Discussing Communism and Christianity in the Classroom

There is one insidious cliché that I have heard frequently in recent years, both in and out of the classroom: “If Jesus walked among us today, He would be a communist.”

Here is a mantra worded for thoughtless parroting, and while it is shocking in its ignorance of both history and the Bible, it wins converts largely due to the ignorance of its hearers, as it seems to be cawed more and more, uncontested. One of my own students brought up this idea in class a couple of years ago after hearing it from someone else, and he asked me if I believed it was true. I responded unequivocally that I did not. When I asked him what he thought, he could not really say, though he seemed both impressed and embarrassed by the saying at the same time.

When I ask the students to define “communism”, the question is usually met with silence. In my best efforts to move students from ignorance to knowledge, I tell them something akin to this: Communism is a ”collective” form of government based upon class warfare in the name of “equality” by fomenting envy (a deadly sin which always disguises itself as a virtue in order to thrive!) and violent revolution among working-class laborers (who are broadly characterized as victims) against their capitalist-class employers (who are broadly characterized as tyrants) without regard for personal responsibility or individual innocence. (The slogan from George Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind, which generalizes both animals and men as “Four legs good; two legs bad.”) Communism generally does not allow its citizens to own private property, and under threat of severe penalty, communism professes and imposes the equal distribution of wealth in deference to the Marxist motto, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, even if wealth must be forcibly “redistributed” from those who have to those who have not. Communism does not tolerate freedom of thought, speech, or religion, and it is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of “enemies of the people” who were suspected opponents of communist “ideals” in the 20th century—many of whose crimes happened to be that they were successful enough to own property. The collective “commune” is deemed more important than the individual souls who are compelled to serve it, and the state often replaces God as the ultimate reality. Does this sound like Jesus? I also encourage my students not to take my word for it, but to do their own research, to look it up for themselves, and to let me know if they find anything different.

In response to this, a student might even suggest that communism was “originally a good system in its ideal form” and that it has yet to be “tried right”—another cliché making the rounds—to which I respond, “Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea have all tried it, costing roughly 100 million people their lives in the past 100 years. When the threat of wholesale murder is the best argument for convincing a people of the promise of some new utopian government, it is likely neither a good argument nor an ideal government.” Does this sound like Jesus?

Since I teach in a Catholic school, I have the freedom to cite and explain Biblical verses and allusions whenever appropriate, which is most fortunate since the strongest arguments against a Marxist Jesus come from the Bible. There are many, and I will present one of them here:

When I ask my students if anyone can tell me what the seventh commandment is, usually a few students can cite with confidence, “Thou shalt not steal.” The most interesting thing to me about this moral imperative prohibiting wrongful seizure of someone else’s property is that it also forbids the mere desire for what does not belong to us (also reaffirmed in the tenth commandment). Thus, the seventh commandment affirms the right to own private property. The goodness inherent in this right, as well as its argument against a communist Jesus, lay in two simple facts: (1) If I am forced to “give” my property away under the duress of immediate threats, it is, by definition, not giving at all and gains my soul nothing, since true giving must be an act of free will for charity to be valid. (2) If I do not actually own my property, it would simply be impossible for me to “give” it away, since I cannot give away what I do not own! Communist “redistribution of wealth” is tantamount to government-sanctioned theft rather than Judeo-Christian charity, since charity requires both free will and the right to own property, both denied by communist governments which sanction threats and confiscation.

Contrast this with the freedom and the right to own private property granted in our democratic republic of the United States of America, wherein our founders set up a system of checks, balances and legislative processes so that the citizenry could conceivably and continually right its wrongs and amend its laws whenever they see fit to do so. Both freedom and the right to own private property serve equally in allowing virtue and grace to thrive where true charity is both encouraged and possible rather than enforced by its leaders both in public office and from the pulpits, since “enforced charity” is not charity at all.  As such, a nation is only as perfect (or as imperfect) as its people, and we must take care to heed the warning of Benjamin Franklin that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

One of the best and most original statements I have ever read in support of democracy appears in the first paragraph of a little-known essay by English author C.S. Lewis, entitled, “Equality.” Here, Lewis humbly and sensibly clarifies his reasons for supporting a democratic form of government over others, while at the same time putting to rest any unrealistic expectation that its citizens who serve in government must be morally infallible while striving for the requisite virtue which fosters freedom:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everybody deserved a share in government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe in advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.[1]

Lewis asserts that a democracy with checks and balances merits both justification and confidence because we are all fallen souls whose very fallenness begs that we be checked and held accountable to one another so that we may do right by one another; if we were unfallen, we would already be doing right by one another! Here, Lewis echoes the wisdom of our founders who knew by experience how easy it was to forget that man’s cravings for power in place of virtue must be ever checked, and how dangerous it was to be ruled at the whim of an unbridled autocratic despot. As a master of words and language, Lewis explicitly decries the wordsmiths of jargon and platitudes who dilute, distort, and degrade language—the purveyors of “advertisements“, “catchwords” and “rumors”—as most unfit and undeserving to govern a “hen-roost, much less a nation” unless their power is challenged and checked by those with the skill, courage, and strength of character to wield words and wit wisely.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Equality,” Present Concerns, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 17.

WILLIAM RANDALL LANCASTER teaches at a high school in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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