In the previous installment of this essay, we covered why Christians could not, or should not, link themselves to capitalism. Now, I'll talk about why Christians should think in more communistic terms.
It bears repeating already that communism is both an economic theory and a philosophical/spiritual theory. The latter sense is more interesting and, strangely, more practical. Let's see.
Karl Marx, the first major voice of communism, consistently stated that the purpose of communism as an economic theory is to serve the philosophical side of the theory: namely, that a human being has intrinsic worth deserving respect and consideration. Obviously, people of faith will, or should, immediately agree. Most religions, Christianity included, begin with a theology and story of creation. The Jewish and Christian story of creation even states that we are created in the image of God. If that doesn't tell you that each person has intrinsic, equal worth, I don't know what will. Yet capitalism has grown strong in our culture to the point that more people than I'd like to think believe, truly, that a person's only worth is equal to their financial net worth. It would seem wise for people of faith to distance ourselves from such a philosophy and reclaim divine, and therefore equal, creation.
Marx continued by saying that, because each person has equal worth to every other person, each person has a right to the means not only of survival but also of life enjoyment. We're not talking here about the right to pursue life enjoyment, but an inherent right to life enjoyment. Since poverty is obviously an inhibitor to enjoying life, each person has the right to live out of poverty, to not spend each day scraping out enough to survive. I would point you to the many sayings of Jesus and Paul on money that agree with this, as well as the example of the early church in the Book of Acts, for proof that Christianity is partial to such a theory of life. The prophets, too, are quite clear that one cannot be righteous while also wealthy in a community including any who are poor.
The problem with communism, of course, arises from putting the theory/theology into practice. Throughout history Christians have lived communally. Small villages of folk who share all things in common and don't even keep a currency have always been part of Christianity from the beginning. Even John Wesley, the first mover of my own Methodist movement tradition, talks of "communities of goods." Yet Wesley and all others in history have found that legislating communal living beyond the community and into county or national levels creates all sorts of problems. Marx was not clear, either, perhaps understanding the inherent danger in translating his philosophical economic theory into practice. Forcing anyone to live by Christian principles without the faith is unjust, impossible, and unchristian. It doesn't work.
That communism doesn't work on a national scale in practice should not mean, however, that we disregard it entirely, especially since the first disciples of Christ and many others trying hard to heed the call of discipleship, like Dorothy Day, have lived communally. Generally these Christians have gone only by the label "disciple of Christ," and have not known or have not used the label "communist," or "Marxist," but nowadays the ill will toward communism is such that Christians can no longer live truly as Christian without being considered strange, on one end, or a threat to democracy on the other end (hence the need for this essay). We must admit that the theory of communism helps us respect and love our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to seek their good as well as ours, a Christian ideal, rather than capitalistically only seek our own good, a Christian heresy.
I'd like to affirm this point with an illustration from a kids’ movie, of all things. In the movie, A Bug’s Life, the main character, Flick, tries helping his colony by inventing what he calls a ‘harvester.’ This harvester enables a single ant to cut down a stalk of grain from below and then extract and store and carry the food. Without the harvester, a single ant would climb the stalk of grain and throw down bits of food one by one to a line of ants waiting on the ground to carry the individual bits of food—a more time-consuming and far less effective model. As these things go, no other ant thought Flick’s invention helpful because it’s not the way they have always picked food. By the end of the movie, however, Flick has saved the colony and now his ideas are more palatable, and so all the ants are using a harvester. It is clear that, because harvesters are now in use, each ant has more free time to enjoy life without having to work for survival constantly. Leisure is a reality. That is a Christian and communistic dream.
Obviously, the harvester is or can be an analogy for machines or robots. Machines can cut down the labor force and labor time while also producing more, just like Flick’s harvester. Machines have been doing that for centuries now. Imagine the problem, though, if Flick decided to only produce harvesters if 80% of the food abundance went to him. Suddenly the reduced labor force and labor time would be detrimental to most ants’ survival, let alone leisure and enjoyment of life. Other ants would have to work harder to find left over food not collected by Flick’s harvesters, and then they’d probably have to pay Flick in some way in order to eat from his store of food. Such is the issue with machines today: we are still living in a capitalistic society. One person invents a machine but does not equally share the benefits with all. There is no question that the overall living standards of most would improve as machines, like a harvester, are invented and modified, but without proper sharing of the benefits, would the spiritual and emotional living standard improve?
I agree with Marx that there is value to work. I also agree with Marx, though, that there is more value to the work that we choose to do. With more leisure time, we can do the work that we enjoy rather than the work we must do to survive. Working in that way respects the worth of individuals far more because it respects that we all have our own spiritual, and practical, gifts to share and fulfill. I also believe this is biblical. In the beginning, God created man and woman to care for and till the ground, to work. Yet this was a task given to them by God, a holy task, a vocation; and because a vocation, enjoyable work. When Adam and Eve disobey, in Genesis 3 we learn that work will now be toilsome for humanity. The difference between Genesis 1-2 and 3 is that at first God intended for work to be enjoyable, to be a vocation, and when we turn work into a necessity for survival, work is then toilsome rather than wholesome. Our spiritual selves are weakened. It is for that reason that I say to be only capitalist is to miss the point of Christianity and humanism. An element of communism is necessary to being Christian and to caring for the worth and dignity of our fellow brothers and sisters.
Again, as in the first part, a strong economy is not necessarily good for persons. Those who advocate for policies that clearly benefit the general economy rather than the persons that make up our communities are missing the point of the economy. The economy’s purpose, from a Christian perspective, is not to be a strong economy; but rather to support and fulfill the intrinsic worth of each and every person. People matter. A good economy whose leaders and participants degrade the moral worth and dignity of persons is not good at all.
What all this means in a practical sense is quite simple. John Wesley put it this way: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can (I point you to sermons, “The Use of Money,” “On the Danger of Riches,” and “The Cause of the Inefficacy of Christianity” for more). Wesley took the third command seriously and literally. Indeed, as the title of the third sermon I list suggests, Wesley considered Christians’ ignoring the third command to be why Christianity is ineffective in truly transforming society or an individual’s life in or by God’s grace. So Wesley’s solution, to put into economic terms, was to work and save capitalistically but to think, believe, and act communistically. Wesley did consider it biblically reasonable to put aside enough for yourself and your kids, but only enough to provide the basics. Everything else should be given to those in poverty to respect that which is Christ in those people, so that they can enjoy the life God has given them.
Wesley’s practical and religious solution is another way of saying viewing the economy and finances unselfishly. Capitalism has convinced us that a good economy is good for ‘me,’ which is true to some extent, but as we’ve discussed it’s not an entirely true statement and, further, not the point from a Christian’s perspective. A Christian should look at finances as a means of grace to other people. So we should concern ourselves with making the economy as fair as possible. To the extent that it will never be entirely fair, we take advantage of the economy to our benefit. But we do that in order to then turn around and advantage those who are disadvantaged. That is because from a Christian perspective the economy, and the use of our own finances, should be aimed at respecting the dignity of God-created and God-loved persons. We hope that eventually such complete and unselfish charity will lead to greater leisure time for all people, so that all of us can enjoy the life God has given us.
Let’s recap, then. As a philosophy, communism is helpful in reclaiming faithful understandings of the use of money because it puts the emphasis on what is good for each and every person, not in an abstract but a concrete way. We should have this emphasis because God created us, and God created us in order to enjoy life rather than simply to toil. In practice, if we cannot influence the general economy to be more fair, then we ourselves must put our personal finances to use to respect the dignity of our neighbors. That is what our finances are for, from a religious perspective. Yes, communism in practice is unrealistic and often tyrannical, but it does put the emphasis in the right place, in the place where Christ himself did: on the person, rather than the economy.
The general economy, then, should never be a Christian’s concern. If the economy suffers in the name of ensuring that each and every person has a safe, joyful life that is not consumed by work in order to survive, then that is the price we must pay. A good general economy may aid in that regard but it can never be our hope because a good general economy has no place in our theology or our moral theology. Our morality, as expressed in our theology, is based way back in Leviticus, that book of laws we rarely read: don’t harvest your entire field, but leave plenty for the poor to glean; don’t take advantage of your neighbors, but instead every seven years release slaves and servants, and every fifty years all property will return to equal footing. These laws put a significant limit on personal gain in favor of consideration for one’s neighbors and economic equality.
Ultimately, we cannot ignore that God asks a lot of us. Our faith at its foundation asks us to deny ourselves and instead accept Christ. Jesus Christ, who insisted that we sell all that we have and follow him. For a Christian, then, it’s not the economy. Our political concern can never be the economy. Our political concern should always be what is moral, what is good for all people who share brother and sisterhood with Jesus. We must reframe our thinking and our living to follow the radical life and teachings of the person and God we disciple.