Class struggle in the New Testament
Sunday, 03 July 2022 12:04

Class struggle in the New Testament

Published in Religion

Robert Myles shows how historical materialism explains the origins of Christianity

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle. Great Men might be out of fashion, but you wouldn’t know it from reading some recent popular studies on the history of Christianity. Jesus and Paul are regularly framed as prime historical movers and innovators of individual and charismatic genius.

It is equally uncontroversial today, however, to claim that so-called Great Men are but the products of their society, and that their individual ideas and actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before and during their lifetimes. The intersecting historical and economic forces in Jesus’ day of the first century sparked a range of different beliefs and responses, many of which are captured within the rich and conflicting accounts of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

The New Testament is not a mirror reflection of specific class interests or political tendencies. Written by various authors with conflicting agendas, these texts were composed in locations that all fell under the purview of the Roman Empire. The Roman world was an agrarian and pre-capitalist one. This meant that land and not capital was the basis of wealth and power.

The Emperor of Rome ruled autocratically along with the help of local rulers in the provinces (like the Herods in Palestine). Most of the land was concentrated among a small, urban-based group of administrators, military leaders, and political and religious officials. In simple Marxist terms, this elite class controlled the means of production.

At the other end of the spectrum was a broad range of peasants, artisans, and slaves who worked the land, produced goods, and performed menial tasks, but did not control the means of production. Peasants comprised most of the population and generated the material wealth which was, in turn, rendered through taxes and rents to sustain the parasitical lifestyle of the elite.

There was nothing equivalent to a “middle-class” in the first century. Nor were there aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit. As trade in commodities made up only a small part of economic activity, there were few opportunities for peasants to accumulate wealth. In fact, most workers were born, lived, and died in what would today be considered very modest economic circumstances.

In the Gospels, Jesus bands together with rural fishermen, marginal women, displaced villagers, and crowds from the Judean countryside, to announce the inauguration of a new world order, with God as its ultimate ruler.

Jesus delivers parables that not only draw on earthy, agricultural concepts, and relations between landlords and tenants and masters and slaves, but which equally imagine lavish banquets that few of his compatriots would have been able to experience, given their lower-class roots. He is reported to perform miracles demonstrating that the cosmic forces were on his side, and he performs healings and issues epithets that ruffle the feathers of the religious and political establishment. Jesus ends up brutally tortured and crucified by the Romans for his troubles.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are, however, the literary products of an urban-based, semi-elite scribal class, who, although writing about the lives of ordinary rural peasants, artisans, and fishermen, do so through the eyes of their own bureaucratic and political interests.

These texts do not posit a revolution in the Marxist sense of overthrowing an entire mode of production—i.e. by replacing the agrarian social formation with a new and more equitable economic system. Rather, in the promised new world order, existing economic arrangements remain but are under the control of a different Lord of lords, namely, God and his co-regent Jesus. The New Testament writings frequently mimic the language of Roman imperialism in order to negate it, but curiously end up laying the groundwork for their own brand of imperial rule.

Despite adherence to Christianity declining in the West, popular and academic interest in the origins of Christianity and the New Testament remains steady. Even among a certain sub-culture of internet atheists, a small number of books and articles claiming the non-historical existence of Jesus appears to be gaining traction (although such arguments are universally refuted by professional scholars of the Bible).

Given that most people in antiquity left no sign at all of their existence, and the poor are virtually invisible within the historical record, to deny the existence of non-elite figures such as Jesus on the basis of sparse evidence, could be considered, however unintentionally, as a class bias against the poor in history.

But there are also broader considerations to be taken into account at this point. What about those non-elite women and men of whom we know even less, who were instrumental in the formation of the Jesus movement? An historical account fixated on the biographies of Great Men can only take us so far. Investigating the intersection of their emergence with the material conditions involved in historical change helps us piece together a more robust picture of early Christianity, but it also gives us insight into the world-historical forces which now happen to condition us.

Marxism, Buddhism and socialism
Sunday, 03 July 2022 12:04

Marxism, Buddhism and socialism

Published in Religion

Richard King teases out the links between Marxism, Buddhism and socialism.

The Dalai Lama and Marxism

Dhammic Socialism according to Buddhist principles holds that Nature created beings which must live in groups. Both plants and animals live together in groups or communities. This system we will call ‘socialism’ … in short, it is living for the benefit of society, not for the individual benefit of the person. (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, 1906-93)

In June 2011 during a visit to Minneapolis the 14th Dalai Lama shocked his American audience by declaring himself a Marxist. This was not an isolated or superficial statement on his part but in fact represented many years of reflection on the social philosophy of Marx and its compatibility with Buddhist teachings. Following in the tradition of Buddhist scholars like Trevor Ling, who argued in Buddha, Marx and God that Marx’s critique was aimed at oppressive and transcendentalist ideologies rather than religion in general, the Dalai Lama reads Marx’s famous reference to the opiate of the masses not as a critique of all religion as such, but as a rejection of obfuscating belief systems that justify social inequality.

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes – that is the majority – as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair … The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason, I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. (Dalai Lama, 1996, Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses)

The Dalai Lama is far from an isolated Buddhist example in this regard. Just as Christianity has influenced left-wing and radical political movements in the West (see James Crossley, Why Christianity Matters to Socialism), in Asia Buddhist teachings have similarly inspired progressive movements and philosophies such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s dhammic socialism in Thailand, the Socialist Party of U Nu in Burma (Prime Minister in 1948-56, 1957-58 and 1960-62) and the Dalit-oriented socially engaged Buddhism of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar in India.

Let us consider the case of Ambedkar. In 1956 a new socio-political movement was launched in India with the aim of challenging the iniquities of the Indian caste system and improving the lives of Dalit or untouchable” communities within India. The central claim of its founder, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar – one of the key architects of the modern Indian constitution and himself from a Dalit family – was that the only way to free oneself from the social iniquities of the Indian caste system is to renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism. Thus, on the 14th October 1956 in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Ambedkar, along with 400,000 fellow Dalits, underwent a mass conversion to Buddhism.

RK Bhimrao Ambedkar

In this way, a new movement was born in India that described itself as Navayāna - “the new vehicle” – a modern representation of the Buddha’s message emphasizing its socially transformative and socialist dimensions. According to Ambedkar, the Buddhist and Marxist worldviews were compatible in their goals, but differed in their means. Whereas the Buddha focused on the non-violent transformation of members of society, Marxist communism, at least in its twentieth-century Russian form, constituted a perpetual dictatorship of the proletariat maintained through coercion and control. According to Ambedkar:

Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation as summarised by the French Revolution in three words, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality. The French Revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasised that in producing equality society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all. (Buddha or Karl Marx? Ambedkar)

What grounds did Ambedkar have for making the claim that the Buddha’s teaching is socialist in nature? One way to answer this question is to consider the early Buddhist attitude to the caste system. The Buddha himself is said to have come from a princely background and therefore a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, though it seems likely that he came from a region of Gandhāra in North-Eastern India where the Brahmanical system of four caste groups (priests, warriors, merchants and servants) was less dominant and so he may have referred to himself as a Kshatriya for ease of reference when engaging with Brahmins for whom the four groupings constituted a natural, universal and divinely ordained form of social stratification.

Judging by the evidence of the Pali canonical texts, the Buddha does not appear to have rejected the idea of classifying people in terms of their personal abilities and in terms of varied functions and roles within society. Differences between people exemplified for him the diversity of beings and is grounded in the natural law of karma and rebirth. It was simply a matter of fact that different people had different qualities, skills and interests - reflecting their diverse levels of spiritual attainment, personality traits and life experiences.

However, what we do find in the early teachings of Buddhism is a refusal to place someone within a certain class-group on the basis of the social conditions or the family into which they were born. Again and again, the Buddha is seen to address people according to their moral behaviour and character rather than their class background, which he rejected as a basis for determining social status. Thus, one of the Buddha’s first disciples, Upāli, was a barber and of low caste status and yet was considered a senior figure in the early Buddhist tradition. This was precisely because the Buddha ranked his followers based upon their mastery of his teachings and seniority of experience rather than their wider social standing.

The communism of the sangha

The Buddha founded a monastic and renunciant community - the sangha, which was based on the principle of common ownership of property, communal decision making, and the promotion of an ethic of non-violence and compassion as a moral prerequisite of membership. The sangha was to be a classless society of renunciates following the Buddha’s teachings and offering teaching, advice and an example to the wider lay society. Within the sangha the Buddha did not countenance any continuation of the caste divisions of wider society. Instead male and female renunciates would practice a communal lifestyle of sharing and ‘consciousness raising’ – acting as an ethical beacon for an alternative way of organising society and a source of inspiration and teaching for the wider lay community to which it remained materially dependent for food and other resources.

After formal ordination, a Buddhist monk or nun in India is said to lose their class or caste affiliation: "entry into the Sangha abolishes all caste identity just as all rivers lose their identity as soon as they enter the sea." (Anguttara Nikāya 8.19). Becoming ordained as a bhikkhu/ni (literally ‘one who shares’) required a renunciation of one's previous social position along with other aspects of everyday worldly life. This might lead us to expect early Buddhism to be a movement attracting those looking for an escape route from the difficulties of low social status in India, but it would be a mistake to think that early Buddhism represented some sort of proletarian movement for the underprivileged in ancient Indian society. If we look at the background of the Buddha's followers as mentioned in the Pali canon, we find that the majority seem to have been comparatively well-educated members of the Brahmin (priestly) and Kshatriya (warrior) classes.

Nevertheless, like Marx, the Buddha frequently criticized the prevailing dogmatic authority of his day – the Vedic tradition of Brahmins who performed and justified rituals such as the fire sacrifice to the gods and saw themselves not only as the main intercessors between the divine and human realms but also as the authoritative voice-box of society. Early Buddhism did not deny the existence of gods – indeed they occur throughout the stories of the Pali canon – but the Buddha displaced them from the centre-ground of practice, arguing that gods remained as bound to the cyclical patterns of karma and rebirth (samsara) as all other sentient beings. All divine beings – even the highest Vedic god Brahmā – the divine archetype for the Brahmin caste, were mortal and subordinate in their authority to anyone who has achieved awakening (bodhi) and liberation (nirvana).

The Buddha, therefore, is presented as focusing not on the placation or veneration of the gods, but on the practical necessities of overcoming suffering (duhkha) and coming to terms with the impermanent (anitya) and compounded nature of existence. In his speech to the Kalamas - a teaching that particularly inspired socialist and one-time Burmese Prime Minister U Nu, the Buddha outlined a pragmatic and empirically-grounded criterion for deciding the validity of any claim to higher knowledge – test it for yourself:

Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha placed ethics at the centre of his message and emphasized the importance of the intention (cetanā) behind an action in assigning moral responsibility. We find a similar move five centuries later when Jesus remarks in Matthew 5:27-8:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

On many occasions the Buddha is found transforming ritual practices into ethical ones linked to the cultivation of loving-kindness and a deep solidarity for the suffering of others. In the Teaching on the Three Knowledges (Tevijja Sutta), for instance, a group of young Brahmins asks the Buddha for advice on the way to achieve union with their god Brahmā saying that their teachers, experts in Vedic lore, quarrel over the correct path. ‘Do your teachers have direct experience of “dwelling with Brahmā?” the Buddha asks. When the enquirers admit that they do not, the Buddha declares that this means that the teachers have no empirical basis or authority to speak on such matters.

At this point one might expect the Buddha to declare the falsity of the Vedic Brahmin path and to encourage the students to join his followers. However, the Buddha then declares that he knows Brahmā and the world of Brahmā and is therefore in a position to speak authoritatively about the way to achieve their goal. The Buddha then proceeds to outline a set of ethical meditations based upon the systematic cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity. Manifest these virtues in your life and interactions with others and you shall achieve Brahmā status.

Similarly, in the Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha is asked to explain how one might properly conduct the Brahmanical devotional practice of venerating the gods in all directions. The Buddha again steps away from ritual and devotionalism and outlines instead six key social relationships: parents, teachers, family, friends, holy teachers and employees/servants, suggesting that the practitioner cultivates loving-kindness and respect for all. Instances such as this, where the Buddha takes prevailing Vedic practices related to the veneration of gods and translates them into the cultivation of ethically-informed human relationships, have led many to see the Buddha as more of an ethical teacher than a founder of a religious movement. Nevertheless, for those seeking to find grounds for a socialist interpretation of Buddhism, these teachings, despite their potential for ameliorating social relations, seem very much aimed at the level of the individual practitioner rather than society as a whole.

Changing the world through self-transformation

It is important however to appreciate the context of the Buddha’s time. There was no assumption in the ancient Indian circles in which Buddhism arose that social change is likely to occur through some transformative revolutionary moment but generally an emphasis on changing the world through self-transformation. In traditional Asian as well as prevailing western interpretations of the Buddha’s message suffering and transformation are usually pitched at the personal level. This however does not mean that Buddhism was an ancient form of individualism as shown by the fact that the Buddha’s most significant contribution to the global history of ideas is his comprehensive rejection of the idea of a persisting personal self.

In Buddhism, there are no individuals, only dividuals and what we call a ‘person’ is in fact more like a fast-flowing stream or river or a flickering flame of sensations, cognitions and desires. We are a complex bundle of changing material and mental processes with no centralized unitary self or soul hidden within these changing processes. Everything is impermanent (anitya), the Buddha declared, and this has often been taken as a justification for why social revolution has rarely been considered a viable option for long-term social change. Everything decays and ceases to be – including eventually the Buddhist tradition itself. However, there is another side to this. The reason that much of the Buddhist message appears to focus so firmly on the person is because it is precisely the false attachment to the idea of a persisting individual ego at the core of our being which the Buddha identifies as the source of our suffering and of social divisions in the world. Uprooting this strongly held belief is therefore an indispensable part of the path to full awakening.

Today we find Buddhist ideas and practices – such as Buddhist mindfulness meditation, being widely adopted and appropriated as stress-relief in the neoliberal age of growing precarity. Slavoj Zizek, for instance, has suggested that modern western Buddhism, with its emphasis on peaceful meditation and an almost quietistic acceptance of the status quo (the ethics of ‘no judgement’), provides the perfect spirituality and safety valve for advanced capitalist societies. Yet at the same time we have seen the rise of Engaged Buddhism – a late twentieth-century trend which seeks to challenge global capitalism and consumerism through a socially and politically engaged reading of the Buddha’s teachings.

It is important to note that the Buddhist rejection of the individual as a primary, unitary reality means that the ideology underpinning the contemporary neoliberal conception of the human as ‘self-actualizing entrepreneur’ is always in danger of being displaced by the Buddhist emphasis on kindness, compassion (literally “co-suffering”) and interdependence. This of course has not prevented Buddhist teachings and practices from being co-opted by the “self-help” spiritualities that have proliferated in late twentieth and early twenty-first-century capitalist society. It does however cause them to sit uneasily with a deeper engagement with basic Buddhist teachings.

What we might call social problems of violence, social injustice and selfish individualism are traditionally represented in classical Buddhists texts as rooted in what Buddhists call the three poisons – greed (alobha), hatred (dvesha) and confusion (moha), but it is not difficult to see how these individual traits could be mapped structurally onto institutions and ideologies in the contemporary world that promote rampant consumerism, militarism and propaganda (“fake news” and infotainment) over knowledge. Contemporary socially-engaged Buddhists have been making these exact connections in their critique of modern capitalism. As Theravada Buddhist and Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa suggests,

When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relation view of ‘self,’ the result is greed and selfishness. Neoliberalist rhetoric deludes people and international organizations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumption deludes people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness. (Sivaraksa, “Alternatives to Consumerism” in A. Badiner, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, Parallax Press, 2002: 136)

RK Buddhadasa bhikkhu

According to the Theravāda monk Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, sharing is a natural feature of biological life that has become distorted by human alienation and the rise of private ownership:

According to science, before humans evolved there were lower animals and plants, and, before that, single-celled forms of life. In all of these various levels of living things, none ever consumed more than it needed. … They have no granaries or storehouses in which to hoard or stockpile supplies; so they cannot accumulate more than they need. A bird eats only what its stomach will hold. According to our Buddhist scriptures, our problems began when someone got the idea of stockpiling grains and other food, causing shortages for others. Once people began to hoard supplies, problems of unequal distribution and access arose.

The Buddhist scriptural source that Buddhadāsa is particularly alluding to here is called the Discourse on Origins (sometimes misleading described as the ‘Buddhist Book of Genesis’) or Agganna Sutta and it is contained within the Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya) of the Pali canon –a source of many of the Buddha’s teachings that have a more direct socio-political emphasis. What is striking about the Discourse on Origins is the account that it offers of the formation of human societies. The text begins with the Buddha ridiculing the Brahmins for their belief that they are born from the ‘mouth of the God Brahmā’ and therefore cosmically established as the highest and most important social class.

The origins of class-based divisions in society

The Buddha is here referring to an ancient Vedic myth where the different class groups in society are declared to be created by the dismemberment of a cosmic Person (Purusha). The head of the cosmic Person becomes the priests, his arms become the warrior class, his legs become the artisan and merchant class and his feet become the servants. This creation myth, recorded in Rig Veda X.90, dates from around 800 BCE and is the earliest known reference to what we now call the caste system. The Buddha ridicules the myth – ‘do the Brahmins not know that they are born from their mother’s vaginas?’ he asks and in doing so calls into question not only the divinely-ordained nature of the caste system but also the divine right of kings – or brahmins, to rule over others. The text then proceeds to offer a counter origin-story for the rise of class divisions. Again, the primary problem is rooted in the greed and avaricious tendencies of humans.

Initially, the Buddha declares, there is no private property, everything is shared communally. However, some take more food than they need and begin to hoard it. In this way, the idea of private ownership establishes itself. This however causes social conflict as disputes over resources proliferate and divisions between rich and poor emerge. As a result, the warrior class emerges to keep the peace and emergent human communities appoint a morally upstanding and unbiased member of their group to act as the final arbiter and enforcer of law in such cases. This the text suggests is the origin of monarchy as a form of government. The monarch is given the title Mahā-sammatā - ‘Great Elected One,’ reflecting the fact that the authority of a ruler resides in the mandate of the community of peers, not some divinely-inspired right to rule.

Elsewhere, the Buddha warns that in societies where greed and lawlessness are allowed to prevail there is a proliferation of weapons and violence. Failure to distribute resources fairly and equitably and to care for the poor, the Buddha argues, causes stealing to increase and further violence and discord within society. For Buddhist socialists like Buddhadāsa, the Buddha’s message is clear – it is natural for human beings, like other animals, to share resources and it is only through the spread of greed and narrow self-regard that the idea of private property – the lynchpin of the capitalist system, is able to emerge, but at the catastrophic expense of human solidarity.

Later developments within Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna traditions, place even greater emphasis on the importance of compassion and universal solidarity with the suffering of others. Indeed, the characteristic feature of Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism is the establishment of the notion of the bodhisattva (“one who seeks full-awakening”) as a universal ideal motivated by deep compassion for and solidarity with others. Moreover, traditional transcendentalist ideas of liberation (nirvāna) as some kind of spiritual escape from the world become replaced by an emphasis on unending engagement with the needs of others. Nirvāna in the Mahāyāna traditions of Buddhism is no longer seen as a personal aspiration or private escape from the world but rather as the collective liberation of all sentient beings from the weal of suffering. This is why when the Dalai Lama is asked what is the prime purpose of life, his simple answer is ‘helping others’ and why he sees himself simultaneously as both a Buddhist and a Marxist.

See also here for an article on Karl Marx and Buddhism

Jesus and Marx
Sunday, 03 July 2022 12:04

Jesus and Marx

Published in Religion

Through exploring points of contact between Jesus of Nazareth, Karl Marx, and Lenin, Roland Boer finds new and richer layers of shared meanings betwen the Bible and communism, and between theology and politics.

I am by no means the first to compare Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx. Actually, I am somewhat wary of such comparisons, not because I do not think there are some striking intersections or likenesses, but because those who undertake such comparisons tend to assume that Jesus is the source and Marx the borrower. This trap is an easy one, since Jesus of Nazareth existed some 1800 years or more before Marx. Yet temporal priority does not necessarily mean logical, political or ontological priority. In other words, rather than assuming that religion provides the absolute fount of ideas and practices, it is really only one code, one language for expressing these ideas. Politics may provide another language, philosophy another, and so on.

This translatability has a number of ramifications, of which I can mention two. First, the absolute claims of any language disappear and they become relative to one another. Second, the translations overlap only partially, for their fit is never complete. They have some elements of an idea in common, but other elements lie beyond the overlap. Thus, in each case meanings in one language extend beyond the translated term in the other language. This situation leads to both the enrichment of the idea in question, but also to potential losses as the idea moves from language to language. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, I would like to explore five points of contact, five translatable terms between Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx.

From Each … To Each …

To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to each according to his ability (Matthew 25:15)

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:45)

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need! (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

At the heart of both Christian communism and Marxian communism is this basic precept: that we should contribute according to our ability and receive according to our need. Simple enough in its formulation, it is exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Christian communist groups continue to exist today in many parts of the world (see, for instance,, and their precepts may be outlined easily enough: a common belief in the resurrection of Christ; communal living; communism of goods and production, with the proceeds of any production allocated throughout the community according to need. Often meals are held in common, although private space is acknowledged. All of this is based on both the sayings of Jesus and the depictions of early Christian communism in Acts 2 and 4.

Marxian communism initially attempted to define itself over against Christian communism by arguing that the latter concerned only a communism of consumption. By simply selling property and redistributing the wealth, as in Acts 2 and 4, they did not change the system at all, as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg argued. Marxian communism would therefore take the next step and make the means of production communal along with consumption. Since then, however, Christian communists have responded by emphasizing the need for communal production as well.

Private Property

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24; see also Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25)

The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

The scathing criticisms of private property that we find in the mouth of Jesus are well known. “Go, sell what you have,” he tells the rich man who asks for the secret of eternal life (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 12:33). Again and again, we encounter the polemic against property, the possession of which is regarded as an evil and as a massive hindrance to joining the kingdom of God. Jesus valorises simplicity over luxury and forgoes the influence and power that comes with wealth. In short, everything about him stands against the deep values of the Hellenistic propertied classes. In the words of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s magisterial The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, “I am tempted to say that in this respect the opinions of Jesus were nearer to those of Bertholt Brecht than to those held by some of the Fathers of the Church and by some Christians today.”

Why oppose private property, which had been invented by the Romans a little over a century before the time of Jesus? The reason is that private property, as the Romans first defined it, is based upon slavery. More specifically, private property (dominium from dominus, master) relies on the reduction of one human being to the status of thing (res) that is “owned” by another human being who has absolute, inalienable power over that thing. With this basic meaning, the Romans then extended the sense of private property to cover most things in our lives. And this is the sense of private property that has come down to us, through a complex history in which the meaning of private property was lost and was then recovered to become the basis for capitalism. As for Jesus, his implacable opposition to private property is clearly due to its basis in slavery.

Marx comes to a surprisingly similar conclusion via a different path. For Marx, private property arises in the context of alienated wage-labour, in which workers sell their labour power to another in order to make products that are not the worker’s. These products become commodities that are then sold in order to generate profit for those who do not work. We need to remind ourselves that the unemployed for Marx are not those at the bottom of the economic pile, but those at the top, the capitalists who do not work but make their wealth on the backs of those who do. In many places, Marx speaks of wage-labour as nothing better than slave labour – which brings us back to the critique of property in the Gospels.

From Below

So the last will be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16; see also Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30)

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists … express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes (Manifesto of the Communist Party)

Marx is famous for championing history “from below,” from the perspective of the working class, of the poor, of everyday people who show not merely a remarkable ability to take the initiative, but who are actually the prime movers of history. Peasants, slaves, serfs, colonised people, workers – these and more are the real causes of what happens in the world. The “big men” – so often the focus of history and politics – are constantly trying to respond to these real causes. They may seek to express their deepest wishes, but more often than not they try to curtail the radical demands of ordinary people.

In the Gospels, Jesus wishes to spend far more time with the despised and dregs of society – prostitutes, winos, “sinners’ and so forth. These are the “little ones” (Matthew 10:42; 18:6-14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2), the “least” (Matthew 25:40-5), the “last.” In the thorough shakeup of the “kingdom of God,” these are the ones who will be raised up and made first. A distinct angle on this approach from below may be found in a spatial analysis. Palestine at the time of Jesus was arranged in terms of polis and chora. The former designates the Hellenistic city, with its Greek architecture, language, culture, religion and practices. The polis was the location of power, wealth, the ruling class and the colonizing army of the Romans. By contrast, the chora was the countryside around about the cities. Here the language was Aramaic, the culture Palestinian, and the villages operated according to tried and true practices of communal agriculture. The chora was also poor, overworked and yet living on the edge of starvation, for the polis drew all its requirements from the chora, irrespective of whether the latter could in fact do so without affecting its own livelihood. What is noticeable about the Gospel stories is that Jesus’ whole concern is with the people of the chora. Apart from his final turn to Jerusalem, he studiously avoided the polis. This was a thoroughly consistent concern with those from below.


I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to metanoia (Luke 5:32)

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change (verändern) it (Theses on Feuerbach)

Here there seems to be a great gulf between Jesus and Marx. The traditional way in which the Greek metanoia has been translated is “repentance.” Given the way “repentance” has been interpreted and framed by the church, Jesus here seems to be referring to the need for “sinners” to confess their “sins” and to begin leading a righteous life. Repentance becomes an individual act in which one turns away from debauchery, revelry, dishonesty and the pleasures of life in order to turn towards God. This seems far indeed from the sense of social, political and economic transformation that is embodied in Marx’s famous thesis I quoted above.

Let us look at this biblical text again, since the individualised interpretation of modern, evangelical Christians is far from the truth. Recall that the “sinners” are actually those rejected by society, the “little ones” among whom Jesus feels at home. They are rejected by the self-described “righteous,” the ones whom Jesus criticises, condemns and avoids. But what about metanoia? Its basic meaning is a change of mind, or rather a change of existence, a complete about-turn in life – in short, a thorough transformation that begins from below. Now the meaning of the last becoming first, and the first last, takes on a somewhat different meaning. Here the words of Mary also take a deeper, political resonance: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). We have come rather close to Marx’s revolution, except that the one propounded by Jesus includes a religious revolution.

Miracles Can Happen

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34)

In certain respects, a revolution is a miracle (Lenin)

For my final point, I wish to be a little provocative and bring together Jesus and Lenin on the question of miracle. As is well known, the Gospels are full of cures (for blindness, deafness, lameness, leprosy and flows of blood), of exorcisms, and of miracles in which nature itself performs in a unique fashion. Far less well-known is the fact that Lenin often described a revolution in terms of a miracle. But what does it mean for Lenin to say that revolution is a miracle?

First, miracle is not, in Hume-derived terms, an event that is inexplicable according to the “laws” of nature, nor is it a moment or an event that changes the very coordinates of existence. Rather, a miracle is a point of contact between two seemingly incommensurable worlds. In theological terms, a miracle is a touching between heaven and earth, or the moment when transcendence is bent towards immanence. In the Gospels, a miracle occurs when heaven touches earth, or, more appropriately, when earth draws heaven down to its level. For Lenin, the two worlds are not so much heaven and earth but the expected and the unexpected. No matter how much one may devote to organisation in preparation for the revolution, whether in terms of party structure, publicity organs, propaganda, parliamentary involvement, agitation on the streets or military training, the actual moment of revolution inevitably occurs without forewarning, a spark that turns instantaneously into a conflagration.

After the revolution in 1917, Lenin’s usage increases even more. The new government was faced with impossible challenges. They were systematically attacked by the “white” armies, which were supported by an international consortium (United Kingdom, France, USA, Japan etc.). The country was ruined after the First World War, in terms of industry, transport, and grain production. And the new government sought to build a new social, political and economic order. In this context, Lenin speaks again and again of miracles, of “miracles of proletarian organisation,” of miracles “without parallel.”. He is not averse to designating an individual a “miracle worker,” such as Miron Konstantinovich Vladimirov, the Military Commissar Extraordinary of the Railways. If he can, in the face of a chronic shortage of materials “perform a miracle” by repairing two railway lines instead of one, he “will indeed be a miracle worker.” All of which may be summed up: “The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles.” Here the word “miracle” has been enriched in an unexpected direction.

Together Again

From each according to his or her ability, to each according to need; sustained critique of private property; understanding the world from below, from the perspective of ordinary people who are the real history makers; the radical potential of metanoia; the political translation of miracle as revolution itself. I have suggested that in each case we find a point of contact between Jesus and Marx (and Lenin). That contact sets off a whole series of new layers of meaning, enabled by the translation of terms between the Bible and communists, between theology and politics. And both are richer for it.