Chasing community, from Christians to communists

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This year, unsurprisingly, has killed off the normal New Year’s resolutions of gym-going and vegetable-eating, but it has given us unprecedented access to time and space for self-reflection. 

As a fledgling political economy major, my political leanings are often shifting (usually leftward) due to whatever treatise we’re reading that week. In reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels my fall semester at home, I was struck by how similar many of their precepts were to the stories I sat through every Sunday morning growing up, and how irritated everyone around me would have been if I had piped up about socialism after taking grape juice communion.

I was born into the Christian Church — dedicated, baptized and raised around other religious people growing up. Christian sleepaway camps were a fixture of my summers. When I got to high school, however, I sort of checked out from the experience.

I remember vividly sitting crisscross-applesauce in a room full of students, listening to a youth pastor speak on sexuality, one of those topics we giggled about while still hanging on to every word. 

We got to a point in the sermon where he talked about being LGBTQ+ and the church’s views on how wrong it was to act on those impulses. I remember watching him strain through the words, “I would love to talk to you about my personal beliefs sometime, but the church’s belief” — it wasn’t fire and brimstone, but it certainly wasn’t positive.

I’m deeply ashamed that my disgust then wasn’t with the content of that sermon. It was with how shackled he seemed at that moment, how unable to express what I could tell he wanted to say.

Watching a mentor who selflessly exemplified grace and mercy being forced to preach something he didn’t believe broke something about my faith. My reverence for the place that raised me soured into distrust.

This encounter set off years of interrogating my faith, the church and Christianity as a whole. At the time, I was largely unaware of the underlying political beliefs implicit in many Christian teachings. I had no idea what heteronormativity or purity culture or Reaganomics were, let alone their toxicity.

But the bigger, deeper problems took longer to unearth themselves. 

I eventually made my way to UC Berkeley and started my journey into political theory. To my surprise, I found that the tenets of socialist and communist philosophy — the comradery, the social welfare — seemed closer to the teachings of Christ than the capitalist ones with which they are so often aligned. Caring for the poor and the downtrodden, loving your neighbor as yourself — the policy manifestations of these ideals seemed, evidently, to be strong social welfare programs. The moral compass of Christian philosophy appeared to point overwhelmingly toward socialism, what I saw as the fullest realization of political empathy.

Watching evangelicals turn to the political right has been disheartening to watch, not just because I disagree with nearly every policy they support – usually with biblical backing to boot – but because I know where they’re coming from. I’ve been through the mental gymnastics that turn a doctrine of love and empathy into one of exclusion and fear.

That background allows me to see these people not as enemies or obstacles, but simply as people who believe they are in the right. 

I realized what checked me out of the church was the manifestation of the human flaws of the place, not the ideological ones. I tried to learn to separate the heart of an ideology from the human institutions built up around it.

And later on, I came to share a similar critique of the leftist community. What is often off-putting about the left is its insistence on moral superiority and political correctness, but even this is a critique of individuals, not the mantra. The collective communities of Marx and Christ, no matter how disconnected they seemed, were related in their believable ideals and less-than-ideal believers.

In our rapidly changing world, we’ve all found things to cling to. For some, religion provides a moral compass and an existential peace. For others, they find fulfillment in the political fight for something greater than themselves. But both are simply looking for community.

As we look toward this new year, I’m doing so with optimism. No one’s seizing the means of production anytime soon, but this pandemic and the ensuing recession have pushed class consciousness to new heights. Our beliefs are amalgamations of the beliefs held by the people that raised us, those that won us over and those we look up to. But they are still our beliefs. The worst thing that we can believe is that we’re powerless to change them.

Contact Luke Stiles at [email protected].