Quotes are from “The Ethics of Freedom”…
The Bible often talks about the bondage of man…We read of the institution of slavery. We also find bondage to corruption, to the stoicheia of this world….The ending of formal slavery has softened the term. But the situation described remains the same. In our own age the equivalent of slavery is alienation. This is not just a matter of modernizing our vocabulary and changing a word to give better understanding. The reference is to a concrete condition of man today just as the reference in the prophets and Paul is to a concrete situation in their day…
Now don’t zip past this. Paul’s soteriological vocabulary is heavily drawn from the institution of slavery. He got it from the Old Testament as a good rabbinical scholar and he got it from the Roman society around him, as a citizen and traveller. When that institution disappears, as it has in America, then it is natural for the language drawn from it to get transmuted into something else weaker. Today, when we read Paul say something like “slave to sin”, we think something like “bad habits I can’t break”. But Ellul is going to fill the term “slave” back in with the substance it has lost:
Our starting point must be the description of alienation which was given, if not first, at any rate most forcefully by Marx. Now it should not be forgotten that Marx alienation is not a localized fact. It is not just a mark of the proletariat in a capitalist world. It is not just an economic condition nor does it arise merely at one period in history. It is the total condition of man the moment he steps out of the primitive commune and falls victim to division of labor and to exploitation. …Alienation means being possessed externally by another and belonging to him. It also means being self-alienated, other than oneself, transformed into another. The problem has both these dimensions for Marx. This is why he speaks of alienation in work, in the workers lack of time to live. Man has no control of time. His whole life is taken over by work. He is thus less than a beast.
Now here we’re on to something. “Slavery” in the New Testament is the condition of fallen man and that condition includes, phenomenologically, “alienation” as Marx described it around him.
Let’s do the disclaimers so the Christians can get past their goggles and actually read Ellul: let’s agree capitalism is the best economic system fallen man can do. But that is not to deny that man in a capitalist society is alienated — not because capitalism is especially evil, as in Marx, but because all human societies east of eden are built on the alienation of their members. And all these societal machineries, including democratic capitalism, tend to alienate more powerfully over time. Alienation can be understood to mean something so simple as that man has to contract himself out in order to eat. This, we accept as normal, but it can be common but not normal. It is common, necessary, and oppressive, but abnormal. The more you accept Eden as the normal state of man the more oppression you see. (All other systems have their distinct and worse machineries. The one thing worse than the alienation in capitalism is the literal slaveries inherent in all centralized economies.)
Religion is the “opium of the people” because it impedes action by causing man to transfer his own possibilities to another being. It thus gives him false hopes and deters him from taking his destiny into his own hands. Religion is undoubtedly man’s highest achievement. It is a general theory of the world, its logic in popular form…just because of these things religion is the worst of all things. It is man’s profound alienation.
Oh, relax. It’s possible to be a Christian, a conservative in politics, a capitalist in economics, and still see that Marx had some brilliant insights. You’re not going to go to hell. And if you’ve spent a lifetime in church, as I have, and can’t agree that for the majority of people in the pew religion is an opiate, then your own eyes are glazed. Just go back to sleep and forget about it.