Between Marx and Christ

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Karl Marx derided religion as myth. He described it as an opiate which is taken to help us cope with our oppressions and social injustice. And he attempted a better solution: He offered the hope of a classless society based on the belief that the problem with humanity is the acceptance of private property. The possession of property placed the owners in a class distinct from those who lacked property. The Bourgeois versus the Proletariat. The solution, therefore, is to abolish this thing called ‘private property and the animosity would vanish. All mankind would eventually work together to build a better world where there is neither lack nor surplus.

However, as the experience of several decades later would show, he only succeeded in replacing a ‘myth’ with another myth. The communist ideal actually produces in the societies that adopt it two classes: the dictator and his subjects. It replaces the supposed oppression of the capitalists with the tyranny of the despot, bringing along a whole sackload of torture, misery, and fear. Far from being a solution, the attempt to abolish classes only worsens the problem.

So, we need to look more closely at the ‘myth’ he attempted to replace.

There is little doubt that religion can indeed be (and often is) no more than an opiate for many. It relieves them from the harshness of their present lives. In fact, many scholars argue that this is why people believe in God in the first place: they desire someone who will resolve all the problems and inequities in human life and identify this being as ‘God’.

This is a distortion of religion, however. True religion, as the apostle wrote, is to care for widows and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). Far from being an escape from the problems of life, true religion (which is biblical Christianity) is an encounter with the problems of life.

The Christian religion, when correctly understood, believed and practised, does not lead to oppression (whether via class, race, or gender). This is because it is centred on love: God’s loving us and us loving our neighbours without regard to their status or position. The central symbol of the Christian faith is the cross and the empty tomb. We find the holy God, who created all things, man inclusive, stripping down to take up our human nature with all its limitations and entering into our world with all its miseries. And he took upon himself all that was evil in our world (pain, misery, death), destroying them on the cross. Furthermore, he rose from the dead to herald the restoration of all things, a task to be fully consummated in the future when Christ returns.

So, we see that religion, true religion, is not escapist but transformative. God loves his world, broken though it is, and has come to renew it. When he entered into our universe, he held the hand of the weak, cured the pain of the wounded, healed the disease of the leper, and wiped away the tears of the sorrowful. And he leaves to all who follow him to follow in his steps.

Contrary to Marx, the problem with our world goes beyond class or private property; it reaches much deeper. It stems from the condition of the human heart. In the words of Charles Colson, “The world is not divided into white hats and black hats; it is not divided into good people and evil people. Rather, good and evil coexist in every human heart.”

And it takes religion, true religion, to deal with it. Christ did not abolish class because he knew that was not the problem. Neither did he condemn private property, for both concepts are parts of God’s good creation which have merely been distorted by sin. Renewal, and not elimination, is what our world needs.

False theories of salvation, like Marxism, will attribute the human problem to some aspect of God’s creation (such as class, money, sex, etc) and seek to eliminate that thing. The biblical Gospel, which is synonymous with true religion, correctly sees that all creation is corrupt and in need of redemption. And this is what God has both accomplished and is working out through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An Invitation to Oddity

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Photo by 童 彤 on Unsplash

“If you want a religion to make you comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” – C. S. Lewis

There is an idea abroad that faith in Christ opens up the doors to abundance, success and all round good health. We have bought into the notion that becoming a Christian is a ticket to peace, comfort, and security. Whatever we might say concerning Biblical references to prosperity, healing, or success, one thing is abundantly clear: the Scriptures portray God’s people as an odd lot.

God’s redemptive covenant, as commenced with Abraham, sets His people apart as God’s chosen family. Along with this wonderful privilege comes the stark reality that they will be a strange tribe in a fallen world. In a world which has declared hostility against God, His covenant people will be seen as enemies.

All through history, God’s elect have borne the cost of being an odd people. Abraham ‘s trust in God was in marked contrast to his nephew Lot and the surrounding cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Joseph was thrown into prison for daring to have integrity. The Israelites were detested by the Egyptians and were an odd community among the idol -worshipping tribes of Canaan. David’s childlike faith in God proved a point of envy to the backslidden King Saul. The godliness of Elijah set him against the false prophets of Baal. On account of their devotion to the God of heaven, Daniel and his friends attracted sufficient hostility from their Babylonian colleagues as to be thrown into both a furnace and a lions’ den. And what shall we say of Peter, James, and Paul, who endured not only opposition, but also imprisonment, suffering,  and death just for being believers?

No one put the issue more pointedly than Jesus:

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” (Matt. 10:25)

And again,

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)

The believer is odd because he marches to a different drummer. He seeks to obey God and not merely go along with the views and practices of his neighbours and family. He sees the world differently because he looks at it through God’s eyes. And this can be costly. It will cost him acceptance by society, some comforts, some freedoms, and perhaps his life. Hence the warning by Jesus above. If our message has no place for this conflict, it can hardly be the gospel which Jesus and the apostles preached.

As God calls us to be the odd one out among the peoples of the world, He promises to be our God. While we may endure the scorn of the world, we know we have His smile. The sneer and hatred of a hostile culture are more than offset by the joy we have in Christ. We may be odd, yet it is a positive oddity. To be in union with God, through Christ, is to be above Presidents and Kings.

So we invite you, dear reader, to be odd – to be positively odd.

Why Africa needs the Christian Worldview

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Recently,  I stated that Africa needs the Christian worldview. Here’s why.

Truth: What is real?

Not a realm of divinized humans and ancestral spirits, but a God who has created a universe in which living creatures dwell. A false view of reality will distort our ethics and affect other facets of our lives. The Christian worldview gives a reliable basis for morality and ethics; it finds the ground for goodness in God’s own character. Sexual purity, honesty, and mercy are right because they are reflections of God’s own nature.

Identity: Who am I?

I am a human, created in the image of the God who created all things. I have value on this account, and not through submission to the will of my community. My allegiance is ultimately to the God who rules over all.

Security: How can I be safe?

Life is not a random sphere; it obeys the will of its Maker. I do not have to fear the threat of a thousand evil spirits, nor should I worry about the influence of divinized ancestors. God rules over the universe, and once I am in a relationship with him through Christ, I am in good hands.

Fear is not an entirely African problem. To quote John Stott, “The ancient world into whuch he [Jesus] came lived in apprehension of the powers which, it was believed, inhabited the stars. Still today the traditonal religion of primitve tribespeople is haunted by malevolent spirits who need to be placated. The lives of modern men and women are also overshadowed by fear.”

The Christ who is at the centre of the Christian story has conquered Satan and his allies, and he reigns with God over all things. Thus the basis for fear is gone.

Ethics: How do I live

I live by the will of God and follow his moral principles as revealed in his word. I do not live by what my community accepts, for this may be wrong. My conscience is nurtured by the truth as revealed by God in his word.

A Present Problem: True Leadership

Many people and thinkers have identified Leadership as the central problem of Africa. Corruption is a failure of leadership. It is what results when those charged with a position or resources abuse it for personal gain. In other words, the scourge of corruption goes against the two themes of Stewardship and Service. And the Christian worldview gives us the clearest example of both in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Christ in Greek society

The coming of Christ turned the world upside down. As the fourth-century Christian bishop and writer Athanasius (296 – 373AD) points out, the impact of Christ upon early Greek society showed clearly that this was no ordinary person.


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“When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men?

When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth?

When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead?

Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of demons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth?

When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?

In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know.”


From The Incarnation of the Word of God by Athanasius of Alexandria (296 – 373AD). Available at <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ix.html>

 

The Christian Mind in Modern Nigeria

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A recent study by the Barna Group highlights how Christians in the US are largely influenced by other worldviews such as Secular Humanism, Marxism, and the New Age. The figures are quite saddening. 26% of Christians surveyed believe that “all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that spiritual being.” 32% believe the popular notion that “if you do good, you will receive good, and if you do bad, you will receive bad.” And according to the survey, 20% of practicing Christians believe that “meaning and purpose comes from working hard to earn as much as possible so you can make the most of life,”, which comes from a secular or materialist worldview.

Reflecting on these statistics brought to my mind that Christians here in Nigeria, and much of modern Africa, face a similar problem. The Christian is hemmed in by 2 worldviews which, often unconsciously, shape her thoughts, beliefs, and decisions on different aspects of life. These two worldviews, outlooks or perspectives are Secular Humanism and the African Traditional Worldview.

It is necessary to state at the outset that these outlooks are not false in their entirety; like most worldviews, they contain elements which are true. However, as a perspective on life and reality, they distort the truth as revealed by God in both creation and revelation. As a result, they are inadequate in helping us know the truth, appreciate beauty, and live right.

Secular humanism controls our political and educational institutions. It is the viewpoint which largely drives businesses and the corporate world, the workings of the government, Nigeria’s relations with other nations, and public affairs.

This outlook or perspective considers all life from the standpoint of humans and their welfare. While it is praiseworthy and essential to take humanity’s welfare seriously, the problem with Secular humanism is that it sees humans as autonomous. No higher authority, no higher being. In other societies, especially in Europe and North America, it is often allied with Naturalism, the philosophical view that the physical universe is all that exists, or with Materialism, which is the belief that only physical matter exists. Naturalism is not so strong as a cultural force in Africa, however, because we are largely a religious people; we believe deeply in the supernatural world of God, angels, and spirits. However, we still think, act, and make decisions from a secular viewpoint. Even though we do not deny the existence of God or the spirit realm, it plays no factor in the key issues of society or government. Society thinks in terms of the wellbeing of man but hardly considers what God’s will is in any situation. I understand that secularism can seem like a practical way to handle religious diversity in our modern society. But this is far from being a solution. For the true import of secularism is to ultimately eradicate meaning, truth, and values. In a world where man is the ultimate point of reference, there is no true basis for any of these.

Secular humanism emphasizes that one must look at life rationally. But rationality is implied to mean a search for truth based only on reason and experience. There is no place for Revelation. This was precisely the doctrine of the European movement known as the Enlightenment. It did away with tradition, particularly Christian tradition, and has blossomed over the centuries into the social and cultural decay observed and experienced all over the Western world.

The African traditional worldview influences personal and family life. We find it in the entertainment media (Nollywood movies and music). It influences churches and other socio-religious institutions. It also shapes public affairs significantly along with the secular humanist outlook.

As the name implies, it is an outlook common to African societies, so it is quite broad with differences from culture to culture. However, there are common elements. The African worldview is characterized by a strong belief in the spiritual realm. And this, I believe, coupled with the influence of Islam and Christianity, has helped restrain the full-blown adoption of Secularism as a worldview in Africa. Africans believe in God, and they also believe in a world of spiritual beings, both good and evil. God is not approached directly, except through diverse mediating gods who derive their power from him. There is a specialization within this pantheon, as you have different deities attached to various elements or natural features. Among my tribe, you have a god of lightning, one of iron, others over different rivers (e.g. Osun). Though these deities are said to be mediating beings, they actually function in that role of God. The adherent depends on it, calls upon it when in trouble and placates it with a sacrifice when offended. And they all have their devoted priests and priestesses.

Under this outlook, the spiritual world is seen as very real. Incidents considered to be natural by the ‘educated’ or ‘modern’ person could be traced to some activity or influence from the spiritual realm. A road accident, a child suddenly falling ill, business decline, are a sample of cases that could be explained by reference to supernatural forces.

Also, this worldview emphasizes community as against mere individual accomplishment. Life is lived in community. A person finds his purpose and significance by obeying the will of the gods and participating in the life of the community. This is why the role of one’s family and relatives matters tremendously in Nigeria and Africa. You should maintain good relations with your relatives and take good care of them. This principle, while praiseworthy and largely biblical, can also foster moral corruption. We can close our eyes to evil where it is committed by a ‘brother’ or ‘uncle’. This is why a society could honour an ex-convict who embezzled public funds with a chieftaincy title or sing the praises of treasury looters and ritualists simply because they built them a road.

Life under the traditional worldview is one of perpetual fear. There are all kinds of evil forces at work, and one must ever be on guard to protect oneself from them.

Both views dishonour God for they fail to tell the truth about Him or the world he has made. And if we seek to be faithful to Him as our Lord and King, we must steer clear of the influence of these 2 perspectives. Man is not God, and neither is God aloof or distant. Our universe is not autonomous; it is held and sustained by God himself. Our universe is also not subject to the movings of an impersonal fate nor the will of some unpredictable spirits. God reigns and his rule extends over all he has made. We can know him; in fact, He created us into a  relationship of love. And He wants to reestablish this connection. Hence the work of redemption. A universe in which man has no God may look like a free and blessed place; but with much reflection and painful experience, we find that is

A universe in which man has no God may look like a free and blessed place; but with much reflection and painful experience, we find that it is a world without meaning, truth and hope. And that can truly be miserable. On the other hand, a  universe filled with different powerful but limited gods, with a Supreme Being who is distant and aloof, with a universe ever at the mercy of evil spirits, is hardly better. The Christian worldview, with its focus on the good news of redemption of God’s creation, supplies the truth, meaning, and joy which the human heart deeply craves. It comprehensively deals with every fact or experience of life and provides meaning for it within its grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

Therefore, the believer must continually be on her guard for such ideas and beliefs which emanate from a false view of life. She must continually renew her mind and keep it conformed to God’s revelation (cf. Rom. 12:1). As the light of the world and the salt of the earth, we cannot allow ourselves to be swept along by untrue ideas, however popular they currently are.


The Gospel and the Lagos Worker

In his helpful book Mastering Monday, John Beckett identifies five themes which should be considered in our attempt to demonstrate God’s kingdom in the workplace. They are Purpose, Values, People, Stewardship, and Serving. These all are nurtured by the Gospel.

The Gospel gives us a clear purpose for our work; we serve Christ and extend his kingdom through what we do.

The Gospel gives us an ethic centred on love, and this guides all the steps we take and the decisions we make.

The Gospel reveals that people are God’s priority (and should be ours, too). It was for people – sinful, broken people – that Jesus hung on the cross and died.

The Gospel reminds us that our lives, skills, and talents belong to God. We are simply stewards. So as we clock in at the office, apply our minds to a problem, or contribute to a project, we are offering back what God has given to us in trust.

Finally, through Christ’s teaching and his atonement, we are taught to lay down our lives for others through serving (John 15:13).

We will focus on the two themes of People and Serving.

People

The Gospel will lead us to value people above profits. Whether we work in risk management, financial planning, or customer service, it is people ultimately that we are serving. Sadly, the ambition and drive in most workplaces tend towards the opposite. The lust for power and prestige means that people are often trampled upon. In a bid to be seen as ‘performing’, managers will exhaust their subordinates. In a bid to cut costs, organizations will refuse or delay payments to vendors for services rendered. And even employees will offer shoddy service to customers. Likewise, the daily pressure to thrive in a competitive environment often leads us to focus solely on the ‘bottom line’, without regard for the humans who are involved in shaping it. It helps to remember that without people, whether as employees, customers, or vendors, there would be no business.

 Serving

John Chapter 13 is a remarkable chapter of the Bible. We have a stirring message proclaimed not merely in words but through vivid action. Shortly before his crucifixion, as he gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, Jesus inverted the social pyramid. He took a towel and a bowl of water and washed the feet of each of his disciples. Contrary to social custom, the teacher became a servant to the student. Then he instructed them to do likewise.

We are called to serve others through our skills and talents. As Peter wrote, ‘As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace’ (1 Pet. 4:10).

In the words of John Beckett, ‘Serving is integral to how God wants his kingdom on earth to function.’ And we see this in Jesus’s instruction to the disciples in Mathew 20:26:

 “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant”

In a city like Lagos, with its craze for prestige and lust for wealth, the message of Christ is profoundly counter-cultural. Lagosians seek to be recognized and celebrated. We want to move up the ladder of career success, not pick up a servant’s towel. But that is precisely what the Gospel implies. In light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to work is to serve.

So how do we go about this? We can start by noting the following:

As an employer, I should serve my employees, helping them to become their best selves. For we both have one master, which is Christ.

As a trader, I should offer goods of high quality to my customers.

As an executive within an organization, I should realize that I am serving the company by offering my skills and talents.

The Gospel leads us to understand that, ultimately, it is not my CEO or the customer whom I am serving, but Christ.


This article was first published on City Church Lagos.