How Christian Is Sojourners Marxism?

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In a recent blog post, Jim Wallis of Sojourners asks, "How Christian is Tea Party Libertarianism?" His answer, not surprisingly, is that it is "racist," "individualist," and a whole host of other evil things.

In other words, according to Wallis, libertarians simply cannot claim to be Christians in any form, although at the end he claims that he wants a "dialogue." (One has to remember that Wallis is not one to "dialogue" with anyone, and I have been reading his material for the past 35 years and yet to see him even acknowledge that anyone who might disagree with him could have even a sliver of a legitimate point.)

I wish to look at his points, comment on them, and then point out that historically, Wallis has supported some of the most virulent and murderous regimes in world history, all because these regimes claim to be doing things to "help the poor." For all of his "Christian" rhetoric, Wallis has a worldview that hardly differs from people like Pol Pot, who managed to wipe out a third of the population of Cambodia while in power.

However, Wallis does not fear men like Pol Pot or Mao, both of whom were steeped in blood. He does fear Rand Paul, almost at a hysterical level, and it is clear that Wallis (who claims to be politically independent) actually is taking part in the Democratic Party effort to push its "talking points" on Paul after his primary victory in Kentucky.

In fact, I find it curious that Wallis even would address libertarianism at all, given his view that only totalitarian regimes truly can be "Christian" in orientation. Yet, the only conclusion I can reach is that he simply is engaging in "talking points" that demonstrate to me once again that for all of his spiritual comments, in the end, he simply is a Democratic political operative and nothing else.

Wallis’ criticisms of what he calls "libertarianism" fall into the following categories:

  • "The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition";
  • "An anti-government ideology just isn’t biblical";
  • "The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin";
  • "The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian";
  • Libertarians mostly are racists and "racism — overt, implied, or even subtle — is not a Christian virtue."

It is obvious that Wallis has created a number of straw men, and then tries to demolish them, although I am not sure he manages to be convincing even when operating on that ground. Nonetheless, since he has thrown down the glove in this fashion, I would like to address each of his points, and try to do it honestly. This is not because I wish to "dialogue" with Wallis, given that the man is not capable of having a real "conversation" with anyone, but since I am both a libertarian and a Christian, if nothing else, I wish to defend myself and my fellow libertarians from dishonest attacks.

In this article, I deal with the Wallis’ first two claims, and I will look at the others in later pieces.

  1. "The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue. Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition";

According to Wallis, individuals should not have free choice in economic matters, and his view of "rights" is even more convoluted. Nonetheless, I will try to make sense of what he is saying.

What libertarians believe is that all rights begin with individual rights; as Murray Rothbard has noted, there is no such thing as a "collective." Furthermore, one must ask what kind of "individual rights" exist at the "expense of others"? Freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? What does he mean?

Libertarians hold that individual rights are based upon the view that governments cannot intrude upon certain things, or what one might call "negative rights." Yet, the thing to remember is that these rights — which apparently Wallis hates — are not done at the expense of other individuals. My free speech does not keep someone else from engaging in the same actions.

Wallis very well might mean private property rights, but even then, the right I have to private property is a right that simply says that someone else cannot take from me what is mine. For example, if Wallis believes that my owning a house means that someone else must go homeless is downright silly, yet, private property rights and "negative" rights are the rights that libertarians believe are fundamental, so if he is attacking those rights, what he really is saying is that the state should have no limits in taking away individual freedoms and for invading one’s property. In other words, Wallis is attacking most of the Bill of Rights.

To attack the provisions of individual rights also means that one is endorsing that people be subservient to the state. There is no other logical way to interpret his statement, as Wallis specifically attacked individual rights.

  1. An anti-government ideology just isn’t biblical. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul (not the Kentucky Senate candidate) describes the role and vocation of government; in addition to the church, government also plays a role in God’s plan and purposes. Preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good are all prescribed; we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes! Sorry, Tea Party. Of course, debating the size and role of government is always a fair and good discussion, and most of us would prefer smart and effective to "big" or "small" government.

Revelation 13 depicts the state as a totalitarian beast — a metaphor for Rome, which was persecuting the Christians. This passage serves as a clear warning about the abuse of governmental power. But a power-hungry government is clearly an aberration and violation of the proper role of government in protecting its citizens and upholding the demands of fairness and justice. To disparage government per se — to see government as the central problem in society — is simply not a biblical position. (Emphasis mine)

First, and most important, a "power-hungry government" is NOT an aberration. Indeed, all governments are power-hungry, and for Wallis to claim that such governments are rare or are simply "aberrations" is to be telling falsehoods about the nature and history of governments. Now, I have no idea what "smart and effective" government is, given that most governments I have witnessed throughout my lifetime have been large and power-hungry.

Second, libertarians such as me do not oppose governments because we simply are rebellious creatures or that we want people to be poor. Instead, we oppose governments because governments impoverish and kill people. Governments plunder, and the history of government is the history of plunder.

As for Romans 13, it hardly seems to me to be an open invitation for governments to engage in theft and murder. Indeed, the same government that was in power when St. Paul wrote Romans 13 is the same Roman government depicted as the Beast in Revelation 13. Furthermore, the government of Rome was tame compared to the murderous rampage of the Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot governments, yet Wallis supported the last two, declaring Mao’s government to be the epitome of Christianity at one point in his life.

A few years ago, Lew Rockwell wrote this about the China that Wallis once held to be the most "Christian" society on earth when Mao ruled:

The communization of China took place in the usual three stages: purge, plan, and scapegoat. First there was the purge to bring about communism. There were guerillas to kill and land to nationalize. The churches had to be destroyed. The counterrevolutionaries had to be put down. The violence began in the country and spread later to the cities. All peasants were first divided into four classes that were considered politically acceptable: poor, semi-poor, average, and rich. Everyone else was considered a landowner and targeted for elimination. If no landowners could be found, the “rich” were often included in this group. The demonized class was ferreted out in a country-wide series of “bitterness meetings” in which people turned in their neighbors for owning property and being politically disloyal. Those who were so deemed were immediately executed along with those who sympathized with them.

The rule was that there had to be at least one person killed per village. The number killed is estimated to be between one and five million. In addition, another four to six million landowners were slaughtered for the crime of being capital owners. If anyone was suspected of hiding wealth, he or she was tortured with hot irons to confess. The families of the killed were then tortured and the graves of their ancestors looted and pillaged. What happened to the land? It was divided into tiny plots and distributed among the remaining peasants.

Then the campaign moved to the cities. The political motivations here were at the forefront, but there were also behavioral controls. Anyone who was suspected of involvement in prostitution, gambling, tax evasion, lying, fraud, opium dealing, or telling state secrets was executed as a “bandit.” Official estimates put the number of dead at two million with another two million going to prison to die. Resident committees of political loyalists watched every move. A nighttime visit to another person was immediately reported and the parties involved jailed or killed. The cells in the prisons themselves grew ever smaller, with one person living in a space of about 14 inches. Some prisoners were worked to death, and anyone involved in a revolt was herded with collaborators and they were all burned.

There was industry in the cities, but those who owned and managed them were subjected to ever tighter restrictions: forced transparency, constant scrutinies, crippling taxes, and pressure to offer up their businesses for collectivization. There were many suicides among the owners of small and medium-sized businesses, who saw the writing on the wall. Joining the party provided only temporary respite, since in 1955 began the campaign against hidden counterrevolutionaries in the party itself. A principle here was that one in 10 party members was a secret traitor.

As the rivers of blood rose ever higher, Mao brought about the Hundred Flowers Campaign in two months of 1957, the legacy of which is the phrase we often hear: “let a hundred flowers bloom.” People were encouraged to speak freely and give their point of view, an opportunity that was very tempting for intellectuals. The liberalization was short lived. In fact, it was a trick. All those who spoke out against what was happening to China were rounded up and imprisoned, perhaps between 400,000 and 700,000 people, including 10 percent of the well-educated classes. Others were branded as right-wingers and subjected to interrogation, reeducation, kicked out of their homes, and shunned.

However, because Wallis considers centralized government planning to be "Christian economics" in action, one also should read this account of how Wallis’ "Christian state" operates in the real world:

Following the collectivization of land, Mao decided to go further to dictate to the peasants what they would grow, how they would grow it, and where they would ship it, or whether they would grow anything at all as versus plunge into industry. This would become the Great Leap Forward that would generate history’s most deadly famine. Peasants were grouped into groups of thousands and forced to share all things. All groups were to be economically self-sufficient. Production goals were raised ever higher.

People were moved by the hundreds of thousands from where production was high to where it was low, as a means of boosting production. They were moved too from agriculture to industry. There was a massive campaign to collect tools and transform them into industrial skill. As a means of showing hope for the future, collectives were encouraged to have huge banquets and eat everything, especially meat. This was a way of showing one’s belief that the next year’s harvest would be even more bountiful.

Mao had this idea that he knew how to grow grain. He proclaimed that “seeds are happiest when growing together” and so seeds were sown at five to ten times their usual density. Plants died, the soil dried out, and the salt rose to the surface. To keep birds from eating grain, sparrows were wiped out, which vastly increased the number of parasites. Erosion and flooding became endemic. Tea plantations were turned to rice fields, on grounds that tea was decadent and capitalistic. Hydraulic equipment built to service the new collective farms didn’t work and lacked any replacement parts. This led Mao to put new emphasis on localized industry, which was forced to appear in the same areas as agriculture, leading to ever more chaos. Workers were drafted from one sector to another, and mandatory cuts in some sectors were balanced by mandatory high quotas in others.

In 1957, the disaster was everywhere. Workers were growing too weak even to harvest their meager crops, so they died watching the rice rot. Industry churned and churned but produced nothing of any use. The government responded by telling people that fat and proteins were unnecessary. But the famine couldn’t be denied. The black-market price of rice rose 20 to 30 times. Because trade had been forbidden between collectives (self-sufficiency, you know), millions were left to starve. By 1960, the death rate soared from 15 percent to 68 percent, and the birth rate plummeted. Anyone caught hording grain was shot. Peasants found with the smallest amount were imprisoned. Fires were banned. Funerals were prohibited as wasteful.

Villagers who tried to flee from the countryside to the city were shot at the gates. Deaths from hunger reached 50 percent in some villages. Survivors boiled grass and bark to make soup and wandered the roads looking for food. Sometimes they banded together and raided houses looking for ground maize. Women were unable to conceive because of malnutrition. People in work camps were used for food experiments that led to sickness and death.

How bad did it get? 1968 an 18-year-old member of the Red Guard, Wei Jingsheng, took refuge with a family in a village of Anhui, and here he lived to write about what he saw: “We walked along beside the village…Before my eyes, among the weeds, rose up one of the scenes I had been told about, one of the banquets at which the families had swapped children in order to eat them. I could see the worried faces of the families as they chewed the flesh of other people’s children. The children who were chasing butterflies in a nearby field seemed to be the reincarnation of the children devoured by their parents. I felt sorry for the children but not as sorry as I felt for their parents. What had made them swallow that human flesh, amidst the tears and grief of others — flesh that they would never have imagined tasting, even in their worst nightmares?” (The author of the passage was jailed as a traitor but his status protected him from death and he was finally released in 1997.)

In the end, millions upon millions of people starved to death, in effect murdered by the state. Mao then would move to the "Cultural Revolution" which effectively turned China into one vast prison. Keep in mind that Wallis believes that this, too, should be our fate.

Now, I am sure that Wallis would protest vehemently with my last statement, but you have to remember that his magazine, Sojourners, had plenty of opportunity to deal with the atrocities above in real time. In other words, when these things actually were happening, he vociferously defended the people committing the atrocities. I don’t think he can claim ignorance, and he certainly cannot claim that I am making up this material.

People have to understand that when Wallis and his ilk speak of "community," what they mean is government. To them, government that confiscates wealth and orders the lives of people is the kind of "community" that is "Christian" in its orientation. A government that actually leaves us alone will not qualify, not in their definition.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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