Tertullian, a Christian theologian in third-century North Africa, famously asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was his way of saying that secular/pagan philosophies (Athens) should be far removed from Christian theology (Jerusalem). Christians ought to be skeptical of all ideas that come from outside the Christian faith, he thought. Pagan ideas had nothing in common with Christian faith and would corrupt Christianity. Tertullian lost. He lost in the third century, and he has continued to lose throughout Christian history, as the sharpest Christian minds have nearly universally sided with another early church theologian, Justin Martyr, who argued that Truth is God’s, even when that Truth is found in pagan philosophies.
What has Christianity to do with Marxism?
Today Tertullian’s adage is finding new apologists in Christians who object to Black Lives Matter on the grounds that some of its founders espouse a Marxist view of history and society.* Marxism posits that history is driven by struggle, particularly class struggle between workers and owners and that ultimately history will reach its goal with the workers (proletariat) successfully rise up against their oppressors (bourgeoisie) and establish a classless society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that religion was the “opiate of the people” because it suppressed the anger of the workers and directed them toward hoping for a better life in heaven instead of on earth, therefore religion needed to be abandoned in the pursuit of a classless society. You can see why Christians take issue with this philosophy.
But the problem with citing some BLM leaders’ Marxist leanings as a reason to disavow the Black Lives Matter movement is that it ignores the fact that Christians have always freely borrowed from and aligned with secular movements in order to advance the Kingdom of God. It is, therefore, disingenuous for Christians to argue that they cannot support BLM because of Marxism, all the while articulating a theology that is deeply influenced by non-Christians and such as Plato, Aristotle, the enlightenment rationalists, and happily aligned with modern capitalism. In short, there is no such thing as a “pure” Christian theology, free from secular influence or separated from secular ideologies.
Plato, and Aristotle, and Rationalism, Oh My!
But I’m a Christian! I’m not a Platonist or a Rationalist. I profess sola Scriptura! My theology comes from the Bible alone. Well, perhaps we can cite chapter and verse in support of our Christian beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the whole history of Christian thought.
Take Plato for example. He directly influenced St. Augustine of Hippo, so much so that one must have a basic understanding of Plato in order to understand much of Augustine’s theology. And Augustine’s theology is inextricable from western Christians thought. Everything from original sin to sex to salvation is influenced by Augustine, and his Platonist influences are inextricable from his theology.
How about Aristotle? Medieval scholasticism was largely a reaction to the rediscovery of Aristotle’s philosophy in Europe. St. Thomas Aquinas, who’s right up there with Augustine in terms of influence, was deeply indebted to Aristotle. His articulation of the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation (believe that the Eucharistic bread and wine become the true body and blood of Christ) is founded on Aristotelian metaphysics. And Protestant rejection of Transubstantiation is largely a rejection of Aristotle’s influence in favor of a burgeoning 16th-17thcentury empiricism.
Evangelical Protestants aren’t exempt either. Indeed the marks of the Enlightenment are all over the revivalism out of which Evangelicalism was born. Personal conversion experience, emotional response to the Gospel, and elevation of the individual are all characteristics of the Enlightenment that shaped with world of people like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, the forefathers of American Evangelicalism.
The influence of Capitalism may be even easier to identify. Christian music alone is multi-million dollar industry. And in addition to the obvious participation in the Capitalist economy, churches in the United States operate in a free market thanks to the First Amendment, and long ago adapted to that reality by implementing strategies that appeal to a consumer mindset. Even for those Christians who don’t necessarily adopt the biblicist strategy of citing Scripture to defend free markets, Capitalism as an ideology is deeply intertwined with American Christian faith and practice. Capitalism is the air we breathe, and it is a secular invention.
Clarity over Purity
In short, our Christianity is not free from the influence of non-Christian philosophies. So to say that Black Lives Matter’s ties to Marxism or other secular philosophies disqualifies the organization from Christian support is an argument that simply doesn’t hold water. Christianity is very good at baptizing the elements of secular philosophies that are consistent with the mission of the Church and leaving behind the elements that are in conflict with Christ (for the most part), because we affirm that all Truth is from God.
Tertullian has lost. Athens has a great deal to do with Jerusalem. More importantly, Jerusalem has a great deal to do with Athens. Rather than raising the specter of Marxism as a reason or excuse to disavow the Black Lives Matter movement, Christians ought to seek clarity about the elements of Black Lives Matter that are consistent with Christian faith, and differentiate the elements that are inconsistent with Christian faith. Seek clarity, not purity, in discerning when and how to support movements that do not arise from within the Church. You might feel uncomfortable with Black Lives Matter for various reasons, but the Marxist boogeyman needn’t be one of them.
*Christians who make this argument do not generally differentiate The Black Lives Matter Global Network (blacklivesmatter.com) from its affiliate chapters or, more importantly from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Two of the founders of The Black Lives Matter Global Network have stated that they are trained Marxists, and Christians who do not support the movement for a variety of reasons have elevated that 2015 statement and applied it to the whole movement. Individuals who support, march with, or hashtag the movement may or may not have any connection to or awareness of the founders’ Marxist training or the “What We Believe” statements of The Black Lives Matter Global Network. Moreover, those who mention Marxism in connection to BLM do so in order to discredit the movement, not to engage with it thoughtfully.
If Christians can borrow from Marxism and it not be deemed a grave mistake— or, indeed, an alliance with evil itself— then it seems consistent to say that Christians can borrow from National Socialism. But, of course, no rational person thinks that Christianity should have any alliance with National Socialism, or even an organization whose framework is based on National Socialism. Why? Because National Socialism killed millions of innocent folks. In the same vein, Marxism has killed hundreds of millions.
So what does Christianity have to do with Marxism? About as much as Christianity has to do with National Socialism. That is, they should not be intermixed, and we ought to rebuke those who mix them.
I appreciate the opportunity to clarify, in case others have misinterpreted my argument along similar lines. I do not suggest that Christians can or should borrow from Marxism. I say, “Christians ought to seek clarity about the elements of Black Lives Matter that are consistent with Christian faith, and differentiate the elements that are inconsistent with Christian faith.” The Black Lives Matter movement, which is distinct from The Black Lives Matter Global Network, has aims that are consistent with Christian faith. The call for equity and justice is consistent with the Christian faith. Marxism, to the degree that it influences the movement, which is minimal, is inconsistent with the Christian faith. Christians can partner with the Black Lives Matter Movement, e.g. in non-violent demonstration, political action, civil discourse, etc, while also clarifying the boundaries of such cooperation. I can see how my examples could lead one to think I was saying that Christians can/should borrow from Marxism as we have Plato or Aristotle. My argument is that Christians refusing to associate with a movement because of it’s secular ideology is unnecessary and even hypocritical because Christians cannot completely separate our beliefs from secular ones. Even regarding Plato, Aristotle, Rationalism, and Capitalism we could do a much better job of clarifying what of those philosophies is and is not compatible with the teachings of Christ. I also understand that there is a line of thinking that sees the call for equity and justice as inherently Marxist and therefore irreconcilable with Christianity. I disagree with that line of thought.
Might we apply the same prime logic (don’t throw the baby out with the bath water) you offer to our more conservative brothers and sisters too? Those in whom reside deep conviction against things like abortion? Might they receive the same grace you offer the more liberal movement?
Moreover, I don’t see it necessary to support the official blm movement to be against racial injustice. Are they the only organization that fights against racism? It would be nice to elevate one that doesn’t intentionally work to destabilize the west, dismantle the nuclear family or burn Bibles in the streets. The official blm movement is about a lot more than modern socialism or even racial equality. I do agree, there is no true Christian political party and there is no perfect political side. There is a lot of this rhetoric coming from IWU as of late. If this is the side they’ve deemed “less” evil I, along with my peers would like to know as our children consider the university experience.
We should absolutely apply the same logic to people across the political, theological, or social spectrum. Since no political party aligns consistently with Christian teachings we are required to seek the Kingdom of God first and clearly differentiate where political parties or secular movements are consistent or divergent with Kingdom aims. This will necessarily lead to a degree of discomfort with some positions of either political party or with any conservative or liberal movements, and therefore we extend grace to one another as we wrestle through how our Christian convictions form our political or social values.
I agree that it is not necessary to the support the official BLM movement, as I explained in the previous comment. I differentiate the “official” Global Network from the much more broad movement for racial justice. Indeed, I am not saying that Christians ought to support the organization or the movement, but rather that Christians should not reject the movement on the basis of the Marxist leanings of a few of the Global Network’s founders. I support the idea that Black Lives Matter and I am not troubled by using that language because I can differentiate what I do and do not affirm about the movement or the “official” organization’s aims, methods, ideology, or subsidiary commitments.
I’m not sure I know what rhetoric out of IWU you’re referring to, and I am not speaking for IWU in my post. I certainly am not ascribing “evil” to any side, and I’m not sure what from my post that statement is referring to. I can direct you to The Wesleyan Church’s statements about racial justice for an understanding of IWU’s commitments (wesleyan.org, search “Race” and you’ll find several articles and statements that represent the denomination of which IWU is a part). If you visit IWU I’m sure you’ll find a community that is deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and is seeking to live out the love and grace to which He calls us. If you do come visit, I hope you will sit in on one of my classes just chat over coffee. I teach out of a deep love for Jesus and my students, and I work hard to prepare them for living faithfully as Christians in the world, even when they come to different conclusions than I do about what that looks like.
I am fascinated to know if you have read the ‘What We Believe’ page from blacklivesmatter.com and have done any work on reconciling their beliefs with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament? I doubt you have from your article.
I have read the “What We Believe” page, many times in fact. That is why I differentiate the Black Lives Matter Global Network (the group responsible for the blacklivesmatter.com website) from the Black Lives Matter movement, which includes many people who are not familiar or in complete agreement with the tenets of the “official” organization. Some of the “What We Believe” statements are also what I have in mind when I write, “You might feel uncomfortable with Black Lives Matter for various reasons.” Since the Black Lives Matter Global Network is one small piece of the movement as a whole, I do not believe it is necessary to attempt to align all of their beliefs with the teachings of Jesus, or to reject the whole movement due to disagreement with the beliefs of one part. We can seek clarity, as I encourage readers to do, by articulating what we do and do not align with in the Black Lives Matter movement. My post on “Clarity Over Purity” expands on that idea. My commitment to working toward racial justice is the direct result of my commitment to following the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible as a whole, which speaks a great deal about justice.
I believe that an interesting phenomenon has occurred. I see it in the responses to this blog. I call it “The Tension of Cultural”. It appears that well-meaning Christians – regardless of political bent have taken advantage of this tension to accomplish two things. First, they latch on to what they find objectionable in the application of of other believers in order to promote their own version of the faith. In doing so, they always ready to point out the flaws in the faith of others in order to lift up their personal banner. Typically they do this by deflecting from the true issues. In this case, Christians should hold to the sanctity of all life, including the unborn. But in that same vein, how can we NOT actively embrace the idea that Black Lives Matter without diminishing the concept by focusing on areas of conflict. The tension arises when we focus on the cultural differences rather than embracing the areas of commonality, which are those things that are can can be influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Secondly, Christianity has coopted all sorts of non-Christiaan things in order to promote the faith. Christianity coopted the pagan celebration of Easter in order to more broadly commemorate the resurrection. The same applies to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. We can coopt the good out of whatever we want when it suits our purposes. Let us not make BLM about us vs. them. Instead let us finds ways to coopt the good in order to forward the cause of Christ.
I certainly recognize confirmation bias and an inconsistent pro-life ethic among the responses. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
You imply that we should distinguish the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN) from its own chapters and from the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
On the one hand, this seems to me incoherent: BLMGN is of course in part made up of its chapters, and they stand for the same thing. So it makes little sense to distinguish them.
On the other hand, the idea that we should make the distinctions you recommend seems obviously and indeed culpably misleading. After all, the “broader movement”–the movement for black lives, which comprises some 150 organizations including BLMGN, so that looks like “the broader movement” to me–has a website that states a clear and radical (not to mention terrifying) policy agenda that includes abolishing prisons and paying reparations to drug dealers. You can read it yourself at m4bl.org.
Another point worth making: M4BL is supported by the “Alliance for Global Justice”–an evil organization that has published pro-North Korean propaganda! See here:
Christians have an obligation to loudly and clearly distinguish ourselves from these horrific organizations. We have an obligation, additionally, to provide an alternative for those who want to seek racial reconciliation and the love of Christ. Fortunately, such an alternative exists:
Please consider joining me in rejecting these evil organizations BLMGN and the “broader movement” M4BL in favor of a more hopeful and Christ-centered alternative.
It makes a great deal of sense, and indeed is necessary to differentiate the Black Lives Matter movement from any specific organization. When I refer to the broad movement I have in mind all the millions of people who use the hashtag, add frames to their social media profiles, attend rallies and protests, participate in their church and community racial justice work, or say Black Lives Matter verbally or in writing. Of these millions of people around the world, some of them are members of organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network or the Movement for Black Lives or their local chapters. Many, I would guess the majority, are not. I personally am not a member or donor to any national or statewide organization or chapter. I am involved in a local organization in my town that works to raise awareness of racial injustice and work toward policy change, but that group is not affiliated with any other organization. Political affiliation is an apt analogy. One can be politically conservative and identify as conservative without being a member of a political party or running for office or agreeing with every plank in a party’s platform. In fact, Christians must disagree with some elements of party platforms, but the majority of Christians nevertheless vote and identify with conservative or progressive politics broadly.
At the conclusion of my post I stated that there are various reasons Christians might be uncomfortable supporting Black Lives Matter, and you’ve identified several. If a Christian is committed to racial justice but is concerned about being indirectly associated with a specific Black Lives Matter organization, then by all means work for racial justice through other channels. I am also engaged with the work of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation (www.jvmpf.org). As my post stated, I seek clarity. I will gladly and readily differentiate which aims of the Black Lives Matter movement I support and find to be consistent with my Christian faith and will articulate my concerns with or rejections of other elements. I find this clarity to be more important than simply disassociating from the movement or phrase as a whole. I am simply more grieved by the injustices perpetrated against Black brothers and sisters and other Persons of Color than I am about the details of some subgroups within the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Clarity is much needed, so we agree there. When we use the hashtag that was coined by the founder of BLMGN, and we say that Marxism is a “boogeyman”, and we claim that the broader Black Lives Matter movement of which BlMGN is a part is good, but fail to denounce the Movement for Black Lives–a broader movement of which BLMGN is a part!–we do not serve clarity, and we are very likely misleading and confusing people.
I would have loved your post had you said something like this, which (I hope?) you believe: Marxism is a bad philosophy that has inspired the murders of hundreds of millions of people (unlike, say, Platonism and Aristotelianism), and BLMGN and the broader movement of which it is a part, the Movement for Black Lives, are horrible organizations with agendas that run contrary to common sense and the word of God. Nevertheless, we Christians cannot let these facts stop us from standing in support of equal treatment before the law for our black brothers and sisters.
I mean, is that last paragraph not what you think? And doesn’t it better serve the aim of clarity and encouraging the church not to be passive in this situation? MLK had to constantly fight on two fronts: he had to stave off the folks who had violent or separatist ideas in mind, while at the same time also marching forward on the main issues of justice. We are not in a different situation now, it seems to me. Let’s try to be like Martin Luther King!
Since receiving this reply I’ve taken a few days to think and speak with a few trusted friends and acquaintances about how I and other Christians nuance our support for Black Lives Matter. What I suspected has been largely confirmed. When white Christians are focused on explaining what we can’t support about Black Lives Matter, that comes across as finding excuses to not support and work for racial justice. If my position is going to be misunderstood in one direction or another, which is likely (it is the internet, after all), then I would rather white Christians have some confusion about exactly what I do or don’t affirm about BLM than my Black and African-American friends have confusion about whether I am unequivocally and wholeheartedly committed to justice.
Of course Marxism is a deeply problematic philosophy. My dissertation was on Christianity under Communism in the Soviet Union, so I know a great deal about the outcomes of its application in that context. I call it a boogeyman because I don’t believe the Marxist leanings of some in the BLM movement are characteristic of the movement as a whole, nor do I believe that there is any real threat of Marxist ideology gaining a policy foothold in the United States. We should be more concerned about the deadly reality of racism than we are about the hypothetical threat of Marxism.
Thanks for the dialogue. I am glad you see Marxism as “deeply problematic”. We agree about that.
Obviously our discussion doesn’t have to go on forever. But, if you’re interested in continuing, here are the three things it seems that we are disagreeing about:
1. The threat of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). As I’ve said, M4BL comprises 150 organizations, including BLMGN, and has received a huge load of money–including a $100 million in pledge from the Ford Foundation and others–to pursue their Marxist agenda. I find that alarming. So maybe you can explain to me why I am mistaken to be alarmed about this. Do you just think they’re bound to fail in their efforts despite having all that money? Gosh, if you could convince me of that, I’d feel a lot better, so please try!
2. The use of the term “the BLM movement as a whole”. You’re using this term to refer to something like “all the people who want equal justice”. I, on the other hand, think that “the BLM movement as a whole” refers to M4BL. In favor of my view, I would argue that it is just not true that I–a person who believes in and tries to actively promote the cause of equal justice–am in a movement that includes Marxists and violent separatists. After all, I do not think I’m in such a movement, and I would certainly not like to be in one. But if what you are saying is true, then I am in such a movement anyway, since I and the separatists and the Marxists all believe in equal justice. So maybe you can answer this question: do you really think of yourself (and me) as being a part of a movement that includes violent separatists and Marxists? And would you similarly say that MLK was a part of a movement that included violent separatists? Because I wouldn’t say those things, and I don’t understand why anyone would. But they seem to be consequences of your position.
3. Finally, I think we have a disagreement about how to best communicate on these matters. I expect that every Christian I know, black or otherwise, who is involved in these issues, will want to hear what I’ve learned about BLMGN and M4BL, since it’s all pretty confusing, and I think I’ve maybe finally sort of got it pinned down and figured out. Of course none of us want to unwittingly throw in with a bunch of Marxists. So why wouldn’t I explain all of these things to all my Christian brothers and sisters, and indeed those non-Christians who would feel similarly, along with an invitation to contribute to a really good organization like Civil Righteousness (which I linked above)? You seem to think that if I try to explain my views like this, I will surely be misunderstood as some kind of opponent of racial reconciliation and equal justice. I feel like I just don’t understand why this is a reasonable thing to be worried about, though. I am just not getting it. If I say “I believe in equal justice, and hey, you might want to look out for BLMGN and M4BL, since those groups aren’t really in line with your values, and you might instead get involved with this or that much better group” is there any reasonable person on the planet who will understand me to be saying that I don’t believe in equal justice? Surely not.
Anyway, like I said, the dialogue doesn’t have to go forever. I’m sure you’re a busy person. But I’d be glad to hear more from you, and I do think it is possible to come to agreement about these things if we work at it.
Your comments are exactly what I have been looking for…
I would have been interested in seeing a response to these, but specifically the comment below.
” If I say “I believe in equal justice, and hey, you might want to look out for BLMGN and M4BL, since those groups aren’t really in line with your values, and you might instead get involved with this or that much better group”.”
My main concern is that many of the great people who support the concept of Black lives matter( the statement), and I fully agree with this, and do believe there is systematic racism to a degree… are going to be drawn into more than they bargained for, and this could eventually lead to a backlash on the entire movement(versus the organizations), which is a shame.
As a Christian, I let people know which groups(that call themselves Christians) I do not support and denounce them, I do not see that within the general BLM( in general, I rarely see Christians doing it.. they take an attitude, that non-christians should just know the
” Searching for information on the BLM movement leadership calling it a spiritual movement, and their religion, is what led me to this site”…
Regarding directing people to other groups that are more aligned with Christian faith commitments, I can and do take that step. I particularly point people to the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation (jvmpf.org). But my disagreement with some bullet points of two organizations within a vast grassroots network doesn’t concern me enough to direct focus to those disagreements. I’m more interested in promoting shared commitments. Part of my point in this post and a few others is being clear about our convictions so we are able to recognize the limits of cooperation with non-Christian movements. In general I haven’t found denouncing movements to be a very effective missional posture. I’d rather build relationships where convictions are shared, while being aware of the boundaries and seeking opportunities to reframe the issues in a Christ-centered way.
As I argued above, M4BL is not “two organizations within a vast grassroots network”. Rather, it’s 150 organizations with 100 million plus in pledged donations, and it is “the broader Black Lives Matter movement”.
Perhaps your disagreement with these 150 Marxist, separatist organizations is just “one or two bullet points”. I’d challenge you to think about whether that’s really true. My own disagreement with them is far more extensive than that, and I see their basic ideology as fundamentally inconsistent with Christianity, and I believe that they are basically walking in the wrong way.
I’m all for “being aware of the boundaries” but that means we need to recognize that there are 150 organizations here, not two, and we have extensive and fundamental disagreements with them, not just one or two bullet points.
As for “missional posture,” I’m of course happy to build relationships with people in this movement, even though I very strongly oppose the movement itself. My clear statements of disagreement do not rule out friendship, of course. In fact, these statements are part of my love for those who have been deceived by the many obfuscations that are rampant right now, or who haven’t been deceived, but need to be called to repentance.
All the while, in case this needed to be said again, I support the traditional non-violent approach, in the tradition of MLK, to securing equality before the law and racial reconciliation, and I support these things in both word and deed.