Air University Review, January-February 1969

The Theology of Communism

Dr. Martin H. Scharlemann,
Chaplain (Brigadier General), AFRes

In 1964 the Chicago University Press published a volume of essays entitled, What Can a Man Do? The chapters of this book were written by one of our most distinguished Jewish journalists, Milton Mayer. One of his essays goes under the title, “Christ Under Communism,”1 It concludes with the observation that there are, at this time, only two serious contenders for the hearts and minds of men, namely, the Church and Communism.

At the moment, as the author points out, the Marxist movement looks strong and victorious, while the Church appears to be in retreat.  Yet the Church has known right along that this contest would be long and bruising. She has entered the arena, therefore, prepared to endure. Communism has only recently discovered that this struggle is not an easy one. In the meantime, both address themselves to man’s capacity for basic loyalties. Both work with an interpretation of reality which proposes to deal with the ultimate issues in depth.

That is to say, both have a theology, as Nikolai Berdyaev was quick to point out when he went into exile from Russia almost fifty years ago.2

It is a paradox, of course, to describe Communism in terms of theology. After all, do not its prophets insist that “religion is the opiate of the people”? Yet Communism itself may be spoken of as a religion. It certainly insists on dealing with men at the same level. Hence the World Council of Churches, in its Evanston Assembly of 1954, took special note of the structural correspondence between Christianity and the Marxist system of thought.3

We shall most certainly not understand the fun dimensions of the worldwide conflict in which we are engaged if we do not reckon with those aspects of Communism which reveal it to be a product of that dark despair which overtakes men when they abandon the substance of the Christian faith but want to preserve its forms. Communism is nothing less than a theological caricature. It is a child of the Church, in the sense that it is a product of the Christian West and not of the thought of the East.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both worked in the West. The system of thought they put together could not have been created had there not been a Christian tradition from which they could and did borrow some major features of their ideology. Bishop Fulton Sheen, therefore, has properly entitled his work on Marxism, Communism and the Conscience of the West.4

Marxist theory is a caricature of Christian doctrine, rationalized and secularized by men who grew up within the Church and who at times insisted they were speaking for the Church. Communism is religion turned inside out, so to speak. The theology it contains we can discuss under five general headings: its doctrine of God, its view of sin, its belief in salvation, its teaching on man, and its concept of last things. We shall try to spell out each of these elements as we go along.

Its Doctrine of God

We must always keep in mind that Communism has a doctrine of God despite the fact that it is officially atheistic. If what we put our trust in is our god--and that is a good working definition--then the god of Communism is history itself. The followers of Marx think of the historical process as a cosmic endocrine gland that secretes its own solutions as it goes along. This god is good, Marx held, since history is moving toward a noble end; namely, the creation of a classless utopia and a stateless society. The Communist is sure that he has a road map into an open future, and so he is basically optimistic. He is convinced that he is riding the wave of the future.

On the basis of this conviction he will go to an emerging nation and try to persuade its leaders that he has the key to history and that he can show people who are caught in the revolution of rising expectations how to do a shortcut past the evils of capitalism. Pointing to Russia as exhibit “A” for this kind of revolution, he offers to show backward peoples how to move directly from feudalism into socialism as the last step before full Communism.

We must observe at this point that Communists think of the historical process as moving along a line. This is a concept of history which Karl Marx borrowed from the Scriptures. In the ancient world it was the prophets of the Old Testament who alone among the religious exponents of that time rejected the notion that history moved in a circle. Israel’s prophets spoke of a God who had given certain promises at one time in history, which He would fulfill at some time in the future. They proclaimed a God, therefore, who had given His people both “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11, RSV) Communism has taken over this view of what is going on in the world, thoroughly secularizing the concept in the process of adapting it to the needs of revolutionary activity.

The prophets of old spoke of history as having a goal, the establishment of the kingdom of God. In much the same way, Communism speaks of man’s future in terms of a classless society. To be sure, it denies the existence of God as the Lord of history, displacing God with its own autonomous notion of history as that process by which men will be redeemed as they are carried forward toward the Communist order of things. The degree to which such a view of history serves as a compelling idol may be gauged from the title of a book written by André Gide and a number of other disillusioned Marxists. It is entitled The God That Failed.5

Its View of Sin

Communism also has a view of sin. The disciple of Marx knows that there is something wrong with the human situation. He does not, however, think of this contradiction between what is and what ought to be in the same way that Christians do. Yet he has caught something of the idea.

He is convinced that the difficulties which beset mankind have their source in that moment of history when someone invented the instruments of production, which enabled him to exploit others. This is what is wrong with society, says the Communist. Evil is not within the human heart; it is to be found in economic maldistribution. The invention of the means of industrial production drove men from their primordial paradise. These means of production made possible the accumulation of private property, enabling some men to become wealthy and reducing others to slavery. It is this development which created the destructive struggle of classes within society; and the presence of this contest is the most rampant evil in man’s existence.

At this point we must remind ourselves that the Communist applies to all of life a law from the laboratory known as the principle of conflict and tension. Everywhere there is conflict and tension. Electricity operates in units of opposites. A positive proton is always balanced by a negative electron. These two are held in tension within a single unit of reality.

Marxist ideology works on the assumption that there is nothing in the universe except matter in movement.6 Hence it is not only permissible but necessary to take this law from the laboratory and apply it to man and to society. Reality comes in units of opposites; and the Communist is happy to help this process along. He causes difficulties and stirs up trouble as an act of faith and not just for the sake of harassment.

This is one reason why it is very difficult for a man from the West and another from the East ever to have a meeting of minds. Each thinks of reality in quite different terms. We in the West believe that the world was created as a place for order and harmony, and we are quite willing to work at this kind of design under a national policy devoted to security, stability, and development. The Communist, however, enjoys conflict, because he believes that tension is the motor of the historical process. In all these tensions, though, we must keep in mind that, to him, there is one artificial conflict, and that is the class struggle. This conflict, the Communist holds, must be eliminated; it is destructive. “All past history is the history of class struggles,” says the Communist Manifesto.7 The goal of history will be achieved when this class struggle has been eradicated.

Its Concept of Salvation

If men are to be saved, therefore, something must be done about the class struggle, so as to eradicate evil from the social order. Here we touch on the Communist teaching as it relates to salvation.

The Communist has something of the same kind of passion for social justice that is found among the prophets in ancient Israel. He is concerned with the redemption of mankind and often thinks of his movement in terms of Biblical Messianism. To him, the proletariat, rather than a single savior, is the anointed instrument of liberation.

One concept which Marxism has borrowed from the Scriptures in this connection is that of a center of time. In the Old Testament the Exodus constituted such a focus. There the liberating forces of God’s redemptive purpose manifested themselves in concentrated form. In the Christian Church we think of the events in the ministry of our Lord, specifically of His crucifixion and resurrection, as occurring in the fullness of time. That is to say, we look back upon these events as a way of evaluating all the rest of history. We see a principle at work in the life of our Lord, the principle of the Kingdom of God: the lowly shall be exalted, and the proud brought low. (Luke 14:11) The Communist also has such a center of time: it is the October Revolution of 1917. If mankind is to be saved, if there are to be successful revolutions against the bourgeoisie and against imperialism, men must follow the program and the methods of Lenin in bringing the socialist revolution to Russia and converting that land into the model for mankind’s liberation and an outpost of revolutionary activity. History will never be the same again, the Communist believes; Lenin introduced into the historical process those forces which will and must set all men free.8

In this connection it may be useful to point out the fact that the Communist Party functions something like the Christian clergy. The job of Party members is to interpret the particular historical context in which people live and then prescribe what needs to be done. As clergymen have the job of proclaiming the will of God, so the members of the Communist Party have the assigned task of prescribing what needs to be done at a given moment. Here, by the way, we are dealing with one of the most deadly weapons in the Communist arsenal. It changes the rules whenever the historical context seems to require it. For example, in the l930s the Party believed that it would be good for the Communist movement to make it possible to get easy divorces in the Soviet Union, That time is past. Now the historical context requires rather stringent rules on marriage.

Karl Marx began this process of changing the rules. Way back in 1848 he reworked the Ten Commandments to suit his own needs.9 The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not steal.” Karl Marx wrote, “Thou shalt steal; because the property your neighbor has does not belong to him in the first place; he got it by exploiting the poor wage earner.” The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Karl Marx wrote, “Thou shalt kill, if the needs of the movement require it.” Ever since that time, Communists have been making up their own moral rules as life goes along. In fact, Lenin specifically denied the existence of anything like absolute moral principles. To the Young Communist League, assembled at Moscow in 1920, he boasted, “We deny that there is a moral law which comes to men from out-side of history, outside of society. It is a fraud. We devise our own moral rules according to the needs of the class struggle.”10

Still speaking of a doctrine of salvation, we must point out that in this area Communists apply to man and society another law from the laboratory, namely, the principle of negation. This is basically a very simple proposition. If you want to grow a crop of barley, you have to sow seed in the ground, and that seed must die before there can be new life. Our Lord Himself, by the way, once used this example to depict the necessity of His death and the consequences of His resurrection. (John 12:24)

This idea has been taken over by Communism, which insists that there has to be wholesale death before there can be a general reconstruction of society. Stalin did not worry, therefore, about the death of a million kulaks. In fact, he was sure that this was a major contribution to his revolutionary movement. Today the Red Chinese generals sometimes talk about unleashing a nuclear holocaust. When Russian experts used to remind them that this would cost China at least 300 million lives, their response was simply this: “That is good; there can be new life only where there is this kind of wholesale death.” Here the Christian doctrine of the death of One, Christ, to save many, has been transposed by Communism into the idea of the death of many as a means of saving generations yet unborn.

Its Teaching on Man

Communism also has a doctrine of man. This follows from its basic principle that there is nothing in the universe except matter in movement. Man, as a consequence, is just another glob of matter. In essence he differs in no way from a tree, from a concrete block, from the stuff that has gone into the making of a car. Man is a set of chemicals put together in a certain way to create a unit of energy able to work. And so the individual is reduced to being “the quotient of one million divided by one million,” to borrow a phrase from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.11

No one will deny that physically we are constituted of certain chemicals. About thirty years ago the price for the chemicals in one man was listed at $1.98. The price has now gone up to $34.54 because of inflationary trends and a rise in the price of phosphorus. Certainly, man consists of chemicals; in fact, 90 percent of each one of us is water. But when we have said this, we have not given a complete description of man. We have not taken into account what the Communist specifically denies: the transcendental in man’s existence.

Communist insistence on this point was never more clearly brought to light than when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1948, introduced into the United Nations Assembly what is known as “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This document contains the statement that men are “endowed with reason and conscience” and are therefore entitled to certain rights. Every last Communist representative in the Assembly rose to object.12 He had to do so in order to be true to his beliefs, for he sees man as just another configuration of matter. In his view man’s superiors are human engineers who manipulate numbers. Since the number one is of less value than ten, a single individual may properly be eliminated or liquidated in the interest of ten. This is just a matter of mathematics.

Its Doctrine of Last Things

Finally, we come to the Communist’s teaching on last things. It is this element in his creed that gives him something of the same driving power and sacrificial spirit manifested by the early Christians. In the development of this doctrine, the Communist makes use of a third law from the laboratory, known as the principle of transformation. If you take water, reduce the temperature to 32º Fahrenheit, suddenly—not gradually—a new substance comes into being: ice. Since there is nothing in the universe except matter in movement, the Communist is persuaded that it is quite proper to apply the laboratory principle to man and society. The Communist leader, therefore, insists that he is busy regulating the human environment in such a way as to produce the equivalent of the 32º Fahrenheit transformation, so that by a “leap” —that is his expression! —a new order of things may come into being.

Obviously it is difficult for one of us to get into the frame of mind of a Communist. We believe that things are changed gradually. So we accommodate, we modify, we compromise.  The Communist rarely does. He moves along the total spectrum of life in the hope of producing the equivalent of 32º Fahrenheit. He is convinced that only in this way will he be able to create the conditions that will in time produce the “leap.”

This is recognizable as a secular version of Christian hope. We believe that our Lord will return suddenly, “in the twinkling of an eye,” to quote Saint Paul. At that moment history will come to an end and there will begin what we call the kingdom of glory. Christians have looked forward to this moment through all the centuries as the time of their full redemption. The Communist imitates us in this respect. In the second verse of the Internationale he sings:

‘Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place:
The International Soviet shall be the human race.13

Toward that prospect every Communist looks in faith and hope. He is persuaded that he can hurry the process along by his own devotion to the right side of present struggles in the world, just as we hold to the conviction that we can hasten the day of the Lord by our prayers and our service.

Communist ideology, then, consists of a caricature of Christian doctrine. If the Communist conspiracy is to be combatted successfully, it will have to be understood and fought on this level also.

St. Louis, Missouri

Notes

1. Milton Mayer, What Can a Man Do? ed. W. Eric Gustafson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 59.

2. Nikolai Berdyaev was himself a Marxist for a time and was converted to the faith of the Orthodox Church. With a rather large number of other members of the Russian intelligentsia he attempted to bring the Church of Russia into the twentieth century. These efforts were cut short by the October Revolution of 1917. Cf. Nikita Struve, Christians in Contemporary Russia, trans. Lancelot Sheppard and A. Manson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 21. Berdyaev’s views may be found in his book, The Origin of Russian Communism (London: Centenary Press, 1937).

3. The official report of that Assembly, unhappily, does not include this observation contained in the second report (p.18) of the Advisory Committee on the theme of the Second Assembly, which reads: “Thus in Marxism men have often noticed a kind of structural correspondence to Christianity . . . . This correspondence is, of course, counterfeit. But it would be a mistake for the Christian to treat this correspondence as if it were merely counterfeit.” The final report of the Committee is given in The Christian Hope and the Task of the Church (News York: Harper, 1954), pp. 33-35. It is dilutions of this kind which prompted one sensitive soul to observe, “The Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston may be cited as an additional symptom of this mood of lethargy.” Cf. Arthur Voobus, The Communist Menace, the, Present Chaos and Our Christian Responsibility (New York; Estonian Theological Society in Exile, 1955), p. 40.

4. Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1948).

5. Richard Crossman, ed., The God That Failed (New York, Harper, 1950).

6. Gustav A. Vetter, Sowjetideologie Heute (Frankfurt am Main: Fischar Buecherei, 1962), I, pp. 15 ff.

7. The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels is available in a Government Printing Office book known as Marxist Classics (Part I, Section A).

8. Cf. William Ebenstein, Too Ways of Life (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 119; also Wolfgang Leonhard, Sowjetideologie Heute (Frankfurt: Fischar Buecherei, 1962), II, pp. 139 ff.

9. The full text of this revision is given in the Franzoesische Jahrbuecher of 1848.

10. V. I. Lenin, Aufgaben Jegendverbaende, in Socinenija (Werke), fourth edition, Volume 31, p. 266. Whitaker Chambers, who served the Communist Party for twelve years before breaking with it to bring Alger Hiss to trial, once observed: “I can no longer retrace with certainty the stages of my inner earthquake or distinguish its successive shocks. I did not know what had happened to me. I denied the very existence of the soul. But I said, “This is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil I am a part'.'' From that moment he broke with the system. Cf. DOD Pamphlet 4-6, 8 December 1955 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1955).

11. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, trans. Daphne Hardy (New York: Macmillan, Modern Library, 1941), p. 155.

12. Much of the story behind the Communist maneuverings in the United Nations Assembly, when this Declaration was before it, is given by Maurice Cranston in What Are Human Rights? (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962), pp. 29-42. Article One of the Declaration reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

13. The whole verse reads as follows:

We want no condescending savior
To role us from a judgment hall;
We workers ask not for their favor,
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty.
To free the spirit from the cell
We must ourselves decide our duty; 
We must decide and do it well.
‘Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place:
The International Soviet shall be the human race.


Contributor

Martin H. Scharlemann (Ph.D., Washington University; Th.D., Union Theological Seminary), Chaplain (Brigadier General), AFRes, is Graduate Professor of Exegetical Theology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. Commissioned as First Lieutenant, AUS, in 1941, he served on active duty until 1952, notably overseas with 43d Air Service Group (1942-45) and as instructor, The Chaplain School (1946-51). His Reserve assignment is as Assistant to the Chief of Chaplains. Materials he wrote on moral leadership and character guidance in 1946-51 are still used by the U. S. armed forces. He graduated from Air War College by correspondence and is a regular guest lecturer at Air University. Chaplain Scharlemann is author of numerous books and articles.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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