So Much for the Social Principles of Christianity

An excerpt from On Religion by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels:

The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it. 

The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable.

The social principles of Christianity transfer the consistorial councillors’ adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth.

The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed.

The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, dejection, in a word all the qualities of the canaille [rabble]; and the proletarian, not wishing to be treated as canaille, needs its courage, its self-feeling, its pride and its sense of independence more than its bread.

The social principles of Christianity are sneakish and the proletariat is revolutionary.

So much for the social principles of Christianity. 

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  1. Abigail March 6, 2013

    How about the propping up and active continuation of patriarchy?
    Several years ago, when I was still tied up in trying to appease (my images of) God and Christianity, I was very relieved to read a book called “Women and the Church.” It argued that one could hold a view of Scriptures as inspired and still be an egalitarian, and, indeed, the proper exegesis of Scriptures actually promoted egalitarianism and denounced so-called complementarianism (=patriarchy). I was relieved, because since leaving home for college I had started to become more and more uncomfortable with the teachings about women’s roles that I had grown up with, and wondered why God viewed women as second-class. Needless to say, it was a serious self-esteem issue. I loved God, and yet felt like part of him hated part of me, so would it be true worship to hate myself as well…? I couldn’t go that far, but that was the ad absurdum argument. And yet, my high regard for Scriptures held me to tentatively defending the positions I had grown up with, even though they felt wrong. So I was glad to have someone tell me that the “real” interpretation of those Scriptures matched what I felt in my heart. It was liberating. It was a good stepping stone for me, since I was definitely not at all ready at the time to simply abandon the entire Christian apparatus, just to feel better about this one (albeit major) issue that was bothering me.
    It was a similar experience for gay rights. I always just tried not to think about it much, because the response of the Christian culture I had grown up in felt so harsh to me. But upon gaining some gay friends, plus being forced to face the political side of the question in a professional situation, I had to be honest with myself in the quiet space of my own heart: “I don’t feel that gay marriage is wrong. Even though I’ve always been taught that.” So when I found this website ( explaining alternative interpretations of Scripture on this issue, and noticing that the arguments were actually QUITE strong, it was a relief. In reality, the Christian Culture is quite at odds with the Christian Scriptures, in so many ways, economic justice definitely included.
    A lot of it comes down to how you define “CHristianity,” and how you interpret the Scriptures, teachings, and traditions of Christianity.

  2. Paul March 6, 2013

    Abigail-I resonate deeply with your comments and appreciate the desire to remain in the creative tension. Marx was a bit harsh and too monolithic in my opinion. Yes, Christendom was perpetuated as an oppressive social structure, but what of the people “choosing” to participate. I wonder about his assumptions about human nature/s. What if the theologian’s “original sin” is really an instinctual terror aroused by the possibility that “it could also be otherwise”; that life affords choice, contingency, and a facticity from which we can never escape, but only befriend. Was Marx too optimistic about human nature, or perhaps, he mustered up the optimism and zeal so common to any ideology, religious and non-religious alike?

    Marx anger seems justified, but I also wonder about the revolutionary power of feeling oneself part of a body as an interconnected and interdependent community, rather than enforcing top-down social change. Christianity has the potential to act as a source for social justice and transformation, with or without belief in a benevolent deity, so long as it reminds us that despite our many voices, we might live together and that in fact, our survival, might depend on it.

    In your last sentence, you say, “A lot of it comes down to how you define “CHristianity,” and how you interpret the Scriptures, teachings, and traditions of Christianity”. I agree, and yet, I spend very little time with the “sacred” texts. How do you navigate the tension between inerrancy and radically subjective hermeneutics. I suppose I feel the scriptures offer a truth without objectivity and knowledge without certainty. Many times the prospect is overwhelming so I read secondary sources instead.

    Some of the particularly destructive social principles of concern are the deferral of human freedom (limited as it may be) and responsibility for and in this life (spiritual bypass-using spirituality/religion to bypass the needs of the day), while storing up treasures in heaven. Relatedly, this renders the Earth as a bunch of dead stuff without concern for ecological principles, economic practices, or disparity. As a side note, I’ve found the Episcopals to do a decent job regarding women and homosexuality, relatively speaking. Ever read any Barbara Brown Taylor or Phyllis Tickle?

    • Abigail March 7, 2013

      I <3 existentialism!
      I haven't read those authors; I'll check them out, thanks.

  3. Will March 6, 2013

    From an outsiders view Marx and Engles are correct. I know that there are a few people who still hold onto some of these tired views, however because “the church” is made of individuals, I don’t see it in the people who call themselves christians nearly as much today.

    Regardless of how much Marx and Engles wish to blame any group of people in regards to the separation of class the hierarchy has and will always exist. Hierarchy exists in nature among animals of all types, monkeys, gorillas, wolves, dogs, birds, fish, whales, dolphins, and people. The solution to the problem is not to tear down the structure, in my opinion. The solution is for people to always respect others regardless of their station in life. In fact, I cannot remember a time while growing up in the church where inequality of any kind was advocated. I would argue that a vast majority of my positive and altruistic ideology was derived by my time in the church.

    “The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it. ”

    I don’t believe that observing and acknowledging anything in history is any sign of approval.

    The oversimplification and vast ignorance of any individual can be the breaking point in creating a real conversation in regards to other human beings. The acts of an organization or group of people do not necessarily represent the heart of the people in the organization or group. As long as people can remove the humanity from a group of people it is possible to criticize without knowledge of the individuals and their true feelings on a subject. Thank you to all of the propagandists for your miserable contribution to society.

  4. Nick March 7, 2013

    It seems like Marx and Engels overlooked a few biblical teachings as they passed judgement on the “social principles of Christianity”:

    James 1:27 NIV
    Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

    Isaiah 1:17 ESV
    Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

    Romans 12:15-18 ESV
    Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

    Micah 6:8 NIV
    He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
    To act justly and to love mercy
    And to walk humbly with your God.

    Psalm 82:3 ESV
    Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

    Isaiah 58:6-12 ESV
    Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday . . .

    Of course, these biblical references may indeed have very little to do with the social principles of Christianity that were being observed, which is precisely the issue. I suspect that our resident revolutionaries might be in favor of many biblical social principles . . . were they not distorted by the institutional church. It is unfair to dismiss Christ and his teachings because of the behavior of Christians, but the fact that a distinction must be drawn between Christ and his followers (both now and throughout history) is reprehensible.

    Therefore, while I wholeheartedly support the social principles of Christ (who was viewed as an anti-establishment revolutionary in his time), I also strongly support the condemnations of the social principles of Christianity from today’s excerpt.

    • Abigail March 7, 2013

      You seem to make the assumption that all branches of Christianity agree on the interpretations and contextual applications of these passages of Scripture, or, indeed, that all branches of Christianity choose to find the Bible authoritative.

      A lot of these passages could be seen as injunctions to *individuals* to “be charitable” to the poor, without addressing *systemic* injustice, in which case, your Scriptures underline the Marx/Engels quote, not contradict it. (Though there are plenty of passages in the Old Testament in which God chastises the entire nation of Israel for its systemic economic injustices. The Mosaic Law was one of the most progressive of its time, and the nation often failed to follow it.)

      I agree, though, that it is unfair to judge Christ based on certain Christians. Even Ghandi was wise enough to see the difference when he said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.”

      • Nick March 11, 2013

        I was going to include the Gandhi quote, but it is disputed in its accuracy. Interesting, isn’t it, how even the words of someone so recent in history can be contested, muddled, and disputed. Of course the interpretations of prophets from before the common era can and will be challenged.

        Regarding systematic versus individual justice, I think you make the case yourself that much of Old Testament law is in fact socially inclined. Most of the scriptures I referenced come from the prophets. And while their inspiration, application, and interpretation can (and likely, ought to) be debated, their historicity is usually less in question. Hopefully we can agree in at least this much: these words were spoken at a particular time to a community at large as instruction for living according to a certain set of principles for society. In such a case, regardless of moral attachments, spiritual implications or schismatic assumptions, I believe the messages themselves lay out positive social principles, ones which were either overlooked by Marx and Engels in their critique of Christianity’s “Social Principles” or ones which were otherwise obscured by the actual “Social Principles” of the contemporary “Christian” institutions.

  5. Bailey Birdsey April 28, 2013

    The foundation of Christian theology is expressed in the early ecumenical creeds which contain claims predominantly accepted by followers of the Christian faith. These professions state that Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and was subsequently resurrected from the dead in order to grant eternal life to those who believe in him and trust him for the remission of their sins.`

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