“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Chances are, you’ve probably heard this Karl Marx quote thrown around as an example that Christianity and Socialism are incompatible. But here’s the interesting thing: Marx wasn’t saying that religion is entirely bad. Marx was simply making the observation that religion is often used as a way for people to escape the woes and injustice of the world, by focusing on a world beyond this one.
But what if instead of helping us ultimately escape the world, Christianity can be a religion that helps us more fully embrace the world? What if Christianity could be more than just a religious institution, and was a call for radical solidarity with the oppressed? What if God isn’t on the side of the powerful, but God is on the side of the poor and the downtrodden?
While this might sound appealing, to be a Christian means more than just symbolically claiming solidarity with the oppressed. Being a Christian means taking up your cross, and being crucified in struggle with the least of these. As the Black liberation theologian James H. Cone once said:
“the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than ‘going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.’ It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst…The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice.”
When Jesus preaches “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” this should not be interpreted as a mythical “Pie in the sky” for the oppressed who would suppress their longings for fairness and equality. Instead, it can be read in the same tone as another famous idiom:
“Workers of the world, unite!”
I. Power or Powerlessness?
The Christian tradition is a contradictory phenomenon, sometimes valorizing the powerful and sometimes valorizing the powerless. Historically, typical conceptions of God have often reflected prevailing attitudes of power. In this framework, God is an omnipresent and omnipotent deity found in heaven above, ruling over the affairs of humans. This idea of God is a celebration of might, power, and top-down rule. Naturally, humanity’s social place in society is oriented in a way that reflects this position. Virtue is deference to higher authority, and not questioning the way things are structured. Because of this view of spirituality, Christianity is often reduced into a handmaiden of empire. If God’s law is good simply because God said so, and God is all powerful, then “goodness” is actually just determined by arbitrary power: might makes right.
But what’s missing from this view of the divine is a profound radicalism which is not alien to Christianity, but buried deep within its core. In the gospel of St. Matthew, something subversive happens: in the midst of a colonial genocide, the child of God is born in filthy conditions to an unmarried working class couple. This son of God roams a land which is occupied by an imperial force, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. He heals the sick, raises the dead, and shares his time with the socially outcast. By the end of his life, his downwardly mobile lifestyle intensifies to a climactic breaking point.
Moments before his execution by the hands of the authorities, Jesus cries out: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani! (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) The temple veil is torn from top to bottom, revealing that God is not hidden safely behind the sacred screen. From this moment on, God is dead. Or rather, the commonly accepted idea of God is dead. God is no longer found in the highest temples or halls of power. Instead, God is found in the midst of the broken world, among the poor and the destitute. From this moment on, the hierarchical pyramid of power has been inverted. As Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes, “the authentic Christian tradition rejects the wisdom that the hierarchic order is our fate.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims this counter-intuitive view of society. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The “least of these” are given primacy, and the powerful are looked upon with pity. It’s a subversion of everything that the world holds to be true.
In light of this, being a Christian means radically identifying oneself with the “least of these.” It means socially locating yourself in solidarity with those without power, and working towards their liberation. Eugene V. Debs, socialist candidate for U.S. president, summed up this sense of solidarity during his statement to the court upon being convicted of sedition:
“years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
II. Universalism or Particularism?
While the above may seem radical, this universalist sentiment is actually not all that controversial. In fact, it is widespread among Christians of all political stripes. Even right-wing Christians profess to care for impoverished people around the world (although the charitable organizations which they often support at best treat the symptoms rather than the causes of social immoderation). Liberal Christians take this impulse further by self-identifying as multiracial, immigrant-welcoming, or queer-affirming (although their care for the poor and working class ends at the point where it challenges the power and pocketbooks of those who give the biggest tithes). The problem lies when Christians adopt this societal stance symbolically, without actually aligning their interests materially with the “least of these.” Because conservative theology assumes that different kinds of people must be treated differently, progressive Christians seeking to reject such hierarchicalism are prone to a class-blind and identity-blind sentiment. It’s all too easy for progressive Christians to slip into a liberal ethic and politics which embraces the oppressed but also embraces their oppressors. While this non-dual principle is meant to transcend divisiveness, Jesus never deconstructed the dichotomy between justice and injustice. Such a superficial type of universal love is a form of what anti-fascist theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
To preach a universal ethic of love in a fallen world is to expect heaven before Christ returns - to “immanentize the eschaton” (to reappropriate an anti-communist trope). This liberal Christian view is more Moses than Joshua: glimpsing the promised land yet unable to navigate a strategy to actually get there. By assuming that prefigurative politics can scale up to social transformation, liberal Christianity expects that everyone can be baptized with water, despite John the Baptist’s insistence that in Christ’s coming, some must be baptized with fire.
III. Peace or Struggle?
For all of its important spiritual insights, this non-dualistic universalism can fall prey to the paradox of relativism, trying in vain to inclusively acknowledge the validity of all viewpoints - including those of intolerant chauvinism which rejects such open-handed egalitarianism. The biblical God answers to many names but YHWH firmly rejects identification with the false god of wealth: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” The biblical God calls for golden idols to be ground into dust.
Yet a common refrain among white progressive Christians is that they don’t believe in “the God of the Old Testament,” who is seen as wrathful and capricious. Not only does this theological framing align with European Christianity’s dark history of anti-Semitism, but the Jesus of the gospels never claims to recharacterize the nature of God. As African socialist revolutionary Thomas Sankara wrote, “No altar, no belief, no holy book… have ever been able to reconcile the rich and the poor, the exploiter and the exploited… Jesus himself had to take the whip to chase them from his temple.”
Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Notice that Jesus is not rejecting the gospel of peace - he only claims not to have brought it to earth. This is because peace is already here, in the innate creational potential for constructive relationships and cooperative projects and conflict resolution.
But what, then, is preventing peace from actualizing? St. Augustine used the term “original sin” to describe the systemic condition of ineradicable intergenerational violence, which delimits and corrupts our choices before we even develop the ability to choose. So if many of us are born into the world already benefiting from violent structures, then it is simply bad faith to presume that “nonviolence” is even possible. While ethically admirable, pacifism as a way of life is not available to those complicit in oppression and exploitation.
It is not just nations, cities, or even households at war with one another - it is families who are bound together in the false peace of patriarchal submission. It is schools full of desegregated multiracial classrooms whose students are slowly being racially sorted into pipelines toward college or prison. It is congregations of churchgoers who worship together on Sunday and then resume their hierarchical roles as bosses and employees during the work week. None of the relations in these institutions are robustly peaceful - they are all forms of “slow violence,” the kind that we get used to precisely because it surrounds us so thoroughly.
And yet, paradoxically, the Jesus who lashed out at those exploiting the masses in the temple is also the Jesus who preached turning the other cheek and praying for persecutors. As liberation theologian Herbert McCabe writes in “The Class Struggle and Christian Love”:
“There is a paradox, but no contradiction, in being able by the grace of God to love the person you must fight; there is a paradox, but no contradiction, in having an enemy who must be destroyed and yet who is not in any ultimate sense the enemy but one for whom Christ also dies; there is a paradox, but no contradiction, in fact, in loving your enemies.”
It is only possible to love our enemies if we recognize them as our enemies. The call to justice is the call to combat liberalism: the attitude which overlooks conflicts of interests and harmful actions in the name of keeping the peace… however superficially. And in fighting against the unjust, we recognize that we are also fighting against parts of ourselves, because we too often live among the high places of privilege and power.
Christ’s beatitudinal blessings for the downtrodden cannot be reduced to mere calls for liberal kindness, cooperation, and mutual aid - even though these dynamics are essential components of the communist horizon which the early church conceived of as the universalizing Kingdom of God. According to the socialist organizer Rosa Luxemburg:
“the Christians of the First and Second Centuries were fervent supporters of communism. But this communism.. proved itself incapable of reforming society, of putting an end to the inequality between [humans] and throwing down the barrier which separated rich from poor.”
If religion is the opium of the masses, it need not keep us addicted, pacified, and unable to fight (or even recognize) injustice. Instead, just like the battlefield morphine syringes used by anti-fascist army medics in WWII, religious faith can sustain socialist Christians in our struggle alongside the powerless to achieve substantive peace, collective power, and universal love.