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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. Reality

    What some of the historical Jesus exegetes have concluded:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan se-cts.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hit-ti-tes, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    November 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
    • LB

      Reality, I think you're giving a one-sided reply. I have heard but not researched it myself that you can actually use the book of Luke and navigate the country side where Jesus lived with absolutely no problem. It is my understanding that Luke is very accurate as far as historicity goes – one example for years, many scholars said Luke was absolutely wrong about the request for the census that sent Joseph and Mary on the road. There is now archaeological evidence to prove the census occurred. There are non-scriptural evidences that Nazareth existed. You've probably had this question before but I'll ask. Why do you think 12 men chose to die for a lie? According to you these were just a bunch of dumb illiterates – who chose to die (not like those haley comet people – take a poison and go to sleep)? They were tortured yet they insisted that a man who they followed, died (got killed) and then He stopped being dead- think about it. They gained nothing. Their relatives gained nothing. They were ostracized by their community. Even 2000 years later they are referred to as nutjobs. I would think a bunch of dumb men would say, you know what, forget this – Jesus' lied to me and I'm not dying for him. I mean don't you think at least one of these men would have admitted the truth. They used a heck of a lot more than water-boarding. One more thing. Why do you think the Jewish leaders of the time came up with an excuse for why Jesus' body was no longer in the tomb. I mean if I were running around telling everybody I was God, then I died and stayed dead and you knew it – would you make up an excuse for what happened to my body or would you take people to the grave site and say – she's buried right there – dig her up.

      November 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
    • Know What

      "Why do you think 12 men chose to die for a lie?"

      Did they really suffer martyrdom? Nothing much is mentioned about most of them in the NT, and stories of their deaths are in the main legendary.

      November 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • Know What

      p.s. By 'legendary', I mean: "adj. 1. Of, const!tuting, based on, or of the nature of a legend (an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.)"

      November 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
    • NL

      And 909 Temple members would not have died in Jonestown without a similar belief, right?

      November 24, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  2. Albert

    How pathetic to ask such a question. He was neither. He made it very clear that Christians were to be no part of the world. To a large extent this meant thew political system. He taught about his Fathers kingdom. That is what he taught us to pray for his Fathers kingdom. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"

    November 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
    • Terry from West Texas

      You put your finger right on it, Albert. Jesus was a monarchist. He believed in kings and kingdoms. God was the king. God established the kingdom in Israel and chose the first monarch. He never established a democracy.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
    • Reality

      But was Jesus really the author of the Lord's Prayer? Many who have studied the doc-uments from the period have concluded that he was not.

      e.g.

      "Hal Taussig

      In Jesus Before God. The Prayer Life of the Historical Jesus'. (Polebridge, 1999), Taussig develops his thesis that the Lord's Prayer is a collection of several prayer lines that were significant to the early Q community. His discussion of "Forgive us our debts" occurs on pages 89-92 and represents a good example of his argument. He concludes:

      Situating this sentence prayer within its social context makes clear that it arose from certain specific situations in which Jesus found himself. It did not, within the lifetime of Jesus, belong to the Lord's Prayer, which was the product of the generations after Jesus. ... after Jesus was gone his followers in Galilee formulated a general prayer in his name, combining fragments from Jesus' own prayers with other material to create an insti-tutionalized prayer in Jesus' name. As the various versions of this Lord's Prayer from the second half of the first century were passed on, the meanings of the individual prayer sentences were generalized and taken out of context. The sentence prayer about forgiveness made a gradual transition from forgiving one another's debts to forgiveness of sins."

      Professor JD Crossan, another historical Jesus exegete, came to the same conclusion.
      (The Historical Jesus-The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p 293, paperback issue.

      November 23, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  3. Judas

    umm.... "Christ" ends in "ist".

    November 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • NL

      So does Evangelist, Baptist, Monotheist, Abolitionist, Creationist and let's not forget, Capitalist!

      November 23, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  4. Mike Brooks

    Jesus was a Tea Party member (if leftist, add your obligatory name calling here.....; if Neocon, add a plug for unfettered markets, out of control greed; if a secularist or atheist, add plugs for religion being a fanatasy, add more toxic name calling). There, I've summed up, and nicely, too, your entire debate about Jesus and economics.

    Oh... and one more thing. You know about fuzzy minded one world globalizers, don't you? In my youth, that is what we called communists. Today, they are called "free traders".

    November 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Terry from West Texas

      Mike, I can define every word in your post, but I'll be damned if I have the slightest idea what you said.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  5. LouAz

    Did Jesus know the difference between a Liebniez dreivative and a GoldmanSachs derivative ?
    Look it up in Sister Sara.'s new book . . . if it is not in there, surely it is in your bible.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  6. RAY

    JESUS IS LORD, THE SON OF GOD. GOD SO LOVE THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON (JESUS) THAT WHOEVER WOULD BELIEVE IN HIM WILL NOT GO TO HELL BUT WILL RECEIVE ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN. OH, HE IS NOT A COMMUNIST OR A CAPITALIST. BUT GOD IS A LOVER OF PEOPLE . I BELIEVE HE IS NOT INTEREST IN THE WORLD SYSTEMS BUT SOULS WHO HE LOVES! I PRAY THAT GOD WOULD BLESS YOU ALL WITH THE KNOWLEDGE HIS SON, THE SAVIOUR OFF SOUL.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • djolson21

      It figures that the religious nutcase types in all caps to get across his message with more bigotry than logic.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • EpicurianLogic

      Yes people, there is a magical being in the sky who watches everything you do of every minute of every day. And this being has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do and if you do any of these 10 things he will send you to a place of burning, fire, smoke, pain, agony...where you will suffer and scream forever and ever, until the end of time. BUT.....HE LOVES YOU!

      November 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Observer

      and I pray that God teaches you how to use a keyboard.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  7. djolson21

    Without doubt the most pointless and useless article i have ever seen.

    On a more serious note, are unicorns nazis?

    November 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • EpicurianLogic

      Yes, Unicorns are Nazis. We have ample evidence to prove this. The horn is a horse-like Nazi salute and it is rumored that Hitlers room had dozens of pictures of Unicorns.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  8. jack johanson

    LOOK up they STORY OF FATIMA and tell Me THAT HE DOESNT EXIST

    November 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • EpicurianLogic

      I've read the story many times and those people are as delusional as you are.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  9. EpicurianLogic

    Yes, let's wonder what a bronze-aged potentially non-existent dude thinks about the economic challenges of the 21st century. Very reasonable.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
  10. Dinak

    Was Jesus Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, you CNN morons?

    November 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • Observer

      Is God pro-choice or anti-choice? His actions speak louder than words.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  11. oldbones2

    When I read the New Testament and it told of the Christians forming communities, the rich sold everything they had and gave it to those in need, it tells us everyone shared everything. Truth is England has the purest form of Democracy and a Common Wealth that helps people, the two coexist there. I think of anyone who is against helping others is self seeking, greedy and NOT a Christian no matter how much they give lip service and that includes the guy in the pulpit, they are the ones leading people astray. I think of the GOP as Anti-Christ, all I hear from them is self righteousness and we all know what Jesus said about the self righteous, no place in Heaven for you and you prevent others from entering.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • Patrick

      the Bible flatly states that rich men will not see the kingdom of god. So if you take the bible literally, there yo go.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • LouAz

      English Democracy huh ?
      “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu

      November 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  12. Thoth2012

    What a stupid headline and stupid question. As if there are only 2 choices. If you are not a capitalist then you must be a communist, because the question suggests there are only 2 choices.. It's headlines like this that divide people and societies. Ya you got tons of people to look, good for you, high-five for the reporters personal gain. A totally leading question to get people to say 'well Jesus cant be a communist because they are evil so therefore he must be a capitalist'.... Go work for Fox, your efforts to try to create outrage, division and controvercy will be better appreciated.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • Patrick

      I couldn't agree more. And what you get from storie like this is what we have today; a confused, hateful, angry voting public.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  13. Me

    Jesus was nothing. Jesus never existed. You people never cease to amaze me with the stupidity.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
    • sjenner

      It is an item of faith, of course, that Jesus has any spiritual bona fides. But how can you say with such confidence that he never existed?

      November 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
    • Me

      @sjenner The same way you can say with such confidence that he did. There's at least Science to back up Atheism. Ya know that shroud that allegedly has his face on it? Go do some DNA tests on it. I dare ya.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • IceT

      As an Atheist I believe Jesus (or someone that has over time become known as Jesus) did exist. Many biblical stories have historical backing so why not some preaching Jew (there were lots of them). To deny out of hand that "someone now known as Jesus" did not exist does not make for an honest evaluation of Christianity. We must be fair if we expect Christians to do the same. The existence of a preaching person 2K yrs ago does not a son of God make.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
    • sjenner

      IceT, my point exactly. Right on the money. Me, I never actually said that Jesus did exist. I was just surprised that you could say with such force that he didn't. I believe it likely that Jesus existed, just like I believe likely that Alexander the Great existed, or Socrates. There's pretty good textual support for the fact that Jesus did exist. It's not as good as a photograph perhaps. But especially as far as ancient records go, it's pretty good.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • Me

      Ok, Valid points. I mean it is possible that there was someone back then with that name, but not with great powers and sacrifice and that nonsense It just seems like a total line of whoopla. Don't get me wrong. I was a christian for a few years. I was born non religious, then my mom forced me to church when I was 9 or 10. I stayed a Christian until I was 16 or 17. After a while, the more I studied it, the more stupid it became.

      November 23, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • NL

      IceT & sjenner
      Still, it's a pretty big jump from conceding that some preacher later to be known as Jesus was active at the time to believing this person was the Son of God. Many Britons might feel a similar way that Arthur was based on a real person, but few actually believe the whole legend, least of all that he will return as a messiah the 'Once, and future king."

      When big 'C' christians refer to Jesus they are not simply referring to some guy who once preached in the middle east, and I think that Me was referring to this.

      November 24, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  14. kindred

    go to youtube and search under "parable of talents matthew 25 socialist" for a tongue in cheek animation about this subject.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  15. IceT

    It seems to me that Jesus would have been a Passive Anarchist.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • sjenner

      I can't agree with that. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." Jesus never advocated the end of the state, nor its unimportance. He did advocate a society based on the notions of fairness and justice. I suppose if everyone could live rigorously to that creed, the need for a state would largely disappear. But I think the Gospels make it clear that Jesus was also well aware of human failings, limitations and foibles.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
    • IceT

      Give to Ceasar what is Ceasars is simply a statement saying don't fight the Gov. It is the way of the world then and now. However I see Jesus striving to make people follow the laws of God & since God does not run our daily lives it seems only natural that we should run our own. I believe that Jesus felt that "if" everyone followed his teachings there would be no need of a Gov., hence passive anarchy would be a natural goal.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  16. somedoody

    do you all think cnn meant to make shane claiborne look like fidel castro in that picture?

    November 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  17. Stacey

    WHY IS IT OK TO ATTACK CHRIST LIKE THIS? IF ANY OTHER RELIGION WAS ATTACKED AND CALLED A MYTH, LIBERALS WOULD FREAK OUT. YOU ARE A BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES AND CAUSE PEOPLE OF FAITH TO BE COMPLETELY REVOLTED BY YOU.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • relax

      Jesus would stay calm and not be accusatory. Try to be more like him.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
    • Observer

      Equating liberals and atheists is very short-sighted.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • hotcarl

      haha...your caps lock button is on.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
    • Know What

      NO, WE ARE EQUAL-OPPORTUNITY MYTH BUSTERS.

      p.s. You are free to believe any myth you wish - just keep it private and don't try to run everyone else's lives according to it.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
    • oldbones2

      Poor Stacy it's the right wing that is attacking Jesus, are you blind.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  18. sjenner

    Jesus was neither. "Communism" and "capitalism" are modern constructs. What do we know? Jesus advocated personal responsibility, condemned hypocrisy, and extolled a message of love and forgiveness. Jesus never spoke of nor preached about the right and power of the state to deprive the individual of his or her property. There is no compulsion in Jesus' system, only choice. Ultimately, any system that would seek to obviate the integrity and importance of the individual as a being created in the image of God is inconsistent with Jesus' message.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
  19. Tuut

    Does it matter? Religion is subjective, people only take from it what they want. They only believe in the truth that fits them. That's what you get for believing in an imaginary sky daddy. It creates an enormous gap between fiction and reality that is filled with speculation. It's amazing how many people here refuse to answer the question because that would mean they would have to face one fact, Jesus was a socialist. Since this is such a bad word in the US, I think people are just in denial because they do not want THEIR jesus to be a socialist. Face it, he said you should love your neighbor, take care of yourself and those who can't take care of themselves and show compassion. Basically socialist fundamental rules. I realize this does not mean a lot coming from an atheist but I went trough the same religious indoctrination when I was the kid as the rest of you. Another example of the hypocrisy of faith.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • RD

      Interesting statements you give Tuut. Socialism in ideals is not a bad word for many Americans, Socialism in Historical terms is what makes it a negative word. I doubt Jesus was or would have been a Socialist, I'm thinking he woudl be more of an Independent, but back to what you are saying about a religious indoctoration, same thing happens with governments.

      Let us not forget history and what one of the major things that socialism has brought us: Nationalsozialismus, National Socialism; famous acronym known as Naziism, or Nazi/Nazism, realated to Hitler's control of Nazi Germany of WWII. So I honestly doubt Jesus would be for socialism, I see him being more Independent.

      November 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
    • Tuut

      Thank you for your very reasonable reply RD. But I remain convinced Jesus would be a socialist in the modern world or at least have supported the socialist manifesto. If he existed I doubt he would have associated himself with a political party. Separation between church and state, you know and that's the only reason why he would have been an independent. Yes the nazi party was a socialist party. But socialism did not lead to the atrocities we are all familiar with. Much the same as atheism does not lead to communism. They merely integrated those political ideas into their own grand formula. Europe suffered the most because of WW2 but no European country has a negative view on socialism. It's only the US who makes that negative connection. The ideas of socialism are still the closest to the words of Jesus. No matter what you're political preference is, you can't deny it.

      November 24, 2010 at 6:04 am |
  20. k

    Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime... not communist. Also, Jesus didn't have the downfalls of humanity that make communism such an atrocity. He was a very charitable capitalist.

    November 23, 2010 at 5:05 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.