Popular among leftist Christians is the notion that if Jesus were among us today, he would be a socialist. All of that talk about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving shelter to the homeless brings to mind a notion of social utopia, and this leads to the conclusion that money must be taken from the rich and given to the poor, enforceable through government. Such socialistic sympathies have created a wellspring of concern for “social justice,” government programs to help the poor, and a politicization of Jesus’ teaching. The National Council of Churches, for example, refuted Bill Clinton when he suggested that the church should help make the welfare-to-work transition, saying it was not their job.
This is not uncommon in the Mainline Protestant churches, and the result seems to be that seminaries are packed with socialist-minded Christians, advocating that government should use socialist policies to care for the poor. All in the name of Jesus, of course. This thinking has many flaws, one being that this lends itself towards assuming we can build God’s kingdom on earth, and ultimately, idolizing our own good works.
Acts 2:44-45 is often cited as biblical proof that early Christians were, in fact, the first socialists, holding all of their property in common and giving all of their possessions to the poor. I won’t refute that this is an accurate account, but I will offer two thoughts as to why this should not be extrapolated to suggest that Christians should fight for a socialist government today.
First, to hold all things common successfully in a small group of people is possible, though I would imagine even that is hard. If all members took the do not steal and do not covet commandments seriously, it could work. But we have these two commandments because our history does not suggest that this is a morality we are willing to accept. To hold all things in common across the span of millions of people of different ethnicities, geographies and situations is simply doomed to fail. Moreover, this would inevitably put sinful people in charge of a great many things, since left to their own devices, people simply choose not to hold things in common. This historically has led to dictatorships, corruption and genocide.
Second, that the early church held all things in common speaks volumes of their goodness, but I’m not even convinced that this was as successful as Luke (the author of Acts) would have us believe. A lot of Acts tells the story the stories of Peter and Paul, establishing churches and acting as the Church’s first theologians. But, if everything was as perfect as Acts likes to present, why did Paul have so many problems in his congregations?
We hear again and again of squabbles, disagreements and jealousy among the believers. Most of the 6th chapter of I Corinthians tells Christians not to sue one another. In the 5th chapter a man is sleeping with his stepmother. In II Corinthians chapter 11, Paul is trying to convince that church in conflict to stay with his teachings, and to avoid the teachings of the “super-apostles.” In Philippians 4, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to get along with each other. There are more examples of disagreement, and certainly plenty of examples of harmony and generosity.
So even though there are times where scripture portrays a communistic Christian community as ideal, there are other teachings and texts that contradict this utopian version of society as a whole. What the Christian community does within itself is one thing; what the world does is often quite another. Therefore, any notion of Christianity mandating socialism must be rejected.
There is a difference in personal choices that help us lead generous lives and the coercion that is inevitable with socialism. In fact, it should be clearly stated that government coercion is the primary mark of socialism, and it is hard to imagine Jesus supporting such coercion. This is not to say Jesus was a capitalist per se, but some of the hallmarks of a free society are biblical. The right to life and private property are implied in the 5th and 7th commandments, and I would argue the 8th commandment forbidding us to tell lies against our neighbor implies the need for fair rule of law. Without these foundations, a free society will never work. And because an integral part of a free society is a free economy, socialism could be argued as the antithesis of Christian teaching.
This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. Christians were reminded of who the true king is, and that obedience to this king means love for neighbor. But if Christ is our true king, why do we involve political language when we speak of loving our neighbor? For Christians who justify their socialist tendencies in the name of Christ, I recognize and applaud their generous heart. But let us not be so naïve as to believe that advocating socialism is our calling. No, it’s a lot messier than that.