Marx on Children (and on Forgiving Christianity)

According to his daughter Eleanor, Karl Marx often said, “Despite everything, we can forgive Christianity much, because it has taught us to love children.” What did he mean by that?

In the gospels Jesus refers to children many times, repeatedly stating that one must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3, Luke 18:17). It’s not at all clear what this meant; some commentators suggest that “kingdom of heaven” should be rendered “God’s Heavenly Empire” because Jesus was positing a heavenly antithesis to the oppressive earthly Roman Empire. In that case only the childlike innocents would enter that realm in the afterlife.

Jesus urged people to bring their children to him; “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me…” (Matthew 19:14). He blessed them; he healed a little boy through his father’s faith (John 4:46-56). He warned against drawing children into sin: “…better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). In Mark 19:36 he takes a child and presents him or her to his disciples and says: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” When Jesus appears in the temple in Jerusalem, it’s the children present who sing “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

The nativity stories about Jesus, born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem, visited by the Wise Men (Three Kings) and shepherds, forced to flee to Egypt, are stories about the reverence for a newborn (divine) infant. The gospels also include the story of Jesus’ boyhood visit to the temple in Jerusalem where he confounds the rabbis with his superior wisdom (Luke 2:41-52).

Early Christians firmly opposed the common Roman practice of infanticide. A baptized infant was a full-fledged Christian with an immortal soul, and the production of children a sacred act, although sexual abstinence was the ideal Christian lifestyle. In Mary the Church posited a virgin mother; images of loving mother and child are central to Christian iconography. In the Epistle to the Colossians, dubiously attributed to Paul, the apostle urges children to “obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.” But he adds, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.”

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-22) is about a son who lost heart, but was welcomed back. Found only in the gospel of Luke, probably composed by a non-Jew in Antioch, terminus of the Silk Road from Asia, the story closely resembles a Buddhist tale in the Lotus Sutra. It champions the value of parental compassion.

Despite everything, we can forgive Christianity much. Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals, despite the general association of institutional Christianity with colonialism and oppression. Belief in God as a baby delivering hope, worthy of tenderest reverence, is what Ludwig Feuerbach (a philosopher who inspired Marx) called the “essence of Christianity.”

Feuerbach emphasized that in revering the eminently human Jesus, humans essentially worship themselves. But the human undergoes evolution, beginning as baby, and Baby Jesus remains the object of independent reverence. “Sweet little Jesus boy,” goes the spiritual, “we didn’t know who you was… Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was.”

Marx had six children by his wife Jenny von Westphalen. Two died in infancy. The greatest heartache of Marx’s life was the death of his 8-year-old son Edgar in Soho in 1855. His death was followed by the birth of Eleanor (Tussy), of whom Jenny wrote to a friend: “The child was born when our poor little Edgar died and all the love and tenderness we bore him was then transferred to his little sister, and the older girls looked after her and nursed her with almost motherly care. But then it would really be difficult to find a more lovable child, as pretty as a picture and sweet tempered. In particular, she prattles delightfully. She has learned that from the brothers Grimm, who are her constant companions day and night. We all have to read the fairy tales aloud to her until we are almost exhausted, but woe betide us if we leave out so much as a word of the story of Bluebeard or Little Snow White or Rumpelstilzchen. Thanks to these fairy tales the child has learned German, and she speaks it with remarkable accuracy and grammatical precision, and, naturally, she has learned English as a matter of course. The child is Karl’s favourite and her laughter and her merry chatter dispel many of his worries.”

Marx the revolutionary was a loving father. His relationship with his own father, a descendant of rabbis who had for political reasons converted to Christianity in his 30s, had been close (much closer than his relationship with his mother). His daughters referred to him affectionately as “the Moor” due to his dark complexion and enjoyed imbibing wine, invariably provided by Engels (whom they called “the General”) with him, their mother and housekeeper. Eleanor described him as “an unparalleled story teller.” He read to her and her sisters the whole of Homer, the Nibelungenlied, Don Quixote, The 1001 Nights.

Marx sometimes took his children to attend church services, purely to enjoy the music. When they asked him what the music was about, he explained that it had to do with a poor carpenter killed by rich men. Marx not only forgave Christianity, he appreciated many of its cultural contributions to humanity. Few thinkers have more highly praised Martin Luther, who, Marx declared, replaced “the faith in authority with the authority of faith,” validating the individual conscience over the powers of the Church. He saw the Reformation as a kind of incomplete bourgeois revolution, and the Peasants War in Germany (1524-25) inspired by the Reformation as a progressive uprising. The radical priest Thomas Muntzer was among Marx’s and Engels’ heroes.

We cannot forgive Christianity its oppressive doctrines of original sin and hellfire; its suppression of classical learning; its historical Inquisitions and witch-burnings; its campaigns of forced conversion; its fratricidal “wars of religion;” its persecution of gay people; its legacy of priestly child abuse.

But yes, we can forgive it much, because it began with the worship of a baby. According to Matthew, wise men from the east, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, followed a star taking them to a humble manger in Bethlehem to revere a sacred newborn boy. According to the Gospel of Luke, 40 days later Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he is blessed by Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is not unique in revering the child. The Christian nativity myths strongly resemble some Buddhist nativity stories, which probably precede them historically. But there’s little we need to forgive in the historical record of Buddhism, other than clerics’ corruption, occasional warrior-monk disturbances, and sometimes ethnic violence in places like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Tibet. Christianity has much, much more to atone for. But in worshiping the baby, and his mother as the Mother of God, the Christian faith as it were atones for the prior sin of worshiping the patriarchal God who demands the sacrifice of children (the Abraham and Isaac story) and heartlessly slaughters Egyptian newborns (the Moses story). It presents a god with a different face, meek and mild, surrounded by children.

That kind of Christianity manifests itself in religious protests by groups like Interfaith Immigration Coalition against the grotesque policy of family separation at the U.S. border. May those who have been taught to love children love them now, by forcing an end to that sadistic madness.

And may we eventually raise children free of want and fear, and like the early Christians as idealized by the New Testament writer, holding “all things in common” (Acts 2:44, 4:32).

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: