Bernie Reminds Us that Christianity Is Communism & Jesus Was a Communist!

Bernie

Readings for the 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 2:42-47; PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-29; I PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31

Recently, Mother Jones reported that self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, is the most popular politician in America. Almost 60 percent of Americans view the Vermont senator favorably.

Bernie’s even more popular among Democratic voters, blacks, and Hispanics. Eighty percent of Democrats, 73 percent of registered black voters, and 68 percent of registered Hispanic voters have favorable opinions of the 75 year old politician.

All of this signals an unbelievable achievement for an economic system we’ve been taught to hate. Long before the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45), and especially since then, Americans have been subjected to unrelenting anti-socialist propaganda from every side – school, church, media, politicians . . . And following the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union no one wanted to be even remotely associated with socialism, much less with communism.

But things have changed. Fifty-three percent of millennials now have a favorable view of socialism. Sixty-nine percent would cast their ballot for a socialist in a presidential election.

Again: in the light of all that negative indoctrination, that’s incredible. Even if poll-respondents are fuzzy about their understanding of socialism, the phenomena indicate that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with socialism’s opposite, the reigning capitalist order.

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, where the first reading reminds us that (as Mexico’s Jose Miranda says directly) socialism and even communism originated in Christianity. It doesn’t come from Marx and Engels.

In fact, Miranda goes further. He says Christianity is communism. And I think he’s right. Just look at today’s description of life among Jesus’ first followers after the experience they called his “resurrection”:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”

Luke the evangelist repeats that refrain later in his “Acts of the Apostles” when he writes:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).

There you have it. The early Christians:

* Lived communally

* Rejected private property
* Including land and houses
* Instead held everything in common
* Pooling all their resources
* And distributing them “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
* As a result, they eliminated poverty from their midst.

Did you catch the operative words: they divided their property “among all according to each one’s needs?” To repeat, those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. They have nothing to do with atheism. On the contrary, they have everything to do with faith.

They have everything to do with following Jesus who himself was a communist. He’s the one who said, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:3).

Jesus, not Marx, is the one who set concern for those in need as the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life. He said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me” (MT 25: 35-36). Everything, Jesus insists, depends on recognizing his presence in the poor and oppressed and responding accordingly.

Of course it’s often pointed out that the Christian experiment in communism was short-lived. Jesus’ followers soon backed off from their early idealism. That observation is supposed to invalidate their communistic lifestyle as impossibly utopian and therefore no longer applicable as Christians’ guiding North Star. In fact, this objection is taken as justifying the persecution of the communism the text idealizes and recommends!

But the same argument, of course, would apply to the Ten Commandments in general or to the Sermon on the Mount – or to the U.S. Constitution for that matter. In our day (and in the course of their histories) all of those statements of ideals have only sporadically been lived out in practice. Should we throw them out then? Should we persecute those espousing the Sermon on the Mount ideals or observance, for instance, of the Fourth Amendment? Few in the Christian community or in the U.S. political world would make that argument.

Others anxious to distance themselves from the communistic ideals of early Christianity would point out that the communal life adopted by Jesus’ first followers was voluntary not imposed from above. In doing so, they point to another passage in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. That’s the one involving Ananias and Saphira – a couple whose life is exacted for claiming to have sold their property while actually keeping some of it back for themselves.

Referring to their property, Peter says to Ananias, “Was it not still yours if you kept it, and once you sold it was it not yours to dispose of?” (Acts 5:4) But (again as Miranda points out) what was optional was not selling their property – Christianity’s indispensable condition. What was optional was the choice to become a disciple of Christ. Choosing the latter option required practicing communism – and that under pain of death!

As for economic systems imposed from above. . .  Can you name one that isn’t?

How many of us have really chosen to live under capitalism? “None of us” is the answer. That’s because to make an informed choice, one must know the alternative. However, our families, schools, churches and civic organizations, our films and novels and news programs mostly conspire together to vilify alternatives and keep them hidden.

Besides that, our government and military have made sure that experiments in alternatives [like the one implemented in Cuba (1959) or Nicaragua (1979)] fail or are portrayed as failures – lest their “bad example” undermine capitalist claims to be the only viable system.

Even worse, our church leaders (who should know better) jump on the anti-communist band wagon and present Jesus as a champion of a system he would despise. Church people speak and act as if Luke’s passage from Acts had read:

“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others however raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”

When are we going to stop this bastardization of Christianity?

First of all, we must face it: Jesus was a communist; so were his earliest followers after his death!

What then should are would-be followers of Yeshua the Christ to do? At least this:

* Read Jose Miranda’s manifesto, Communism in the Bible.

* If we can’t bring ourselves to sell what we have, give it to the poor, and live communally, at least conspire with like-minded people to share tools, automobiles, gardens – and perhaps even jobs and homes in an effort to reduce poverty and our planetary footprints.
* “Out” the “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan and other congressional “Christians” whose budgets attempt to balance federal accounts by increasing the ranks of the poor whose poverty the communism of the early Christian community successfully eliminated.
* Pressure our government to get off Cuba’s back and allow it to experiment in prophetic ways of living that can save our planet.

I’m sure you can add to this list. Please do so below.

Critical Thinking: Mixed Economies Are All We Have

Mixed Economy

[This is the fourth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous two entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. So having already dealt with capitalism, the last installment tried to explain Marxism, socialism and communism in fewer than 1000 words. This week’s episode finishes Rule One by explaining mixed economy and fascism in just three points each. Next time we’ll move on to the second rule of critical thinking, “Expect Challenge.”]

MIXED ECONOMY

Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the world as a whole has moved away from attempts to implement either pure capitalism or pure socialism. Instead, the trend virtually everywhere has been towards selecting the best elements from each system in a “mixed economy.” As the phrase implies, this involves (1) some private ownership of the means of production and some public ownership, (2) some free and open markets and some controlled markets, and (3) earnings typically limited by a progressive income tax.

Of course what we have in the United States is a highly mixed economy. The U.S. government is, after all, the largest land owner in the nation. Drug, alcohol, food, and medical care markets (and many others) are highly regulated. Following World War II, Americans earning more than $400,000 were taxed at a rate of 91%. Currently, the top income tax bracket is 34%. None of that would be possible under pure free market capitalism.

Similarly, countries claiming to be “socialist” (like Venezuela) or “communist” (like Cuba) have mixed economies. Private enterprise is a key part of both.

Does this mean that the economic systems of the United States and Cuba for example are the same? Not at all. True, both economies are “mixed.” But they differ in terms of whom they are mixed in favor of. The United States economy is mixed in favor of the wealthy and corporations. This is illustrated by consideration of the recipients of recent government bailouts – basically large corporations and Wall Street firms rather than middle or lower class people. The theory at work here is “trickle down.” That is, it is believed that if the wealthy prosper, they won’t hide their money under their mattresses. Instead they’ll invest. Investment will create jobs. Everyone will benefit. So mixing an economy in favor of the wealthy is not sinister; it’s done for the benefit of all.

Cuba, for instance, has a different approach. Its theoreticians observe that historically the wealth hasn’t trickled down – at least not to people living in the Third World (the former colonies). So, (the theory goes) the economy must be mixed directly in favor of the poor majority. The government must adopt a proactive posture and interfere directly in the market to make sure that everyone has free education (even through the university level), free health care, and retirement pensions. Food is subsidized to ensure that everyone eats. And the government is the employer of last resort to provide dignified employment for everyone, so that Cubans are not simply on the dole.

In summary, then, all we have in the world are “mixed economies.” Today, most of them are mixed in favor of the wealthy (once again, on the “trickle-down” theory). Some, like Cuba’s, prioritize the needs of the poor.

FASCISM

What about fascism then? Today the word is thrown around on all sides, and seems to mean “people I disagree with,” or “mean people,” or “those who force their will on the rest of us.” There’s talk of Islamo-fascists. President George W. Bush was accused of being a fascist. Recently President Obama has been similarly labeled.
None of those really capture the essence of fascism. Benito Mussolini, who claimed fascism as a badge of honor in the 1930s (along with Adolph Hitler in Germany, Antonio Salazar in Portugal, and Francisco Franco in Spain), called fascism “corporatism.” By that he meant an alliance between government and large business concerns or corporations.

In terms of Rule One of Critical Thinking, then, we might understand fascism as “capitalism in crisis” or “police state capitalism.” That is fascism is the form capitalism has historically taken in situations of extreme crisis, as occurred in the 1930s following the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.

More accurately however (in the light of our previous section on mixed economies), we might call fascism police state economy mixed in favor of the wealthy. Fascists are always anti-socialist and anti-communist.

The three elements of fascism then include: (1) A police state (2) enforcing an economy mixed in favor of large corporations, (3) characterized by extreme anti-socialism and anti-communism, and by scapegoating “socialists,” “communists” and minorities (like Jews, blacks, gypsies, homosexuals . . .) for society’s problems.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Both economies mixed in favor of the rich and those mixed in favor of the poor claim to respect human rights. They also blame their opponents for not following suit. The truth is, however, that both types of economies both respect and disrespect human rights. That is, despite claims to the contrary, no system of political-economy has shown consistent respect for all human rights. Instead all systems prioritize them according to what they consider the most basic. This means that capitalism respects some human rights more than others. So does socialism.

Capitalism puts at the top of its list the rights to private property, the right to enter binding contracts and have them fulfilled, as well as the right to maximize earnings. These rights even belong to corporations which under capitalism are considered persons.

On the other hand, capitalism’s tendency is to deny the legitimacy of specifically human rights as recognized, for example, by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. For this reason, the United States has never ratified key protocols implementing the Declaration, or other key documents asserting rights beyond the corporate. Moreover, if capitalism’s prioritized rights are threatened, all others are subject to disregard, including the rights to free elections, speech, press, assembly, religion, and freedom from torture. Historical references in the blog entries which follow this one will support that observation.

Similarly, socialism heads its own list with the rights to food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. In the name of those rights, socialism relativizes rights to private ownership and the rights to enter binding contracts, and to maximize earnings. If the rights socialism considers basic are threatened, history has shown that it too, like capitalism, will disregard all others.

CONCLUSION

What’s the “take-away” from all of this? Simply this: capitalism is both a simple and complicated system; so is socialism. Both can be summarized quite simply, as can mixed economies, Marxism, communism, and fascism. Capitalism respects some human rights, while disregarding others. The same can be said of socialism and systems that call themselves “communist.”

Critical thinkers should remember those simple summaries and truths about human rights. Doing so will help cut through many of the misunderstandings and distortions that characterize discussion of today’s key issues.

Thinking Critically about Marxism, Socialism and Communism (All in fewer than 1000 words!)

cominternposter

[This is the third blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. Last week started a sub-series on the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really escape Plato’s Cave unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Last week’s blog entry tried to explain capitalism in three simple phrases: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. This week’s episode turns to the main critique of capitalism (Marxism) and to the nature of its alternatives, socialism and communism. Again without judging, it will clearly explain these terms using just three points each and in fewer than 1000 words. I promise.]

MARXISM

Marxism represents the Western tradition’s most trenchant critique of capitalism. Marxism’s three points are as follows: (1) capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment, (2) workers will eventually rise up against such exploitation and replace capitalism with socialism, and (3) socialism will eventually evolve into communism. Let’s consider those points one-by-one.

First of all, Marxism’s critique of capitalism holds that the system necessarily exploits workers (and by extension, as we shall see, the environment). The adverb “necessarily” is emphasized here to show that, on Marx’s analysis, the destructive nature of capitalism is not dependent on the personal qualities of individual capitalists. Regardless of their personal virtue or lack thereof, the market mechanism itself forces capitalists to exploit workers (and the environment). This is because, for one thing, workers are forced to enter a labor market whose wage level is set by competition with similar workers seeking the same job. As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings.

For Marxists, the capitalist system does not merely exploit workers of necessity. It also necessarily exploits the environment. That is, the market’s supply and demand guidance dynamic punishes the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers. Thus, for example, a conscientious entrepreneur might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of his factory and filters to purify liquid effluents from his plant entering a nearby river. In doing so, he will, of course, raise his costs of production. Meanwhile, his competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring toxins into the river. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producer, and eventually drive him out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.

Marx’s second point is that the exploitation which the capitalist system necessarily fosters will cause rebellion on the part of workers. They will rise up against their employers and overthrow the capitalist system.

Marx’s third point is that the workers will replace capitalism with socialism. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism. So what do those terms mean?

SOCIALISM

For Marx capitalism’s replacement at the hands of workers is socialism. This economic system is capitalism’s opposite on each of the three points indicated earlier. First of all, whereas capitalism espouses private ownership of the means of production, socialism advocates public ownership. According to this theory, the workers themselves take over the factories and administer them, not for the profit of the few, but for the benefit of workers and their families.

Secondly, whereas capitalism demands free and open markets, socialism mandates controlled markets. Since socialism has the interests of the working majority at center, its pure theory will not allow, for instance, production of luxury crops (such as roses or coffee) if that production deprives workers of the food they need for subsistence.

Thirdly, whereas capitalism idealizes unlimited income, socialism calls for redistribution of income – for instance, through a progressive income tax. For socialism, greed is definitely not good. So it might also limit income by establishing ceilings beyond which personal incomes are not permitted to rise. Taxes and surplus earnings are then used for the common good, for example to fund schools, clinics, food subsidies, affordable housing, rents and health care.

COMMUNISM

As for Communism, it is a “vision of the future” which some, though not by any means all, socialists entertain as history’s end point. That is, while all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. This is because some socialists (along with all capitalists, of course) consider the communist vision of the future as unrealistic and unattainable. That vision, overly idealistic or not, is of a future where there will be (1) abundance for all, (2) no classes, as a result of such plenty, and (3) no need for a state.

To begin with, the vision of virtually unlimited abundance marks communists such as Marx and Engels as convinced industrialists. They were highly impressed by the unprecedented output of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shirts, for example, that would take a skilled seamstress days to produce, were turned out in minutes, once an assembly line based on “division of labor” was set in motion. Soon, communists theorized, the world would be filled with consumer goods. And in a context of such abundance “yours” and “mine” would cease to have meaning. Neither would it make sense for some to hoard goods to themselves at the expense of others. The result would be the disappearance of classes. There would be no rich and no poor. Everyone would have more than enough of what they need.

With the disappearance of classes would come the gradual “withering away” of the state. This is because “the state,” by communist definition is simply armed administrator of the affairs of society’s dominant class. As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

Thus the state’s job is to impose the will of a ruling class on others. Under capitalism, the state’s function is to oblige the working class to accept conditions profitable to the bourgeoisie (wealthy property owners). In other words, under capitalism, the state imposes the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Meanwhile, under socialism, the function of the state is to impose the will of the working class on the bourgeoisie. It enforces the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By way of contrast, under communism, in the absence of classes (eliminated by a condition of abundance) there remains no group whose will needs to be imposed on others. The state’s function thus ceases. It gradually disappears.

[Next week: Conclusion of Critical Thinking’s first rule (Think Systemically): Mixed Economy and Fascism]

Jesus Calls the Rich Man to Practice Wealth Redistribution (And “Communism”)

Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)

On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.”  Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.

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It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.

But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms.  He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.

Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.

Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.

Nearly!  That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”  That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth.  Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.

Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.”  (Acts 4:32-36).

Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:

Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.

On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.

Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?

Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?

(Discussion follows)