(Photo via Midwestern Marx)
The purpose of this article is to outline very briefly some of the positions held by the Mexican theologian Jose Porfirio Miranda, regarding his provocative claims about Christianity and communism. I will concede at the outset that I have been persuaded by Miranda’s general thesis that the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity is that it became a religion dominated by bureaucratic clerics. That I am in fundamental accord with his argument about how money is made a measure of value and that it bears a strong affinity to the teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels might seem outrageous to some and damnably sacrilegious to others. After all, Marxism and Christianity do not translate seamlessly to our current political predicament. Marx’s masterly analysis of capitalism that plaits ideas from an impressive array of sources illuminates the struggles of the early Church that was up against manifold congeries of social, cultural and political forces. I am not hermeneutically opaque to the idea that liberation theology needs to be discussed in schools in tandem with a critique of capitalism. In fact, I consider it a fundamental directive for our times. In so doing, I surmise that ’liberation theology’ – employing Marx’s critique of political economy alongside Christianity as a theology and praxis of liberation – may be Marxism’s last stand in a world that has rejected interpretations of his work that he would never have sanctioned during his lifetime. The dismissal of Marx in the public square is one of the Big Lies of the West’s contemporary engagement with history.
For those interested in Marxism and scriptural scholarship, I encourage you to read Miranda’s works, especially Marx and the Bible, Marx Against the Marxists, Being and the Messiah and Communism in the Bible. Marx was essentially a humanist (and Miranda even strongly suggests that Marx was a Christian), and, with enduring clarity (that is, by avoiding homogenising abstractions, indeterminate and contingent frameworks for analysing the reigning social and political imperatives), Miranda attempted a close reading of Marx that reveals its gospel roots, enabling both Marx and Jesus to become allies in the task of political resistance against the defining Weltanschauung that dominates Western society and thus bolstering Marx’s attempt to officiate the debate over wealth and capital as an effective strategy of anti-hegemonic reasoning. Miranda is not out to identify Biblical phrases in order to match them one-on-one with Marx’s own provocative exegesis but rather seeks to identify their common approach to challenging oppression in this toxic world. James Mark Shields writes:
Miranda’s thesis is clear. He is looking not to match the words of Marx to those of the Bible, or vice versa, but rather to elucidate the ‘philosophy of oppression’ that both Marx and the Bible, in their own ways, subvert. He is working on Marx’s ‘call to abandon a condition which requires illusions,’ without at the same time abandoning the central dogmas of Christian faith. Whereas Marx applied his sword against religion, Miranda turns his against the (particularly Greek) Weltanschauung that has dominated and continues to dominate Western societies and to which the Church has – at least until Vatican II – too readily submitted.
Essentially, the ‘philosophy of oppression’ is the philosophy that makes an object out of God, or anything, for that matter. It is idolatry in its most pernicious form, a fetish-worship that becomes so entrenched as to be all-but-invisible, like Pythagoras’s music of the spheres, unheard because it is always with us. As Miranda says in his ‘Preface’ to Marx and the Bible: ‘The philosophy of oppression … does not achieve its greatest triumph when its propagandists knowingly inculcate it … [but] when [it] has become so deeply rooted in the spirits of the oppressors themselves and their ideologues that they are not even aware of their guilt….
Miranda defiantly writes: ‘If we want to know ‘Why communism?’ the response is unequivocal: because any other system consists of the exploitation of some persons over others.’ Essentially Miranda is confronting the institutional authority of the teachings of the Church and the political consensus surrounding Marx’s own work, the latter of which has undergone a long-drawn-out radical effacement in American universities over the past 50 years, from being an incontestable force that deserves serious analysis to an intellectually neutralising, dispersed and shrinking interpretive horizon whose efficacy is largely and painstakingly undecidable.
Jesus and Marx and Early Communism
It is not as if Marx’s work contains some insuperable hidden logic that mirrors Christ’s teachings both in terms of assuming divine authority and a latent social totality coterminous with the realities of divine history or that its interpretive standpoints circumscribe God’s options for humanity. Rather, Marx makes available to us a robustly alert analysis of the material contradictions of capitalism and the state’s dominating structure that can be seen as ‘sinful transgression’ at the level of the social totality, when viewed from the perspective of Biblical commentary. Marx’s writings and Christ’s teachings are directed at improving rather than maintaining society. Marx wishes to transform, not reproduce, the structural inequality, omnivorous militarism, and exploitation at the heart of capitalist society. Capitalism didn’t exist during Jesus’s time, but Miranda’s criticism of differentiating wealth bears some ideological commonalities with Marx’s critique of capitalism. Ironically, to associate Jesus with communism or Marxism has resulted in a cultural indoctrination against Marxism. The rationality behind this is embedded in the same forces that have produced what today is called ‘the big lie.’
You don’t have to look far to spot some commonalities between Marx’s views and those contained in the Bible. There are, for instance, persistent religious analogies in Marx’s treatments of fetishism and its connection to idolatry, as discussed in the Bible. He maintains, credulously, that Jesus was the first to denounce money as the object of idolatry; in fact, it became an intrinsic part of his teachings. Marx has drawn back the curtain that for centuries concealed how we have come to regard certain forms of labour and value as self-evident truths of human action which are imposed by necessity. They are imposed in such a way that we are unable to see their contradictory nature and are thus unable to widen and deepen the sociopolitical relevance of critical understanding. We are less able, as a result, to confront critically and with a necessary verve and robustness the relationship between ideas and the means by which they become legitimated by those with the social power to pacify those ideas, disabling in the process our understanding of how they organise capitalist reality. And there are political and socioeconomic consequences to accepting authentic Christianity that you won’t find in the pseudo-Christianity of today’s fast-growing Christian nationalism, serious social repercussions.
But, Miranda maintains, if we are to remain true to the teachings of Jesus, then we must get rid of any mode of production in which money is of necessity the supreme god. But it is impossible to get rid of money and still retain the commodity mode of production. Fetishism of commodities is a type of religion predicated on salacious desire in which the fetish-worshipper believes money is an ‘inanimate object,’ not much different from an inflatable sex doll. Miranda maintains that it is no longer the case that money represents commodities, but, rather, in this modern era, commodities have come to represent money. Miranda is careful to point out that the problem is not that money is the god of all commodities. Rather, the problem is that money has become the god of human beings who, all over the world, are living under the commodity mode of production. Money is a problem because it tries to incarnate itself as it drives the divine vastness of Mammon worship. The logic of the profit-motive directly contradicts the human soul, as money becomes more gloriously ascendant in the form of global capitalism. Money has become a potent fetish revealed by Miranda to be limitless. As I have argued in Pedagogy of Insurrection:
What is clear from a reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus is that the world is in the thrall of the monetary god, and that the true Kingdom of God requires a commitment to social justice. Did not the very person who baptised Jesus and who was a major figure inaugurating the Kingdom of God – John the Baptist – proclaim: ‘The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise’ (Luke 3:11)? Did not Jesus Himself declare, ‘No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6:24)? What does this say about capitalism, the greatest colonising force in history, sweeping across the parched plains of the planet like a dust storm from hell and arriving as temples of usury called banks and investment firms?
Mammon, or money, has become an object of slavish worship by the salivating, lip-smacking edgelords of profit who power the world of finance by means of gaslighting the public, by profiting from warfare and by wild bottom-line speculation in hedge fund heaven. It is in the spirit-crushing crucible of cynicism out of which the subject (human beings) is converted into an object (human capital) and vice versa that Marx gleaned his key insights into both religion and economics in his bracing and courageous indictment of capitalism. The relationship that false religion presents to the realm of ideology is the same as the switching of the subject into an object, of the end into means, and vice-versa, in the violent creation of wealth, a process of the production of social labour. This manifests in class divisions not so much by exercising prohibitions but rather by its preoccupation with constraints. Preparations are thus made step-by-step for the birth of capitalist social relations. Miranda summarises one of the key insights of Marx’s labour theory of value – that ‘capital has to find some way to exchange itself for a commodity that produces more value than the commodity itself has’ – which is the labour-power of the worker in the form of wage labour. Capital must reproduce this type of labourer. Miranda quotes Marx’s famous line: ‘Capital is dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ For Marx, questions surrounding the production of commodities are theological and metaphysical in essence. Human beings cannot be subordinated to things. They cannot be reduced to the fodder of human capital. Living labour cannot be turned into its opposite, or put another way, it cannot be reified as materialised labour or fetishised as interest-bearing capital. Marx’s humanism is most evident in the way he indignantly rejected the reversal of the relationship between persons and things, identifying the reciprocal causality between a false god and its worshipper, as money becomes a counter-subject that ends up dominating all of humanity. The culture of the fetish is itself a fetish. This is Marx’s grindingly prophetic outrage at work.
Insofar as so-called Christian reformists ignore Marx’s warning about worshipping Mammon, fail to shirk off their self-encasement in capital’s law of maximum return, and refuse to assume responsibility for interrogating their presuppositions and prejudices, as well as questioning the self-sufficiency of reason itself, any substantive contributions to creating a just society remain vanishingly small. In such a theatre of placeless indecision regarding what to do with the suffering poor, the hapless reserve army of labour, and paralysed by a motivated amnesia with respect to acts of terror that have been supported by the capitalist state (slavery, massacre of the indigenous population, imperialist war), Marx reserves the right to criticise pseudo-Christianity by whatever means he chooses. And he has done humanity a favour by revealing how money essentially functions as a god so long as people treat it as such.
Miranda is unsparing in his assertion that Jesus clearly was a communist, and this can convincingly be seen throughout the New Testament but particularly in passages such as John 12:6, 13:29 and Luke 8:1–3. Jesus went so far as to make the renunciation of property a condition for entering the kingdom of God. When Luke says, ‘Happy the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’ (Luke 6:20) and adds, ‘Woe to you the rich because you have received your comfort’ (Luke 6:24), Luke is repeating Mark 10:25 when Jesus warns that the rich cannot enter the kingdom.
Marx borrows the imagery from Biblical apocalyptic literature in an economic, political, and historical manner when, in his masterwork, Capital, he quotes from the Apocalypse of John, 13:17; 17:13, in Latin, yoking together two different passages with a stunning and reverberating effect: Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt…. Et ne quis possit emere aut vendere, nisi qui habet characterem aut nomen bestiae, aut numerum nominis eius [These have one mind and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name]. Marx juxtaposes the above passages at the very moment in Capital when Marx names money as the universal equivalent of exchange. Andrew Kuiper reflects upon Marx’s deployment of some of the advanced theological weapons in Marx’s heavily stocked arsenal as follows:
He [Marx] chastises the political economists who presumptively enshrine certain forms of labour and value as self-evident truths of human action which are imposed by necessity. To his mind, this is to treat previous forms of economic and social organisation ‘in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religion.’ The footnote to this passage takes us to The Poverty of Philosophy, where Marx makes a similar comparison about the naïve distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ institutions’: ‘In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.’
For Christians, this has a double significance. Negatively, it means that Marx considers theologians to be as naïve as political economists in elaborating doctrine. Positively, it means that Marx believes that political economy forces a caesura on the development of history by using a theological apparatus. And in locating the essence of political economy in the use of a particular commodity that can evaluate all other commodities, he identifies the (anti)messianic centre of this aberrant theology: money.
In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx describes money as an omnipotent being and the mediator of his life and his means of life, including the existence of others. Miranda quotes Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1884, where he observed: ‘Money is the pimp between need and object, between life and man’s means of life.’ Miranda goes on to say: ‘Money as capital, as a god, is a perfect mode of production suited for its own reproduction. Capitalism institutionalises the idolatrous worship of Mammon.’
Miranda also laments that Christianity ever became a religion. He even goes so far as to say that ‘Christianity as a religion has been the most radical falsification ever perpetrated in history.’ Clearly, Christianity has been corrupted by corrupted and corrupting Christians who have gone on to institutionalise such corruption. That is clear in its de-emphasis on the source of and responsibility for poverty and differentiating wealth and the role of the capitalist overlord. Miranda is not merely saying that the wealthy should be charitable, but that the accumulation of wealth is fundamentally unethical, that the root of wealth is injustice, reflecting Marx’s condemnation of the exploitation of the worker under capitalism. It is impossible to become rich and be just in doing so since the value produced by the worker is effectively stolen by the bourgeoisie. Americans have been singled out for their obsession with money by no less a critic than Sigmund Freud, who referred to them as ‘money-obsessed savages’ whom he believed had ‘channelled their sexuality into an unhealthy obsession with money.’
The Bible teaches that Jesus believed that the kingdom is not the state of being after death; rather, the kingdom is now, here on earth. Yes, the eschaton has been immanentised, despite the strenuous efforts of conservative Catholic author and editor William F. Buckley, who popularised the phrase by political philosopher Eric Voegelin: ‘Don’t immanentise the eschaton!’ Jesus observes that ‘in the kingdom, there cannot be social differences – that the kingdom, whether or not it pleases the conservatives, is a classless society.’ In Acts, Luke describes what sounds like the attributes of a socialist society:
All the believers together had everything in common; they sold their possessions and their goods, and distributed among all in accordance with each one’s need. [Acts 2:44–45]
The heart of the multitude of believers was one, and their soul was one, and not a single one said anything of what he had was his, but all things were in common. … There was no poor person among them, since whoever possessed fields or houses sold them, bore the proceeds of the sale and placed them at the feet of the apostles; and a distribution was made to each in accordance with his need. [Acts 4:32, 34–35]
In Pedagogy of Insurrection, I shared the following commentary:
‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’ was a famous phrase used by Marx in a letter he wrote in 1875 to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, which came to be part of his Critique of the Gotha Program. If you refer to Acts 4:34–35, you will see that Marx simply paraphrased what is written in the New Testament. Does that mean that the early Christians were communists? Perhaps it is better to say that communism proper is a Christian principle (that was perverted and distorted in the totalitarian communist regimes of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries). The first part of the principle – from each according to their ability – can be understood to mean that all members of society will have the right to use their creative abilities to produce that which benefits the entire society. The second part of the principle – to each according to their needs – explains that citizens will receive from society a fair return for their labour, that is, what is necessary to fulfil their needs. Needs here does not simply refer to material needs, although material needs must be met in order for other needs to be satisfied.
It is often thought that Jesus taught that poverty is something that can never be eradicated and that the poor will always be a natural part of social life. But Jesus did not say that the poor will always be with us; he said that the poor are with us all the time. Miranda cites numerous translation sources attesting that this statement should be translated as ‘The poor you have with you at all moments [or continuously]. And you can do them good when you wish; on the other hand, you do not have me at all moments [Mark 14:7]’). According to Miranda, Jesus didn’t say, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ he said, ‘My kingdom does not come forth from this world’ or ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ since we can retain the original meaning only if we consider the preposition ek in the original Greek as meaning ‘from,’ signifying place of origin or provenance.
There are countless places in the Bible where ‘interest’ is unequivocally condemned. According to Miranda (2004, p. 54), the condemnation of interest can be found in Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:36, 37; Deuteronomy 23:19 (three times); Ezekiel 18:8, 13, 17, 22:12; Psalms 15:5; Proverbs 28:8. James condemns the acquisition of wealth by agricultural entrepreneurs (see James 5:1–6); he attacks all the rich (James 1:10–11); and says James 2:6: ‘Is it not the rich who oppress you and who hail you before the tribunals?’ He also says: ‘See, what you have whittled away from the pay of the workers who reap your fields cries out, and the anguish of the harvesters has come to the ears of the Lord of Armies’ (James 5:4)?
James’s discursus on interest points directly to the main problem in the Bible, which I consider to be one of the gravest problems, if not the central problem, of Christianity as a whole: the problem of differentiating wealth. Let me put it in simple terms: You cannot have a society in which some people are rich while some remain poor. If you support such a society, you can kiss heaven goodbye. Acquired wealth is to be unequivocally condemned, according to the Bible, but just as bad is the means by which that wealth is accumulated. Miranda writes that ‘[t]he prophets were no fools. Micha and Amos understood that “no differentiating wealth can be acquired without spoliation and fraud”’ (Miranda, 2004, p. 40).
At this point, I would like to include part of a debate that I had with Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith that was published in Chapman Magazine. It deals directly with the issue at hand: personal greed, the role of value augmentation as a driving force in society, and the exploitation of the peasantry.
My interpretation of the Parable of the Talents as told to Nobel Laureate in Economics Vernon Smith, during our 2015 Debate
The Parable of the Talents, as told by Jesus, goes something like this: A master puts his three servants in charge of his talents (a unit of weight valued in gold) while he is away on a trip. Upon his return, the master evaluates each servant according to how the servants used the talents to trade and gain profit and rewards them on the basis of their faithfulness to the master. Two servants who have been ‘faithful’ by making profits are given a positive reward. The third servant, who did not invest his talents, received a scolding from the master.
Following in the footsteps of Jesuit thinker Jose Porfirio Miranda, I have tried to demonstrate through the teachings of Jesus that are found in the Gospels, that Jesus was not against wealth per se, but against differentiating wealth – that is, against inequality. I provided some Biblical citations from the scriptures in a previous message. I believe that Jesus was very clear that you cannot realise the Kingdom of God when you have someone who is rich and, at the same time, someone who is poor. Eighteen centuries before Marx, St. Paul denounced the structural nature of sin, the institutionalisation of poverty. Marx and the Bible coincide when it comes to the necessity of breaking free from an enslaving civilising system, as Miranda notes, which allows some to be poor and some to be rich. Miranda’s work has taught me that where differentiating wealth does not exist, where economic activity is directly for the purpose of the satisfaction of needs and not even for trade, or for the transactions of buying and selling for profit, government is not necessary. This is in no way an invention of Marx but can be seen directly in the Bible. What purchasing power is produced by the tears of the poor? In the first-century Mediterranean world, politics and kinship were the prominent freestanding social institutions. During that time, as Bruce Malina notes, economics was embedded in the perception of limited good. The theme of poverty was understood differently in those days. The Torah and the Prophets were concerned about wealth redistribution and restitution, but as part of a political economy willed by God. So, when Jesus tells his followers to give to the poor, he is not talking about being charitable in our present use of the term, but about clearing a path for the arrival of the Kingdom of God. To build the Kingdom of God, which I believe is occurring right now, one must participate in the struggle for justice – as it is in this struggle that we find God – in the here and in the now. To the extent that one ignores or refuses to participate in this struggle, one necessarily participates in the perpetuation of injustice. As Miranda notes, even God is under this obligation to build a society where there is no rich and no poor. After all, God set in motion creation, which has not been kind to the poor, and the poor did not ask to come into this world. So, the struggle for equality is, I believe, both God’s obligation and ours. Christ died by crucifixion, a form of death reserved for political transgressors.
Abstract moral pronouncements are not enough. God obliges us to take up the revolutionary struggle to create a social universe of freely associated labour. Socialism is a necessary condition of freedom but not sufficient, as socialism can lead to new forms of tyranny, as Hudis notes, ‘based on the despotic plans of capital.’ So, we need an alternative to free market capitalism and what has called itself socialism. We need a philosophically and morally grounded alternative to capitalism. We need to build an emancipatory conception of a post-capitalist society, and I believe this is the purpose of critical pedagogy. Which is why, instead of using the term critical pedagogy, I prefer the term ‘revolutionary critical pedagogy.’ If we knew what was necessary to achieve equality, we could get on with the struggle. But we don’t have a viable alternative worked out as yet. And that is what we need to be doing now, in our universities, trying to figure it out….
My take on the Parable of the Talents is very different from the dominant interpretation, and I would like to share it with you. You could call it an alternative reading in the spirit of Paulo Freire, or Marx, for that matter. In my understanding of Jesus’ teachings, if Jesus were to comment on our current historical moment, he would never want to put people at the mercy of the free market, especially the deregulated market of today’s gangster capitalism. Nor would he have wanted the economy to be controlled entirely by the state, as in the state capitalism of the former Soviet Union or the former Easter Bloc countries. Both were forms of capitalism: one centralised state capitalism and the other, free market capitalism.
There is one way to object to the position that Jesus does not adopt the Old Testament condemnation of profit, and that is the Parable of the Talents. And that appears to be your position. One objection to your interpretation is that a parable is a literary device, and the interpretation could be that we are all obliged to contribute our creative capacities for the realisation of the kingdom of God. But I don’t take this position. My position is of a very different type.
Clearly, in both the Lucan version (Luke 19:11-27) and the version found in Matthew (Matt. 25:14-30), the Parable of the Talents is a condemnation of the exploitation of the peasants by the master and an attack on profit-making in general (although the differences between the two versions do have theological implications, let’s not focus on that). Let me make my case. I believe that it is an error to identify the ‘Master’ with God. First of all, let’s look at several contexts, the Old Testament and the agrarian economy during the time of Jesus. First, throughout the Old Testament, profit-making is inexorably condemned, and the evidence is overwhelming. The Torah condemns profit-making through commerce, loans at interest, and the process of production itself. But there is another context: the manner in which business was done in an agrarian economy in Jesus’ time and how the hearer of Jesus’ words would have reacted to the Parable of the Talents. Jesus was teaching communism, and it’s crystal clear, even in the Parable of the Talents. The early Christian communities were communist and shared everything. See Acts 2:44–45: ‘All the believers together had everything in common; they sold their possessions and their goods, and distributed them among all in accordance with each one’s needs.’ Let’s not confuse this with Soviet communism or the communism of the Eastern Bloc during the 20th century, which were state capitalist and totalitarian dictatorships. But let’s get back to the Parable of the Talents. My interpretation that follows is based on a Freirean reading of The Parable of the Talents by William R. Herzog and is paraphrased from his work, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (and the subtitle reflect the famous work of my mentor, Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herzog attempts to show Jesus as a critical pedagogue. First, we need to see the parable in the context of peasant values in early Mediterranean societies, which contained the notion of ‘limited good’ and the preference for ‘use value’ over ‘exchange value.’ The agrarian economy in Jesus’ time was undergoing changes caused by commercialisation. There was an antipathy among the peasants towards the growing exchange economy in Jesus’ time. In addition, during Jesus’ preaching in Galilee and Judea, the rural population was being subjected to the Roman and the Temple forms of tribute. The servants or retainers in the Parable of the Talents are not state officials, but their wealth depended on the same population that was being exploited by Jerusalem and Rome, and the peasants understood what was happening, and how they were being additionally exploited by the master and his household servants (these servants were more like the master’s own trusted inner circle). The third servant’s characterisation of the master is key to the Parable of the Talents – he speaks the truth to the master and exposes his true function in the society, and is punished for doing so. After all, the master is akin to an absentee landlord, bent on increasing his wealth through his absence in the household by dividing it among his trusted household staff and charging them to invest it in order to return a yield. Peasants during the war with the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua, when asked to interpret The Parable of the Talents, saw the master in this light – as an exploitative capitalist. But I want to take this interpretation much further. In Jesus’s time, the basic social, economic, cultural and political unit was not the peasant household, but the oikos, the great household of the elite, aristocratic families, which were basically trading houses, export-import businesses, where wealth was concentrated, often obscenely concentrated. The elites used their wealth to make loans to peasant farmers. This enabled the farmers to plant the crops. Interest rates were, researchers conclude, from 60 per cent up to 200 per cent. The masters of the great households were not so much interested in profit but wanted to acquire land as collateral. The elites would foreclose on their loans during hard times when the crops were failing due to drought or disease and could not cover their incurred indebtedness. The elites, like the master in the parable, and their servants were adapting to the growing effects of commercialisation on the agrarian economy and were more interested in the control of land, not just the control of the peasants who lived on them. There were efforts in Jesus’s time to displace peasants from their patrimonial lands and to reduce their status to dependent labourers. Children were forced to become day labourers. The sick and those with injuries or disabilities were left to die. The dynamics of debt that impacted peasant households in Jesus’ time were horrific. Who set the policies for controlling peasant holdings and labour? The answer: the servants, who served as retainers for the master. In Jesus’s time, the servants, or the retainers, were viewed with suspicion and caution, and dread. At the same time, there were small manufacturing operations specialising in luxury goods, and the only markets were the urban elites. The three servants could have partnered with these operations. Again, according to Herzog, they could have also combined trade with the normal export and import of goods produced in the household. The servants (retainers) certainly had the means to increase their wealth.
This was not a test by the master for the servants as the servants had already passed many tests, and if the master wanted to test them, it would make more sense to test them while the master was around to curtail any disaster. Even one talent was a considerable sum in those days. The gold talent-measure reportedly weighed roughly the same as a person. Besides, there was too much riding on the accumulation of wealth for this to be a test. In Jesus’s agrarian society, the ruling class controlled roughly 2 per cent of the wealth. When the rulers managed to acquire the peasant lands through the default of loans given to the peasants, the elites could shift the types of crops being produced to maximise the crop yields. Or it was possible to monetise land usage by converting the land to vineyards or orchards. Often the traditional use of the land by the peasants prevented the land from maximum exploitation by the rulers. The term ‘reaping where he had not sown and gathering where he had not spread seed’ suggests that the master was participating in extortion to enhance his wealth.
The distribution of talents was a means to consolidate wealth, to make the powerful become more powerful. The servants are ranked ‘each according to his ability’ in Matthew, but the translation could also mean, ‘each according to his rank or power.’ The profit of 100 per cent was the minimum according to the laws of Hammurabi, and if it were less, it would have been considered a default. Two of the servants doubled their entrusted wealth, so this means that they met their minimum profit or perhaps even exceeded it, given the master’s commendations. So the game of ‘honest graft’ being played here is this: After the servants secure their master’s initial investment, they double it, and this guarantees that the servants will make a profit. The servants are doing the dirty work for the master – and the peasants in Jesus’ time knew how the game was played. In fact, the servants took much of the heat from the peasants in lieu of the master. The third servant represents the view of the peasant who opposes the master. The praise heaped on the first two servants mystifies the ugly value augmentation role of the economy. They are praised for being good exploiters of the peasants. But, at the same time, they become even more dependent upon the master, as they are treated as clients and put in charge of greater aspects of the household and constantly reminded who constitutes the source of their patronage. To ‘enter into the joy of your master’ is a mystification of the cycle of oppression, as well as a call to celebrate differentiating wealth (inequality), their abundance in the midst of the deprivation of others. This is a mockery of the Old Testament, which stipulated that the wealthy make interest-free loans to the poor. What follows the Parable of the Talents is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus, as our shepherd who looks after us, is shown separating the nations of the earth like a shepherd who, in his daily life, separates the sheep from the goats. The goats are placed on the left hand of Jesus, while the sheep are on his right.
In Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus says to the sheep, ‘Come you, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Now how should masters – or anyone for that matter – treat others? We find this in Ezekiel 18:7-9: ‘But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right … and hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; he that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man, hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God.’ Do we not detect a condemnation of what today we could call monopoly capitalism but in biblical times would refer to larger enterprises (houses joining with other houses) to acquire the smaller and more vulnerable businesses, in the words of Isaiah 5:8: ’Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth’? Capitalism is a system that takes what should be shared in common, natural resources, or the wealth of nations, and redistributes them to the wealthy, increasing their power and their ability to exploit further. And this could also lead to practices of imperialism since, in the time of Jesus, the wealthy houses (the paterfamilias or the oikodespotes) were a reflection of the city, actually, according to Herzog, a microcosm of the city. The households governed the cities, in fact. The servants in the household were not slaves but, at the same time, were completely dependent on their patron-master. The kingdom was the most powerful level of society in Jesus’s time and was a collection of cities. If the kingdom operated as did the master in The Parable of Talents, this could indeed lead to imperialist conquests of other kingdoms – and in fact, this is what happened, and what happens, even up to the present day. The parables of Jesus have this transhistorical sense about them.
The third servant is punished, the result of telling the truth, of speaking truth to power. Jesus spoke truth to power and was crucified. As Herzog notes, correctly, in my view, by burying the talent, the servant took it out of economic circulation. By being buried, it could not be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands through the form of usurious loans. He is the hero of The Parable of the Talents who cuts through all the phony praise by the master, and the peasants listening to Jesus tell The Parable of the Talents would have understood this. The third servant was a whistle-blower – an early Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden. The third servant denied the self he was becoming – an exploiter, part of the system of economic exploitation. He spoke truth to power and was forced to bear the cross of exile into the world of poverty.
The Parable of Talents reinforces Jesus’s message of condemning differentiating wealth. Does not James 5:1-6 condemn the acquisition of wealth by the agricultural entrepreneurs? The rich are condemned in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:24): ‘Because you have received you comfort.’ As Miranda notes, James uncovers the origin of wealth when he says (James 5:4): ‘See, what you have whittled away from the pay of the workers who reap your fields cries out, and the anguish of the harvesters has come to the ears of the Lord of Armies.’ This ‘whittling away’ is not an illegal act on the part of the masters–these vile masters of mankind. It is systematic exploitation, or what theologians would call structural sin. It is the expropriation of the produce of the workers’ labour. Read in light of today’s unfettered, unregulated capitalism, The Parable of the Talents is an implicit call for an alternative to social relations of exploitation, not an affirmation of capitalism. At least, that’s my take on it, thanks to research done by Miranda and Herzog.
The Sweet Enchantment of the God of Money
There are many variants of Marxism, and so there can be no quarrel with a Christian who claims not to be a Marxist. But Miranda makes a strong point when he argues that it is scandalous for a Christian to be an anticommunist:
But for a Christian to claim to be anticommunist is quite a different matter and, without doubt, constitutes the greatest scandal of our century. It is not a good thing to weigh a book down with cries and shouts, but someone finally has to voice the most obvious and important truths, which no one mentions as if everyone knew them.
The notion of communism is in the New Testament, right down to the letter – and so well put that in the twenty centuries since it was written, no one has come up with a better definition of communism than Luke in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35. In fact, the definition Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc, ‘From each one according to his capacities, to each one according to his needs,’ is inspired by, if not directly copied from, Luke’s formulation eighteen centuries earlier. There is no clearer demonstration of the brainwashing to which the establishment keeps us subjected than the officially promulgated conception of Christianity as anticommunist.
To identify the communism of the Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries with Marxism is highly problematic since the true communist project wants ‘to see the gospel become reality.’
Like those whose instinctive revulsion to communism makes them eager to join Trump’s malicious and ill-tempered followers, many so-called Christians maintain that communists deny the existence of Spirit and care more for the material than for the spiritual, Miranda stridently objects to this accusation by pointing out the following: ‘But in the first place, the final criterion established and left us by Jesus as the only one is, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me’ (Matt. 25:35–36). If this is preoccupying oneself more with the material than with the spiritual, then the self-styled official spiritualism ought to stop beating about the bush and direct its accusations against Jesus himself.’ Miranda has another riposte to those who would criticise communists for a preoccupation with the material when he writes:
How are we going to give food to all who are hungry if we leave the means of production in private hands, which necessarily destine these means to the augmentation of capital and not to the satisfaction of the needs of the population? Do the official theologians really think they can maintain that there is more spirituality in the escapist selfishness of people who tranquillise themselves by saying, ‘There have always been people who starved to death, we are not divine providence,’ than in the decision of the people who want to be faithful to Jesus by undertaking all possible means to give food to the hungry, knowing that they are exposing themselves to repression, prison, and torture? Is there less spirituality in ruining one’s future and social prestige by taking Jesus seriously than in adapting to the sweet enchantment of a bourgeoisie singing ‘I am dedicated to spiritual things’?
Transcendence Through Responding to the Cry of the Other
And finally, Miranda notes how easily critics of communism fail to transcend their own subjectivity through an entrapment in their own solipsism and their failure to heed the cry of the other:
The God of the Bible is not knowable directly. The idols are. And the mental idols are more important than the material ones. There are those who believe that the only thing they have to do is put the word ‘God’ in their minds to be directed toward the true God. But this is what the Bible fights to the death. The god of these adorers is a concept within their minds. With this intramental act, they fail to transcend their own subjectivity, their own psychism, their own I. Either the true God is transcendent, or the true God does not exist. The otherness constituted by the oppressed neighbour, who calls on our aid seeking justice, bursts our solipsism asunder. This is the only way we transcend ourselves. The God of the Bible is knowable only in otherness, in the call for help of the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger. Our revolutionary message has this objective only: that all people may come to know the one true God, and knowing God be saved. Those who accuse us of preferring the human to the divine are not only committing calumny; they are, above all, committing ignorance – supine ignorance of the Bible itself.
How can we discuss the communist teachings of Jesus in this era of diminishing expectations when Trump is often deified as ‘the Chosen One and the King of Israel’? Similarly, how are we able to discuss Marx in a world of ‘alternative facts’ that holds Marx responsible for many – if not most – of the horrors of the twentieth century? In this era of fact-free conceptions in a post-truth world, Marx is viewed in the US as the devil incarnate. But there are much larger questions than this, which include: How should we negotiate our lives in a fact-free social universe? How do we negotiate with others? How do we adjudicate what is real and what is an illusion in a world in which accepting the lie pays such sumptuous dividends?
The challenge of living in a fact-free social universe has singular challenges, some of which were taken up by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault and analysed in a brilliant essay by Linda Zerilli. According to Zerilli, we have moved into a new register of the lie in which ‘the very distinction between true and false ceases to exist’ – and this has exceedingly dangerous consequences for democratic politics and the future of democracy. For instance, what Arendt describes as the ’deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologising, and defactualisation’ that were occurring during the Nixon administration are no longer applicable to the current one. Lying is no longer significant – it no longer has any public significance. Accepting the lie pays dividends politically and materially. People understand that things appear not to conform to what is real, but they nevertheless invest in the lie because it serves their interests (this is what is known as an ‘interest-based theory of ideology’). Fact-checking actually undermines the truth of opinion, as we have lost our allegiance to a fact-based reality. Zerilli writes:
For her [Arendt], the real danger of what we call post-truth politics is not so much ideological fervour or political prevarication but the erosion of a common world in which things can be judged to be true or false. ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought), no longer exist,’ she declares.
Continual lying has a disturbing effect on the populace and the polis. In Arendt’s words, ‘[t]he result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.’ This is a similar condition that we are facing in the United States with the impact that Trump has had in destroying democracy and ushering in elements of fascism.
The Western philosophical tradition’s attempt to hold the political realm to the standards of rational truth is, according to Arendt, not only apolitical but antipolitical. Zerilli writes that ‘[i]n its search for a Reality that is indifferent to what human beings think or say, the tradition’s idea of rational truth is hostile to the very condition of democratic politics, namely, plurality. This idea of truth, which also governs our understanding of scientific, mathematical, and logical truths in Arendt’s view, finds its opposite not in the lie, but in illusion and opinion or error and ignorance.’
The power of alternative facts has transformed fact ‘into mere opinion, that is, opinion in the merely subjective sense: an ‘it seems to me’ that remains indifferent to how it seems to others.’ This has affected how we engage with Marx’s work. When Trump, the promoter of the ‘Big Lie’ about the stolen 2020 election, decries liberals and Democrats as ‘Marxists, Communists, Racists,’ or makes ridiculous claims about anything, his supporters may, at some level, know that he is lying, but it doesn’t matter to them – his lying never did. Facts are now opinions, and any opinion, as absurd as it might be, does not lose power by being fact-checked. If prominent politicians condemn Marx for everything that is wrong with civilisation today, then citizens will choose to align themselves with that politicians’ words, according to their own self-interest. While we can clearly see how the transformation of fact into mere opinion has shattered the common world about which to exchange opinions and form judgments, it would seem prudent to take a stand against opinion – that is to say, it would seem reasonable to oppose opinion in the name of fact. But Zerilli reminds us that Arendt believes that opposing opinion to fact is a mistake. Why? Because it is important to recognise that facts never speak for themselves. Facts can never be removed from ‘speaking and acting with plural others in the public realm, because this constitutes “the practice of freedom.”’ Factual truth needs this interaction in order to survive. Arendt, true to her Socratic views, believes that there is truth in opinion. Still, we need to be cautious since the ‘it seems to me’ associated with opinion-making can end in radical subjectivism, and thus we need to recognise that this opinion-making ‘is also the irreducible basis of that which appears to us as objective.’ It creates our common, objective world. Zerilli writes that
For Arendt, objectivity is given not through the transcendence of human perspective, as the Western philosophical tradition has held, but through the exchange of opinions, ‘the dokei moi (‘it seems to me’),’ in the public space. The idea that this exchange of different perspectives on the world not only can but must be gotten around characterises the rational or philosophic conception of truth that she characterised as anti-political. In that case, fact-checking tends to lead not to the disclosure of truth but right back into the jaws of positivism, the tenacious idea that facts speak for themselves, that they do not rest on opinion or the ‘it-seems-to-me.’
San Juan discusses the work of Pierce and Marx regarding their approaches to the question of truth, arguing that both ‘subscribed to the historicity of knowledge, to the susceptibility of cognitive agents to unfolding its virtue in its material-secular consequences…. Truth then is the outcome of social agreement, subject to the test of falsifiability, and open to correction; a truth-claim refers to the real, to objective reality.’ But, in this case, we need to ask: What is reality? Peirce sees reality as ‘intransitive’ and ‘stratified’ and defined by human experiences, common deliberations, and comparative testing of results by rationally agreed rules of action. When Marx’s historic rationalism is combined with a nuanced epistemic realism, we reach the perimeters of Marx’s dialectical reasoning and his theory of internal relations, which requires the testing of hypothesis through praxis. To be true both to Marx, Peirce and Arendt, it would seem that what is lacking in the social realm today in terms of what constitutes truth is dialogue in the Freirean sense, which includes a problem-posing pedagogy that requires listening to the other and a freely associated exchange of ideas and opinions, where individuals engage not in fact-sharing or opinion-making but through truth-telling.
Here Zerilli turns to Arendt and Foucault in maintaining the importance of problematising the truth. She observes that correct reasoning does not always lead to truth because it may not have political significance for the community. She writes:
If you think of the problem of truth as a problem of correct reasoning, you will likely focus on practices of fact-checking. Important though those practices can be, if you neglect the other way of problematising truth, namely, as a practice of truth-telling, you may miss the ways in which correct reasoning can operate and yet the truth not be told – or, if told, not heard. More precisely, you may miss how the truth might not appear as something that we acknowledge as having political significance for us…. Furthermore, if you do not think about how you are problematising truth, you may mistake an alternative fact for a deliberate lie. Busily engaged in fact-checking, you may miss what is new in our political situation.
Liars and Truth-Tellers
You can have perfect reasoning but fail to tell the truth. Your reasoning can even be galvanising, but short of truth-telling. What exactly, then, is truth-telling?
Zerilli looks to Foucault’s genealogical account of truth (see his account of philosophical parrhesia and Socrates) in answering this question, and it involves paying close attention to the ‘worldly conditions’ of the people in communities and how important the truth is for those individuals. This position assumes that the truth is not necessarily a good in itself and the issue is more about who is telling the truth. It involves cultivating a democratic politics and parrhesia (an obligation to speak freely for the common good) that is receptive to those who are risking themselves by telling the truth. But who should have the right to tell the truth? Who has the necessary ability to tell the truth? Who can avoid the contingency of partisan politics in truth-telling? Politicians? Academics? Scientists? Who has the necessary freedom to tell the truth? Does it require equal citizens who can speak across hierarchies? Zerilli asks: ‘Can there be on his account an enduring philosophical parrhesia (even for the few) in the absence not only of shared constitutional rights, as in autocracy, but of genuine political parrhesia: that is, a public practice of speaking frankly and freely that tells the truth?’ Truth-telling goes beyond Foucault’s ‘analytics of truth’ because, Zerilli argues, ‘truth-telling can never solely involve the single individual as correct reasoner or even as truth-teller; it must always depend on the ability and willingness of citizens to listen and hear the truth that is told.’ She agrees with Arendt that ‘the self-appointed guardians of truth who have rejected political parrhesia for the philosophical pursuit of truth are not secure: they inevitably find themselves at the mercy of the many, whose opinions the few have discarded as being cognitively worthless from the standpoint of philosophical truth.’ We need to consider what happens to truth-tellers under fascist regimes. Zerilli writes that ‘[u]nder an anti-democratic regime such as autocracy, good parrhesia, even for the few, will be short-lived. It can deny but never escape the radical entanglement of parrhesia and democracy.’ This has particular relevance for the US, since many intellectuals have openly discarded the opinions of Trump’s base of support. Zerilli poses the question that Foucault’s description of the ‘crisis of parrhesia’ fails to address: ‘why and how do some people come to be accepted as truthtellers while others do not?’ Why is this an important question? Because there are vastly different conditions surrounding how certain speakers of truth will be received by the public. In other words, there is an established hierarchy surrounding truth-tellers which is impacted by social, racial and gender issues in terms of who counts as a truth-teller in today’s multicultural and multiracial society. Academics are ignored as useless elites by many Trumpists today, especially those who use a combination of fact-checking and rationality in mustering their arguments. Persons of colour are similarly accorded the status of suspicious individuals as they apparently operate out of an agenda of self-interest. I agree with Zerilli that ‘we are far less likely to accord credibility to the speech of historically disenfranchised individuals and groups.’ Who is able in our society to listen to the truth-tellers? And yes, it is an ‘irreducibly dialogic problem of parrhesia that both Arendt and Foucault bring to light.’ I agree with Zerilli in her assessment that ‘[a]ny successful effort to relocate the discussion of post-truth from the ‘analytics of truth,’ where it is a problem of correct reasoning, to the ‘critical tradition,’ where it is a problem of truth-telling, must confront the problem of the hierarchy of truth.’ I would add that there is also a media hierarchy, where Fox News appears on the top of the list for Trump supporters because it is perceived by many Trump supporters as speaking directly to disenfranchised white people, whereas CNN is categorically loathed for speaking for the elites and disenfranchised people of colour, gay, lesbian and transgender groups, and immigrants and refugees. And there are the platforms and networking services such as Parler, Telegram, and Gab that are cultivated to appeal to the far-right.
Zerilli reminds us of Arendt’s astute observation that ‘it is not the facts that hold up our common world; it is we who hold up the facts and so our common world – or not.’ When is truth-telling of utmost importance? Arendt tells us in her masterwork, Truth and Politics, that ‘[o]nly where a community has embarked upon organised lying on principle, and not only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness as such, unsupported by the distorting forces of power and interest, become a political factor of the first order. Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truth-teller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start toward changing the world.’ Arendt, according to Zerilli, invites us to ‘refigure the relationship between fact-checking and truth-telling: to check a fact is not to point – not simply – to what already exists, to what is past, but to what could have been otherwise and so to what could be otherwise, to the future.’ This, of course, makes the truth-teller a potential agent for historical revisionism and the manipulation of factual truths, but that is the price of freedom, of truth-telling action. Zerilli writes: ‘As a practice of freedom through which we are reminded of the contingency of what has happened and cannot be changed, truth-telling is crucial to what can be changed. That is what many forms of fact-checking tend to conceal or deny.’ This is why we must be cautious about factual truths stated as rational truths, truths that rely on their intrinsic logicality, truths that ignore the ‘it seems to me’ aspect of opinion makers. Because this undoes the common world, according to Zerilli’s commentary on Arendt. One striking insight by Arendt is that suffused by the contingent character of facts, which could always have been otherwise, it is the liar who has the advantage in the game of truth, since, according to Zerilli, ‘the liar is free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations, of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth-teller. Indeed, he will usually have plausibility on his side; his exposition will sound more logical, as it were, since the element of unexpectedness – one of the outstanding characteristics of all events – has mercifully disappeared.’ This gives some explanatory weight to Trump’s seeming ability to captivate his audience with the most egregious lies, his capacity to thrill his supporters with outrageous acts of name-calling, his well-oiled facility for demeaning his critics, his poisoned penchant for equating any and all of his opponents as communists and Marxists, and his grand potentiality for weaponising language in the service of upholding his criminal empire. The liar completely rejects action’s central feature: contingency. There needs to be an effort to ‘recover contingency and with it a sense of futurity in critical thinking and practice.’ But, not to despair. Zerilli maintains that, through a prefigurative politics, ‘there is also the potentially transformative world-building character of truth-telling that is inherent to it as a practice of action.’ Zerilli has defined prefigurative politics as an imperative: ‘that political action should enact or model the very freedom towards which it strives. Freedom is not a future state but something that we create now in our everyday modes of making decisions and acting collectively. Freedom is not that which is to come in an ideal future but takes the form of the present way of being in common.’
Towards a Prefigurative Politics
Zerilli distinguishes the prefigurative practice of world-building or truth-telling from fact-checking as a means to an end. Yes, of course, fact-checking is important, but fact-checking ‘has to be part of a larger political practice of prefiguration: to enact in the present those forms of relating to each other and to the past that are enabling for the future.’ We need to always consider the contingency of factual truths (they could always be otherwise) because failing to do so denies the role of opinion in world-building, and it is the opinion that has built our common world. We need to pay attention to what human beings are thinking and saying. Zerilli warns us that ‘[f]act checking that seek truth regardless of what human beings think or say won’t save truth in an age of alternative facts. On the contrary, such checking will more likely accelerate the very corrosion of reality that it seeks to contest.’ Recall the reaction when Hillary Clinton used the term ‘deplorables’ to describe Trump supporters. The supporters revelled in the term in ways that pointed to Clinton’s role as a member of the elite who supposedly holds their nose in disdain at the problems of the struggling working class in America. With the help of conspiracy theories and the cult of QAnon and Trump’s hateful taunts and comments of unprecedented viciousness, Trump was enabled to fire up his base to the heights of fanaticism necessary for fascist rule. A denial of contingency (that it could have been otherwise) produces knowledge but not political understanding. Fact-checking is explaining, not understanding. Zerilli writes: ‘When seen in light of what Arendt says about the difference between explanation and understanding, truth-telling is not fact-checking but a practice of understanding or relating to what is in ways that are democratically enabling in the here and now. To tell the truth is to prefigure in our speech and action what it means to understand.’ As Zerilli sees it, if the problem of truth-telling involves ‘the dialogic relationship between those who tell the truth and those who are able to recognise them – a relationship that is not static but dynamic and at odds with the idea of a permanent class of truth-tellers,’ then how can we create truth-tellers using a critical, dialogical, pedagogy such as the pedagogy of the oppressed, of hope and of freedom developed by Paulo Freire and others?
The Journey Ahead
Those who call themselves criticalists, and I include myself among that group, have a tough journey ahead. How do we reach the Proud Boys who attacked the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, and insurrectionists such as Zachary Rehl who called for the executions of anyone he believed was stealing the election: ‘Hopefully the firing squads are for the traitors that are trying to steal the election from the American people,’ Rehl wrote, and linked to a news article on the Trump administration’s push to bring back firing squads and electrocutions for federal executions. How can we engage groups that support Trump in the public square? How do we begin conversations with those in the thrall of Trump’s alluring insanity? How do we create the conditions of possibility for truth-tellers to speak and act as part of a larger prefigurative praxis that challenges the book banning, the laws against teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, and institutionalised racism, the forced patriotism of invisibilising the GLBTQ+ community, the attacks on transgender persons and the labelling of opponents as communists and Marxists – all that represents the soul-snatching pedagogy that is part and parcel of teaching in the Age of Gag Order Extremism. How can we debate in the public square when opponents of democracy are weaponising accusations of Marxism and communism to selectively punish people whom they don’t like? How can we engage in discussions of communism and Christianity that might lead to larger discussions of socialist initiatives in light of the current crisis of capitalism? Will the political right ever accept the idea that the roots of communism can be found in the Bible? There are few, if any, courses taught in our colleges of education about capitalism. An understanding of capitalism is not considered important for teachers since it could lead to discussions of alternatives to capitalism such as socialism, and that surely isn’t good for building American patriotism. How can we reach the parents of Ohio’s homeschooling group that has more than 3,000 subscribers and shares content and lesson plans through a social media messaging platform that elevates Hitler to a secular god? They communicate messages such as ‘Without homeschooling the children, our children are left defenceless to the schools and the Gay Afro Zionist scum that run them.’ Another post with a ‘Thanksgiving copywork’ assignment displayed pages of handwritten Hitler quotes. Another parent who posted on the channel made the following remark as Martin Luther King Day approached: ‘It is up to us to ensure our children know him for the deceitful, dishonest, riot-inciting negro he actually was.’ ‘He is the face of a movement which ethnically cleansed whites out of urban areas and precipitated the anti-white regime that we are now fighting to free ourselves from.’ Homeschooling parents frequently appear on the Telegram channel, Dissident Homeschool (which is linked to the neo-Nazi podcast ‘Achtung Amerikaner’), where they happily make comments such as: ‘We are so deeply invested into making sure that that child becomes a wonderful Nazi…. And by homeschooling, we’re going to get that done.’ They eagerly use the channel to share lessons about the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who is glowingly described as a ‘grand role model for young, white men.’ They excitedly share their success stories about teaching their children to learn cursive using quotes from Adolf Hitler. Can we reach parents such as this? Where and how should we include them in our prefigurative political approach to critical pedagogy that includes culturally relevant teaching and liberation theology? If we think this is an exclusively American problem, then we should listen to F. Zehra Colak and Erkan Toguslu who pose the question: ‘how best to push against the harmful far-right narratives seeking to shatter the values of democracy in European education?’ Their warning is chilling:
…. there has been little research into the potential effects of the far right’s effect on education in Europe, although recent research has identified how the far right aims to impact educational policy and acts as an educational actor.
In Italy, this is exemplified by the far-right League Party’s plan to diminish university attendance rates among high-schoolers, limiting their exposure to leftist views at universities. League also demanded an academic book be removed from the reading list of a course at the University of Bologna. Similar actions have been observed across Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is asking for the re-design of history subjects, simultaneously advocating for teaching students about their German roots while engaging in acts that downplay the history of the Holocaust. In France, educational policy is not one of the main populist strategies of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally, although the party supports patriotic moral education and teaching national history as a defence against multiculturalism. The populist discourse and practices employed by National Rally impact the strategies and policies of centre-right parties in councils and in the parliament. The councils run by Le Pen’s party ban school canteens from serving pork-free menus, discriminating against Muslim and Jewish students. On French university campuses, Collectif Marianne, Assas Patriote, and Action Française Etudiante work to advance the cause of far-right ideologies, primarily through university councils.
The authors posit culturally relevant pedagogy and citizenship education pioneered in the United States as one possible approach to educating students in ways that would hopefully dampen the appeal of the far-right. Others would also include critical pedagogy, revolutionary critical pedagogy and critical race theory. Before we can effectively challenge the far right, we need to listen to their opinions and include them in our dialogues, which, admittedly, will be a difficult task. We cannot dismiss the far right with facts even when presented rationally, and we must create dialogical spaces in which to hear the ‘it seems to me’ dimension of their struggle if we wish to make any headway.
The growth of the far-right and its impact on education systems around the world is a complex challenge and will not be resolved anytime soon. Perhaps there are some spaces available in evangelical circles that are frequented by the far-right in which possibilities may emerge that would affect their reconsideration of some of the interpretations of Jesus’ mission. He died for participating in political transgression aimed at liberating Judea from the Romans. Clearly, he was a communist, as evidenced throughout the New Testament but particularly in passages such as John 12:6, 13:29 and Luke 8:1–3. No doubt, Jesus disturbed many of his wealthy followers by making the renunciation of property a condition for entering the kingdom of God.
Today in the United States, evangelical Christians, Christian nationalists and other biblically-oriented groups follow the billionaire Trump like lemmings in his presidential exploits that brought the country to the brink of fascism during 2016–2020. He may well win the White House again in 2024, and his ‘leadership’ will most assuredly swindle us into oblivion as we are dragged into the fathoms of fascism, swinging back and forth like bodies on history’s gallows, pertinaciously clinging to the clapper of the bell that finally sounds the death knell of democracy. It will be too late for truth-telling in a system built upon outlawry and shaped by mobsters.