Class War and Class Peace


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Nehemiah 5:1-9, Acts 20:7-12, Luke 12:22-31

“Class warfare” is a term left over from the Marxist rhetoric of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over time its frequency of use has shifted away from leftist thinkers who embraced Marx’s idea that “the history of all society up to now is the history of class struggles” which they felt the lower economic classes were losing, toward the right who interpret “struggle” as “warfare” and generally use it to describe what they feel are political and economic socialist attacks – usually in the form of wealth redistribution – against the rich.

The cultures of Europe and Asia have long been class conscious and it shapes much of their history and societal expectations. In the United States we pride ourselves on class mobility. The American Dream, after all, is for each generation to work hard and succeed beyond the previous one. Anyone with ambition, so the legend goes, ought to be able to rise to whatever level of society they like. Ignoring class barriers promotes the story that we rise and fall on our merits. It also makes it easier to ignore our responsibilities because we can explain away the less fortunate as less deserving. If we are indeed exceptional it’s not because we have risen above class structure, but because we have done our best to deny it.

Jesus did not ignore class divisions. Claiming the first would be last and the last would be first was a direct acknowledgment of them. Some were economic, some were religious, and others were tribal. His answer was not to pretend they would go away, but to help us understand how they hurt people on both sides of a given divide. When he told the rich young man he needed to give everything away, it wasn’t an endorsement of forced wealth redistribution, but an indictment of what the young man valued. He doesn’t tell any of us we have a right to take what others have earned, but he does tell us we ultimately don’t have a right to what we’ve earned either – because it all comes from God, and should be used to God’s glory.

In the Book of Nehemiah, the prophet chastises the rich who would ignore and even benefit from the plight of the poor. The rich became richer by accepting children of their less fortunate (that is, starving) fellow Jews into slavery and charging interest on people’s debts – a practice forbidden under Mosaic law. We may not be religiously forbidden to charge interest, but we are the home of a payday loan economy designed to charge the highest interest to those who can least afford it (and justify it with the supposedly moral neutral concept of “risk”). Our poorest children are not (generally) sold into slavery, but they are much more likely to die or be wounded in the service of a nation which asks relatively little of its wealthiest citizens. The wealthy aren’t even the ones who bear the brunt of the waste they disproportionately generate; landfills and toxic dumps aren’t set up in suburbs full of millionaires.

Marxism isn’t the answer of course. Neither is free market capitalism. Nor is any worldly ideology. Jesus calls us to look at the world around us as it is – classes and all – and make the sacrifices necessary to make it more just – which in the kingdom means to put the last first – whether we are legally required to or not. We shouldn’t need the government to tell us how to redistribute our wealth; Jesus already has. Are we willing to do it?

Further Reading: For thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see The Ledge.

Comfort: Whatever our class, we are the same before God.

Challenge: Don’t ignore the reality of class divides. Try to approach them as Christ did.

Prayer: The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)

Discussion: Do you think there is a class system in the United States?

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