Christian Anti-Capitalism I: Biblical Justification
This is the first of two meditations on Christian theology and economics. In this article, I will explore anti-capitalism to be found within the Bible and other Christian documents. In the second article, I will expand upon what Christians gain from rejecting capitalist economics and social relations and what a Christian collective might look like. The second article will feature a view of different economic systems, like fascism or distributionism, and explain why they aren’t supported by Christianity. This article is intended to be open, and I plan on updating sections accordingly whenever possible. I believe modern Christianity has diluted God’s revolutionary message of “good news to the poor” because it is an uncomfortable subject in the church, where many believe teachings of the church must not interfere with politics. I call this fallacy out, and I hope this has some semblance of influence upon any Christian who stumbles upon it. Prior to reading this article, I wish all Christians to profess belief in God first, not support of capitalism.
Before we analyze early Christian communities, we must be careful to not commit the crime of bourgeois economists, to “present production...as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded” (Marx, Grundrisse). In short, we must not characterize early Christian communities as simply communist. Communism is a modern creation, so to attempt to characterize a society 1,800 years before its scientific conception as communist is to commit this same fallacy. Therefore, I will dub early Christian relations that align with the economic and social relations of communism as communal relationships to avoid confusion. Note that many of the following arguments and research on the topic of the early Christians is taken from “All Things In Common: The Economic Practices of Early Christians” by Roman A. Montero. I highly recommend this book to any readers that find Christian history and theology interesting. Moving on, what were early Christian societies like?
Early Christian Economic Relations:
I will begin by candidly stating that Christians have a moral obligation, as shown through the teachings of the Bible and other theological records, to live according to Marx’s principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program). To live a godly life is to follow this precept with your property and encourage the formation of economic relations to mirror this. Moreover, Christian teachings on Jubilee illuminate further anti-capitalist sentiment. Debt and market distribution is ungodly.
“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV, Acts 2:43-47).
“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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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 each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (NRSV, Acts 4:32-37).
“‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’” (NRSV, Acts 5:3-4)
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’” (NRSV, Luke 18:22).
“He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” (NRSV, Luke 10:27)
In these verses, we glimpse a few important details about communal economic and social relations. Christians denied distinctions based upon ownership in light of the Christian collective, to live a Godly life. It was done to such an extent, there was “no needy person among them.” We see a strong common, internal distribution of goods done by a community done on a voluntary basis. Luke is explicit in his description. There is even a developed idea of the ‘common good.’ However, voluntary in this sense means that one can voluntarily sin, there was an obligation to live in this manner that you could choose to ignore. When Ananias ignored his calling to live in this manner, trying to excuse God’s will for his own greed, he was condemned. In particular, in early Christianity, “what was dedicated to the poor in the early Christian community was dedicated to God; lying about what was dedicated to the poor to the apostles was like lying to the Holy Spirit itself”(Montero, “All Things in Common”). To live their theology was to help the poor. Why were things done in this manner?
“Ah,” says the capitalist-sympathizer, “what about charity or philanthropy? Is that not enough to serve God?” In the time of the newborn Church, rich believers didn’t simply bestow their charity upon the masses directly, but rather the funds and property were entrusted to the apostles for distribution. Why? Simply, it was a matter of humility. The status that rich benefactors enjoyed in regular economic society had no place in the church; they were asked to humble themselves before the poor. No special honor was to be given to them, but only the God they served through this common distribution. This points us away from direct charity and more toward a different fundamental structure of society (Montero, “All Things in Common”). God calls for more than a small stipend to the poor. I hate that modern Christians have destroyed the true economic message of Jesus. They seem to serve capital above God. Why else would they object? Further description of the nature of the Christian collective can be found in Justin Martyr’s “First Apology” and Terullian’s “Apology”. Even critics of Christians noted this structure of society. This demonstrates that redistribution of wealth and resources is something integral to Christianity and that this is more than simple charity. This is best and was accomplished through collectives that adhered to the classic Marxist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Market distribution isn’t Biblical; communistic allocation is.
Capitalism entails private ownership of the means of production. This is seen as the justification for exploitation that exists within the mode of production. Christians who are sympathetic to capitalism often attempt to justify private property through God. This is wrong, as the Bible will reveal. Please note that the Bible says nothing about what legitimate claims to land are. As such, it is neither an argument for or against private property. However, it is true that a few Bible verses explicitly teach against claiming others property as your own. They are more so in reference to Jubilee laws, so that original families could retain their land in the “do-over” every 50 years. For those that say commandments against actions like theft presuppose justification of private property, it was a mere description that theft wasn’t Godly and says nothing about the state of property rights. In fact, the existence of Jubilee laws will also clue us in later as to the economic beliefs of the Christians to come. What we will see, is that property, when spoken about in the Bible, is under some obligations to be given up (especially in the manner described above).
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (NRSV, Leviticus 25:23).
“In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (NRSV, Psalms 95:4-5).
“‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine’” (NRSV, Psalms 50:12).
“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all” (NRSV, 1 Chronicles 29:11).
“Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine” (NRSV, Exodus 19:5).
“And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (NRSV, Luke 16:12)
Capital & Greed:
In our society, God has been exchanged for value. Our society chases the accumulation of capital rather than the Lord. Does anyone earnestly believe most self-professed Christians would choose money over God? If not, I challenge you to ask a Christian face-to-face if they would rather have $1 billion or a relationship with God. The answer will not disappoint. Today, workers dedicate 40 hours per week to capital, watching it grow while only receiving a discounted rate from the product of their activity. God gets an hour of yawns, a few crying children, stifled glances at watches, and glazed eyes. Who do the people worship? God or Mammon? Mammon has estranged the church from God. Economic society consists of actions done in Mammon’s name, for the benefit of a few. We are all subject to capital flows, which itself is at the command of the “profit motive.” Ought we not override this system of ungodliness? The system that has created mega-churches with profits in the millions? The system that has caused around 40% of churches to no longer have sufficient funds to last three more months from the publishing of this article? We will see Biblical anti-capitalist sentiment build up below:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (NRSV, Matthew 6:24).
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (NRSV, James 5:1-6).
“But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (NRSV, Luke 18:23-25).
“But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (NRSV, 1 Timothy 6:9).
“So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God’” (NRSV, Luke 16:15)
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (NRSV, Luke 16:19-31).
The more one serves capital, the less he is Godly. The Bible explicitly denounces greed and the lack of care for your fellow man. Capital is abhorred by God — it explicitly says that the material items which humans pursue are detested by God. Chrstians must demand and act in similar fashion as the revolutionary demands Christ makes of them! The story of Lazarus is most striking: the Christians who ignore the material suffering of people (and the economic system responsible) are the ones who will be condemned to the pits of hell. They do not know God, nor practice his message. These are not mere suggestions, but rather God’s will! Shame to all the pastors who hide these teachings from the masses! Shame to professed believers who are aware of this and choose to ignore it! You, dear reader, are now aware of God’s teachings! Feel the Holy Spirit and live your theology. The righteousness of Christ compels you to take up sword against this ungodly system!
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” - Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto
We must understand that markets will cause the holiness of God to be transferred to commodities to be sold. The process is simply beginning anew. In medieval times, the practice of selling indulgences to peasants persisted throughout the Church. Is a Christianity with a “pay to salvation” offer hard to imagine in the coming decades? Is it difficult to imagine a society where worship is watching a screen from your home, with advertisements? Gradually, we are moving towards a society of religious commodification.
Christmas is the largest holiday in the U.S.. Why? I propose much of it has to do with the massive gifting of commodities that takes place on the holiday. The National Retail Federation predicted that U.S. consumers would spend $766.7 billion during the holidays last year (2020). The amount of spending has increased 20% since 2010. I don’t spend Jesus’s birthday isn’t on worship or community but rather consumption. Church becomes an obstacle to consumption. I go to church so I can consume and not feel guilty about it. Modernity has profaned Christmas! Pew Research Center found that 49% of Millenials don’t even attend a Church service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but 91% of them plan to buy gifts in celebration of the event.
Furthermore, more Millennials also believe that Christmas is a cultural holiday than a religious one (Lipka, “Many Millennials See Christmas”). Must I go on? What, precisely is the culture? The $1000 I spent on gifts, many of which will break within a few weeks of coming out of the box, show my admiration for my community and my love of God.
What are religious commodities? They are commodities “closely associated to sacred biographies of the founders of the faith, major historical events, or marked localities” that are “produced, controlled, and manipulated institutionally by certain organizations” with “symbolic meanings, sacred quality, and charismatic reputations” (Kitiarsa, “Toward a Sociology of Religious Commodification”). They are promoted through mass media and through public events, like celebrations and festivals. Do you enjoy paying, along with your fellow man, through TV advertisements to generate $1.2 billion dollars for Christian TV networks, much of which doesn’t go to charity? Buying clothing to show you’re a Christian? Buying jewelry?
“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (NRSV, Mark 11:15-18).
Jesus himself became violent at the use of the temple at Jerusalem to be used for the sale of commodities. How do you react, as a self-proclaimed Christian?
To finalize, we must understand that the root of many actions deemed as degenerate stem from economic conditions created by capitalism. Temptations are market creations that threaten our youth.
Sex work, the literal commodification of the body for sensual pleasures is caused by capitalism. Many poor women have to take up this horrific profession full of abuse to survive. Empty hedonism will not bring the fulfillment of the Lord. Over one million people in the U.S. have worked as prostitutes before, with some estimates as high as double that number (“How Many Prostitutes Are in the United States and the Rest of the World?”). The Coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this need. Websites like OnlyFans have grown at amazing rates, caused by economic needs unaddressed properly. To stop the selling of consent, the commodification of bodies, Christians must stand against the mechanisms that cause this.
The same scenario occurs with the destruction of the nuclear family. Atomization of social relations is a perpetual process of capitalism. Is it any wonder why people feel lonelier than ever? Why do you think people are waiting longer than ever to start a family? Many don’t have the economic capabilities to have stability. Since the 70s, wage stagnation causes more than one parent to have to work oftentimes, limiting familial relationships to children. Now, pure economic status isn’t the sole driver of divorce at all, but those in poverty are statistically less happy with their marriage. Those in poverty even go to church less often than people well-off (Wilcox, “The Marriage Divide”).
Sporadic consumption of empty hedonistic pleasures and wild temptations has further removed God from our society. Furthermore, any sense of community has been destroyed by continued atomization and alienation of neoliberal capitalism. The Church isn’t a building, but a people. The relations that bind those people together are slowly being severed. How long until you can buy a relationship with God?
Hopefully I have sufficiently touched the hearts of any believers reading this article. Does this information not make you want to weep? God has called you to be against capitalism. Poverty and “degeneration” stem from capitalism. Jesus was a revolutionary figure who proclaimed the good news to the poor. Now, he is used to calm them, to tell the starving of a great picture in heaven. I hope modern Christianity wakes up from its anti-partisanship belief and begins to implement the true words of God - an atheist.
Bible Gateway. 1989, www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-Revised-Standard-Version-NRSV-Bible/.
“How Many Prostitutes Are in the United States and the Rest of the World?” ProCon.org, 19 Mar. 2020, prostitution.procon.org/questions/how-many-prostitutes-are-in-the-united-states-and-the-rest-of-the-world/#:~:text=The%20National%20Task%20Force%20on,1%25%20of%20American%20women.%E2%80%9D.
King, David, et al. “Opinion: Another Coronavirus Victim: Nearly 40% of Churches May Not Have Cash to Last 3 Months.” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 29 Apr. 2020, www.marketwatch.com/story/another-coronavirus-victim-nearly-40-of-churches-may-not-have-cash-to-last-3-months-2020-04-29.
Kitiarsa, Pattana. “Toward a Sociology of Religious Commodification.” The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, 2010, pp. 563–583., doi:10.1002/9781444320787.ch25.
Lipka, Michael. “Millennials: Christmas More Cultural than Religious.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 July 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/many-millennials-see-christmas-as-more-cultural-than-religious-holiday/.
Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Program. International Publishers, 1966.
Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1981.
Montero, Roman A., and Edgar G. Foster. All Things in Common: the Economic Practices of the Early Christians. Resource Publications, 2017, Z-Library, 1lib.us/book/3680442/0e57c9.
Probasco, Jim. “Average Cost of American Holiday Spending.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 7 May 2021, www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/1112/average-cost-of-an-american-christmas.aspx.
Wilcox, W. Bradford. “The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today.” Institute for Family Studies, 25 Sept. 2017, ifstudies.org/blog/the-marriage-divide-how-and-why-working-class-families-are-more-fragile-today.