In a fit of irrationality quite befitting our irrational age, millions of people recently celebrated the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. What is more, they were inspired to do so because they saw him as the hope for a better world. Faced with the corruptions accompanying capitalism, they see the hirsute philosopher as a moral compass, pointing to a more egalitarian society.
Given the dismal record his ideas earned in the last century, both practically and morally, this is rather like vegetarians honoring a celebrity veal chef who couldn’t boil water. Wherever his ideas have been put into practice the end result has been oppression, poverty, and general dehumanization. As Christians we need to remember that his worldview and our own are decidedly distinct.
Now, it’s one thing for the naïve college student to be sporting a Che Guevara shirt bought on Amazon. He hasn’t yet learned where the road of good intentions too often leads. It’s also something else for the Western elites to flirt with Marx from their capitalist endowed sinecures. They are as committed as he was to solving life’s troubles through expert management.
It gets a bit more troubling when we find Christians turning to Marx for guidance. On the one hand, it’s quite natural. When we look around the world and see corruption, oppression, and tyranny, it is makes sense to long for a better world. Although it is not nearly so popular today as it once was, there’s a tug in many hearts to “plunder the Egyptians” by gleaning insights from Marx as we attempt to create a foundation for biblical justice and a lived-out Christian Worldview.
On the surface, there’s much to be commended in doing that. After all, Christianity and Marxism share certain characteristics. Both are worldviews, explanations for the nature of the cosmos and humanity, and both have a strong prophetic call against injustice, and both provide a totalizing understanding of life. While they have radically different answers for the world, they are equally self-defined as the ultimate interpretation of the nature of humanity, its problems, morality, and both contain the promise of an Eschaton when all will be made right.
However, there are dangers in these particular waters. Despite the surface beauty of their Siren’s call, Marxism and its ideological children have certain characteristics which make accommodation with Christianity impossible. The ideas of Marx and those of the Bible are not merely inconsistent with one another; they are mutually exclusive.
There are many contradictions between the two faiths, but we’ll stick to three for now. The first of these is Marx’s shallow view of the human condition, that he drastically underestimated the depth and extent of evil. Marx saw life’s problems, and therefore its solutions, as fundamentally economic. Like a 19th century version of Star Trek, once financial and industrial resources were owned “communally,” things like greed, crime, and corruption would fade away for lack of nourishment. Today’s “Neo-Marxists” may have modified this to embrace gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but the point is the same. Rearrange society, and social evils will dissipate.
Though tempting, this ignores the biblically informed reality of the Fall. Human evil is indeed shaped by meta-systems but it is not caused by them. Human beings, left to themselves without any grand system to guide them, would find new ways of doing evil, oppressing others, and exploiting the powerless. The problem wasn’t that the wrong people were in charge; the problem was that human beings were involved at all. Marx thought that changing the external system would create a new man, but apart from God, there is no new man.
This brings us to our next point. With the whole of humanity corrupted by the Fall, there is no political order immune to the dangers of tyranny. Marx not only ignored the ubiquity of human sin, but his ideas led inevitably towards the concentration of power in the hands of the few. Everywhere his ideas were put into practice, oppression followed.
Despite the protestations of his defenders, this tyranny is not accidentally a part of Marxist politics; it’s an intrinsic and intentional characteristic. Seeing the human problem as fundamentally cosmetic, he had no qualms with revolutionary violence and looked with admiration on the terrorism of the French Revolution. Get rid of the bad apples, and all will be well.
In this way, virtue and vice were reduced to how well the interests of the revolution were served. Morality was not restored but merely inverted. Denying the rights of the innocent in the old regime was injustice and a cause for revolution; denying them to a new group after the revolution was justified in the cause of the same. Oppression did not end but merely changed out its victims. We can no more have a Marxism without tyranny than we could have Nazism without racial supremacy.
Finally, Marx not only set aside the warning of Christianity about humanity’s Original Sin but he ignored the glory of Christianity’s emphasis on the Image of God in Man. Marx looked at human beings solely as the products of class. Human dignity became an uncertain thing, entirely dependent on one’s economic status and the will of the revolutionary powers that be. Far more than any stereotype of a corporate cog, you were your job. Your rights, your privileges, your dignity: all of these were derived from your social status.
Marx didn’t undermine class; he emphasized it. He didn’t overturn tyranny; he accelerated it. He didn’t stand against human corruption; he ignored its depths. His insights aren’t helpful suggestions we can fit into our Christian Worldview. At best hey’re watered-down versions of Christian truth. At worst they’re mutually exclusive denials of biblical revelation. We have no need of Christian heresies when we have the real thing.
We’re not immune to this in our world. We see one another not as unique individuals, equally bearing the image of Almighty God, but only as our social status demands. You aren’t Daniel; you’re a straight, white male. You aren’t Sarah; you’re a gay Latina. When you differ from the prevailing sentiment, you aren’t speaking out of the conviction of your heart and the result of careful study; you’re just parroting what your upbringing dictates.
Instead of opposing the divisions of race, class, and gender, this enhances them as we stop being the single family of Adam and become only whatever sub-group we currently identify with. Instead of undermining the grasping nature of a divided humanity, this accelerates the self-centered combat of social relations as we each fight it out for our special in-group. Instead of restoring justice to a world gone mad, this subverts morality by redefining oppression into what “they” do and justified discrimination what “we” do. This is not the message of the Bible.
Human dignity and ethics are rooted not in our job, race, or victim status but entirely the character of God and His image in us all. When we assign worth to people based on their social status, we’re no more Christian when we do it in deference to the elite than if we do it for the marginalized. There is no virtue in being the victim. Neither is there any cause for shame. We don’t, as Christians, work to lift the poor out of poverty, the ethnic minority out of discrimination, the exploited out of oppression because of their shame but because of their glory. We do it because they bear the image of God. We do it because we recognize the glory they have already.