I have always felt that it must have been an instance of God’s sense of humor that he chose an atheist ex-Jew to enlighten the modern Western world to the plight of the poor. I am, of course, referring here to Karl Marx. Not that he did it all by himself, but the various movements that fall under the broad banner of Marxism were certainly the catalyst that exposed the severe  injustices that were being suffered by the poor and the lower classes during the 19th century. It was in Marxism that the poor of that time saw their hope for salvation; indeed there was no one else who really seemed to care about them.

In the years since, the Marxist ideology has inspired a multiplicity of political thought and activism, all of it (at least in theory) targeting the betterment of the underprivileged and those in need. While one could argue about how effective the various socialist and communist movements have been in achieving this lofty goal, there is no denying that Marxism did bring attention to the plight of the poor.

The sad part of all this is that concern for the poor was already a primary responsibility of another large movement that had been operating within Western culture for almost two millenniums, and here I am referring to the Christian Church.  God’s concern for the poor has been known to his followers since early on within the Judaic roots of Christianity, and as God’s claimed earthly representative during the 1800s, the Church should have been championing this cause, but unfortunately it wasn’t. In fact I think that the calling of Marx was not an expression of God’s sense of humor so much as an expression of his frustration that no one in his Church was taking a significant stand against the rampant poverty of that time. It was more an act of desperation on God’s part to awaken his Church to its mission; a Church that was instead preoccupied with internal strife and overwhelmed by radical political change.

The Industrial Revolution had brought major changes to Western civilization, and consequently had resulted in a mass migration of people to urban industrial centers. While there was a general raising of the standard of living for some of the people it impacted, the escalating need for labor also resulted in the exploitation of people, with many of the lower class being subject to horrendous working and living conditions.

Unfortunately organizations that have a significant history behind them typically do not respond well to change. By their nature they become trapped in their traditions, mainly because there is a subtle confidence in the idea of continuing with whatever has proven to be successful up until then. Consequently the Roman Catholic Church, the most established church of the time, was somewhat unprepared and even unwilling to deal head on with the growing social problems that were occurring during the early part of the 19th century. Combined with that, the memory of the severely anti-Catholic behavior that had taken place during the then recent French Revolution had perhaps left the Church with a slightly bitter feeling towards the common or lower-class people.

Whatever the reasons, the Roman Catholic Church at that time was if anything more associated with the rich and powerful than it was with the poor and downtrodden - an unfortunate legacy of the many centuries in which it had held a position of prestige and power. This is not to make light the incredible acts of self-sacrifice made by some individuals and sects within the Church in helping the poor at that time - there have always been people of faith who have lived lives committed to the poor - but this idea of service to the poor was certainly not part of the central theme in the Church’s message, nor its work, during the early 1800s.

At the same time the numerous other Christian Churches of the era were primarily focused on gaining converts to their own particular churches. This was their main emphasis at that time, and if helping the poor was a means to this end then they were certainly involved in that, but it was not a primary goal in itself. Most of these newer Protestant Churches, having established themselves as viable institutions, were now embarking vast expansion processes.

Finally the Catholic Church did rise to the challenge and came out with its own social teachings beginning in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. However, one would have to admit that this was more a response to the growing spread and acceptance of socialism and other Marxist models rather than an independent initiative. In terms of stimulus, the driving force behind the movement to accomplish social change since the 1800s and until recently has been firmly rooted in Marxist ideology, or at least strongly associated with it.

However, this is no longer true. Marxism has, in the main, been rejected or abandoned. Its demise is primarily a result of the many failures that have occurred when attempts have been made to put it into practice, as well as the extremely tyrannical methods that have been used to try to implement it. In my opinion it was flawed from the start for one main reason – its denial of the existence of God.

The starting point for Marx’s ideology was the conclusion that God did not exist – "Communism begins from the outset ... with atheism". Having drawn this conclusion Marx then determined that it was up to people to solve the problems that he saw in society. From his perspective, people needed to build the kingdom of people, as there was no such thing as the ‘mythical’ kingdom of God. Salvation came from us and from us alone. The problem with this conclusion, in my opinion, is that if there is no God then there is no external source of ethics, and thus morality becomes, at the best, subjective, and at the worst, non-existent.

So while Marx’s motives in wanting to help the underprivileged were noble, the means of achieving this goal ended up being far less noble in nature. The end goal had to be achieved at all costs, and was therefore more important than any morality surrounding the means of getting there. The only absolute was getting to a classless and stateless society. This type of thinking very quickly became a law unto itself, and it resulted in the drawing of distinct lines between those who were for, and those who were against, this objective. There could be no good in those who stood against its progress, and there was no compassion or concept of redemption for them. All this was lost in Marxism since those in opposition were by their very opposition external to those within the cause, and therefore had to be stopped by whatever means possible.

A classic example of this can be found in Che Guevara, the Argentinian medical student who became a militant Marxist. Initially he was moved to deep compassion by his experiences with the poor; however his Marxist ideas quickly led him to turn to violence as a means of helping these people. In essence his compassion was very one sided, and it did not prevent him from adopting violence against the ’enemy’. It was very clear and acceptable to him that those in opposition to his cause should be destroyed.   

There is much more that could be written about this matter but this is not meant to be a critique of Marxism but rather an acknowledgement of its significant impact, both good and bad, on the plight of the poor. It is also an acknowledgement of the fact that it is no longer the force for social change that it once was.

In fact, with the collapse of the various Communist regimes, a sudden vacuum has developed across the world.  It would appear that the end of the Cold War and the new world order that began since then is disturbingly one sided. For one, from an economic perspective, capitalism no longer has the opponent it once had, and even an ardent capitalist would have to admit that competition is necessary for any system to thrive.

In today’s world most major countries are being driven by the desire to develop materially and especially technically, and the new race happening internationally is the one to gain, or keep, a position of superiority and power. Dealing with the underdeveloped nations is certainly not a priority, and when pressed to do so many Western nations will make some efforts to provide aid, but this is typically done at a fairly minimal level when compared to the extent of the actual need that exists there. Granted this is partly due to the widespread corruption that plagues many of these poorer countries and makes the effective distribution of aid a difficult and exasperating process. Nevertheless, if one was to sum up the nature of our modern world as a whole, concern for the poor would not feature as a prominent characteristic.

Indeed it would appear that the only underdeveloped nations that get any real attention are the ones that cause the most trouble, and more particularly, the ones who have resources needed by the developing nations. If they could be ignored then they would be ignored. There is no significant champion of their cause.

Surely the time has come for the Christian Church to rise to the challenge? While it is true that there are many dedicated individuals who do in fact live as examples of God’s love for the poor, and who have made major sacrifices to live and proclaim this message, it is still a rarity within the mainline Christian way of life. Undoubtedly we give to charities, but as Marx himself pointed out, does this perhaps not simply ease our consciences and thereby stifle any attempt at more meaningful action – action to bring about substantial and permanent change in society? 

From a Christian perspective there is no way that the inhumane and destructive environments that many people are forced to live in should ever be acceptable. The facts about poverty are staggering. Just one example is enough. How can it be acceptable that, according to UNICEF, around 22,000 children die each day from poverty? How is it possible for any person who claims to represent God’s message here on earth to ignore such matters? How is it possible for us to eat our full, day after day, when it is a known fact that people are starving to death?

Although there are many wonderful secular and religious organizations that are already dedicated to helping the poor, there is no group of people more suitable than the Christian community en masse for tackling the problem of poverty. Christians are dispersed across all levels of society including places of influence within governments and businesses as well as in other significant social structures. Considering the fact that around 2 billion people (a third of the world’s population) claim to be Christians of one kind or another there is certainly no excuse regarding any lack in numbers.

There is also no excuse for any inaction. Jesus himself commanded his followers to love one another in the same way that he loved them (John 13:34). This was not a simple request – this was his own personal commandment to his followers and was to be the foundation of the movement that he had begun. His own life was a total expression of service and love; in the end he even sacrificed his life out of love for all humanity. How is it possible for Christians to ignore what this means? How is it possible for us to ignore the widespread pain and suffering of so many people and for us to still claim to be followers of Christ?

I think that part of the problem within modern Christianity is that we are still so hung up on trying to get into heaven. We think that the whole purpose of our lives, from a spiritual perspective, is to do with saving our souls. Whether this means adherence to some creed, feeling ‘born again’, going to church regularly, or simply being able to say that one is a Christian, the idea that we are saved seems to satisfy the contemporary Christian. But Jesus never commanded us to make sure that we go to heaven, he commanded us to love one another. In fact to offset any ideas to the contrary we are warned by Jesus that we will indeed only get into heaven if we do perform acts of love (Matthew 25:31-46).

While one could argue that the Christian life is multifaceted and complex and that we should not narrow its focus too much, it cannot be denied that the extent of worldwide poverty is the greatest example of the Christian Church’s failure to live up to its responsibility. It is no wonder that Marx and his contemporaries came to the conclusion that there was no God. It is no wonder that many people today come to this same conclusion. When you look at the life of Christ it is obvious that we have failed to be an expression of his existence and his core message of love and service.

Forget the mistakes of the past, the terrible acts of violence and abuse of power that are at least somewhat excusable due of the primitive human understanding at the time; we of the Christian Churches have grown extensively since then and we can no longer claim that we are unaware of the suffering that goes on due to poverty, nor can we claim ignorance about our duty as Christians to make the eradication of poverty a priority.

If we truly want to be a witness to the existence of God and his nature, that of unconditional love, then the way to do it is through acts of love. Jesus told us that this was to be our hallmark and the way that we would be recognized as his followers (John 13:35). If the Christian Church wants to be true to its mission, and indeed relevant, then it is time for the various denominational leaders as well as each individual Christian to make a courageous stand and place the emphasis of our faith where it belongs.

Peter Queenan