Recently, I heard a reporter say, with surprise, that “some consider the Pope anti-capitalist.” As if it were news. There is nothing new about Christianity being anti-capitalist. Somewhere Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” The church in its beginning with those sad disciples “held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In the book of Exodus, the Jews left Egypt because it was an authoritarian, ancient capitalist regime that thought the function of government was to maximize profit for the already wealthy Pharaoh-family minority in the empire.
Christianity was always a religion of wealth redistribution! That’s why we tithe! Because we believe the best way to support a pastor and to do good among “the least of these” is for everyone to give something to the pot of the common good then pour out the pot over those with empty bowls.
There is nothing novel about the Pope’s message. It’s almost as if he read the Bible before he he entered the Vatican, and read it all the way through, not just the Epistles of Paul.
This is why Pope Francis feels like a breath of fresh air in American Christianity. Do you remember 2005? The year I graduated high school, I didn’t really call myself a Christian. It only confused people, because they couldn’t square my crusading social justice ass skipping school to protest the Afghanistan war with any Christian they had ever heard of. In that year, the most popular Christians were George W. Bush (the man who led us into two wars); Rick Warren (of the Purpose Driven Life, your guide to evangelical conservatism and patriarchy); and the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. I remember pouring over the newspaper looking at the profiles of the most likely future popes–I was neither Catholic nor intending to become a pastor, but I was anachronistic and loved newspapers. I was cheering for the guy from South Africa. There were so many talented, non-European men under 75 in the papal line up… and here’s this guy who’s biggest concern is women getting uppity in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious? Really? The three most popular Christians in my life thought capitalism was just fine and dandy while I could still smell the tear gas on my friends from Seattle’s World Trade Organization protests.
The Bible was always anti-capitalist. It always had a hard message for the wealthy. The Pope is supposed to be against private property, profit-driven purposes, war, displacement, environmental destruction. There is nothing novel in this theology.
Christianity was never easy. That’s why it was a persecuted religion for 300 years after Jesus’ lifetime. That’s why it was co-opted and softened around the edges. That’s why American Christianity clings to the rhetoric of prosperity gospel and pulling up your bootstraps to atone for your sins. Because it’s easy.
But it’s also wrong. Christianity was never easy. The Bible was never a pat-yourself-on-the-back religion. Capitalism never was Christian and we ought to feel the cognitive dissonance–ought to feel it enough to restructure our lives. To work to redistribute our wealth. To be more Christian than we are capitalist.