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Was Jesus a communist or a capitalist?
November 23rd, 2010
09:30 AM ET

Was Jesus a communist or a capitalist?

Editor's Note: By CNN's Gabe La Monica

At the inner Washington offices of the American Enterprise Institute, I pitted the question to Shane Claiborne and Peter Greer, both Christian advocates for the poor. They had just participated in an in-depth discourse moderated by Eric Teetsel at AEI about the existential nature of charity.

Claiborne is a lanky, tall fellow with long dreadlocks, earrings and a goatee.

The founding member of the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, responded: “Jesus wasn’t anything that ended in “ist” - he was an existential lover - but I think that he was challenging all these systems, and he was pulling the best of the people in those systems out.”

Deferring to Claiborne, Greer, the crisply suited, clean-shaven, close-cropped blonde president of HOPE International, said that “Jesus was a restorer; he didn’t fit in any of the camps, but he did come to make things right.”

The discussion at the AEI event revolved around the  Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan and the problem of providing immediate relief for compounding and overwhelming needs but still being able to make the transition to sustainable development.

The concept of microfinance and microcredit, for which the founder of the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, has been applied under HOPE International to 14 countries serving more than 250,000 clients.  I asked Greer whether he thought microfinance could become a broken system, and about the phenomenon of loan sharks emerging in India's microfinancing world:

"What’s happening right now in the microfinance base shows why it’s necessary to have something else than just access to capital or some new way of providing loans to the poor; that in and of itself is insufficient to see real transformation that happens in communities.

So the situation in India - we also operate in India - but have a different operating model; we make sure that the profits that we’re generating are reinvested back into those areas.  We emphasize training, we emphasize savings, and we don’t have the belief that if you just give individuals 50 dollar loans that that’s gonna result in huge transformation.

That’s an important piece.  It takes money to make money.  But it’s only a piece of a bigger picture of what it takes to transform a community.

Peter Greer takes the podium

Though neither is prone to depict Christ as a capitalist or a communist, Claiborne and Greer do have differing conceptions of economics.  I asked Claiborne if he thought of the world economy as a fixed pie:

I wouldn’t say that I think that it’s fixed, but poverty wasn’t created by God.  God didn’t mess up and make too many people or not enough stuff.

Shane Claiborne takes the podium


Poverty was created by us because we really haven’t lived into His vision of loving our neighbor as ourselves and of really understanding that someone else’s suffering needs to be mine and it demands something of us.  When you have a massive disparity between the rich and the poor, that is unsustainable.

The world is never going to be safe as long as masses of people are living in poverty so that a handful of people live however they want.  It’s all of our responsibility to figure out how the great gifts that this world has are shared amongst the people.

Greer views the world economy as an expanding entity:

It’s possible to generate wealth.  It’s possible to be creative.  My experience in places of poverty says that there’s no place that does not have the ability, the entrepreneurial spirit to make a different world.

To create a different village requires just a little bit of capital and the belief that individuals living in those places have abilities, have capacity and just need to be partnered with and not just pitied.

Shane Claiborne and Peter Greer debate

Existentialism is often traced back to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who argued that the universe is fundamentally paradoxical, and it’s within this framework that Claiborne and Greer’s philosophies align.

Claiborne encapsulated it best when he said, “A lot of times charity is a good place to start, but it’s a terrible place to end.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Charity • Christianity • Poverty • United States

soundoff (707 Responses)
  1. SHRIKE

    The only lies worth believing are the ones in the Bible. – Reverand Lionel Preacherbot:

    November 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  2. Duke

    Matt-

    You try to be funny but you're really a pathetic little man who believes that insults and degrading other people's beliefs is somehow fulfilling. You really should find a job, actually help someone or just shut up. Then the rest of us would be spared from your drivel.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • William Bergmann

      I kind of like his drivel, although I do think it could be improved.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  3. Steve

    Jesus was just another guy in a desert that was malnutrition with lack of water who slowly lost his mind and started hallucinating and simple became the first person to create a cult. Nothing more.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Griffin

      Certainly not the first.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • C

      Jesus believed in the Church having "all things in common." He expected leaders in the Church to share with the less fortunate, and everyone to share what they had. (Incidentally, he also was the son of a carpenter who worked to support his family and also believed that every able man should work to provide for his family). This worked for as long as it did because in the early Church (run by the apostles), everyone gave as they "purposed in their hearts" -He didn't tell them how much or take it out of their paychecks–and the people who helped distribute things were well-intentioned and compassionate - they weren't high-powered politicians trying to win votes. The reason socialism/communism cannot work anymore is because many of the people who would be the ones redistributing the wealth are the same ones (regardless of political party) who are also wasting our money to begin with. Many of them are corrupt and self-centered, and would just as soon hurt someone as they would help them if they believed it would get them elected. They are not willing to approach it from a moral perspective. If I cannot trust them to keep this country safe, to help those who actually need it, to listen to the population instead of lobbyists, why would I want them to be in charge of my donations? Biblically speaking, it is our right to choose where our money and belongings go, and most Christians feel strongly that it is their responsiblity to give, and do so in quiet ways (as is also Biblical).

      November 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  4. Scott

    The historical record is quite clear about Jesus's economic status. He was a child of an educated artisan, which meant he was affluent. He would have had to have been well educated in mathmatics and engineering as well and being able to speak the local dialect, latin and greek. There is a reason Jesus isn't in the bible 'needing money', he had all he needed. Hard to imagine that he would have been a communist. Since in this educated affluent position, he would have been well aware of the dangers of disregarding the concepts of reward for effort being proportional to that effort. He would have looked on at the ignorant masses and felt sorry for their inability to care for themselves largely out of their own ignorance; which he did. There is no way he would have been a 'communist'. Its just not even a concept a rational person would have (communism isn't a rational thought) nor would one have in such a day when the masses NEEDED a ruling elite and they knew it. Jesus did advocate those with wealth caring for those without. Much like a parent cares for a child, but thats quite different than saying the child and parent are equal in every way and have equal vote, share and reward.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Griffin

      Well, Scott, it would appear by your philosophy that you are neither a capitalist or a communist. You are a fascist.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
    • Terry from West Texas

      I understand what you are saying. Christian Doctrine cannot contradict Conservative Doctrine. Believers in two faiths have to do some pretty fancy gymnastics to reconcile the two. You are like the man who refused to look at the moons of Jupiter through Galileo's new telescope. The man said something like: "Aristotle says that Jupiter cannot have moons. Therefore, if I look in your telescope I will not see any moons. Therefore, there is no reason to look in your telescope."

      November 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
    • JoeT

      With all due respect to woodworkers, especially those from the iron age, you didn't need to know *too* much to make tables and chairs– certainly some rudimentary geometry and algebra, all teachable on the job would be OK. As for Jesus's many languages– he didn't seem to leave much of a written record to corroborate that speculation.
      As for communism not being rational– well, it may or may not be– clearly it developed towards the end of the period known as the Enlightenment by philosophers, hence it must have been conceivable. But as for irrational belief systems– have you actually read the New Testament? Like communism, Christianity fails almost immediately once in contact with real people trying implement it.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Richard Aberdeen

    Jesus very clearly taught to give our excess to the poor. The New Testament followers in Acts were commanded by God to share all things in common and to distribute to each according to need. According to the Britannica, the foundational concept of socialism is "to each according to need". Most modern intelletals have no idea that the basis for human rights and modern socialism traces directly back to Jesus. Anyone who tells you different is just a liar.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  6. Dave

    If people can't understand that Jesus lived in poverty and cared for nothing but helping the poor and preaching God's word, then they are either dumb or doing the devil's biding.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
    • Reality

      Christian economics 101:

      The Baptizer drew crowds and charged for the "dunking". The historical Jesus saw a good thing and continued dunking and preaching the good word but added "healing" as an added charge to include free room and board. Sure was better than being a poor peasant but he got a bit too zealous and they nailed him to a tree. But still no greed there.

      Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and "Gentilized" the good word to the "big buck" world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. Paul was guilty of minor greed?

      Along comes Constantine. He saw the growing rich Christian community and recognized a new tax base so he set them "free". Major greed on his part!!

      The Holy Roman "Empirers"/Popes/Kings/Queens/evangelists et al continued the money grab selling access to JC and heaven resulting in some of today's richest organizations on the globe i.e. the Christian churches (including the Mormon Church) and related aristocracies. Obvious greed!!!

      An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue, ( Professors Crossan and Wright are On Faith panelists).

      "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      Some of Paul's money gathering activities some of which resulted in buying the Gentile entry into the then mostly Jewish version of Christianity:

      Paul claimed almost total independence from the "mother church" in Jerusalem.[12] and yet was eager and diligent to bring material support from the various budding Gentile churches that he planted to the mother church at Jerusalem.

      When a famine occurred in Judea, around 45–46,[24] Paul and Barnabas journeyed to Jerusalem to deliver financial support from the Antioch community.[25] According to Acts, Antioch had become an alternative center for Christians following the dispersion of the believers after the death of Stephen. It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called "Christians."[Ac. 11:26]. This act basically "greased" the entry of non-circu-mcised Gentiles into Christianity.

      "Paul collected the money from his four provinces, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia but, for obvious reasons, of propriety, had representatives take each province's own contribution".

      November 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • William Bergmann

      The concept of a "devil" is even more ridiculous than Noah and all the animals, etc on a boat. Will the laughs ever stop coming?
      If you are offended by my ridiculing your beliefs then they aren't very meaningful to begin with. Sorry, but you can free yourself and decide your own fate on a daily basis. Freethinking for all!

      November 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  7. Kain

    Jesus was a socialist in the sense that he believed everyone should share with each other, but he would never be categorized as a communist since communism allows a centralized government to leech off of it's people without any true guarantees of sharing. One thing Jesus established was his hatred for money and for governments in the bible.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  8. Matt

    Jesus was a dirty hippie who smoked too much opium and told everyone he was the son of a god. Joseph sure was proud of little junior, even though he was conceived by Mary and the gardner.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • Griffin

      You're just trying to offend people Matt. Not productive.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • Sgt. Moss

      Matt and Griffin both make good points, but ironically the christian religion does everything that it can to provoke the masses. They constantly bombard with their indoctrines. I am fiscally conservative and hold conservative morals, but I detest religion or the thought of worship. To think that some mighty being demands peons to worship it is quite conceited. I just can't find any intelligent evidence to support some higher godly being. The uni/multiverse that we live in has many constants and we learn about them daily, but there is nothing I have ever read, heard or imagined that even partially supports some creator.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • Chase Dorway

      @ sgt. Moss. I personally don't need anything read or pictorial to prove a creator. Just look around at the Earth! Science (yes that thing everyone believes) has proven that the heart cannot pump without the brain telling it to (we do this with out thinking), but the brain cannot tell the heart- or any other organ, for that matter,- to do anything without blood. How can this happen? I think that a creator HAS to be involved.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
    • LB

      Sgt. Moss, do your own research. Do most people know that evolution violates the first two tenants (rules) of science? A. Something NEVER comes from nothing. B. Order NEVER precedes from chaos. In other words, if there were a primordial soup – the rule of science is it will continue to more chaos not become a cohesive material such as a complex cell in the body. Someone smarter than me can probably answer A but I see it this way. If you take a sterile box and keep it in a sterile environment – it will remain sterile, until or unless something disturbs it, i.e., something NEVER comes nothing. Don't think of scientists as being altruistic and only searching for the truth. They have families they need to feed just like the rest of us. Haven't you ever wondered why they always tell us if we don't do A, B will happen but B will only happen after everyone who was told to do A is dead. If we don't do A in 80 years B will happen. Keeps them working don't you think.

      November 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • kso

      @LB, ever heard of gravity? it is why chaos becomes order.

      November 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  9. Can't Believe This Article

    I can't believe this is even news. Seriously? Let's focus, CNN.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Jesus certainly didn't endorse forcing people to do anything. That idea is totally manmade. So that would make him a capitalist.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Terry from West Texas

      Everyone needs to remember that Jesus expected God to end the world within his lifetime. It was a huge shock to him and his followers when he was summarily executed. They had expected the angels to tear the king's palace apart. Instead, absolutely nothing happened.

      So, his followers decided that Jesus was surely coming right back. They decided that Christians should live in little communities and share with each other. This was only temporary, until God ended the world. No one expected to be waiting for Jesus for 2000 years.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  11. ahmed

    What is this guy is talking about? get to the point. It has nothing to do with Jesus being como or capitalist

    November 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  12. lordpet

    Just ask him, he's not dead right?

    November 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  13. The_Mick

    Asking two people who happen to work within the Christian framework about Jesus's politco-economic outlook is like asking a school principal how much of molecular bond theory should be taught in high school. The principal was, most likely, not a chemistry teacher and wouldn't necessarily have the expertise. Why not ask people who've spent their lives studying the historical period in Judea? We know, for example, that the early Christians and the Essenes had many things in common and many believe Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist spent their early years influenced or even living with the Essenes. The Essenes, a Jewish sect, were even more communist than the communists.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  14. Fred

    Jesus totally wanted me to have more money. I think we should work on that.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  15. Lee Oates

    I would imagine that if Jesus, the real man, lived now, he would be in a psych unit.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  16. Smokey

    Well, what is the school of economics that advocates giving away all your material possessions and following God? Is there one? Because I'm pretty sure that's the view Jesus espoused in the Bible.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Griffin

      Excellent question, Smokey!

      November 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  17. Cory

    Jesus encouraged us to give to the poor, not to the government. In Matthew, Jesus encourages the rich man to sell his posessions and give to the poor, not to the government. He takes a neutral stance on taxation, telling us to obey the law, saying "merely to Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"

    November 23, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Bob

      Jesus also took oil to anoint his body, which could have fed many poor. Funny how other people's money should be given to the poor, but when it's his gifts he's all like "I'll be gone soon, you'll always have the poor". Hypocrite.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Griffin

      Well, Cory, I don't think Jesus was aware of any governmental program in place at the time that was geared toward helping the poor. They were an occupied country...by some pretty brutal types. I don't think that Jesus would have recommended adopting the Roman model of government to anybody. Just because Jesus didn't recommend calling 911 in the event of a heart failure does not mean we shouldn't call in some help when dad collapses on the livingroom floor, does it?

      November 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Cory

      Griffin, I understand our government does provide the poor with some financial assistance, but that is just part of the tax dollar. When you give to the government, you support things like Gitmo, bureaucrats, bridges to nowhere, wars you may not agree with, or social programs you may not agree with. Your taxes support all of these things. If you want to effectively give to the poor, you should give to the poor. If you disagree, you are always welcome to give the IRS an additional charitable donation come April 15th.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  18. Tim

    I'm constantly told by the left that this isn't a christian country. This is true because only individuals are Christians so if it is true that Christians must embrace socialism then let those individuals embrace it. I prefer to opt out of it.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • jordan

      And jesus explains he is no part of the world in joh 17:14-16

      November 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
    • Griffin

      Well, said Tim. A reasoned statement. It would be nice if we got to choose which extreme we opt in or out of, but... we here in the US pretty much have the capitalist tiger by the tail. I, for one, have not liked the direction in which that tiger has been dragging us. A sort of social Darwinism does seem to describe it. I don't understand why this direction is so vehemently defended by some of those in a religious community that claims to reject the precept of survival of the fittest.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  19. Terry from West Texas

    Jesus was indifferent to money and possessions. He expected the world to end very soon after he began teaching. He did not think that money or possessions were worth thinking about. Does the sparrow worry about where its next meal is coming from?

    November 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Griffin

      I guess he was right, the world did end very shortly after he began teaching.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  20. Griffin

    Mary, I'm sorry but I didn't read anywhere in this stream where anyone but you " equate Jesus' message of sharing, giving, and generosity with GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS." If that leap was made, why? Is the very idea of helping the poor and sharing the wealth now equated wtih Government Handouts?

    November 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • Terry from West Texas

      Jesus was pretty naive about politics and government. I don't think he gave any of it much thought.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.