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Was Jesus a Marxist?

December 10, 2013
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Rush Limbaugh recently spent about an hour criticizing Pope Francis’ 50,000 word “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), claiming it contains “pure Marxism” because of its emphasis on improving the lot of the poor and reducing income inequality.  Sarah Palin chimed in that the Pope’s remarks “sound kind of liberal, [and] has [sic] taken me aback.”  These conservative voices, who claim to support basing government policy on Biblical values, seem unaware that Pope Francis was articulating the precise values that Jesus taught.  If these values make the Pope a Marxist, Jesus was also a Marxist.

pope-francis-washing-feet-300x214The Bible does not record that Jesus spoke a single word about homosexuality, contraception, abortion, or the other hot button social issues on which conservatives purport to invoke “Christian values.”  On the other hand, the Gospels report many occasions on which Jesus talked about the imperative of helping the poor and redistributing wealth.  For example, when he was accused by Pharisees of not properly washing before eating, Jesus replied:  “You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?  But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”  Luke 11:40-41.  Jesus told his followers to “[s]ell your possessions and give to the poor.”  Luke 12:33.  Another time, he said:  “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  Luke 12:15.

Some politicians opposing government efforts to help the poor try to ignore these remarks by saying that Jesus was only encouraging private charity and was saying nothing about government programs, which they claim “steal” the necessary funds from hard-working citizens.  This is a strange response from some of the same people who claim that all government policy should be based on Biblical principles.  More important, people making these claims must never have read the actual words of Jesus.  For example, when a rich “ruler” (i.e., the government) asked Jesus what it would take to earn eternal life, Jesus did not tell the ruler to return his riches to the subjects he had taxed to get his wealth, but instead told him to “[s]ell everything you have and give to the poor . . . .”  Luke 18:22.  The same requirement is repeated in Matthew 19:21 and Mark 10:21.  Similarly, Jesus praised Zacchaeus, the IRS of his day, for distributing legally imposed taxes to the poor, not for giving them back to the rich tax payers from which he had collected them.  Luke 19:1-10.  When Jesus turned over the tables of the temple money changers, he was directly confronting authorities whose commercial practices were exploiting the poor.  Mark 11:15-17.

In his words on income equality, Pope Francis expressly invoked these teachings of Jesus:  “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”  In criticizing these words as “pure Marxism,” Rush Limbaugh said that someone might have “gotten to” the Pope.  As Reza Aslan recently wrote: “Limbaugh is right.  Somebody did get to Francis. It was Jesus.”

Donald E. Knebel is a partner in Barnes & Thornburg LLP, resident in the Indianapolis, Indiana office. He is a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Law Department. Mr. Knebel serves as adjunct professor and senior advisor to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He frequently posts his observations here at Civic Blog. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Barnes & Thornburg LLP or the IU Maurer School of Law.

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