We have endured generations of Christians claiming the socially acceptable mores of their own political and economic beliefs as biblically correct. They’ve put cultural conformity at the center of the gospel and used Jesus to endorse it. At their worst, they’ve used the bible as a cudgel to coerce conformity to their socially acceptable way of doing things. Preachers who’ve challenged them have often been accused of left wing heresy. Politically conservative parishioners who get nervous when the gospel is preached from the pulpit with too much force that upsets the cultural equilibrium with which they are content are likely to complain that preaching has become too political, and worse, it sounds like radical left wing socialism. Left leaning clergy should not interpret the gospel through a Marxist lens, they say. Clergy should stick to biblical preaching.
Marxism has been a popular multipurpose bogeyman for many decades, and not without reason. We have had a genuine communist party in America, but even self described democratic socialists are more mainstream than not. The marxist bogeyman is generally brought up by those with little understanding of what it means. Even dedicated marxists disagree about what it means. Whatever, it’s a long way from what Marx actually wrote in the mid 1800s about class and conditions in industrializing Europe. His expectations that history would unfold in a rationally predictable way have failed the test of time, and his imaginary communist workers’ paradise turned out to be a downward spiraling disaster wherever tried. Yet, he did offer insights on class dynamics influenced by economic stresses that have found their way into a broad range of modern political thinking. Oddly enough, that includes right wing populist ideology, which publicly detests anything remotely marxist. But I digress.
The point of this short essay is that politically conservative Christians have put the fear of marxist socialism at the center their concerns, which displaces Jesus from his rightful place at the center. It isn’t marxism that informs the gospel or inspires preachers, but the gospel that illuminates some elements of marxist insight that are consistent with God’s holy word. What resonates with both is the moral evil of conditions that allow people in positions of power and status to systematically oppress and exploit those without. God’s holy word, from Genesis through Revelation, is clear about that. Faithfully proclaiming the good news of God in Christ Jesus always and everywhere challenges conditions and persons that contribute to oppression and exploitation.
Marx offered some observations that have helped others explain how changing industrial technologies and class structures that centralize control of capital among the wealthy few can lead to populist discontent and political uprisings. Preachers can use those observations to illuminate where God’s expectations for economic and social justice have not been met. And that includes conditions in nations that have tried marxist solutions, which have never worked, leading only to worse injustices forced on the most oppressed and least powerful.
The center of the gospel is Jesus, and the center of Jesus is God. All other things are contingent. God cannot be claimed as the defender or endorser of any political or economic system. It is God’s holy word to which all of them are all held accountable. All economic systems and forms of government are subordinate to God’s word. As Americans, we are committed to representative democracy. We employ the powers of government to ensure the social welfare of the nation while protecting individual freedom. It is not a form of government with God’s seal of approval. It’s just the one we think is best. It’s a government Christians believe must be held accountable to God’s standards of social and economic justice. They are standards expressed in God’s holy word as recorded, and as God is yet speaking. They are not to be confused with the socially accepted ways of doing things.