taking the words of Jesus seriously

It is nothing new that those who are concerned about poverty, excessive wealth and the need for greater equality are routinely attacked as socialists by those on the right. Astonishingly, the reasons given by Christians of the political right for opposing socialism reflect more of the atheistic, anti-Christian thinking of the radical capitalist Ayn Rand than anything that has to do with Jesus. 

This can be seen in a piece written several years ago that has lately been circulating again on social media, Five Reasons Socialism Is Not Christian. No doubt it is making the rounds again because a couple progressive political candidates have been doing well in the primary elections. Not only would no Christian who identifies with socialism accept her definition of what it is, her arguments fall far short of taking the biblical witness –and specifically Jesus’ model and message- seriously. 

Let’s briefly examine her points.

First, she says, “To socialists. All that really exists is the material world.” She attempts to impose Karl Marx’s atheism on all socialists, ignoring the many faithful Christian leaders who for generations have embraced some form of socialism. In fact Christian writers were advocating versions of socialism before Karl Marx ever penned the first line of Das Kapital. Frederick Denison, Adin Ballou, Thomas Hughes, John Ruskin, and Frederick Dennison Maurice were among them.  Many others followed, including Baptist minister and author of the Pledge of Allegiance Francis Bellamy.  

In the research done by Harvard professor Dan McKanan, he concluded that as many as 25% of mainline ministers in the United States identified as socialists in the first decades of the 20th century. It can be argued that atheism is more of an aberration than an intrinsic trait of socialism. There are many Christians today who have views which some would label as socialist who would scoff at the notion that their convictions imply that “all that really exists is the material world.” Any attempt to paint socialism as fundamentally atheistic is ignorant and misguided. 

Just because the material world is not all that exists does not mean we should not take the material world and its problems seriously. Inequality is a crucial concern that demands the attention of anyone who takes seriously the admonition, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).  In fact a tremendous amount of suffering is the result of an unequal distribution of wealth and many troubling social issues are associated with gross economic inequality. This has been well documented.

The developed nations with the worst wealth inequality are also the ones with the highest infant mortality rate, highest murder rate, largest prison population, most substance abuse, and the lowest life expectancy, among other things. As the author of the above named article states, “The Bible says the cause of suffering is sin.” Yes. And gross inequality is an expression of sin. Repentance is needed, personally and corporately.

Second, she insists that “socialism punishes virtue.” Behind this claim is the deluded idea the prosperous people are the more virtuous people and the poor are of lesser moral character. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strangely, she imagines her claim is backed up by the well-known line from Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Give and take is required. Both contribution and reward are contained in these words. 

Yet the author is misguided by her ideology so that all she can see is some sort of sanction to “mooch.” She falsely says socialism, as defined by the well-known line, will “punish those who are industrious by making them pay for those who aren’t.” She ignores the words, “From each according to his ability…” Consequently, she predictability quotes a favorite passage of those who judgmentally accuse the poor of laziness: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

The poor are often far more hard working than the rich.  As British journalist George Monbiot noted, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” And not only women, and not only in Africa. In most cases hard work does not bring wealth. The poor are not impoverished because of a lack of doing work but because of inadequate pay. 

As scripture says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23). Those who are more powerful “sweep away” profits which the poor should receive and keep for themselves. Sure there are some who are poor and lazy, but they are the minority. Just as there are those who are lazy but self-indulgently rich. Interestingly, conservatives never speak a word of criticism about them.

READ: Taking Biblical Economic Justice Seriously

Three, the author says, “Socialism endorses stealing.” In fact it can be argued that it is capitalism that endorses stealing. Failing to pay a living wage when profits are available to do so is theft. Because they are weak and desperate, many people are exploited.  Scripture speaks of those who oppress the poor in order to enrich themselves (Proverbs 22:16). Sometimes that oppression is entirely legal. The great prophet Isaiah condemned the rich and powerful “who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2).

Personal property is affirmed in scripture with such words as those which speak of “everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (2 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10). But the right to private property is not unlimited. Perhaps it is for followers of Ayn Rand but not for followers of Jesus. Laws in scripture curtail unrestricted ownership. 

One example of this is the gleaning law: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. ‘Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:9-10). This law functions like a tax to shift resources from the more affluent to the less affluent. And this is not the only biblical law that served such a purpose, as I have pointed out elsewhere.

The early Church Fathers had a much clearer understanding of the limits of private property and the meaning of theft than present day conservative Christians. Among the most influencial of them, Ambrose Bishop of Milan (340 AD – 397 AD), wrote, “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.” Everything that comes into one’s possession is not one’s own without qualification, according to the Bible.

Four, the author argues, “Socialism encourages envy and class warfare.” In fact, there was class warfare before socialism existed. Class warfare is driven by great need in the face of a minority basking in great abundance. Economic injustice is the soil in which class warfare grows. Socialism is not the cause of class warfare rather it offers one possible solution to it. The conservatives claim socialism fosters envy. But the issue is not envy. Rather the accumulation of great wealth evokes justified resentment among the under-privileged who work hard but are rewarded little.

The author insists that “socialists demonize the rich.” It may seem that way to conservatives who may glorify the rich and view them as more worthy of praise than others. But their adoration is misplaced. No one has in fact earned hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. No amount of the “sweat of the brow” and supposed “virtue” can justify such extraordinary sums. 

If someone made $19,230 a week –about 20 times the average full-time pay- it would take a thousand years for him or her to take in a billion dollars. There is something spiritually distorting in great wealth. After Jesus told the rich man to sell what he owned and give it to the poor and the man refused, Jesus said, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23, 25). Was Jesus a class warrior?

When Jesus’ mother Mary envisioned the future of her son, as though already accomplished, she sang, He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-53). As Jesus began to teach, his words echoed the sentiment of those spoken by Mary. “Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). 

At no point in his ministry did Jesus support the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the weak and poor. Rather he used every means available to him in his age to do what he could to aid those in need. We need to do the same. It is not wealth and the wealthy that deserve condemnation in and of themselves. Rather it is super abundance in the face of suffering and great need that is rightly seen as demonic. 

Finally, in her attacks on socialism, she asserts, “Essentially, what socialism seeks is for the state to replace the family. That way, it can indoctrinate children in its Leftist way of thinking, and remove from them any notions of God and religion.” While this may have been true for Marx, most others never embraced this idea, and certainly Christian socialists have rejected it. Her attack is dishonest, a strawman argument. 

Indeed, one of the central reasons greater economic equality is a worthy goal for Christians to pursue is precisely because it makes possible healthier, better educated, flourishing families. For this reason Christians should be at the forefront of those working to reduce the huge and destructive wealth disparity that now exists.

 

About The Author

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Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist.

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