A Conversation Between Jesus and Karl Marx

A Conversation Between Jesus and Karl Marx May 1, 2018

Vance Morgan recently posted snippets from an imagined conversation between Jesus and Karl Marx. It includes Jesus telling Marx thing like, “The percentage of your “followers” who have studied your book carefully is probably about the same as the percentage of my “followers” who’ve read mine carefully.”

He started the post with a quote from Richard Rorty which is also worth sharing: “We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world.”

Read more on Morgan’s blog Freelance Christianity. But perhaps before doing so, give some thought to how you think a conversation between Jesus and Marx might go. It is easy to latch onto some of the very obvious points of divergence or convergence. But it is more useful, I think, to imagine them having a meaningful conversation that does not simply argue in opposition nor shake hands in agreement, but critiques the precise nuances on which they come close but ultimately don’t see eye to eye.

Elsewhere, Yanis Varoufakis emphasized the relevance of Marx to our time even more than to his own, since we have seen capitalism move more fully in the directions that he foresaw and critiqued since then. When I shared that post, I got some interesting reactions from conservative Christians, many of whom, I suspect, dislike Marx most because of the awkward attention that his views draw to what Jesus had to say about possessions, wealth, poverty, and a range of other economic subjects.

See too the birthday wishes to Karl Marx in yesterday’s New York Times. Marx’s birthday is May 5th, but May 1st is International Workers’ Day, and so I thought posting this today was more appropriate. Here’s a snipped from the NYT article by Jason Barker:

Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.

On this topic see too Noah Fryman’s post from last year about the awkward relationship between both Karl Marx and Jesus on the one hand, and the organized movements and institutions that look back to and claim them on the other.

Of related humorous interest, see the Existential Comics about Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg finding themselves shipwrecked on a desert island inhabited by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, and also the comic strip Supply Side Jesus.  Here’s a sample of the latter – click through for the rest!

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  • jekylldoc

    Marx’ great insight is that the superstructure of ideology and morality comes to justify and support the relations of production. Sociology still recognizes him as a founding giant. Yet, as class interest becomes a less vital force, and as ideology and morality on the ground comes to be dominated by tension between very different worldviews almost independent of class relations, Marx is looking more and more like a footnote, or perhaps like Plato whom few take seriously as a source of actual insight but who deserves credit for the difference he made at the time.

    What Jesus amounts to these days depends pretty much on the body of Christ. By bringing into our consciousness, intentionally or otherwise, the conceptual framework of incarnated divinity, Jesus set in motion a thoroughgoing challenge to the power dynamics Marx understood. The People of the Way continue to see moral truth as independent of class interest or any other interest. And a little leaven can leaven the whole lump.

    • Vance Morgan

      Marx may be becoming a footnote, but Plato continues to be just as relevant now as he ever has been. Remember that Whitehead’s comment about Plato is that “all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” not that Plato himself was a footnote.

      • jekylldoc

        Fair enough. I wonder, though, if philosophers (let alone former philosophy students) ever get to thinking about something and ask “I wonder what Plato had to say about that,” and get out a copy as a source of ideas? That’s not the test of relevance – I know firsthand that people refer to specific comments from Plato frequently, so his words and concepts are a touchstone for the great conversations. But that’s a particular and unusual kind of importance.

        Not a philosopher myself, but I have a strong impression that, say, Kant has much more direct influence (rather than through other people’s extensions). In the same way, I think people open up Weber much more often than Marx.

        • John MacDonald

          As Heidegger pointed out, I think studying the ancients is important because they invented the concepts and categories we live with, and so might in some cases have a richer, deeper understanding of what they mean than we do. I also think they are important for providing an understanding of the milieu that these ideas were borne in, such as Plato’s Noble Lies in the Republic and Laws. For the same reason today we might inquire into the lies of Joseph Smith.

          James said:

          He started the post with a quote from Richard Rorty which is also worth sharing: “We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world.”

          Rorty took more seriously French postmodernism than did many of his English contemporaries, like atheist Daniel Dennet. What we see from the Rorty quote is the primacy of ethics over ontology/metaphysics, which in other words means moving from an Ontology/Metaphysics as First Philosophy/Religion to Ethics as First Philosophy/Reliigon (Modern= Ontology/Metaphysics – “Post” modern = beyond metaphysics to ethics). In this regard, Levinas called his magnum opus “Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.”

          • jekylldoc

            Rorty’s reading of the New Testament strikes me as better and more careful than the average Christian theologian’s. And I don’t even like Rorty.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not religious, but do think it’s an important part of society. It’s frustrating trying to get some religious people to mature in their understanding of ethics, and put those ideals in front of using scripture to proof text their immorality (like denying LGBTQ rights). In fact, I grow weary of the religion question itself. Maybe it’s time to give theological speculations a rest and focus on The Stanley Cup Playoffs. By the way, if you Haven’t seen Avengers Infinity War, I highly recommend it.

          • Gary

            Yes, but how do you like Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity? Just got it from the library. Only on Chap 1 so far. The Christian Emperors after Constantine weren’t so noble in destroying all the pagan temples and practices. They didn’t have much respect for the old Greek and Roman gods or their shrines. Makes me wonder why they would be interested in stealing ideas from the Greek and Roman myths to incorporate into the new Christian Gospels and texts. The pagan religions were additive. If you want to add a new god, just start worshipping. The Christian religion required conversion. Had to drop the old gods, to worship the new, single god. So, I would think the Gospel writers wouldn’t be enthusiastic to steal Greek or Roman myths to incorporate into their texts about Jesus.

          • jekylldoc

            Most of the festivals and other practices incorporated by early Christianity have a mythic appeal that doesn’t depend on having their own little deity to focus it on. Their adoption could have been due to a sense that the pagans had partially apprehended some spiritual truth, for example. Think of Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus about the “Unknown God.”
            There were good reasons, i.e. reasons that even hold up today, for disdaining pagan religion. Like Aztec sacrifice or phallic monuments, they often tapped malevolent aspects of the human psyche. Among the additive practices was declaration that the Emperor was a god.

          • Gary

            Just reading the 1st chap of Ehrman, Theodosius and followers were pretty brutal in destroying pagan shrines – which, connected with similar activities of ISIS in doing the same today, which Ehrman also mentions in the same chapter – this kind of jumps out at me – ouch! I’ll have to wait till I finish the book, for a final opinion. I have to admit that the suggestion I made to John, that writers of gospels would probably avoid adopting Roman and Greek myths in their writings – based upon the brutality of Christian emperors, has a timing problem. They were ~300-400AD, whereas writers of text in bible were earlier. But if the text writers were of the same mindset as the later emperors, seems like they would hold in contempt the Roman/Greek myths (gods). Certainly wouldn’t want to re-use/repurpose old stories for their single God. Same for the Jewish stories/writers, too. Why would Jewish writers want to use Greek/Roman myths for their religious stories? But I don’t know. Just making conjecture.

          • Gary

            Of course, now that I think about it, every Jewish king seemed to say – now we destroy all other shrines to pagan gods, then the next one says, it’s ok to worship pagan gods. Back and forth. So I guess it’s complicated. What was politically expedient at the time?

          • jekylldoc

            Recently reading Karen Armstrong’s History of the Bible. She seems to think assimilation was the natural course, and not all the claims of purging the country of idols correspond to actual events. In my mind there is no doubt that bringing in foreign worship was politically expedient, but you could make a case for chasing it out as either enlightened or xenophobic. Probably it was some of both.

          • jekylldoc

            Well, there are some interesting questions in that, though I don’t think I will rush out to buy Ehrman’s book. I wouldn’t want to defend their “brutal” destruction of beautiful architecture by today’s standards, but given the way people saw things at the time, I would say it even mades some sense. In any case it was far less scandalous than the persecutions of Christians.

          • Gary

            Never buy a book if it is available in a local library.

          • John MacDonald

            Hey Gary. I’m actually taking a break from blogging here because the heated exchanges are getting me a little aggravated. For instance, I made a joke of telling Beau a couple lies to show that doing so was easy and perfectly normal in antiquity, and he has been calling me a liar ever since. Anyway, I have always appreciated talking to you because, though we disagree, we have civil exchanges. I enjoyed Ehrman’s new book very much. I especially liked his chapter on the persecution of Christians. As to your question, I think Dr. Dennis MacDonald would say Mark using imagery from Homer’s story of Odysseus and Polyphemus to model the story of the Gerasene demoniac on was meant to show Jesus was greater than Odysseue (actually healing the Demoniac instead of harming him), just like the earliest stratum of the Gospel of John shows Jesus as greater than the Dionysus of Euripides “Bacchae (see Dr. MacDonald’s book “The Dionysian Gospel, 2017), or the way Matthew invents material to show Jesus as the New and Greater Moses. Cheers.

          • Gary

            Good luck to you. Just conjecture…but if someone truly believes Jesus was divine, or even adopted by God as His rep on earth, as the gospel writers seem to indicate, and especially if they are monotheistic as good Jewish tradition would indicate, it seems it would be rather insulting to them to use Greek or Roman myth/god stories to prove your god is greater than theirs. Kind of like proving your pink unicorn is greater than my blue unicorn. I am assuming the Gospel writers were educated and intelligent. What’s the point of re-purposing stories of Greek/Roman myth, to prove your God is better than theirs, when you think theirs is a myth, and yours is real. But not to restart a new discussion. I am exhausted.

          • John MacDonald

            I think the idea was that the gospels were also intended for proselytizing purposes. The Christians, such as Justin Martyr (Tertullian says much the same) in his “Dialogue With Trypho (pp42-43),” was saying Satan had deceitfully imitated Jesus’s life story in advance, before Jesus was ever born. So the point would be in Mark’s imitation of Odysseus/Polyphemus with the Gerasene demoniac was that Mark was presenting to potential gentile converts that not only was Homer’s tale a lot of bunk, but Jesus was actually the true Odysseus, and even greater than Odysseus was claimed to be.

          • Gary

            John – sorry, but I have to make a joke.
            “the gospels were also intended for proselytizing purposes…”
            Concerning Mark:

            “4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

            So, I am a Gentile living in Turkey someplace. Two Christian missionaries ring my doorbell, and say I should give up my belief in Zeus. And they give me a “tract” to convert me, the first part of the Gospel of Mark.

            After reading it, I say to the missionaries, “You want me to believe your god was baptized by someone who “wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey”…??? By the way, what does “baptized” mean? And, he was crucified? Next time I’m not answering my doorbell!”

            Ok, not very funny. But I think Christian proselytizing was a tough sell, until Constantine came along.

          • John MacDonald

            There must have been some movement to convert non-Jews. That was Paul’s mission, and presumably there would have been some of this before Paul. Jesus said “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

          • I happen to like Rorty a lot. On Independent Bookstore Day this past weekend, I contributed by purchasing a copy of Philosophy as the Mirror of Nature. I particularly appreciate the way he discusses (like Davidson) our need to look at science and inquiry as producing useful information rather than “truth.”

  • Vance Morgan

    Thanks for sharing the link to my blog, James!

  • Gary


    Interesting that in San Diego, the emphasis lately are Hondurans that traveled 2000 miles through Mexico, to camp out in Tijuana. Supposedly poor, who have no money, but they traveled in RV buses, provided food and free travel, through Mexico, to seek asylum (probably paid for by liberals for political gain). If they are granted asylum, they get free medical care, housing, and legal help, from our illustrious governor, that doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. At the same time, our current homeless are neglected, ignored, and forgot, with absolutely no coverage for pity/sympathy, from CNN, and the liberal press. If you have no money to take care of your own, you have no business taking care of the rest of the world. Mexico allowed the illegals to travel 2000 miles through their country with the expressed motive to screw with the U.S..

    I’d rather see our current homeless taken care of, than listen to a failed, Greek financial minister, or a philosophy professor aggrandize the Marxist manifesto, that have failed in places like Easy Germany, Cuba, Nicaragua, etc, that have already proven incompetent.

  • Bungarra

    Not to have included a reference to Thomas Piketty – ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, when discussing Marx would seem to be some what of an oversight.