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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. John

    We live in a complex world where we can't have black and white rules from 2000 years ago ruling over the populace. We have to change with the times and I hate to say it but I think the bible is an archaic ruling system that's best keep in private and not out in the open where it's incompatible with modern values and expectations. We need a 21st century bible or something that throws out the old testament and adopts a Jesus figure that young and old people can truly relate to.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
    • JoeT

      Have you considered "The Buddy Jesus"?

      November 23, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
    • Swingstater

      Thumbs up, JoeT!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  2. Swingstater

    Given the choice between the two, Jesus, for sure, was a Communist. However, his version of Communism was completely altruistic in a way that humans have proven they are incapable of being and perfect altruism is absolutely necessary to make Communism work in real life.

    That being said, the US is not purely Capitalistic and hasn't been for a very long time. We changed to a mixed form, over time, as it became obvious that unbridled Capitalism wasn't working for out for us.

    The mixed form seemed to be working OK before the rich found ways to thwart it by getting their friends in the GOP elected by the most ridiculous of means. (Does another NYC mosque or a few gay people getting married in another state really have anything to do with anyone's else's daily life?) Now, after the middle class (and a stable society) has been under assault since Reagan, the rich are steadily undermining our system of government and our way of life.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  3. michael

    "Thou shall not steal."
    Communism is ALL about stealing; from those that have to those that don't. So I doubt Jesus would approve of the forcible taking of property and its redistribution. Also, there is the whole killing thing. I doubt Jesus would approve of the killing of 100 million in order to force a failed economic ideology upon others, not to mention the enslavement of the rest. And let's not forget the sinful life of being a taxman.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
    • JoeT

      You start out railing against communism, then point out the millions who have perished in the name of capitalism... Which side are you on?

      November 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
    • Swingstater

      I believe that when Jesus was asked about his opinion on paying taxes he didn't say it was sinful, he said " “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s".

      Also, you should save the "stealing" lecture for those at corporations like Enron, the banks involved in the Savings and Loan scandals or for Republicans like new governor of Florida, Rick Scott, whose company was convicted of stealing billions of dollars from Medicare.

      Rob a bank with a gun and get a few thousand. Rob it with a pen and get millions.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • Swingstater

      "So I doubt Jesus would approve of the forcible taking of property and its redistribution." No, he asked people to VOLUNTARILY give up their possessions and follow him. (Bet that idea just blows your greedy little Republican mind).

      November 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  4. Da Truth

    The Yankees win!

    November 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  5. Neil

    He was neither. The point is, Jesus allows free will for people and does not force you to donate like socialism does. As a Christian myself, the problem in our country lies with our culture change over the past 50 years. A much larger percentage of America attended church years ago. Those in need went to churches for help instead of the government. The more we get away from our Christian heritage, the more we will want the government to step in and take care of us. After all, Christians started such organizations like Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision just to name a few.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • Swingstater

      Christianity should be about "loving your neighbor as yourself". According to recent surveys, people are turned off by "Christianity" as more perceive it to be in league with the "conservative" political movement that is dedicated to hating other people. Certainly, the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are successful as they do not advocate discrimination against people unlike themselves.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
    • Swingstater

      "Jesus allows free will for people and does not force you to donate like socialism does".

      No, but he does suggest that you do. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)"

      November 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • Jeff

      @Swingstater
      The shift from "force" to "suggest" makes all the difference.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  6. John

    I know how I feel about people working 12-16 hour days for up to 365 days per year. I'm against it and feel it's abuse, regardless of whether or not that works themselves are ok with it. Even wives in domestic violence cases will often support their husband despite the oppressive treatment they've received from them. Not only that, but different cultures have different tolerances for certain conditions. Some countries don't hesitate to pump everything into the river either. What makes this all difficult is that if we can't establish overall rules for the planet than we cannot have a fair system because one culture could have wildly different rules and take advantage of others or at least harm them indirectly. For example, if one country limited weapons trades to keep the worst weapons out of the hands of terrorists it does little good if another country has not adopted the same rules and in fact allows terrorists to acquire the worst weapons imaginable. What's hard is that governments often have to enforce rules and look like the bad guys, but without rules we'd be in the stone age no?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  7. conradshull

    None of this is theology. It's economics on one side and social theory on the other. Generally, pretty good economics and generally, fluffy, fuzzy social theory.

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

    Poverty is the natural state of mankind. We shouldn't be asking ourselves "What causes poverty?" We should be asking "What causes prosperity?"

    November 23, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
    • Da Truth

      Alaskan natural resources, ya know?

      November 23, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • Vanilla Gorilla

      my bet is on CAPITALISM

      November 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Ray

    Being a communist would have required him to be an atheist. So he couldn't be a communist.

    Also, he never advocated that government be the ones to care for the poor. He advocated that we, as individuals and his followers, take care of the poor. There is a BIG difference between the two.

    The threat is that progressives try to use the churches to spread their atheistic theology and class warfare disguised as religion. I say this because I lived it already in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas understood that their atheism would never be accepted by a strongly Catholic country. So they disguised their ideology as religion in the form of Liberation Theology.

    This is not religion. It is not Chritianity. It is Satan's dream. Communist ideology disguised as Christianity.

    No, Christ was not a Communist. He asked us to believe in Him to be saved and for us, as individuals, to take care of the poor. He certainly wasn't advocating that we all pay our taxes to Rome so that Rome could take care of the poor. He advocated that we give all we could to our churches.

    That's the reality, my fellow libs. Taking care of the poor doesn't mean that the government has to do it. That's the difference between liberty and tryanny. Liberty means that we as individuals choose to take care of the poor. Tyranny involves the government stealing from those that have and giving it to those that don't in the name of "justice".

    November 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
    • JoeT

      Yes, I am certain Christ's vision was more properly embodied by the right-wing banana dictatorships established to prevent the spread of communism/nationalism in Central America. Certainly these regimes provided more opportunities for people to be martyrs for their faith.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • kso

      SATANS DREAM!?! bwahahahahhahah! out of all the things that "god" actually did create, you believe in the one thing he/she/it/they actually did not create. derrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

      November 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
    • Shawn

      Why can't Jesus be an atheist? In the bible, he's a jew and they don't believe he existed, which seems like a good reason to lose your faith.

      November 24, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  10. Ted

    Man, those Christian "activists" have it all wrong. Jesus was probably a socialist, man! And way before that term was ever coined. Once again, stupid people confuse the word "Communist" with "Socialist."

    November 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  11. DAT67

    Well, we know He was a damned hippie AND a damned pacifist AND a Jesus freak. Why not a Commie?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
    • Vanilla Gorilla

      at least he could change water into wine – a great guy to have at a party – impress me, how about some jack daniels
      hey Jesus !! we are out of chips and kazam – a bag of doritos !! Old JC and the 12 righteous dudes must have had some killer weed – he could walk on water

      November 23, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  12. guest

    Are they paid to speak, I don't believe Jesus was.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
    • Da Truth

      but Sarah Palin is paid to speak, and she goes with the flow!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  13. Doug

    The Democrat Party started a movement that loved to burn crosses, I don't think Jesus would support such people.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
    • Shawn

      I disagree. Do you really think Jesus is going to want to see all of these crosses when he comes back? I think he may be a little sore about it. Pun intended.

      November 24, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  14. Doug

    Jesus would not fire a shotgun at a TV when Bristol Palin makes the final 3 of DWTS, he was no Democrat.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
    • JoeT

      Awwww.... That is *so* cute! Looks like *somebody* has a crush on Bristol Palin!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
    • Shawn

      What Democrat has a shotgun? Where there are guns, there are really stupid Republicans.

      November 24, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  15. Eric

    If only Jesus had weighed in on the matter . . .
    Matthew 19:16-24, Matthew 21:12-14, Matthew 25:31-46, Matthew 6:19-21,24; Matthew 5:40; Mark 12:44

    November 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • Da Truth

      and Sarah Palin too

      November 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  16. Barney

    He is neither. Don't be foolish. The question up for debate is a foolish one. Especially since it is obvious that we all fall so short of God's vision and are blessed to be adopted into His kingdom through Jesus Christ. World governments try, but they are not radical enough to harness the power of God.

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

      Well, true, but you have to admit Iran is giving it a pretty good shot.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  17. Richxx

    Its all conjecture. Jesus left no writings. We don't know who wrote the bible as it was mostly anonymous. And what we do have is not original so no one knows what changes were made to the copies of the copies of the .... that we do have. Even Paul who wrote much of the new testament never met Jesus and the disciples such as Peter who did know Jesus teachings disagreed with Paul. So who can know what Jesus really said.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  18. Two Witnesses

    So who are the two goofballs in the photo? Is that supposed to be Jesus? What a joke...

    November 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • Da Truth

      I believe at the end of the show they were arm wrestling for the outcome...

      November 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  19. John

    What if .... What if .....

    What if we knew that our actions were not actually in our favor? What if this isn't about how selfish someone is or how selfless they're but instead simply a matter of connecting the dots and realizing the best outcome before it occurs? Could it be that morality is less important than one's ability to read the future and the various dynamics that contribute to it?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Doug

    Jesus never mentioned a typical white grandmother, he is unlike the Democrat Messiah Barak Obama.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:05 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.