by Eva Tejon
“Eva, he isn’t Jesus!”: words spoken to me in an A-Level Sociology lesson, many years ago, when
my teacher broke the news that despite being prophetic, revolutionary and bearded, Karl Marx
wasn’t, in fact, a Messiah. (The realisation came, incidentally, after hearing that Marx had been
repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, Jenny).
Despite this fall from grace, I still believe that Marx has many relevant things to say about organised
‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of
soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ He argued that religion dulls the pain produced
by oppression, making life more bearable for the proletariat, stupefying its adherents rather than
bringing true happiness or fulfilment. It achieves this in a number of ways:
• Religions often promises an eternal paradise after death, thereby making life on earth more
bearable (and people less likely to revolt as a result of oppression), with the anticipation of a
• Some faith traditions make a virtue of the suffering faced by the poor (e.g. ‘It is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom
of heaven’ – Matthew 19:24). This makes poverty seem more tolerable, and, again, revolt
• Religion regularly offers the hope of supernatural intervention to solve earthly problems. In
some traditions, this leads to disengagement from societal struggles. Some claim this is the
approach of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who remain neutral in party political matters. In other
traditions, prayer might appease an individual’s conscience, making them less likely to take
• Religion can be used to justify the social order, and an individual’s position within it. Aside
from well-known examples of some Christians supporting apartheid in South Africa and the
trans-Atlantic slave trade, a commonly quoted cultural instance of this is the verse (now
rarely sung!) of the popular Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
For some expressions of religion however, I think Marx got it wrong.
As well as faith in God leading people to ‘put up’ with rotten systems, for the reasons above,
Franscian friar and contemplative Richard Rohr wrote that ‘There is probably no one more truly
radical than real persons of prayer because they are beholden to no ideology or economic system,
but only to God. Both church and state are honestly threatened by true mystics. They can’t be
brought off because their rewards are elsewhere’ (Everything Belongs, p. 157).
I don’t know about you, but my flashes of inspiration often come on public transport. On
the way home from my holidays last week, I was reading Rohr describe a situation I found
familiar: ‘Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred space, it’s going to feel like suffering.
It’s letting go of what we’re used to. That causes suffering. But part of us always has to die. If that
readiness isn’t there, we won’t enter into sacred space. The prophet leads us into sacred space by
showing us the insufficiency of the old order; the role of the priest is to teach us how to live in the
new realm… In this new realm, everything belongs’.
It’s what prompted me to write this article. Upon reading this passage, two ideas converged in
my mind: first, the thought of what is wholly (holy) us never being disowned (and knowing this to
be how God has worked in my life -‘everything belongs’), and secondly the boldness, and indeed
responsibility, this acceptance affords us to be madly, and indignantly, capable of raging against the
machine – the commission to make all people feel loved, wanted, and never disowned (everything
Sometimes it’s hard to put a feeling into words, isn’t it, but if anything I felt mildly told off; I felt like
God was saying to me “You’re a girl who loves another girl. Fine. Great. Now shut up about it and go
and make other peoples’ lives better. You are loved. Now go and love others. No excuses now”.
The writer of John’s gospel put it more articulately: “A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my
disciples, if you love one another” (John 13: 34-35).
Faith can free people, either to be inactive (as Marx suggested), or to be radically active for inward
and outward transformation. Because we do not work under our own strength. Because it doesn’t
matter what the world thinks. And because there are higher standards to aim at.
(Thanks to Haralambos and Holborn, the sociologists’ bible, for some of the summary of Marx’
approach to religion).