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. DonnyMariean

    He was neither a communist or a capitalist because all this occurred after leaving all this. Sharing gives a good feeling and greedy Selfishness is the basis of capitalism. Real reason capitalism wins and fails at the same time is due to profit from a prepared spot for it and invests or transacts little in spot that are undeveloped and unreliable to do these developments at the same time. Simple. Anyone agreeing to international trade including India and China have access to this western based international supply and resource base all have access for multinationalism and capitalism within this system including monopolies and tax havens.
    Plus if all this religioulous was actually true, wouldn't he just show up and just say so on the debate at present?
    Case closed.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  2. Two Witnesses

    If you have read the Bible you will understand and realize what a stupid questions this is. Jesus Christ does not concern himself with the material pursuits of human beings other than to say that you serve two masters, him and whoever is your ruler on Earth. Jesus is only interested in how you choose to spend the rest of eternity, after you die, and after you have left this realm. There is no "economy" in Heaven.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  3. Doug

    Oh yeah dems are right, Jesus would totally support commiting geocide in Newark, DC, Chicago, Detroit, and Camden for votes for the last 40 years.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  4. DonnyB

    WWJB – What Would Jesus Buy?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
    • Da Truth

      Twitter, to broadcast the word!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  5. Jeff

    I always find it entertaining when people who bash Christians invoke the WWJD theory. The motivation for asking the question appears to be to "defeat" those you oppose. Is that something Jesus would do?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  6. Chip

    Show me the verse about forcibly taking from someone and giving to someone else. All the smoke and mirrors is nonsense. The difference between true Charity (which is what the Bible teaches) and our government handouts is that our government takes the money at the end of a gun and doesn't ask for anything in return from those who receive it, resulting in a perpetual welfare system. Jesus healed the blind man and then told him to stop sinning. The Bible says a lot of things unpopular and politically incorrect: those who will not work will not eat (2 Thess). The government exists to reward those who do good and punish with the sword those who do evil (Rom 13). Jesus didn't come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10). He wasn't about sitting around and singing Kumbaya, but about Repentance.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
    • JoeT

      It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. A true Christian would be so compelled to give that he would live in a state of poverty to support others. Likely, under current regulations that would make such a person tax-exempt.
      By the by, I don't recall having any guns pointed at my head the last time I paid taxes. Are you referring to income tax, sales tax, or property tax? I'll try to pay more attention next time.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • Gerald

      It's only 'forcbly' if you failed to vote. Voting is your participation in a group decision. You are advocating anarchy...every man for himself.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • Anon

      Joe: You pay income and sales tax or you go to jail. That is not a choice, it is the government forcibly taking what is yours to distribute it as they see fit.

      Voting would be our opportunity to have a say in the government except that the people are not allowed to vote on whether or not to have taxes. Typically, you can't vote on any actual measures the government puts into place, you can only vote for who represents you in the government. That is not a true democracy at all.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  7. sonny chapman

    Jesus told his Apostles, "Feed them", when confronted with the hungry mass who had gathered to hear him speak , Mark 6,37. He didn't say, "This will make them co-dependent." His last commandment in John is "Love one another as I have loved you" John15,12.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  8. Tim

    Both views expressed here are well thought out and intriguing, but both are flawed because they both miss the point. They confuse cause and effect. Redistribution of wealth will not bring about peace and love, peace and love will bring about redistribution of wealth. When it comes harmony, enlightenment or what ever you want to call it, there are no short cuts – no matter how logical they sound. Feeding funds into a problem just makes a very wealthy problem.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • JoeT

      Exactly. If people truly followed Christ's teachings, they would be compelled by love for their fellow man to give up everything but what they needed for subsistence to help their neighbor.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  9. Yeahright

    While we are at it, is Santa Claus a communist or a capitalist? How about the tooth fairy?

    What drivel.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Da Truth

      Watch it, there's kids here!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  10. John

    Is it ok that some people in this world work 12-16 hour days, 360+ days a year in factories with minimal benefits and sanitation?

    Should we enjoy the luxury of cheaper products as a result of this?

    Should that be allowed or be banned from the highest levels of government and dictated on the population? Would that be fascist or communist or an example of dictating to the people rather than giving them the freedom to live by their own rules?

    And what if the workers themselves want to work these hours in these conditions? What if someone wants to be abused? And what if our opinion about what is abuse is only our own and is not shared by others? What do we draw the line?

    November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  11. IPA

    How foolish to ask this question ... How foolish to try and answer it ... "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s". Having God (any God of any religion) try to interpret our finances is a clear indication of arrogant ignorance, usually exhibited by people who falsely claim to be "believers" and usually try to force their beliefs to others.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  12. Doug

    Jesus would never support wanting someone harmed or killed because of who their mother is, so Jesus is no Democrat.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • JoeT

      Yes, the democratic party consistently makes it part of their platform to kill people based on who their moms are. And what planet are you from again?

      November 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Doug

      The Democrat comments about Bristol Palin are all over the web and never once has a single Democrat said that wishing her death is wrong.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  13. Prentiss

    Eric- Because it is only philosophy and though it may have some good teachings it does not offer answers to life's fundamental questions and issues. It ultimately holds no answers and is godless. There has to be a creator and Buddha isn't God.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  14. John

    Is it ok that some people in this world work 12-16 hour days, 360+ days a year in factories with minimal benefits and sanitation?

    Should we enjoy the luxury of cheaper products as a result of this?

    Should that be allowed or be banned from the highest levels of government and dictated on the population? Would that be fascist or communist or an example of dictating to the people rather than giving them the freedom to live by their own rules?

    November 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  15. Blaqb0x

    I think it's funny that these two guys are arguing about a guy's (Jesus) philosophy that was made up by people that never met him personally and decades after he died (If he even existed). If they were honest, they would really be saying were the writers (many of them) of the new testament in favor of communism or capitalism. What shaped their philosophy?

    November 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  16. Guster

    Josephus' Antiquities (early 2nd century A.D.) refers to Jesus in two separate passages
    Tacitus (c. A.D. 55 – c. A.D. 117)
    Pliny the Younger, Emperor of Bythynia in northwestern Turkey, writing to Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. writes:
    Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist.
    Check out the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers;
    Writings of the early Church fathers from the beginning of Christianity to the time of the creation of the Nicene Creed. Includes Polycarp, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, Ignatius, Origen, Clement ect.
    Jesus historical record is overwhelming.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  17. FedUp

    well, old JC was often quoted and what he allegedly said was written down years after the fact. And those doing the writing had obvious agendas – social, political and religious.
    The "render unto Caesar" statement seems to say it all – he was a capitalist. Without capitalism where is the economic engine to generate the wealth that is to be shared? Pure communism has never worked at any time in history. Pure communal living is another thing and that has a component of capitalism to be viable. And that has worked many times over the last several thousand years.
    We as a species should be able to work things out with having to resort to looking for answers in a work of fiction known as the bible – even the Torah and especially the Koran.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • JoeT

      So paying taxes implies capitalism? I suppose then people don't pay taxes in socialist countries?

      November 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • rjm

      "he was a capitalist."

      sure... a capitalist who had nothing but contempt and disdain for jew bankers. i doubt he would have had any less contempt for stock brokers and the 'financial industry' in general. in fact, i can't see even the slightest support for associating jesus with the devil (capitalists).


      November 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Erik

    Since there is so much controversy about Jesus, why not look to the teachings of Buddha? Pretty straightforward stuff there.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  19. Don

    To Sun Stevens- You are factuallly incorrect. There is ample evidence, from non-Christian contemporary sources from Christ's time (including Jews and Romans) attesting that he was in fact a real person. I wonder how it is that you accept that Hannibal, Ceasar or Alexander the Great were real historical figures and with a lot less evidence. So, you are simply wrong and ignorant. Your bias is showing.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Henry

    When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

    November 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
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