Sunday, April 3, 2011

Marx versus Amos: Two Incompatible Visions of Justice

Christopher Benson asks: "Who is Afraid of Karl Marx?" All sane people who desire justice and peace should fear the ideas of the Romantic Sophist who has inspired a horrible ideology that has led to more deaths and oppression in one century than any other set of ideas one can mention.

Benson has started up a blog discussion of Terry Eagleton's new book Why Marx Was Right, on which I have been commenting in recent posts. Benson quotes me as an example of a Christian who opposes Marx and he quotes Merold Westphal as one who argues in favor of Marx's ideas. Benson claims that I represent the majority viewpoint, a claim I find imprecise and misleading.

While it is true that most Americans (and a smaller majority of Canadians) likely oppose Marxism, the "Ruling Elite" is heavily skewed toward a pro-Marxist stance and their influence is much greater than that of the "Great Unwashed." And many Christians who ought to oppose Marxism have picked up many of his ideas without quite realizing the provenance of those ideas.

Benson quotes Westpahl as saying:
"There is something profoundly biblical in Marx’s critique of modern society. Or, to speak more generally, the hermeneutics of suspicion in the hands of modern atheists is not only a secular theology of original sin; it is also a secular version of the prophetic message. Those who profess to take biblical authority seriously can ignore (or refute) it at their peril.

Some may want to respond: “But we have Amos, so why do we need Marx?” The question is fair and deserves not one but two answers. First, we need Marx as well as Amos, perhaps Marx as a commentary on Amos, because Marx is about us in a way that Amos is not."
I have run into this point of view very frequently both among simple, ordinary people, who have swallowed a certain line and among educated, scholars, who really ought to know better. Some peddle this line knowing it is false as pure propaganda for ideological reasons. I have little to say to them except: "For shame!" But many people parrot this line sincerely thinking it is true and that Marx is just a modern version of Amos. It is those people I wish to address in this post.

Simply put, my thesis is that the ideas of Marx
and those found in Amos are utterly incompatible.
Amos is right, Marx is wrong, and the more you side with
Amos the more of Marx's ideas you will need to give up.

A blog post can only provide an outline of an argument; a book is badly needed on this topic. However, here is a beginning of a rough outline of an argument.

1. Amos is addressing the rich, the rulers, and the society as a whole, while Marx addresses the working class, that is, the poor.

Amos calls on the rich to do do two things: (1) enforce the law - that is justice and (2) share their resources - that is charity. Amos is a conservative insofar as he believes that the law of Moses is sufficient and just needs to be implemented. He looks to the past for his ideals; for Amos the future is not the eschatological Utopia envisioned by Marx but rather the dark and foreboding Day of the LORD. (5:18-20) It is the responsibility of the rich to be charitable and it is the responsibility of the Judges to dispense justice equally to the rich and to the poor. Equality before the law, rather than equality of income is the ideal for Amos. It is the LORD who will bring judgment upon Israel.

Marx, however, addresses not the rich but the workers and he tells them that the law is simply a tool of the oppressors to keep them down and that charity is a joke. He urges them to rise up an revolt against the rulers, overthrow the government, expropriate property, raise taxes and then redistribute the wealth according the principle of "from each according to his ability - to each according to his need." Since someone has to decide who needs what and who can afford what, those who jump on the revolutionary bandwagon relatively early have an advantage in applying for those coveted positions in the new order. Marx preaches that workers of the world have nothing to lose but their chains and entices them with visions of a new world in which unicorns bring lollipops from over the rainbow. Once the dictatorship of the proletariat gets power, what could possibly go wrong?

"Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod
and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt,
and say, 'Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria,
and see the great tumults within her,
and the oppressed in her midst.'
'They do not know how to do right,' declares the LORD.
those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds."
(Amos 3:9-10)

2. Amos calls for the rule of law, which in his context would include property rights rooted in the 8th Commandment, while Marx calls for revolution against the established order, which he views as being based on property rights.

Amos has a high view of the law and sees it as objective, impersonal and knowable. Amos calls Israel back to Torah and assumes that the Law contains the answers to the injustices and economic problems Israel faces. Amos knows that property rights are the chief bulwark of the lower classes against those who would exploit them and he knows that the proper understanding and enforcement of the law is the best hope for the poor.

Marx, on the other hand, sees the law through the lens of class warfare and assumes that it reflects class interest and selfishness. It is a social construct that can easily be dismantled and remade with few negative consequences. For Marx, property rights must be turned into myths that can be discarded and it this hurts the lower classes more than it hurts the wealthy, well, you can't make an omelet with breaking a few eggs.

"Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice (misphat) in the gate;
It may be that the LORD, the God of hosts
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph."
(Amos 5:15)

3. Amos discerns a spiritual root of a materialistic problem, while Marx sees religion as part of the problem.

For Amos, there is a natural and direct connection between sexual sin (2:7), hard-heartedness leading to a neglect of charity (4:1) and idolatry (5:25-27). Why? These are all violations of the covenant and the breaking of specific laws in the Law of Moses. To break the law is to rebel against the LORD, the God of the Fathers who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. All sins against the neighbor (Commandments 5-10) are rooted in sins against God (Commandments 1-4) as the very structure of the Ten Commandments shows us. Idolatry leads to greed and covetousness and then on to stealing and all the other sins against the neighbor.

For Marx, on the other hand, religion is merely the tool of the oppressors, the opiate of the people, a substitute for class warfare and revolution. To tell poor people not to covet the wealth of the rich is anathema to Marx; it is counter-revolutionary - reactionary. He would view Amos' refusal to call for revolution as a typically religious attempt to make the world safe for the status quo which benefits the wealthy and the powerful. He would view Amos' call for charity as too little too late. He would view Amos' concern about sexual sin as irrelevant and bourgeois.

For Amos, morality is embedded in religion and apart from religion there is no basis for justice or compassion. For Marx, morality is independent of religion and the need of the poor is all the basis for justice that is needed. For Amos, justice means obedience to the law, but for Marx the law, like religion, stands in the way of the impatient, insistent on taking what is due to the poor without fancy metaphysical or religious justifications. Need justifies all.

Amos is a prophet of true, purified religion; Marx is the prophet of post-Christian Naturalism.

"I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:21-24)

Final Thoughts:
I have not been able to do a careful exegetical word study of the terms justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah). However, I would submit that the proper meanings of these terms is different from the social ideal of equality of income attained by coerced redistribution of wealth preached by Marxism. It is easy for good-hearted Christian people to read into the text what they think sounds compassionate and fair.

The idea that everyone ought to have what they want and no one should be rich at the expense of the poor is a beguiling concept that sounds absolutely wonderful until you actually try to put it into practice in a fallen world. In this case, a system that takes our fallen natures into account and recognizes the selfishness that characterizes all of us is preferable to a system that redefines sin as income disparity and claims to be able to change human nature and eliminate sin by means of an economic and political system. In this case, aiming lower get higher results, while aiming too high causes a fall into the abyss.

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