N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright

It is interesting as a Marxist to observe how at the slightest mention of Karl Marx, those who would identify as Christians, perhaps out of the fear that something so unashamedly radical could be taken so seriously, either laugh or blush or inwardly tremble.  Do they not see in their own Nazarene a spectre far more terrible?  Do they or do they not see in their crucified savior one who makes Marx look positively innocuous by comparison?  It doesn’t take a pinko to recognize this either.  The admittedly brilliant biblical scholar N.T. Wright, whom scarcely a sane person would call a radical leftist, has himself said, far more eloquently than any Marxist (as we tend toward prolixity) could:

[God’s relevance] cannot be confined simply to what we call personal or individual faith; it’s what happens when, say in the old South Africa, someone like Desmond Tutu, in the name of Jesus, confronted the rulers of old South Africa with the fact that what they were doing was radically out of line with [God’s designs] … The gospel is not ‘you can have a nice spirituality and an eventual salvation.’ … When you say that Jesus Christ is lord, you not only call every individual to personal faith; you call every structure in society to respond to the fact that Jesus wants to be lord of that structure as well. [1]

But of course, it doesn’t mean Marxists can’t say it too, and indeed, as we are a considerably babbling bunch, there are Marxists who do.  The prominent literary theorist and chief blabbermouth, Terry Eagleton, for example, rather beautifully sums up what is sometimes too obvious for us to really take account of:

Terry Eagleton

Jesus, unlike most respectable American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.  He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. [2]

But again, it should be stressed, Jesus was far more revolutionary than Marx ever was.  As Wright suggests, for Jesus to have invoked Isaiah “was to go beyond mere military revolution.  It was to speak of the return from exile, the defeat of evil, and the return of YHWH to Zion.”[3]  Beyond mere military revolution.  These are the words of an Anglican Bishop.  And Wright goes on to say, “He was not so much like a wandering preacher giving sermons or a wandering philosopher offering maxims as like a radical politician gathering support for a new and highly risky movement.”[4]

Theologians and literary critics are not the only ones to notice the subversive core of Christianity either.  Given its radicalism, it only makes sense that governments would fear any genuine theological expression of it.  And indeed it does.  It is a surprising fact to many that it is the official policy of the United States to combat the spread of liberation theology, or, in its own words, “U.S. policy must begin to counter … liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the ‘liberation theology’ clergy.”[5]  In a document which has come to be known as the ‘Santa Fe Document,’ the US government outlined plans to stop the spread of liberation theology and to use evangelical organizations to “take charge of the initiative of ideological struggle”[6] because these irrational Latin Americans continued to cling onto such antiquated sentimentalist principles as democracy, liberty, and equality.  Though the policy was initiated by Reagan (unsurprisingly), it was supported continuously through the regimes of Bush and even Clinton.  As with Constantine in the 4th century CE, the aim of this policy was, in its own words, “control of conscience” through the apparatus of religion.  On a side note, it is lamentable that the people who seem to be most well versed in Gramsci and Orwell are the very elites whom they would challenge.  In any case, the United States’ official policy toward liberation theology is hardly surprising given Christianity’s erstwhile relationship with empire.  There is no reason to believe Christianity should be viewed by the American empire with less suspicion than it was viewed with by the Roman Empire.  Indeed, the shocking thing would be if your version of Christianity did not challenge any government, and did not make you suspect in its eyes.  Probably referring to the early apostles, Eagleton suggests, correctly, that, “If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”[7]  So you might say that the extent to which your devotion to Jesus poses a threat to the state indicates how genuine it is.  And if Christians today are loath to do this, the reasons are too obvious to explain–unless of course it requires explaining something as obvious as the fact that George Bush’s Jesus has nothing to do with the Jesus who actually existed, except the name they happen to share.

It is not difficult to see why either the Roman Empire or the American would fear Jesus, and not difficult to see why he is far more radical than Marx ever was.  Marx, for example, was never nearly as withering of wealth as Jesus was.  In fact, in the Manifesto, Marx writes more enthusiastically about the wealth-generating power of Capital than just about anyone ever has.  One has a hard time imagining Jesus would have been nearly as enthusiastic about it.  When Jesus says “ It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19) he’s saying it is impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, not that it is very, very difficult.  And Jesus’s absurd demand in Matthew 10 to “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” surely would have shocked even good old Comrade Marx.  And this is not even to consider the utter scandal of the incarnation: God, in an act of solidarity with the wretched and the poor, becomes one of them, and claims that those like him, the poor, the weak, the voiceless, in short, the losers of society, are the blessed of God and heirs to his kingdom.  So when we Christians hear the name Marx brought up in conversation, let’s not laugh or blush or tremble.  That might offend a god who is far more radical.


[1] N.T. Wright, Youtube.com, ‘Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead,’ video recording, 86:33 – 87:50

[2] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p.10

[3] N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999, p.35

[4] Ibid., p.36

[5] Chronology of Liberation Theology, Online: http://home.comcast.net/~chtongyu/liberation/chronology.html

[6] Barbara Aho, ‘The Council for National Policy,’ Online: http://watch.pair.com/cnp.html

[7] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p.27