Clearly, the question is a controversial one and any response to it will depend on the definition of “true Christian” adopted and, to a lesser extent, on the working definition of Marxism, because the ideas of Marx and those of writers and politicians described as “Marxist” do not always coincide. By way of illustration, for a Roman Catholic, obedience to the teachings of the magisterium is of primary importance in defining a “true Christian”, whereas for a Quaker individual conscience and relationship with the Spirit would be the defining factor. For the purposes of this essay a “true Christian” will be understood to mean any member of a Church which accepts the Nicene Creed and the discussion will be limited to the compatibility between Christianity so-defined and the ideas of Marx himself.
The question of whether Christians can and should embrace Marxism is an extremely important one at the present time. Although there have been debates about the potential compatibility of Christianity and Marxism since the 19th Century, the development of Liberation Theology – and in particular its confrontations with the Roman Catholic Church in 1984 and 1986 – brought has brought the question particular currency. Furthermore, since 2014 Pope Francis has been giving clear signals that he would like to bring Liberation Theology back within the framework of the mainstream Church. He has even been labelled a Marxist by some critics because of this and other related actions. This has caused Christians to reflect on how Christianity should relate to Capitalism and to Marxism in the 21st Century world. Should Christians be on the side of the free-market and accept the pursuit of profit as the main aim of human life? Alternatively, should Christians be willing to engage with Marxism – for all its atheism – because its social analysis seems in tune with the New Testament and its message for the poor, alienated and exploited is one with some similarities to that promoted by the Church? In the end the evidence points towards it being appropriate for “true Christians” to engage with Marxism, although they would have to stop short of becoming Marxist because to do so would necessitate atheism and a rejection of objective Truth, both of which would make “true” Christian faith redundant.
The New Testament contains many references which demonstrate similarities between both Jesus’ teaching and the practice of the Early Church and Marxism. Firstly, through the Sermon on the Mount Jesus preaches a revolution. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 predict that all those groups who have been alienated and exploited by 1st Century Jewish society – the meek, the humble, the bereaved and the poor in spirit – would go on to inherit the earth in a new age. Marx also preached a revolution, predicting that Capitalism would collapse and that the poor proletariat – alienated and oppressed by Capitalism – would rise up and seize control. Secondly, through his encounter with the Rich Young Man in Mark 10, Jesus taught that the rich should share their wealth with the poor, seeing private property and privilege not as a right but as an opportunity to improve society as a whole and the lives of the poor in particular. Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 makes a similar point; the situations of the two men will one day be reversed and rich people will pay the price if they failed to share when they could. Marx’s mantra “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” seems to fit in with Jesus’ teaching perfectly… the rich (and talented) have the ability to contribute more than the poor and the poor have more need than the rich. Thirdly, the Book of Acts Chapter 4-5 tells how the Early Church tried to put Jesus’ teaching into practice by implementing what Engels recognized as an early form of Communism. Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by God for holding property back from the common pool, for not giving all they could have and for taking more than they strictly needed. While Marx would have seen the idea of divine punishment as superstitious, he would have supported the moral of the story, that people who cheat and deceive for personal advantage should be subject to justice even to the point of forfeiting their lives. In short, Jesus’ ethical teaching seems to foreshadow much of Marx’s thinking and in this way it would appear that “true Christians” should be able to embrace at least the ethical element of Marxism.
Further, many Christians – practicing members of mainstream Churches which use the Nicene Creed – have engaged with Marxism. Thomas Hagerty was a Catholic Priest who was inspired to champion workers’ rights in 1890’s America because of his reading of Marx as well as the New Testament. Martin Luther King was inspired by his reading of Marx and agreed with much of Marx’s analysis of Capitalism and society, although he stopped short of embracing Marxism because of its opposition to religion and its rejection of the idea of objective Truth. More recently, Liberation Theology has brought together many Christians who have engaged with Marxism and some who are fully Marxists. In the 1980s and 1990s Jose Porfirio Miranda expressed the similarities between Jesus’ teaching and Marx’s analysis of Capitalism and society in books such as “Marx and the Bible” (1971). Leonardo and Clovis Boff have been positive about Marxism, emphasizing the practical usefulness of Marxist analysis and revolutionary techniques and the common end of improving the conditions of the poor in “Introducing Liberation Theology” (1987). The fact that many Christians, including ordained Catholic Priests, have embraced Marxism to some extent does lend support to the thesis, that true Christians can engage with Marxism.
Nevertheless, just because some true Christians have embraced Marxism does not mean that they should. As one example, Gustavo Guttierez has been increasingly cautious. While in 1974 he wrote “contemporary theology does in fact find itself in direct and fruitful confrontation with Marxism” (A Theology of Liberation, page 53) in 1990 (after the 1984 condemnation of Liberation Theology issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) he stated that “at no time either explicitly or implicitly have I suggested a dialogue with Marxism with a view to possible “synthesis” or to accepting one aspect while leaving others aside” (The Truth Shall Make you Free, page 63) “True Christians” have been less and less willing to speak about their approval of Marxism since the Roman Catholic Church voiced its opposition to Liberation Theology in the 1980s and it is probably fair to say that engaging with Marxism is unlikely to be a positive career move in some Churches.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between saying that “no member of the Roman Catholic Church can embrace Marxism!” and saying that “no true Christian can embrace Marxism!” The fact that there were political reasons behind John Paul II’s denunciation of Marxism is obvious; 1984 and 1986 were at the height of the Cold War, during the Reagan administration. The Church was under considerable political pressure to support US foreign policy and there was a real need to put distance between the Church and Communist regimes which were murdering Priests and outlawing Church attendance because they embraced Marx’s call for “the abolition of religion” (Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher) on the grounds that it is a tool of oppression which he famously likened to opium. As so often happens, “my enemy’s enemy” became a friend; the Cold War made developed the unlikely association between Christianity and Free-Market Capitalism. While proponents of Prosperity Theology such as Creflo Dollar might argue that Christianity is perfectly compatible with deregulated markets and right-wing libertarian government, in fact this approach is not supported by a faithful reading of the New Testament. While the Old Testament certainly teaches (in places) that wealth is a blessing from God and a sign of His favour, Jesus explicitly rejected these teachings through both his words and his actions on numerous occasions. Jesus willingly touched lepers (making himself spiritually impure – not something anybody, let alone anybody wealthy would do) and washed the feet of his disciples (the work of a slave). Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19) and said that people need to be like little children, as unconcerned about possessions as the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, to have a hope of entering heaven. Whether or not Liberation Theologians are right to embrace Marxism in developing their “hermeneutic of suspicion”, they are right that rich people get short shrift in the New Testament and are generally cast as sinners. It seems that engagement between “true Christians” and Marxism is unwise for reasons that are more political than ideological and that there is potential for fruitful discussions between Theologians and Marxists in the future, now that the political landscape has changed somewhat.
Certainly, Pope Francis has suggested – both in words and deeds – that there is a future for engagement with Marxism. In 2014 the Pope welcomed Gustavo Guttierez to the Vatican for meetings and Leonardo Boff has been a vocal supporter of Pope Francis, his encyclicals and actions. Pope Francis has renewed the commitment of the Church to social justice and has been outspoken in his criticisms of Capitalism, speaking of how it alienates people and how it exploits the poor. It is quite obvious that Pope Francis was affected by his experience working as a Bishop and previously a Jesuit in South America, the heartland of Liberation Theology. This point has not been lost on Pope Francis’ critics. John Finnis and Germain Grisez, leading conservative scholars of Natural Law, wrote an open letter to Pope Francis in 2016 criticizing steps he had taken to make the Church more forgiving and inclusive. More recently, several Cardinals and Bishops have co-signed a letter calling for Pope Francis to stop trying to reform the Church, to stop shifting its emphasis towards providing the “preferential option for the poor” that was the basis for Catholic Social Teaching through the 1960s and 70s, but which had been lost somewhat in the 1980s and 90s. Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudiam affirmed that “Without the preferential option for the poor, ‘the proclamation of the Gospel … risks being misunderstood or submerged’.” He sees improving the lot of the poor in this life as central to doing Christ’s work – and this would suggest that True Christians should at least engage with Marxism to this end – but other Christians disagree most strongly.
Not least among these critics, who have a different vision of “true Christianity” would be Protestant Evangelical Churches. Inspired by the teachings of Luther and Calvin, many Evangelicals believe that people are justified by faith alone and that the most important part of Christianity is spreading Jesus’ message of salvation and baptizing people so as to give them the prospect of a better life after death. Protestants might think that there is less need to improve the conditions of the poor in this life, because this life is only a temporary preparation for an eternal reward (or punishment). Without Purgatory, for which there is little scriptural foundation, Protestants focus on the saving power of faith and the need for God’s grace; people don’t save people, God does. It is interesting that Evangelical Churches are growing quickly in South America, in part because of support they are receiving from Churches and sometimes government agencies in the USA. In 2006 in the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen recorded that “Latin American Protestants shot up from 50,000 in 1900 to 64 million in 2000… with Pentecostal and charismatic churches making up three-quarters of this number.” It is probably fair to say that the shift towards Protestantism in the heartlands of Liberation Theology will, in time, affect the numbers of Christians who would agree that “no true Christian could embrace Marxism!”
In conclusion, it is appropriate for “true Christians” to engage with Marxism, although they would have to stop short of becoming Marxist because to do so would necessitate atheism and a rejection of objective Truth, both of which would make “true” Christian faith redundant. The evidence from the New Testament, history and the teaching of Pope Francis all support this conclusion, although it would be roundly rejected by some Protestants, who have a very different vision for what “true Christianity” is about. Perhaps the most important reason for engaging with Marxism is that it caused Christians to re-examine and consider Jesus’ teaching on wealth and poverty and to think again about what He meant by the Kingdom of God. In the 21st Century it is easy and convenient to focus on the epistles with their occasional references to a purely spiritual afterlife and ignore the overwhelming number of references to a renewal of this world in the Gospels. Perhaps we choose to ignore the Gospels because they are demanding of us, collectively as well as individually. Jesus undoubtedly called for practical action (orthopraxy) as well as the right words (orthodoxy), for believers to give materially as well as spiritually and to build a better this-world in preparation for the second-coming. He asked a lot of us and most of us fall well short. It is easier and more convenient to ignore demands we feel that we can’t meet, but that doesn’t make it right to do so. Perhaps, in the end, “true Christians” should go further than engaging with Marxism and start engaging with Jesus’ words and example. That might start a real revolution!