Further thoughts on Marxism and Christianity. Can I be both?

I’m sitting down at the dining table, listening to Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony as I chew on some feedback that I’ve received from an article I posted this week.

I had critiqued a claim made by Van Badham on last Monday’s episode of QandA. In answering the question, “Do you believe in God”, Van Badham asserted that she is a Marxist and a Christian.

I questioned this synthesis by citing Karl Marx’s himself, who opposed religion and belief in God in the strongest terms. I then set forth a series of propositions which demonstrate a great moral, social, and theological divide separating Marxism and Christianity, one that cannot be easily joined. Some readers have agreed with my conclusions while others have not. One or two readers have made helpful comments which has encouraged me to think further.

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Are Marxism and Christianity consonant with one another, or at the very least, adaptable so that they can be held together? The proof of compatibility does not lay in someone making the claim or in the event of someone attempting to join the two together. People make all kinds of outlandish suggestions: “I am a Christian and a Buddhist” or “I am a Christian and I don’t believe in hell”. The question is, does it work logically and theologically? Can Marxism and Christianity be held together and affirmed?

I didn’t address the question of other political and economic theories, as these were not the issue at hand. It is, of course, true that any political system will need modifying if Christians are to make use of them. The reason is straightforward, Christianity does not sit synonymously with any particular political system, for Christian thinking, practice and vision are set by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a terrible misstep to stamp ‘Christian’ on any of them. All these are creations stemming from the minds of men and women who are shaped by a worldview which ultimately springs from a view of God. Christians will face questions and challenges in any political system, but some are a better fit than others. Not all political theories are equal. Not all forms of Government can be equally celebrated and obliged by Christians. Some political ideologies have found inspiration via Christian thinking, while others have been established without reference to God of the Bible, and others again have been deliberate creations in opposition to religion, and especially to Christianity.

There are several possible ways Christians may respond to a particular political system:

  • Christian can live under a political system that they do not support or affirm. They have no opportunity to speak and question the moral value of the system. Christianity can, of course, exist under any political regime but that does not mean that system is good or in any way compatible with the Christian faith. Take, for example, Christians in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Christians in North Korea and China.
  • Christians can live under an openly oppressive political system without challenging it or by finding ways to challenge without losing the values of God’s Kingdom. It is worth noting that in a totalitarian context (communism being but one example) to challenge comes at a great personal cost, and under more liberal systems there is greater freedom for demonstration and appeal for change
  • Christians may have sympathy with the ambitions raised in particular political ideologies and affirm important questions that are being asked.
  • Christians may often participate in a political system, but there will always be some degree of tension between serving Christ and serving the State, and between holding onto the message of the Gospel and enacting Governmental policy.

The primary trouble with Marxism is not its atheism but that it is a total life program. It is designed to define all aspects of life, from the State to society, culture, family, and yes even religion. Marxism preaches a totalitarian paradigm, materialist and closed in nature. It allows no room for competing worldviews, especially belief in God. In this sense, Marxism is an attempt to blur politics and religion by offering the State in the place of God, and party members as its priests and high priest. Why do we think Muslim minorities and Christian minorities are suppressed in China? Why have Christians especially (and other religious people broadly) been subject to brutal persecution and oppression in communist nations?

Here are two possible reasons for the pushback that I’ve received for writing the previous article, “Can I be a Christian and a Marxist?” One, people are defining Marxism purely in terms of political theory and suggesting that it one among many. The reality is, Marxism is more than an approach to politics and economics, again it is a total system, including its own insistent view of religion 2. Conflating socialism with Marxism. Marxism is a type of socialism, but socialism is broader and existed well before Das Kapital. If it is a case of being passionate about addressing poverty and other injustice in a society, such ambition can find compatibility with Christianity, and one can pursue these things quite easily without identifying with Marxism.

As someone duly noted on a Facebook thread, there have been attempts made by a few Christians to synthesise Christianity with Marxism. The most famous example is that of liberation theology. Their example, however, is telling because it is a case of God disappearing. Liberation theology has found expression in a few places but it was most prominent in Central America among a small circle of  Roman Catholic priests and theologians during the late 1960s. It often resulted in God migrating into the world of tribal deities, or without name altogether. Jonathan Leeman summarises the case of liberation theology’s most famous proponent Gustavo Gutierrez, the assent to God becomes no longer required, “God might say, “You are my people,” but there is no requirement for the people to say, “You are our God.”  Ironically, the movement had all but dissipated by the time the Berlin Wall came down.

Leeman has also noted this telling observation made by theologian John Milbank. Milbank talks about people doing “Christian theology on heretical or Neopagan foundations”. “Case in point: “the main proponents of ‘political theology’ in Germany, and ‘liberation theology’ in Latin America…remain…trapped within the terms of ‘secular reason’ and its unwarranted foundationalist presuppositions.” Specifically, these political and liberation theologies embrace Marxism “as a discourse which supposedly discloses the ‘essence’ of human beings and a ‘fundamental’ level of human historical becoming.”

There are many movements from history that have been demonstrably wrong and evil, and yet leave behind certain progress which impresses and benefits us living today. Soviet Russia gave the world Dmitri Shostakovich. Also important,  I argued in the first article, all manner of ideologies can highlight real and important issues and point to them saying, we need this fixed. This, however, does not mean that the solutions offered are of benefit or can be embraced by those professing the Lordship of Christ.

The question is, can Marxism be uprooted from its anti-theist foundations and become a political tool for Christians to advocate, such that one says, “I am a Marxist and I am a Christian”?

My view is that the answer remains, no. Put it another way, can a Christian in China be a member of the Communist Party? Has any true Marxist State ever encouraged healthy pluralism and religious freedom? Would Marx agree?

A friend suggested to me that an equivalent to Marxism and Christianity is Evolution vs Christianity. I beg to differ, a more suited analogy is,  Scientism vs Christianity.

I am interested to hear how this conversation continues. I certainly appreciate learning from others in the process.