple times (Luke 8:19-21; Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:48-50).

The work by Friedrich Engels which Julie Roys failed to cite and quote correctly, Origins of the Family, does not state what the author believes, or insists, it states. While Engels does mention the family no longer being “the economic unit of society,” and therefore as ceasing to exist as a means of economic functionality, he said so because he believed that inheritance acted as a way of concentrating wealth into the hands of the already wealthy, and the family system acted as a way to prop up already existing oppressive and exploitative systems.[3] Capitalism does not function as a bastion of morality but instead works to prop up economic and social policies contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

As an example, the family unit acts as a mechanism of labor, prone to the same exploitation all workers experience. For the capitalist, reproduction of the family functions to create potential labor, and for the family this potential labor acts as a way to keep the family financially afloat. This process can and has stunted the educational potential of many children who are unable to afford the costs of higher education or have no time to attend college while working multiple jobs to keep financially solvent. Here the capitalist maintains a situation of abundant labor in the present and future.

Contrary to Roys, who states that under socialism “the state [will] replace the family” to facilitate the brainwashing of children, Engels believed in the destruction of not the family but monogamy within the family. In his view, the implementation of socialism would remove the need for forced monogamy as a way of perpetuating capitalist structures, along with the concern of inheritance and property. Engels did not believe that removing monogamy would lead to immorality (I use this here in a more fundamentalist Christian sense); instead, if people were concerned only with “sex-love,” monogamy would come naturally.

Christianity has consistently had power in the social and political world and has influenced public opinion on certain issues. The religious right has for too long had a major foothold in religious rhetoric. For the religious left the stakes are too high to allow misinformation, misinterpretation, and outright lies to determine the role of religion in the battle between capitalism and socialism. The materialistic roots of the Jesus movement is a finding too big to simply leave out of the Christian faith.


[1] Robert P. Ericksen, “The Role of American Churches in the McCarthy Era.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 3, no. 1 (1990): 45-58, p. 58.
[2] Karl Marx and Friederick Engels. 1987. Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. p 21.
[3] Frederick Engels, “The Monogamous Family,” ch. 2, part 4, Origins of the Family.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.

Image: Jacques Lebleu, Creative Commons (BY-NC 2.0).


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