Should the Adventist Church Embrace Marxism?
by Stephen Ferguson | 16 December 2018 |
You may be surprised to learn that Marxism (encompassing elements of both socialism and communism) actually stems from biblical-Christian ideals. Moreover, in drawing upon these biblical ideals, Karl Marx’s observations about our modern consumer-driven capitalist existence remain essentially correct, even 170 years after the Communist Manifesto and 29 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world outside the Church may or may not need to be capitalist but I would argue that the domain inside the Church needs to be socialist-communist. Let me explain.
Is Marxism undergoing a re-emergence?
In providing some context as to why I am raising this topic now, there is currently a lot of hype about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28 year-old political activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Ocasio-Cortez is, of course, simply following in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders, a recent US presidential candidate who shocked the political establishment by unashamedly using the “S” word – “socialist.” This word has long been taboo within the American political lexicon.
Nevertheless, to be clear, this article isn’t intended as a partisan political piece. In fact, it would be wrong to associate these Marxist-socialist ideas simply with “the Left.” President Trump’s former chief advisor Steve Bannon agrees, seeing Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez supporters as natural allies of Trump’s own right-wing “Populist Economic Nationalist Revolution.” Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, likewise sees an inherent alignment between the Left’s Occupy Wall Street and the Right’s Tea Party movements.
Reconsidering capitalism, as currently practiced, is far from a fringe issue – especially among young people. A recent Harvard study found 51% of millennials now reject the prevailing capitalist neo-liberal consensus of Western society.
So, how should the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church, a Christian movement that supposedly exists to call people out of “Babylon,” react to these recent developments? Is capitalism part of, or contrary to, Babylon, with the beast’s prophetic allusions to the controlling buying and selling (Rev. 13:17)?
Is Karl Marx responsible for inventing communism?
It would probably take an intellectually dishonest or grossly uninformed person to read Jesus’ criticism of the rich (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:17-27), James’ critique of the wealthy’s stealing their workers’ wages (James 5:1-7), or Luke’s description of the early church sharing everything in common (Acts 2:44-45), and not see parallels to Marxism. We also see Marxist ideas expressed within other ancient Jewish-Christian contexts, including among the Jewish Essenes, medieval Monastics, the Hutterites, Shakers, early Mormons, and modern Catholic liberation theology. Marxism as a modern political movement also had its origins in the 1836 League of the Just, a Christian-socialist movement that later merged with Marx and Engel’s Communist League in 1847.
The scary truth is that Karl Marx arguably didn’t “invent” Marxism – we Christians probably did! On this point, the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis admitted the Bible “gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like… We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic.”
So how was Marx right from a Christian perspective?
Some readers may still be confused as to what Marxism is exactly, and how it supposedly relates to Christianity. Seven key ideas of Karl Marx that I think will find resonance with Christians today include the following:
#1. Marx was right about we moderns’ being stuck in a form of consumer-slavery, describing: “A fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor.” The Bible likewise says, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). We seem to be working harder than ever to buy “stuff” we don’t actually need. Aspects of Adventism’s history, including dress, health and education reforms, are aimed at challenging worldly madness that is motivated by “fashion, not health nor comfort.”
#2. Marx was right about this modern slavery also stemming from an “alienation from personal labor,” saying: “Labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life.” The Bible likewise says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). The Sabbath commandment, which Adventists emphasize, is not simply a call to rest every seventh day – but is actually a call to work the six other days. And that work must be meaningful for us to be happy; something Marx said was difficult in the never-ending drudgery of a factory assembly-line. The situation regarding meaningful work continues to worsen, with David Graeber (a Professor of Anthropology of the London School of Economics) seeing a proliferation of “bull… jobs”.
#3. Marx was right about the need and difficulty in finding a “vocation,” not just a job, saying: “We cannot always choose the vocation to which we were called.” This, of course, was also a foundational idea of the Protestant Reformation, with its “Protestant work ethic” and the notion of a “priesthood of all believers.” The Bible likewise says, “That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 3:13). However, a vocation doesn’t have to involve paid employment – in fact, in today’s world, it usually doesn’t. Getting involved in your local church is one outlet where I suspect you might obtain greater fulfillment than you currently do from your “real job.”
#4. Marx was right in that a classless, egalitarian society is an ideal, saying: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The Bible likewise says, “Believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (Jas. 2:1). In the Christian context especially, those who want to lead must first serve. The minister is not better than a deacon. In fact, in biblical Greek both terms essentially mean the same thing – “servant.” We therefore may need to recalibrate our modern religious language, not to mention the thinking behind it.
#5. Marx was right in that people wrongly use race, gender and class to oppress each other, saying: “Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.” The Bible likewise says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Unfortunately, this is one area most churches still seem to be struggling with – the SDA Church included.
#6. Marx was right in condemning “religion,” at least when it comes to the control and manipulation of some ecclesiastical systems, saying: “Religion is the opium of the people.” We might need some reminding that the Bible likewise records God’s saying, “I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). A key aspect of Adventism’s “three angels’ messages” is to warn against the negative controls of false religious systems. We therefore need to make sure our own system is not one of them, a relevant concern given the current discussion about Church unity and discipline.
#7. Marx was right about a future communist revolution, saying: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution… workers of the world unite.” Both political Marxism and its biblical counterpart are eschatological in nature, which is to say they embrace “meta-narratives” with an apocalyptic focus. Both political Marxism and its biblical counterpart also see that eschatological ideal embraced in practical living. This ideal communist kingdom is a future event, but also found within each of us today (Luke 17:20-21).
Does this mean we should all live in a commune?
To avoid any doubt, none of the above should be taken to mean that we should all go live in a commune, or that communist political systems are superior to all others. In fact, that is the opposite of my point. “It is true that the people of the earliest church brought their belongings and put them into a common fund… But that was the church, not the State.” As a lawyer with considerable capital (both real estate and shares), I’d soon find myself at the vanguard of trouble in any communist revolution.
Moreover, while Karl Marx may have been right about many things, I believe he had the application of his principles backwards. He tried to take socialist-communist ideas out of the Church and into the world. Yet the world is fundamentally corrupt and human nature is a long way from ideal, which is why Marxism has consistently failed from Russia, to North Korea to Venezuela.
So, what about your church – should it be Marxist or capitalist?
Nonetheless, we repeat Marx’s mistake if we do the same, but in reverse, by trying to take the world’s principles of capitalism and apply them inside the Church. Our churches should be sanctuaries from the cruel Darwinistic struggle of the modern marketplace with its dog-eat-dog agenda. And yet I have been astounded by how often we see our churches acting as businesses, adopting capitalism’s worst excesses.
Evangelism has become marketing. Services have become productions. Worshipers have become consumers. Ministry is no longer a vocation for life. Pastors have become market competitors with each other, some reveling in the limelight as famous “Sexy celebrities.” Divisions, unions and conferences are now in competition, if not open conflict. Different youth ministries compete for the allegiances of the same young people, rather than act in cooperation. And success has become a new mega church attaining enormous growth, fostering the mass production techniques of a McDonald’s or Burger King, all while their consumer-congregations attain as much spiritual nourishment, becoming spiritually obese and lazy.
It is hard to reconcile all this with the itinerant preacher from Galilee, who owned nothing.
 Marxism: “The political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,” Oxford English Dictionary. Please note I use the following definitions rather inelegantly and liberally. I recognize there are important distinctions between socialism and communism, in particular. However, for the sake of simplicity, I largely use the term “Marxism” as a broad term to cover the bundle of ideas that Karl Marx embraced, including both socialism and communism.
 Ibid., socialism (supported by Marx as an intermediate step): “A theory that a country’s resources, industries, and transport would be owned and managed by the State.”
 Ibid., communism (the ultimate goal of Marx): “A political and social system based on common ownership of property.”
 Ibid., capitalism (the thing Marx criticized): “A system in which the trade and industry is controlled by private owners for profit.”
 See <http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/populist-revolution/10196348>
 See Robert Reich’s documentary, Saving Capitalism, especially the ending.
 Cited by Victor Lipman, “Many Millennials Reject Capitalism – What Does This Suggest For Management?” June 1, 2018, Forbes.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp.65-66.
 Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867).
 Ellen White, PH134, p. 11.
 Karl Marx, Wage Labor and Capital (1847).
 I have avoided Professor Graeber’s own deliberate profanity, which is in fact the title of his book. For further information see: <https://www.amazon.com/Bullshit-Jobs-Theory-David-Graeber/dp/150114331X>
 Karl Marx, cited in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, L. Easton, trans. (1967), p. 37.
 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875).
 Strong’s Concordance at : “Diakonos” (διάκονος), meaning “deacon,” “servant,” “minister.”
 Karl Marx, Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann In Hanover (12 Dec 1868).
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).
 Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848).
 Ellen White, SITI March 16, 1904, p. 4.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.