BOOK REVIEWS: CHURCHES AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE

By Rosa Jordan

Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 1978

Jose Miguez Bonito, Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution. Grand Rapids, Minnesota. William Eerdman’s Publish Company, 1976. $6.95
Jose Maria Diez-Alegria,
I Believe in Hope. Garden City, NY. Doubleday and Company, 1974. $5.95.


Christians are joining the ranks of godless Communist parties from Rome to Rio, while the Christian Democratic Party of Chile distinguishes itself as a bloody dictatorship which is neither Christian nor democratic Gone, apparently, are the simple Cold War distinctions by which we knew that the good guys wore crosses and the bad ones wore red. Instead, we have complex explanations (here one from Dr. Jose Miguez Bonino of Argentina, and another from Father Jose Maria Diez-Alegria of Spain) for why Christianity had aligned itself with capitalism and class systems and why, now, many individual Christians, with or without church sanction, are supporting Marxist ideals of classless society and more equitable distribution of wealth.

These books of the mid-seventies can hardly be considered vanguard thinking, following as they do more than a decade of Christian membership in Communist parties, Christian priests taking up arms with Communist guerillas, and Christian theologians stating, with varying degress of boldness, that the Marxist ideal of communalsm is not in conflict with Christ’s teachings on sharing and neighborly love.

However, these scholars have moved beyond the pragmatic stand taken by many Latin American Christians (i.e., that it is necessary to cooperate with Communists because they are the only group actively working against the status quo which continues to block social justice.) It is within the historical manifestations of Christianity itself that Miguez and Diez-Alegria find the most compelling rationales for why Christians should align themselves with socialist and/or communist movements.

Neither writer is enamored of Marxism as it has evolved over the past century, but judging from the length of criticism allotted to Christianity and to Communism, it appears they feel that Christianity, having approximately twenty times the history, perhaps has twenty times the guilt for having failed to manifest itself as the loving, sharing, classless lifeway Christ directed.

This well-documented failure of Christianity to move its adherents in the direction of earthly equality and love Diez-Alegria attributes to the corruption of Christianity from an ethico-prophetic religion with emphasis on good works on behalf of ones fellow creatures into an ontological-cultist religion with emphasis on salvation through belief in the mysteries of the church. This early corruption (a result of the impact of ontological-cultist religions which flourished in Greece and Asia Minor in the Greco-Roman period) made it possible for the Church later to align itself with capitalism, in which solidarity is abandoned in favor of individualism, and the accumulation of private wealth, not the sharing of goods, is sanctified.

“True Christianity,” insists Diez-Alegria, “is ethico-prophetic, in which love of one’s neighbor is the sacrament of the love of God…it is not possible to love the invisible God unless one loves visible man, with the tangible works of love. Christ is to be found in the oppressed whom we are working to set free, and nowhere else.”

Miguez makes the same point as he traces the Judaeo-Christian concept of “knowing God” from the Old Testament through the New Testament and concludes that love of God is not purely mystical, but that to be in Christ and to love one’s fellow being are a single thing: the first does not exist apart from the second. All of this to argue what even a casual reader of the New Testament would take to be obvious: that Christ expected his followers to practice love, justice, and social equality in this life as well as hereafter, and in material as well as spiritual ways.

The question is whether Christianity in its present capitalistic mode is capable of promoting such values. Diez-Alegria thinks not. The Church’s assertion that private ownership of the means of production is “a natural right,” he says bluntly, was a false assertion. Conversely, “The road to socialism…represents a possibility of organizing the ‘city of man’ in a way that is not in opposition with the great evangelical values of koinonia (community of hearts and goods), agape (brother love), and autarkeia (a human standard of living and contentment with that standards), and work faithful to a spirit of other-directed social service. Capitalism…does not offer the same possibility.”

For Diez-Alegria, the Christian’s crisis of conscience vis--vis Marxism can be resolved not by abandoning Christianity in favor of socialist ideals but by remaining a Christian and living those values shared by Christianity and Marxism – and waiting for the Church to repent and follow suit. “…all churches that claim to be Christian…are called to convert themselves into the ethico-prophetic religion of the crucified and glorified Jesus…And if there is a calling, there is hope of conversion.” (The response to his book was that he was dismissed from the faculty of the Gregorian University in Rome and suspended from the Jesuit Order. It would seem that the Roman Catholic Church is not ready for conversion yet.)

Once the issue of faith has been resolved to the extent that he knows where his allegiances lie, Diez-Alegria lets the matter rest. Miguez, more concretely, discusses revolution as the way in which (particularly in Latin America) Christians must move in order to live their faith, and goes on to examine the ideological and practical problems Christians face in aligning themselves with Marxists.

Christians and Marxists may share an “ethos of human solidarity” which one imagines might unite them in opposition to any “inhuman and oppressive organization of society and human life,” but “there is a basic difference in the way Christians and Marxists conceive the dynamics and outcome of history.” Thus Miguez concludes that there is a common immediate, but limited, goal. Christians should accept and utilize the Marxist analysis of class struggle but “the ultimate horizons of the Christian and Marxist ethos are radically different. They see the source and the power of solidarity and love in mutually exclusive ways.”

With these conclusions in mind, Miguez goes on to explore the terms of the relationships between Christians and Marxists and what the specific nature of Christian participation in revolution should be. This is a balanced examination, remarkably free of naivete and polemics. It should also provide “coffee shop revolutionaries” (Christian or Communist) with an impetus in the direction of more active commitment to their ideals, while revolutionaries already active in attempting to overthrow the old order and bring about a new one will do well to consider the problems Miguez notes regarding the inability of earlier Communists to move toward truly free, classless societies, and the way in which power must be handled to achieve the ideals—Christian and Marxist—for which they fight.

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