From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need. - Karl Marx
What a nice Christian man Karl Marx must have been. His most famous quote is from the book of Acts. He must have heard it from his Lutheran pastor.
Actually, there is truth here. Marx was baptized Lutheran and his housekeeper thought he was nice.
Of course Marx didn’t stay Lutheran for long. Born into a well-to-do German family in 1818, he soon traded Christianity for secular humanism, the enlightenment, and dialectical materialism. He wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and died in 1883 before he could see his philosophy revolutionize half the world. By the time Marx was dead 100 years, his revolution had been dumped – in Ronald Reagan’s words – on the ash heap of history.
But with hindsight, the New Testament church and Karl Marx will always have something in common. Their basic ideas were so thoroughly twisted by their successors that they became unrecognizable.
We all know what happened to Communism. The idea of sharing wealth for the good of all was immediately lost in political purges and murderous great leaps forward. In Russia, commissars quickly seized as much power and wealth as the nobility, and Stalin ruled far more viciously than the timid tsar he replaced. Today, los hermanos Castro run Communist Cuba with geriatric petulance, and in North Korea the post-pubescent Kim Jing-Un looks to mad King Joffrey of Game of Thrones as a model of servant leadership. Marx would weep.
And we know what happened to the church. The idea of sharing the wealth for the good of all was lost when bishops began seeing themselves as bosses and not servants of the faithful. Today, some bishops adorn themselves with enough gold chains and pendants to pay the bills of a dozen soup kitchens. It would be hard to overestimate the amount of money Christian churches have spent over the centuries on massive cathedrals with flying buttresses, polished marble altars, stained glass windows several stories high, and gilded crosses.
And bejeweled gold chalices. One gets a sense of just how far the church has strayed from its egalitarian roots by watching a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988).
The Indiana Jones franchise is not known for its anthropological purity or theological astuteness.
In this film, however, Indy and a Nazi officer are shown several glistening grails lined up side-by-side. They are challenged to choose the actual vessel Jesus used at the last supper. Aligned before them are golden grails, silver grails, jewel-encrusted grails, and a nondescript clay cup.
The Nazi chooses a gold cup he thinks befitting the savior of the world and sips from it. He chooses poorly, as the movie shows.
Shrewdly, Indy chooses the clay cup, reasoning it is the kind of tableware a Galilean wood worker would use. And, of course, he was right. It was supposed to be a surprise, because the producers knew the audience would ignore a crude goblet amid all the silver and gold.
That shows how far the image of the church has fallen since its salad days in Jerusalem.
It’s strange that the church would stray so far from its origins in poverty. Jesus could not have made it clearer that he had an overwhelming bias against the rich and in favor of the poor. When those early Christians saw the need to sell their property and share it with the poor, it might have been a radical act. But they had no doubt it was what Jesus expected.
The question is, why have so many of us lost sight of Jesus’ expectations. Perhaps, as Garry Wills suggested in What Jesus Meant, we’ve lost track of the gospel message.
“For creating radicals,” Wills writes, “there is nothing like a reading of the gospels. They constantly inveigh against the rich the powerful, the exploiters. ‘Happy you who are poor, for heaven’s reign is yours …. But dire your plight, you who are rich, for your time of comfort is over (Lk 6.20, 24). The young man who has observed all Law and wants to follow Jesus is turned away in sadness ‘because his possessions were great’ (Mk 10.22). Jesus says, when the young man is gone, ‘It will be hard for those with possessions to enter into God’s reign.’ This perturbs his followers, but he repeats and strengthens his warning: ‘Little ones, it is very hard to enter into God’s reign. It is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s reign’ (Mk 10.23-25).”
Jesus’ radical views on property can be traced back three millennia before he was born, to the Levitical law of shmita (sabbatical years), when after seven cycles of seven years – 49 years – the following year would be a jubilee in which property is returned to its original owners, slaves and prisoners are freed, debts are forgiven, and God’s special mercies would be manifest. (Lv 25:8-13).
If Karl Marx had remained a good Lutheran, he would have found ample scriptural proof-texting for his manifesto. He missed an opportunity to use religion as the methamphetamine of the masses.
To be fair, not everyone has lost sight of these biblical entreaties about property and wealth. Some religious Jews still follow the biblical rules of shmita in Israel, though they are in the minority and the state of Israel does not participate.
And throughout the centuries, many monastic communities and Christian orders have made vows of poverty.
In his blog on Ignatian Spirituality, the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., says such vows are based on the lifestyle of Jesus.
“Christ also lived in actual or material poverty, with a lack of material goods,” O’Brien writes. “Some people may be called to this way of living. Priests, brothers, and sisters in religious orders profess a vow of poverty, renouncing personal possessions and wealth and depending on their religious community for their material needs. God may call others to a life of material poverty without professing vows. Material poverty is not an end in itself, for abject poverty is degrading to the human person (as a survey of our world so tragically reveals). Instead, for those called to this state of life, material poverty is a means to deepen one’s commitment to the poor whom Christ held so dear.”
In the final analysis, abject poverty is demeaning and killing millions of people worldwide.
And so long as his manifesto remains on the trash heap of history, I think we can give Karl Marx some credit for wanting to eliminate poverty. I like to think his sense of social justice was buried in his Lutheran genes.
But, as history has shown, the challenges facing pure socialism are overwhelming. Most of us hold on to personal property as if it was the realm of God, and the richer we are the more we grasp it. The notion of selling what we have to share with others is, if anything, more radical now than when Jesus sent the grieving young man back to his abundance.
And there are many signs that the rich still close their minds to ancient scripture and the sermons of Jesus, as they are wont to do. This week wealthy business owners are spending millions to oppose a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
One can live on $10.10 an hour is one is willing to live at the poverty level. But that’s beside the point.
The point is that the world’s economy, and certainly our national economy, seems to be based on a rejection of thousands of years of scripture, and the words of Jesus, which warn the rich against hoarding what they have and depriving the poor of basic sustenance.
Realistically, no one really expects business and political leaders to embrace the radicalism of shmita or jubilee or the words of Jesus or the example of the earliest Christian communities.
That would be Marxist, they say.
But the radical scriptures continue to whine in our ears like annoying mosquitos, reminding us to sell what we have and give it to the poor.
And we must face the reality that the reason Jesus said there will always be poor people is that we always turn away from him in sadness.