Karl Marx - God's Prophet
Philippians 3.4 If anyone thinks he can trust
in external ceremonies, I have even more reason to feel that way. I was
circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the
tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew.
A heading such as this is enough
to get me labelled a Communist - not these days a popular affiliation to
have. But it was provoked by a surprising insight that Paul and Marx seem
to have come to similar conclusions about religion.
The Hebrew people in Jesus' time had a conception of religion common to
almost all peoples of their era. It was something like this:
If one transgresses the laws of human rulers, one may be punished. God
rules over us in the same way as do human rulers.
- To avoid God's punishment one must adhere strictly to
the precepts of divine law as communicated by religious intermediaries.
- One can propitiate God's wrath and turn aside
punishment by sacrificing to the divine - that is, through religion.
I leave you to ask yourself if this concept of religion
may have survived even to this day.
Underlying all this is the idea that we can influence
God, a principle which powered Hebrew laws about sacrifice. Just as one
could placate someone with a gift, so also if one gave something to God,
one might avoid punishment.
Similarly, if one touched a corpse or a menstruating
woman one could be contaminated and rendered unacceptable to God. The
religious cure was to wash, giving rise to purity rituals.
So when Paul decries "external ceremonies" his point is
revolutionary, undercutting the entire religious system of his day. When
he urges us to accept God's freely-given love, he's putting aside a
complex religious system designed to make us acceptable to God.
Marx made what seems to me to be the same point in the
nineteenth century. As an ex-Christian with deep Jewish roots, he attempted
to look past the religions of the day to address the intense distress of
ordinary people caught up in an industrial revolution. His secular theology
focused on practical ways of eliminating the stark gap between rich and
poor. He wrote:
Religious distress is ... the expression of real
distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of
the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... It is the
opium of the people. The abolition of religion is required for their
But both Paul and Marx are of less account to Christians
if they don't build upon and develop what Jesus started.
Responding to a teacher of the Hebrew Law, Jesus is
reported as saying,
The most important rule is, "Listen, Israel, the Lord
your God is one Lord. You've got to love the Lord your God with your
whole being - with your whole heart and every ounce of energy." And the
second most important rule is, "You must love your fellow human beings
as much as you love yourself." No other rule is greater than these two.
With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort
which tries to cajole God into doing our will. He pioneers the way for
Paul and, much later, for Marx as they point out that religion can neither
buy God's approval nor bring social justice.
The upshot for us today is, I think, to recognise that
religion in churches on Sunday doesn't define how we are to be Christian.
Nor is the Christian way of life defined by an ability to believe seven
impossible things before breakfast.
But Christians are defined by a choice to love -
rather than by obedience to religious laws (says Jesus); by a willingness
to abandon the security of external ceremonies (says Paul); and because
they have gone cold turkey on the drug of religion as a substitute for
social justice (says Marx).
The Old Testament prophet Micah asks the rhetorical question (6.6):
What shall I bring the God of heaven when I come to worship him? Shall
I bring the best calves to burn as offerings?
and provides an answer answer identical to all three:
No ... What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show
constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.