Socialism gets slapped with a pretty bad reputation in conservative circles, and that’s putting it nicely. Most of us have seen people rant and rave about it and post skewed memes on social media here and there. To be fair, if we only consider a definition of socialism that limits it to the worst and most extreme examples (vis à vis communism), then its negative reputation is probably deserved. I wouldn’t exactly hold China or the former Soviet Union up as examples for us to emulate. Nevertheless, the United States and its application of capitalism deserves criticism too. Whether we are able to admit it or not, capitalism has major problems, especially if you aren’t in the top 10% of our nation’s wealthiest individuals, and all the more so if you aren’t in the top 1%. Be that as it may, it wouldn’t be fair to throw out the worst examples of socialism and then press a case against the worst examples of capitalism. The reality is that both capitalism and socialism have embarrassing and praiseworthy examples that ought to be avoided and embraced at different points. But as much fun as it would be to explore the details, nuances, and anecdotal virtues of each economic model, the purpose here is to advance socialism as the model which best reflects the biblical ethic of an entire community looking after a society’s most vulnerable people.
The underlying principle of socialism is that the whole community is responsible for making sure that the marginalized (e.g., the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, disabled, elderly, widow, immigrant, child and orphan) are cared for, not merely on a subsistence level, but on a level that anyone else would want for themselves and members of their immediate family. Is there any support for this type of arrangement in the Bible? Yes. Lots of it.
In the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, from the major prophets through the minors and to the end of the texts, it is when the Jews continually neglect their society’s most vulnerable members and focus only on building fortunes, power, and prestige of the privileged that God momentarily gives up on them and lets the Assyrians and then the Babylonians destroy Israel and Judah.
The Old Testament also commands that debts be cancelled and that property and lands be returned to their original owners after a specified number of years so that people get both a fresh start and the resources to engage in a successful livelihood once again. In our day, that would be like telling Monsanto that they had a good run taking over family farms, but now they had to give them all back, or saying to Texas that it was time to return the southern half of the state back to its rightful owners (the Mexicans), or to the rest of the Western hemisphere that it finally had to make things right with the Native Americans. And if we refuse, that’s fine, God won’t force us, but there will be consequences. Specifically, we’ll be kicked out of the land ourselves. In an oversimplification, that’s pretty much what happened in the Holy Land in the second half of the Old Testament.
Then we get to the Jesus days in the gospels. And Jesus don’t play nice with the selfish big-deals of his day either, namely, those with wealth and prestige. He has a lot of very critical things to say to (and about) the “haves,” especially regarding how they treat their wealth and the “have-nots.” One of the more shocking moments in the New Testament is when Jesus loses his temper in the Temple courts after he sees entrepreneurs capitalizing on a vulnerable constituency (price gouging poor folks who didn’t have the means to bring their own temple sacrifices/offerings). If you don’t know the story, Jesus kicks over their tables and in no uncertain terms tells them to get the F out of the Temple. Occupy that! It’s beautiful.
Jesus also commands that his people love their neighbors as themselves, and he doesn’t make any exceptions based on how much money or resources anyone does or does not possess. Jesus also seemed to think that everyone should have free access to food and healthcare as he fed and healed everyone who came to him. No insurance or proof of citizenship required.
After the hippy-dippy liberal Jesus and the gospels we get to the New Testament book of Acts, which chronicles the formation of the church after Jesus’ resurrected departure. In verses 4.32-35 of that book we get an unmistakeable endorsement of an economic model identical to socialism. Seriously, listen to what it says:
Acts 4.32-35 “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (NRSV).
This scarcely requires additional commentary, and if readers were to continue with their Bible reading, they would discover an alarming end to this endorsement of socialism which includes a story of two Christians who decided to keep some resources to themselves while trying to persuade everyone else that they had given all. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for them.
Of course I get it that my blog post’s title is an eyebrow raiser. Any Bible interpreter worth her salt should bristle at drafting Jesus to a contemporary economic or political platform. I also understand that for Christians, it is our ideologies and systems that should be conformed to the mind of Christ rather than pressing him into service of ours. Nevertheless, it’s imperative to ask which of our contemporary options best reflect biblical values, particularly when it comes to honoring the most vulnerable and disadvantaged or “least of these,” in the words of Jesus. It’s pretty obvious to me that the strongest case can be made not for capitalism, but for socialism, especially if it’s a less extreme and more nuanced brand like the one that Bernie Sanders advocates for.
I mention Bernie Sanders because what inspired this blog entry in the first place was a conservative article I came across attempting a take-down of him and progressive Christians’ understanding that Sanders’ socialism reflects a New Testament ethic. I’ll spend more time on the anti-Sanders article as an addendum in the comments section, but let me reiterate my present argument and line of reasoning for the claim that Jesus and the entire Bible best aligns with socialism over and against capitalism:
In view of the entire Bible (Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament), it is more accurate to say that God esteems societies which show compassion to their most vulnerable and powerless members rather than those which do not. In terms of socialism vs. capitalism we should ask which type of government and economic model honors God the most: one which mandates that even its wealthiest, most hard-hearted, and selfish members make significant contributions to care for the least of their society, or one that simply rewards misers for being misers and asks nothing of them concerning the plight of the least of their fellow creatures? Christian Scripture and reason tell anyone willing to set aside their biases that socialism comes much closer to a biblical ethic and the person of Jesus than does its rival.
I am certain that critical voices have more than a few criticisms of my argument, so for those willing to go further, I’ve included some of the common objections I have heard (along with my rebuttals). These are culled from real conversations I’ve had with conservative Christians.
Responding to Objections:
Objection 1: “Acts 4:32-37 is not an example of a political governmental system. It is individual members of a church acting voluntarily. The giving featured in this passage was out of changed hearts, not governmental edict.”
Rebuttal: The question is about which of our contemporary options best reflects a biblical ethic. It would be odd for Christians to argue that an economic model reflecting a biblical ethic should be rejected just because a government has adopted it, especially when that government is itself an extension of the peoples’ will.
Objection 2: Socialism violates New Testament calls for believers to give cheerfully without coercion. Instead, socialism forces people to give thereby impinging on their ability to determine what, how, and when to give.
Rebuttal: The Bible asks people to give cheerfully, but it does not imply that being grumpy releases them from the obligation to give. To suggest otherwise is a misunderstanding of Scripture.
Furthermore, participating in a socialistic economy and mandating that a portion of taxes and resources support the poor and disadvantaged does not alter nor impinge upon a Christian’s call to give freely or cheerfully at all. The fact is that giving voluntarily and sending a portion of taxes to assistance programs are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Liberty is not sacrificed, and generosity is not eliminated. If a Christian’s voluntary and cheerful giving evaporates just because some of their tax dollars go to the disadvantaged, then the problem is with that Christian, not the system they participate in.
Objection 3: Where does God tell his followers to advocate for specific forms of government?
Rebuttal: I wish conservative types would remember this objection every time they try to tell us that the United States is a “Christian nation.” Nevertheless, its question implies an argument from silence. We might as well ask: Where does God tell his people that they should not advocate for specific forms of government? It strains credibility to imagine that Christians claiming to value the marginalized should not want their government to reflect their values on some level, even if theocracy is not in view.
Objection 4: Socialism requires that Christians transfer the moral dependency of faith onto government. There aren’t any biblical examples of this.
Rebuttal: Of course there aren’t any biblical examples of people transferring moral dependency to the government. The objection is a misunderstanding of socialism. Socialism does not require that a Christian (or anyone else) becomes morally dependent on the government, either for giving or for receiving.
Objection 5: Due to corruption, there is still unequal wealth in socialist economies. It just so happens that the ones with the wealth are likely to be those in power or those in favor with people in power.
Rebuttal: Socialism, especially that which is promoted by Bernie Sanders, does not mandate “equal wealth.” It requires that the wealthy and the society as a whole take responsibility for the marginalized and vulnerable.
If this objection were actually concerned about corruption, slavery, and wealth being married to power, then the same complaint ought to be levied against capitalism, which arguably makes the wealth-power-corruption combination much more egregious, especially considering the supreme court case that allows unlimited and anonymous dark money to flow into political campaigns (Citizens United).
Objection 6: Socialism leads to the “haves” being bitter and eventually deciding that hard work isn’t worth it.
Rebuttal: It strains credibility to believe that a couple in the top 10% of earners in our nation (making $240k per year or more) would decide that it’s not “worth it,” and choose instead to become welfare recipients.Ignoring the fact that most people on welfare don’t have the ability to make the opposite choice, even these top earners will benefit from the socialist program Medicare when they hit a certain age.
It should also be pointed out that IRS brackets only tax the portion of income at certain levels which exceed minimum amounts. If that makes your head spin, what that meant in 2016 is that a couple in a 35% tax bracket only pays 35% in taxes on the amount they make over $413,351. So if they make 413,352 dollars in one year, the only money subject to a 35% tax rate is $1, and it would still be in their best interests to make that lonely extra dollar because it would add $0.65 to their bottom line. In that sense, it’s in this couple’s best interests to keep making more and more money until a maximal tax rate exceeds 49.9% (which we don’t even have in the USA).
Objection 7: Socialism leads to the “have nots” becoming entitled and spoiled and thinking that they shouldn’t have to work at all.
Rebuttal: Claiming that all disadvantaged people will become “spoiled” fails to connect with reality, namely, that most people who are able to work and improve their situations do exactly that when they have the opportunity. Focusing on the extreme “welfare kings” steps into a logical fallacy known informally as the hasty generalization, which tries to convince people that since some individuals fit this description, everyone else must as well. They don’t, thus the argument fails.
This objection further implies that all social assistance programs should be ended just because a minority of people abuse the system. I wonder if these same objectors would argue that capitalism should be ended becauseof its worst abusers. I suspect not, and that raises a consistency issue which in itself raises concerns about conservative Christians’ priorities.
Objection 8: Where does Jesus say, when you see a person in need, find someone in government to help them? It is the Christian’s job to serve the needy, not the government’s.
Rebuttal: This is a valid point when it comes to Christians’ orders to serve the needy (cheerfully or otherwise), but the objection fails to apprehend the unmet needs of our reality. If everyone’s needs were already being met, then the government wouldn’t have anything to do. Unfortunately, the vast needs and inequality created in our present economic system are greater than the individual Christian or church can address, especially when not everyone is giving of their resources (in the church or external to it). The advantage of socialism is that it works to address needs more effectively by mandating that the entire society (both private individuals and corporations), is responsible for its most vulnerable people. Nobody gets to check-out on this responsibility.
The better question to address this objection is: “Do you really think that if no individuals are helping a person in need, then Jesus would recommend that the government ought to ignore them too, and that Christians should vote against any efforts to do otherwise?” Is that really what so-called “Christians” ought to want? It strains credibility. Again, the Bible is clear that God favors societies that look after their most vulnerable neighbors.
Objection 9: Socialism forces people to surrender goods and services and undermines the most basic right to liberty and self determination.
Rebuttal: This objection confuses socialism with its worst and more extreme version, communism. The type of socialism advocated by Bernie Sanders does not involve anything like confiscating peoples’ good and services. Constructing a caricature of socialism and trying to refute that instead of the actual thing being considered is an informal logical fallacy by definition. This is commonly referred to as a straw-man argument, and it renders this objection irrelevant.
The same can be said of the objection that socialism “undermines the most basic right to liberty and self determination.” Not only is this false, its exact opposite is true. Socialism enables the most vulnerable members of society to be free from fear of losing their housing, having enough to eat, worrying about medical needs or having to choose between their children and their jobs. Because people are not enslaved by these basic needs, they are better equipped to pursue liberty and self-determination under socialism.
Objection 10: When does God call believers to force people who don’t share their faith to act like believers?
Rebuttal: Democratic socialism (a la Bernie Sanders) should not be confused with theocracy or the forcing of non-believers to live according to Christianity. The only thing left for this objection to focus on is the socialist mandate that resources (taxes) be collected from everyone, even the unwilling, in order to provide assistance to a society’s most vulnerable people. It has to be pointed out, however, that while care for the have-nots is included within “Christian” values, it is not a uniquely Christian value any more than are laws against murder. Nobody argues that banning murder is forcing Christian morality on the government or its people. This is not to say that murder and charity are moral equivalents, but rather that they have something in common, namely, that they are God-honoring and marks of good governance that Christians (and everyone else of good will) ought to want regardless of what religious views they or others hold. It is a human value that everyone should encourage their government to pursue.
Again, no sane person laments that Christians are imposing their religious doctrines on the government when that authority outlaws murder or makes efforts to alleviate hunger, homelessness, and lack of education and medical care. No beneficiary of these laws and services shouts out, “Curse those Christians forcing their values on me!” Unfortunately, the opposite is not true. When conservative capitalist Christians fail to meet the needs of their fellow humans and simultaneously push an agenda that refuses to let the government help, they are rightly seen as hypocrites, and they bring disgrace to the very values they claim to profess.
Speaking of hypocrisy, an inconsistency came to light in a recent discussion on Facebook regarding this topic. As indicated in the objection above, some Christians believe that other Christians’ voting for Bernie Sanders (on the basis of his socialism) are wrong for trying to force the value of caring for the disadvantaged on non-Christians. As I’ve already pointed out, the imperative to serve the poor is not unique to Christianity, but the issue with consistency here is that these same voices are quick to claim that it is important to vote according to their so-called “Christian” values when it comes to opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. Using their version of faith as an excuse to deny gay people equal rights and force women to have children against their will seems perfectly acceptable, but as soon as it comes to requiring a society to take corporate responsibility for its already-born vulnerable and disadvantaged neighbors, they suddenly change their minds and declare such faith-based governance to be inappropriate. There is only one word for this: Hypocrisy.
I cannot help but wonder that conservative Christians go to great lengths to denounce socialism because, perhaps subconsciously, they know it calls out their duplicity for what it is. Whether they can allow themselves to acknowledge it or not, I’d like to think that the most reflective conservative Christians are intelligent enough to know their fealty to political and economic power at the expense of others cuts against the entire trajectory of the Bible, from Moses through major and minor prophets, right on through the gospels to the end of Revelation. Nowhere does Jesus or the Bible esteem an economic system anything like capitalism.
The same can be said of the Bible’s assessment of good governments. Nowhere does it esteem military and business interests or reinforce our modern notions about personal liberties or rugged individualism. Nowhere in the Bible are these things prioritized over and against the health, vitality, and basic human rights of its people and their neighbors, especially those who are not wealthy, nor powerful, nor natural born Israelites. No, without equivocation the economic systems the Bible does advocate are quite similar to what we would call “socialism” in our own linguistic parlance. There are a plethora of Scriptures that make this case, but one need not look any further than the previously referenced Acts 4.32-35 to see the clearest example. Conservative evangelical Christian types might not like socialism, but that has more to do with their political and economic dogma than it does with Jesus and the Bible.
Thanks for reading me,
Special thanks to J. Black for providing the Bernie Sanders .gif video.