The Gospel Roots of Marx’s Thought

Jesus Christ asks his listeners: “Is not life more than food? Is not the body more valuable than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25). Then, after alluding to the birds in the sky, he asks; “Are not you more important than they?” (Matt 6:26). In another context he voiced his subversive statement: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In making these remarks Christ was formulating the very same value judgment that constitutes the essence of Marx’s humanism. It was in the name of this humanism and its attendant value judgements that Marx’s whole economic message revolted against capitalism. Why? Because in the capitalistic system “the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him” (MEW 23:95; CAP 1:81). Because “the workers themselves appear as that which they are in capitalist production — mere means of production, not an end in themselves and not the aim of production” (MEW 26/2:549; TSV 2:2548). Hegel had earlier pointed out that the conviction that a human being is an end in itself is not a “natural” one. It has not always existed and not every civilization has arrived at it on its own. Thus Kant was wrong in believing that such a conviction is “natural” to reason. Instead it has an historical origin. It was form Jesus Christ that the West learned that a human being is an end in itself, and the rest of the world learned it from the West.

The particular statement by Marx: “As in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalistic production he is governed by the products of his own hand” (MEW 23:649; CAP 1:621). The term Machwerk (“artificial work”) is a technical term in the German Bible. And as I have already noted, it is used there to refer to the false gods that are the products of human hands. So Marx’s thesis is that the domination of human beings by the works of their own hands is even more true in the capitalistic mode of production than in religion.

Both Marxists (e.g., Balibar) and anti-Marxists (e.g., Delekat and Kunzli) have called attention to the central importance of the category “fetish” in Marx’s writings. It shows up specifically in those scientific and technical sections of his economic works to which Marx himself attributed greater originality. The term “fetish” is a technical one derived from ethnology, the sociology of religion, and the history of religions. However, Marx uses the words: “Moloch,” “Baal,” and “Mammon” just as often, if not more often. These three words are taken from the Bible. Moloch (probably identical to Milcom) was the god of the Ammonites (see Sam. 12:30; Kings 23:13, Jer. 49:1-3; Zeph. 1:5).  Baal, the god of the Canaanites, is mentioned frequently (see Judg. 6:25-32; 1 Kings 16:31 f.; Hos. 2:15; 11:2). The third term “Mammon” (originally Aramaic mamonas) is the most important of the three, but it only appears in the Gospels: three times in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:9, 11, 13) and once in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 6:24). Each time it appears on the lips of Jesus himself. The point here is that the German translation of the Gospels retained the word “Mammon, ” whereas it has been translated as “money” or “wealth” in Spanish, French, and English versions of the Bible. The saying, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16;13), is one of those whose historical authenticity on the lips of Jesus is not denied by any modern researcher. And “Mammon” is not the name of some god or idol; it means “money,” or “capital” to be specific.¹

Both the Old and the New Testaments repeatedly prohibit idolatry, the worship of false gods. For example, the anathematized golden calf (Exod. 32), to which Marx also alludes, was not worshiped as gold; it was worshiped as an idol, as an image and representation of a false god. It is in this connection that the unsettling originality of Jesus Christ appears. The rest of the Bible talks about idols and false gods. It refers to them as “demons” (e.g., Deut. 32:17; Ps. 105:37; 95:5; Bar. 4:7; Cor. 10:20, 21) or “things of nought” (e.g., Lev. 19:4; 1 Chron. 16:26; Hab. 2;18; Jer. 14:22; 16:19). Jesus, however, denounces money as the real object of idolatry. He his the first human being in history to denounce money as the real object that is the true rival of the one and only God.

The Christian churches have not fully realized the unprecedented originality in this saying of Jesus. The premeditated saying, “You cannot serve God and money,” evokes in its hearers the Old Testament contrast between serving Yahweh and serving other gods (e.g, Deut. 6;13, 7:16, 10:20). For the first time, however, that other god is something real and recurring. For the first time covetousness and the lust for gain are denounced as the real idolatry. They are not to be found solely in a few rare human beings who indulge in the whimsicality of worshiping false gods that are not real. They are to be found in all human beings who place their confidence in money, and hence in any economic system that depends on money. St. Paul understood the point when  he referred to “that lust which is idolatry” (Cor. 3:5; Eph. 5:5). Here we have another phrase that strikes the exegetes as unique and surprising; its precedent is to be found in the surprising and aggressive saying of Jesus that we have just noted.

Of course the spontaneous reaction of the “average” Christian is this: how can we stop trusting in money so long as we live in a world in which everything depends on it? Jesus Christ was not a fool, and he anticipated this reaction. The point is that we must choose between two possible types of Christianity: an authentic Christianity and a pseudo-Christianity. In trying to carry out the message of Jesus Christ, those who choose authentic Christianity will also accept its political and socioeconomic consequences. Others will accept a pseudo-Christianity which maintains that this dictum makes no sense and cannot be carried out “in the present circumstances” (which have lasted for two thousand years). Or else this pseudo-Christianity tries to foster a sense of guilt in us so that justification will depend of God’s gratuitous gift rather than on our own works. But if we are to carry out the teaching of Jesus Christ in all its originality, then the fact remains that we must get rid of any mode of production in which money is of necessity the supreme god. We have already noted that Marx mocked the superficiality of people like Proudhon, who hoped to get rid of money while still retaining the commodity mode of production. For the absolute dominion of money over everything is inevitable in that particular mode of production.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the exact same skeptical reaction occurs in the face of all similar remarks by Jesus. Another saying of his which no modern investigator would deny as authentic and historical, is: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25; see Matt. 19:24). It has already been proven that the kingdom is to be realize on earth. In fact the prayer composed by Jesus says: “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). It does not say: “Bring us to the kingdom.” Thus in the future social organization that we call the kingdom of God only those who are poor will participate; those who are rich now cannot participate. Another certainly authentic saying of Jesus is: “Blest are you poor, the reign of God is yours” (Luke 6:20). It is complemented by another saying: “Woe to your rich, for your consolation is now” (Luke 6:24).

I shall not stop here to show that Jesus is not condemning the physical fact of being rich in this saying. What he is condemning is the fact that some are rich while others are poor, that existing society is divided into classes. All this means that the  kingdom will be communist. No subtlety of reasoning or hemming and hawing can evade that conclusion.

Of course, the communist effort of the primitive Christian community (Acts 2:44 and 4:32) did fail. However, that fact does not strip the primitive communism of the early church of its normative character vis-a-vis the essence of Christianity. Instead we must ask ourselves why it failed and eradicate the causes for that failure. According to Marx, it failed because the primitive Christians neglected the political struggle. In the midst of a world based upon commodity production and private property, an isolated community cannot avoid the penetrating influence of money and anti-communist factors. Centuries later Christians would betray the cause by asserting that the elimination of private property is not an obligation but a way to high perfection. Today that felonious “interpretation” is still being taught; while it claims to adore Jesus Christ as God, it actually stabs him in the back. That is the only way to keep the gospel message from revolutionizing the world.

¹ See Friedrich Hauck, Theologisches Worterbuch sum NT, 4;392. Eng. trans., Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967. Also see Julius Schniwind, Das Evangelium nach Matthaus, 11th ed. (Das Neue Testament Deutsh), Gottingen: Vandenhoeck, 1964, p. 92; K.H. Rengstorf, Das Vangelium nach Lukas, 12th ed. (Das Neue Testament Deutsch), Gottingen: Vandenhoeck, 1967, p. 190

*excerpt from Marx Against the Marxists by Jose Miranda pg. 197-200.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s