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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. Dipper

    To John- I am talking about the New Testament and it's teachings and message are timeless. If the world followed it there wouldn't be such a mess. You can say it's not practical and it's not for "today" but it is. And in any event, name a better alternative. I am not a bible thumper but I know the truth and see the value.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  2. jordan

    John 6:15: “Jesus, knowing they [the Jews] were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” Later, he told the Roman governor: “My kingdom is no part of this world. If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought that I should not be delivered up to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from this source.”—John 18:36.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  3. DWTT

    Down with the Trinity – It will solve all of Xianities problems

    November 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  4. Griffin

    So, although Jesus advised his followers to give away their worldly possessions to come live with him and his flock in community, he is deemed a ... capitalist, essentially? So does that mean that God the father and the Holy Spirit are also... capitalists? God, with a universe to run, cares about the DOW?? Profit margins are his major thing??? If a man wanteth medical care, let him pay the maximum amount lest he be shewn to be a socialist and condemned to the nether-regions?Missed that part in my reading of the Good Book.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  5. ohhiya

    Jesus was a left wing liberal, his dad was a right wing conservative. Who couldn't relate?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  6. JoeT

    Non-capitalist philosophy: "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?" Big prize to anyone who can guess who the saying is ascribed to.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  7. John

    Aren't we really asking What creates poverty?

    What creates poverty?

    (see, this is a whole lot simple than the discussion about jesus)

    November 23, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  8. Andrew

    Why does it matter? I should write a story on if Odin was a communist or a capitalist now seeing as thats what I believe in and that now is a column that will be written on CNN.

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

      Andrew, I guess that would be a consideration if the GOP were able to use Odin to get poor people to vote against their own interests.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
  9. Laura from Texas

    I think capitalism would work just fine if people would also honor the ten commandments along with it. Especially, the thou shalt not kill, steal, lie, covet. If all of these things were eliminated, then capitalism would work well for all. Yes some will be richer than others, and that is fine, but at least there would be less down trodden because they cannot compete with the killers, stealers, liars and coveters.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  10. aizen

    i think it is kind ignorant to put jesus in this type of discussions, the 2 wont mix well LOL...however i think jesus was neutral, he proclaimed the help to the poor, neighbours etc as a community but also acknowledged that the government gotta make money by saying: to ceasar what owed to him and to God what owed to him...he is the first to clearly separate God and state...how are is that to get? as for being a commie or a capitalist, i believe he is beither cus those concept were not even avaialable on his time and his life style wont suit either...he is more of a hermit if anything...

    November 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  11. Mathew

    Using the Bible as a moral compass makes great sense to me. Trying to use it as justification for nearly anything else is like trying to use a roadmap as an engineering textbook.

    It seems plan to me that Jesus was much more "socialist" than "capitalist," but you have to add so many caveats to that statement it becomes meaningless.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
    • toxictown

      Exactly. These concepts did not apply in occupied 1st century Palestine.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  12. Enoch_knows_whos_names_are_written

    Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. He that tilleth his own ground is satisfied with bread, And he that followeth after vain pursuits is devoid of understanding.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • Swingstater

      It's hard to fish when the big companies are allowed to pollute the pond (with the EPA stacked with GOP appointees that looks the other way.) And, of course, the non-polluted part of the pond in now private beach property for the new expensive condos they just built for the wealthy.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
  13. John

    Dipper@ What's modern about the old testament? I specifically referenced that. The old testament has numerous examples of pure hatred and genocide towards large swathes of people. The god of the old testament can be described as resentful and wrathful and jealous god indifferent to the suffering of those at the end of his stick. There're countless verses in the old testament that do not belong in schools and shouldn't be reproduced in the mind of a child living in the 21st century. The newer testament isn't nearly as bad, but there're still many references in it that're interchangeable with the old testament. If I could write a new 21st century edition, I would remove them and give jesus a more modern feel than his old self.

    I am just not sure what compass you're talking about. That compass might have worked 2000 years ago but not now.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
    • JoeT

      I like the part where Moses comes down off Mt. Sinai and works with the Levites to kill 3,000 Hebrews performing adultery.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  14. blackspeak

    Jesus is anything those who practice white supremacy say he is...PERIOD!

    November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Chad B

    "Though shalt not steal" probably rules out Socialism...

    I'd say capitalist, but a MORAL capitalist. Capitalism without morals leads to problems. What he probably was is a charitable Capitalist. Who would advocate for using your skills to obtain what the market determines you deserve, and using your wealth to not only give a man a fish, but teach him how to fish for himself.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
    • Swingstater

      Jesus didn't sell the fish and loaves for a profit–he gave them freely away to those in need. That's communism.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • JoeT

      And how is collective ownership the same as stealing again?

      November 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • Chad B

      Swingstater, You mention exactly what we need, which is charity. Jesus chose to give away what he had, emphasis on chose. A capitalist can do the same. But Socialism involves the use of force by government to steal someones property or skills and give them to another, which is something that I think would be a sin. Once again I mention "Though shalt not steal"

      November 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Swingstater

      "You mention exactly what we need, which is charity. Jesus chose to give away what he had, emphasis on chose. A capitalist can do the same." Chad, they could choose to be Godly. Rich capitalists could choose to help others, but then often don't.

      They seem to choose to assist politicians that erode the stability of society, repress the rights of the working people and they often don't even pay their fair share of money needed to keep this country going the way we all like it. Some rich capitalists, like Warren Buffett, have questioned the fairness of paying hardly any taxes when compared to his lowest paid staff. The less moral have found extensive loopholes to not pay taxes or move out of the country to avoid them.

      Also, we are, to some extent, already socialist. We like Social Security, Medicare and all of the nice programs the US set up after suffering the pitfalls of unrestricted Capitalism. Other countries (which happen to be Socialist and collect fairly high taxes like Sweden) are also the ones with the highest rating for quality of life.

      And, again, "stealing" is in the eye of the beholder. It certainly can be argued that US companies before the civil war stole the lives of thousands of slaves. Certainly, the GOP since Reagan has made it possible to "steal" employees' pension funds and a decent wage for working class people when some unions have dissolved. "Stealing" is what the savings and loans did from their customers with the taxpayers picking up that tab. Would it be stealing if the middle class actually had some benefit returned to them for the money it pays in taxes instead of being thrown away in Iraq or other foreign countries? I don't think so.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  16. jordan

    1 john 5:19 tells you who the world belongs to. And jesus explains he is no part of the world in joh 17:14-16.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  17. vel

    You only need one verse to show Jesus was a small-c communinst: Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  18. Dipper

    To John- Yeah great suggestion, this world couldn't get more screwed up and your advocating throwing out the only compass that offers hope and some answers in favor of "adapting to the modern world". You seem naive.

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

      If you look at his teachings, Christ would win a prize for naivety– he expects so much more from the human race than it is generally capable of. I assure you there is no like Mother Theresa serving in a corporate chair of a major industry.

      November 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  19. Henry

    It is all very simple really. There are those that insist that 2 + 2 = 7, but that will not change the fact that 2 + 2 = 4. In the same way you can’t nullify God and His beloved son out of existence just because you say so. Once you have been cut down to size by the sorrows and beatings of life, you will realize that you are not so high and mighty as you had previously thought; you will realize that you are only a puny human being. God is Lord, Master and Judge over all creation, including you, weather you acknowledge that fact or not, and if you continue to reject and mock Jesus Christ after being given opportunity after opportunity to repent, eventually you will pass the point of no return and undoubtedly you will simmer in hell for all eternity. No one can fault God because He has given you a way out of hell, but your stubborn pride keeps you from accepting the free gift of salvation, therefore pride will be your undoing.

    November 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  20. A different tony

    What is the private, selective, health Insurance industry, or the government, going to do if we have a huge natural disaster in the USA that leaves 100,000+ people lying badly injured (long-term) in the streets of a city??? A huge LA or SF Earthquake. A small meteorite hit on the east coast, would create that situation. Who pays if only 30% are insured? The Insurance co's and the hospitals would be bankrupted. And how would charities find enough money to pay US hospital rates? If the gov't stepped in , wouldn't that say we needed socialism all along?

    November 23, 2010 at 1:29 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.