Should Christians be socialists?

LUCAS JACKSON REUTERS A Wall Street sign hangs on a signpost in front of the New York Stock Exchange August … Continued

LUCAS JACKSON

REUTERS

A Wall Street sign hangs on a signpost in front of the New York Stock Exchange August 5, 2011.

In “From Jesus’ socialism to capitalistic Christianity,” Gregory Paul argues that American Christians who defend the free economy are involved in a profound contradiction, since Jesus and Christianity are self-evidently socialistic.

Let’s pass over his caricature of capitalism, since no one would defend the idea as he describes it, and get to the two big holes in his argument. The first is his claim that “many of these Christian capitalists are ardent followers of Ayn Rand,” a known atheist and anti-Christian. The second claim is that Jesus and the Bible are pro-socialist rather than pro-capitalist.

Mr. Paul’s attempt to paint Christian defenders of the free market as “ardent followers of Ayn Rand” might be more successful if he had bothered to give examples. Instead, he mentions Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, the skeptic-comedians Penn and Teller, and atheist Michael Shermer. All of these gentlemen are libertarians, but none is a Christian.

He observes that Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, has required his staff to read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Logicians will note that this fails to establish that Mr. Ryan is an “ardent follower of Ayn Rand.” Lastly he mentions me (also a Catholic) and my book, Money, Greed, and God, which is especially unfitting since I am a vocal critic of Rand, as anyone who has read my book or Googled my name would know. Mr. Paul then asks, “Can a stranger amalgam of opposing opinions be devised?” The strange amalgam of ardent Christian Randians, however, is a construct of Mr. Paul’s partisan imagination.

His assertion that Jesus and Christianity are inherently socialist fares no better. Although he refers to Jesus as a socialist, the only biblical texts he appeals to are from the book of Acts (chapters 2-5), which describes the early church in Jerusalem (after Jesus ascension into heaven). The central text is worth quoting:

Mr. Paul insists, “Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx-who likely got the general idea from the gospels.” No serious biblical scholar, or economist, would mistake the practice of the early Jerusalem church for Marxism. First of all, Marx viewed private property as oppressive, and had a theory of class warfare, in which the workers would revolt against the capitalists-the owners of the means of production-and forcibly take control of private property. After that, Marx thought, private property would be abolished, and the state would own the means of production on behalf of the people. There’s none of this business in the books of Acts. These Christians are selling their possessions and sharing freely.

Second, the state is nowhere in sight. No Roman centurions are breaking down doors and sending Christians to the lions (that was later). No government is confiscating property and collectivizing industry. No one is being coerced. The church in Jerusalem was just that-the church, not the state. The church doesn’t act like the modern communist state.

Mr. Paul completely misreads the later text in Acts 5, in which Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira for keeping back some of the money they received from selling their land. Again, it helps to actually read the text:

Mr. Paul asks, “Does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death? Not only is socialism a Christian invention, so is its extreme communistic variant.” The only problem is that the text says exactly the opposite. Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira not for failing to join the collective, but for lying about what they had done. In fact, Peter says explicitly that the property was rightfully theirs, even after it was sold. This isn’t communism or socialism.

Third, the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem is never made the norm for Christians. It’s not even described as the norm for the Jerusalem church. Acts is describing an unusual moment at the beginning of the church in Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews had come from a long distance to worship in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and then become Christians. They would have had to return home soon after their conversion but for extreme measures taken by the newborn church to allow these Christians to stay in Jerusalem. Given the alternatives, a mutual sharing of possessions seemed like the obvious solution.

Compared to modern nation states, the Jerusalem church was a tiny community dealing with a particular problem. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the Jewish diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Most probably returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.

Fourth, we know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had quite different arrangements. For instance, St. Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to “earn their own living,” and warned, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10, 12). Apparently some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. Given this all-too-human tendency to free ride on the generosity of others, it’s no surprise that the early communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for the how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state abolishing private property. So, contrary to Mr. Paul’s confident assertions, the early church in Jerusalem was not socialist and does it set a Christian precedent for socialism.

The Bible isn’t an economics textbook, but I and many other Christians believe its underlying principles are most consistent with the free economy. There are reasonable critiques of that opinion, but Gregory Paul’s is not one of them.

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, and author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.

  • bokun59

    Wow, talk about stupid is as stupid does…Jesus talks more about the poor and the unfortunate than any other groups. He only gave two commandments and the second one can only be meant to make sure your fellow humans are treated well, fed, clothed, housed, and have their medical cares taken care of. Christianity (the teachings of Christ as shown in the Gospels both the four we know and the Gnostic ones left out) makes abundantly clear that our purpose in life is to take care of each other as best we can by sharing with others the fruits of our labours as we love God and prepare for the end.

    Mr. Richards: you did the Pharisees and Sadducees proud.

  • cprferry

    It depends what Bible you read from. The one in which Jesus sells his soul to the Devil in the desert for food and the opportunity to control kingdoms? The one in which Jesus accepts the crowd’s demands he become king after feeding 5000? The one in which Jesus abandoned his supernatural powers to merely take wine from the rich man to serve at Cana and ask his disciples to share their lunch to feed 5000? The one in which Jesus merely handed over some earthly water to the woman at the well? The one in which Jesus Christ leads an insurrection with Jesus Barabbas? The one in which Jesus gives up his entire existence and redemptive purpose to be a socialist dividing earthly resources appropriately?

  • Tr00per

    Jesus Christ healed the sick through a command or a touch revealing His authority, He fed the multitude with food that did not previously exist showing his mastery of creation. He never created any money or clothing and gave to the poor. Instead He commanded each of his followers to love their neighbors and care for them as they cared for their own. The Bible commands “As God has prospered you, so give.” Paul paid his way by being a tent maker. The disciples were fishing for profit (without results) when Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side. Jesus never told Matthew, the tax collector to divest himself of all his wealth before he could be his disciple. Ananias and his wife could have kept all of their property or money without consequence. They were under no compulsion to give property which was theirs. Their choosing to lie to God was their downfall. Misinterpretation of these scriptures as a basis for Socialism and Communism clearly illustrates an inability to read and understand the English language.

  • Secular1

    According to Richards, the text in the quotes “Ananias . . . why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the lands? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God! (Acts 5:3-4)”

    implies that Peter is the one who condemns Ananias and Sapphira for lying and not for keeping the proceeds of the sale. Really, why did Ananias & Sapphira lie in the first place? Is it not that their perception was all the proceeds were expected to be turned over to the community? Is it not the reason for them to part with whatever they wished to be fair and keep the rest for themselves? Since when was death the punishment for lying, under mosaic law? If lying to God is to be meted with death, isn’t every lie, lying to God. Mr. Richard your analysis is utter nonsense, even a third grader can see through this. Either that or your revered Peter was a murderer, because we can be certain that Dog did not tell him to condemn them to death..

  • wgscribe

    Jesus wasn’t an “….ist” of any sort, and he wasn’t even a Christian for that matter. He never asked for anything except to follow him and have faith. His path is not easy to follow, and yet it is very simple – love God with all of your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. You can do it with millions of dollars or with ten pennies. The heart is what is judged and not your business savvy or lack thereof, because it’s what you do with what you have that counts. Selfishness and unselfishness are always rewarded – “ist” just a matter of how.

  • wgscribe

    They weren’t murdered – they died. Now the question remains, why did they die? In its simplist form, the answer is because they lied to themselves – from the heart.

    Picture A&S accepting salvation through Christ (as a given). They are filled with the Holy Spirit. They contrive to hold back and in so doing lie to the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of them. Peter says, “Satan filled your heart…” Wait – the Holy Spirit lived in their heart. Ah – they freely forfeited His place for the lie of Satan, hence lying to their own heart and the result was their own death. God gave them life – Peter just stated the facts – and who’s happy? Satan. The crux is not that you will be killed for lying – or like you said – we’d all be dead – but that the gift of salvation is so strong that if you choose to throw it away, you throw away your heart along with it.

  • jrzwrld

    Both sides in this argument sound like a couple of idiots. “Which economic system would Jesus support?” Um, really that is a ridiculous question. I will however admit to being fairly amused when I see supposedly devout Christians rabidly pursuing materialistic goals while spouting off about their faith. I’m pretty sure Jesus, a guy who eschewed possessions for a spiritual life, WOULD look askance at McMansions and pimped out SUVs.

  • JohnMc1

    The problem isn’t whether one should or should not be a capitalist or socialist, but whether it is appropriate to hijack the Bible for use as a capitalist or socialist manifesto. It is neither.

    Trying to reinterpret the Bible as a manifesto is utterly inappropriate, especially if you hold the Scriptures in high regard – the Scriptures are not to be used as tools to burden and oppress, but as instruments for healing, reconciliation and restoration. Nor is it a “Get out of Hell” card for those who think they have done enough.

    Also, I have to say that shouting at the underprivileged and/or unemployed: “Get a job!” wrongly shifts the responsibility for compassionate works away from the self and onto others. Nothing could be more unChristian.

    Jesus did not say: when you fed the poor you fed me, provided you first verified that the circumstance of the poor whom you fed were not of their own making. He said: if you would care for me you will feed them. No qualifications, no excuses.

    As Jesus would say: You feed them.
    If someone is committed to a political/economic agenda with which you do not agree, you cannot rightly beat them over the head with a Bible and call them evil. You can only pray that when they are in control, their way of thinking and their way of doing things works well – so we all benefit. After all each side is working towards the same objective, a high functioning economy where the greatest number of people work and the least number of people require assistance to survive. And each desires to do so while at the same time maximizing personal political and economic freedom and personal and national security.

  • JohnMc1

    My SUV is not pimped out.

  • WashingtonPostThinker

    Capitalism appears described as the economic system most highly incentivizing economic growth and personal success, even at the expense of others, and socialism appears described as appropriate economic concern for others, implemented sadly via unmotivated production and ineffective planning and logistics. However, it appears that a third possibility appears to be that of an economy of highly-motivated market producers who recognize the importance of, and who care for, the well-being of others. This alternative appears to be rarely, if ever, mentioned and yet, appears seemingly as unremarkable as a civil family, seated at a dinner table, famished perhaps from a full day of fun, that, despite their strong appetites and varying gastronomic capacities, expect each other to be well-mannered and considerate of the others at the table, especially if there isn’t enough to satisfy all or if one, such as an infant or disabled person, has a comparative disadvantage in obtaining an appropriate share of the feast. I would consider this type of economy to be that to which America’s apparent exemplary history and societal potential aspires. The blueprint appears readily and commonly available. Perhaps the people will build it.

  • wesevans

    As I understand it both Christanity and Judiasm encourage charity from one own wealth or effort directly or through the chirch or synagog. There is no call to give to or use a third party (The Government) to satisf your obligation. Certainly

  • wesevans

    The admonition of Christianity is do charity from your own wealth or effort. There is no admonition to use a third party other than the church for this purpose. Certainly non what so ever to use the wealth of another to satisfy your personal obligation. Socialism uses governmental force to do charity with the wealth of others and therefor does not satisfy your personal obligation. If as a christian you are a socialist for the reason of taking care of the less fortunate this does not satisfy your personal obligation.

  • JohnMc1

    In First Century Palestine the Temple and the Jewish leadership were inextricably woven together. There was no separation of church and state.

    On another point, if one can use one’s personal wealth and privilege to influence government tax policy and social welfare policy for one’s own profit, then one can use the same wealth and privilege to influence government tax policy and social welfare policy for the benefit of others and especially those less fortunate.

    Since you claim that Christian responsibility is all about how you use your personal wealth, then which use would you claim is more consistent with Jesus’ teachings?

  • YEAL9

    More from the Land of More:

    Christian economics/greed 101:

    The Baptizer drew crowds and charged for the “dunking”. The historical Jesus saw a good thing and continued dunking and preaching the good word but added “healing” as an added charge to include free room and board. Sure was better than being a poor peasant but he got a bit too zealous and they nailed him to a tree. But still no greed there.

    Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and “Gentilized” the good word to the “big buck” world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. Paul was guilty of minor greed?

    Along comes Constantine. He saw the growing rich Christian community and recognized a new tax base so he set them “free”. Major greed on his part!!

    The Holy Roman “Empirers”/Popes/Kings/Queens/Evangelicals et al continued the money grab selling access to JC and heaven resulting in some of today’s richest organizations on the globe i.e. the Christian churches (including the Mormon Church) and related aristocracies. Obvious greed!!!

    An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue, ( Professors Crossan and Wright are On Faith panelists).

    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

  • chenduxiu

    I think Jesus said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

    He didn’t say “Render through Caesar God’s things and Caesar’s things.”
    We’re talking about Jesus here and not Hugo Chavez.

  • lcandell

    I’m always amazed by the mental gymnastics self-proclaimed Christians will resort to in order to justify their refusal to support an adequate social safety net for the less fortunate, not to mention, their unholy mixture of capitalism and religion. This country will not make any real progress until it breaks the hold that Jesus-freaks have on our secular political sytem.

  • mrbradwii

    The only thing to take away here, I guess, is that socialism is ok if you choose it freely.

    The whole christian myth is to freely choose egalitarian poverty in service to your fellow man, under the authority of an apostolic church, because if you don’t, you face the piledriver of god, or the wrath of his spirit embodied in the his babbling followers, or his son will slam shut the door to heaven in your face. Nice.

    St. Peart said it best: “I will choose a path that’s clear; I will choose Freewill”

  • hanocul6

    Christians can not be socialist, communist, capitalist, marxist or any other form of government or political system. However, Nations and Countries can use Christianity and its fundamental beliefs in their governmental and political frame work as the US has done.

    Now, if you take Jesus Christ out of Christianity then you might say it is a socialist group. For you see that with Jesus at the center his teachings are about the humans hearts relationship to God the creator. If you study His word, the whole word and not just bits and pieces you will find that “Christians” are to live productive lives. That God wants his people to be prosperous, not lazy, work hard, use our creative minds and strengths and do unto others. He wants us to create a Christian society that broods productive people. Socialism does not brood productive people, Christianity does. The word of God teaches us to be personally responsible for our well being no matter what form of government or economic system we may be in. And yes, we are to look out for and help those that are hurting and in need, to feed them and nourish them back to being productive people. This is the command to the church not to the government. It is real because it is built on a relationship with God. The word of God also points out and distinguishes those that are in real need and those that are simply lazy and unproductive. God teaches us to feed and teach people to live in relationship with Him to live productive lives.

    Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit in a competitive market. This system also drives productivity and gives people a sense of worth. All though it is not perfect, as no economic system is, it is the best system that lends Christians the ability to practice their faith in Jesus Christ. To live productive christian lives. Socialism weakens people because it lends to dependance on government programs and subsidies. It is not about building

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