(a sermon written by my brother John, who I love and respect more than he knows.)
Thanks in no small part to folks like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, everyone is talking about socialism these days. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to be under the impression that socialism is at odds with their faith.
Plenty of other Christians disagree, of course. For example, theologian David Bentley Hart has spoken about his democratic socialism on several occasions, and Sojourners Magazine recently published a short piece by Obery M. Hendricks Jr. on “The Biblical Values of Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic Socialism.” AOC is herself a Christian, along with many other prominent democratic socialists, such as Cornel West and Martin Luther King Jr.
However, I’ve yet to find a systematic examination of the many things Jesus had to say on this subject. So that’s what I’ve endeavored to put together in this article.
My apologies for the length. If I’m not mistaken, this has turned into the longest single piece I’ve written. But I wanted to cover as much as I reasonably could while limiting my scope primarily to Jesus’ sayings in the canonical Gospels. (In practice, this has meant Matthew and Luke. Mark contains parallels to many of the passages under discussion, but little unique on this subject. And John, while in no way contradicting these themes, simply has its main focus elsewhere.)
• Jesus was a socialist
• The kingdom of God
• The rich ruler & Zacchaeus
• God & wealth
• The rich fool
• The judgment of the nations
• The laborers in the vineyard
• The shrewd manager
• The rich man & Lazarus
• Jesus is Lord
Jesus was a socialist
It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the early church practiced a form of socialism. After all, the Book of Acts does seem to describe something along those lines:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … 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. … 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32, 34–35; NRSV)
But Christians of a capitalist bent tend to brush this aside with a stock response. The Book of Acts, they point out, is descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, these early believers acted voluntarily, and Acts merely records what they did, but the book stops short of actually instructing other believers to follow their example.
Fair enough. On a technicality, they are correct. The Book of Acts does not explicitly instruct its readers to follow the example of these believers who sold their possessions, held all things in common, and provided for the needy.
For some, that’s enough to make this an open-and-shut case. They happily dismiss socialism and move on. However, the more curious might not be content to leave it there. We might venture to ask: Why did the early church act in this manner to begin with? Where did they come up with these radical ideas?
I believe the answer is that the early church was acting directly on the teachings of Jesus because Jesus was a socialist. That being said, I should acknowledge a few things about this claim before defending it.
First, the idea that Jesus was a socialist is obviously somewhat anachronistic. Socialism as a formal economic system did not originate until long after Jesus walked the earth. But as I will demonstrate, Jesus taught (and the early church modeled) principles very much in line with socialist thinking.
Second, socialism has always been a broad concept covering multiple variations and many different aspects. And I have little interest in debating what constitutes “true socialism.” However, I do need to specify what I mean by making this claim.
When I say that Jesus was a socialist, I am not referring to the communal ownership of the means of production. This aspect of socialism is certainly consistent with Jesus’ message, and one could argue that it is a logical outworking from it for an industrial society, but it is not something Jesus ever specifically addressed.
However, the socialist principle that positively saturates Jesus’ gospel is the idea of fair distribution of wealth, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” And that is what I am attempting to defend.
Third, in the interest of full disclosure, I am comfortable characterizing myself a democratic socialist. I advocate this variety of socialism in no small part because I see it as being so well aligned with what Jesus taught. However, democratic socialism is an ideology particular to our time and culture, and I do not presume it to be exactly one and the same as Jesus’ teachings. Jesus was a socialist in principle, but he left all manner of room for us to figure out the specifics of applying that principle today.
The kingdom of God
To lay the foundation for this discussion, we first need to consider the kingdom of God (also called the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew). Jesus framed all of his teachings within this concept. The gospel itself—the good news that Jesus preached—is explicitly about this kingdom (Mark 1:14; Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:7; 24:14; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16).
The kingdom is the reign or rule or influence of God in the world. This should not be understood as a theocracy where Christians take over and impose their beliefs on others, but as the spread of Jesus’ love-based ethic in all areas of life.
So what does that look like? As Jesus began teaching, he provided what I would suggest is a “mission statement” for his ministry. Composed mostly of quotes from Isaiah, it summarizes Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the
captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19, NRSV)
Notably, that last bit about “the year of the Lord’s favor” is probably a reference to the Year of Jubilee, described in Leviticus 25. Every 50 years there was to be a release from all debts, a restoration of property that had been sold, and a pause on farming to allow the land to recover.
Having grown up on a small family farm in Mississippi, I learned this lesson very early, a lesson always enfolded in a community that lived fully into the contours of active, caring concern. Rarely anything happened, good or bad, that did not involve the community. Even when folks were not always that friendly to each other, when something serious happened to anyone, those were among the first to offer help.
Back to the original narrative, this would indeed have been good news for the poor and the oppressed. It would have prevented anyone from acquiring excessive wealth, and it would have ensured that everyone received their fair share.
We hear echoes of similar themes in portions of Mary’s “Magnificat,” her song of praise to God for having chosen her to bear Jesus:
“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 1:52–53, NRSV)
And these same reversals of power to care for the poor can be found among the blessings and woes Jesus pronounced:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. …
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now,for you will be hungry.” (Luke 6:20–21, 24–25, NRSV)
At its most basic level, the kingdom of God means justice—for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the outcast—and such justice demands that the rich and the powerful be brought low enough that everyone else can have enough.
Jesus taught that the kingdom is in our midst (Luke 17:21), but that it is also like a mustard seed—starting small but growing ever greater (Matt. 13:31). Therefore he taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come,” which means “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10).
And yet the kingdom is not something we can simply pray about and then wait for God to accomplish. We’re meant to partner with God to bring about these kingdom purposes:
And in everything, as we know, he co-operates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28, REB)
When we say that “Jesus is Lord,” we are proclaiming him to be the incarnate head of God’s kingdom, and we are pledging our service to the spread of that kingdom. We are responsible to work for the changes that advance God’s kingdom within the kingdoms of this world, until we can one day say, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15).
So let’s look a little closer at some examples of Jesus’ teachings about this kingdom.
The rich ruler & Zacchaeus
We’ll start with the story of the “rich ruler.” It’s found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but we’ll quote the latter for now:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’”
He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18–25, NRSV)
In all three accounts, the basic story is the same. The rich ruler had lived by the letter of the law, but he had failed the spirit thereof by accumulating so much wealth that should have been used to help others. So Jesus told him that he must distribute his wealth to the poor if he wanted to enter the kingdom of God.
At this point, “capitalist” Christians are quick to point out that while Jesus gave this instruction to a specific individual, he did not make it a universal mandate. As with the story of the early church in Acts, they are again correct on that technicality. However, Jesus did follow it up with a universal statement about how hard it is for such wealthy people to enter the kingdom of God. Reference the comparison of a camel going through the eye of a needle, it’s impossible. There is no place for excessive wealth in God’s kingdom.
Of course, we must use wisdom to discern the point at which wealth becomes excessive. The next chapter (Luke 19) contains the story of Zacchaeus. I would argue that the placement of these two stories in such proximity is probably no coincidence. Jesus had just said that the rich ruler must sell all of his possessions. But for Zacchaeus—who was rich, but likely not quite as wealthy as the ruler—a slightly different solution would suffice:
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8–10, NRSV)
In both cases, what is clear is that excessive wealth has no rightful place in the kingdom of God. As for how much is too much, we can’t say exactly how much either had in the first place, but the principle at work is something Jesus said earlier in Luke:
“Much is required from the person to whom much is given; much more is required from the person to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:48, TEV)
God & wealth
Jesus elsewhere put it simply, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19). This warning is found in his “Sermon on the Mount.” And from start to finish, this famous sermon is all about what life should look like in the kingdom of God. While it covers a wide array of ethical teachings, Jesus’ views on wealth sit right at the center of it all. A few verses after the above statement, Jesus goes on to say the following:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:24–33, NRSV)
I’ve always heard this passage explained to mean that we should put our efforts into our spiritual life with God, and that God would then take care of our physical needs. The extreme (and despicable) “prosperity gospel” version would have us donate our every last cent to megachurch pastors with the promise of God’s blessings in return, while a more moderate version would view this as less of an absolute promise than a general principle. In either case, it’s a transactional understanding of how God’s blessings work.
Let’s be honest. Can we admit that this just isn’t true? Can we accept that it simply doesn’t work this way? Can we own up to the fact that the devoutness of one’s spiritual life has no effect on whether or not they are physically provided for?
Millions of people around the world do not have access to the basic necessities of life, and some of the most sincere Christians are among them. The last thing they need is to be shamed into believing that their lack of faithfulness is the cause of their suffering.
Not only is the traditional interpretation of this passage absurd on the face of it, but it is also contradicted by Jesus’ own words from a few verses earlier. He taught that God, far from transactionally giving or withholding provisions, blesses all people equally, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). And yet it remains an indisputable fact that people go without.
So what did Jesus mean in this passage? Why did he say that we have no need to worry? Was Jesus wrong? Or could it be that we’ve missed the context for his statements?
I would again suggest that the necessary context is that of the kingdom of God. Inasmuch as the kingdom of God is in effect, all people will be sharing their possessions, and thus everyone will be provided for. Therefore, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (better translated as “his justice”) by working to bring about this reality.
It is our job to work with God to bring about the kingdom. And once God’s kingdom is fully in place, then “all these things will be given to you as well.” In the kingdom, where wealth is distributed fairly, we will not need to worry about our basic necessities.
The rich fool
In Luke 12, we find a parallel version of this passage from Matthew. The section on worrying is nearly identical, but in Luke’s version, Jesus prefaced it by telling his parable of the “rich fool”:
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16–21, NRSV)
Here we see exemplified the kind of excessive wealth that Jesus says has no place in the kingdom of God. The land of this man produced an abundant crop, and that’s a wonderful blessing in itself! But then he stopped to consider what to do with it. And by now, the answer Jesus would give should be clear. This rich man ought to have used what he needed and given the rest to others in need. Instead, he chose to store his excess wealth in new barns, where this blessing intended to provide for many people would be of no use to anyone.
With this parable in mind, Jesus’ words that follow make even more sense: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear” (Luke 12:22).
Jesus surely wasn’t suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand and pretend we have nothing to worry about, despite all evidence to the contrary. Freedom from worry means that we truly have nothing to worry about. That will be possible once we live under kingdom economics that ensure our most basic needs are always met. And for this to happen, the rich must stop hoarding their excess and start sharing it with the poor.
God intends for the world to work in a certain way. When the world is working as God intends, the birds of the air will always have food, the lilies of the field will always grow into their beauty, and people everywhere will always have their needs provided. The fact that so many people are currently without provision means that the world is not working as God intends. And the reason for this is that some are allowed to hoard their wealth when they should be sharing with those who need it.
For those who would see God’s kingdom come, there is nothing optional about the reversal of this grave injustice.
The judgment of the nations
At this point, some of my readers will object because they believe caring for the needs of others should be up to individuals—that we shouldn’t involve the government. This is essentially a libertarian position. A Christian variation would suggest that it’s the church’s responsibility to care for the poor.
I can understand the appeal to this position. I went through a libertarian phase myself. It sounds nice in theory, but the fact is that it doesn’t work.
We’ve had hundreds of years of allowing individuals in a capitalist society to take care of others, and we’ve had thousands of years of allowing the church to do the same, and both have proven to be insufficient. I’m not saying that charity hasn’t done any good at all—absolutely it has! And we should certainly, as individuals and as the church, continue doing charitable work. But it’s not enough. Individual philanthropy hasn’t cut it.
However, if we work together as a nation, we do have the resources to eradicate poverty. There’s enough to go around for everyone. The only reason this hasn’t yet happened is that we, as a nation, have allowed individuals to amass excessive wealth and thus hoard what should be communal resources—land, shelter, food, etc.
Jesus’ parable of the “sheep and the goats” is often (and I believe wrongly) explained as a judgment of individuals. But Jesus spoke of nations:
“Now when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on the left.” (Matt. 25:31–33, LEB)
A number of popular translations replace “them” (referring to “the nations”) with “people,” making it sound as though it were a separation of individual people. But that’s an interpretative choice that the translators have added to the Greek text. And it doesn’t seem to reflect Jesus’ intention.
The parable is often referred to as the “judgment of the nations,” and I believe that’s exactly what it is. The nations themselves are separated, and they are evaluated according to the standards of God’s kingdom. What are those standards?
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me as a guest, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you as a guest, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ And the king will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’” (Matt. 25:34–40, LEB)
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick and the imprisoned—these are the criteria according to which Jesus judges a nation as righteous and as a part of God’s kingdom.
For the sake of argument, even if we were to assume that the judgment of individual people was in view here, then this would still be based on their actions within the context of their respective nations. If individual people are being judged, then they are the people of a given nation being judged on how they acted as that nation.
One way or another, you can’t remove the national element from this parable without fundamentally altering it. As I read that Jesus cares about how nations conduct themselves, and judges them according their treatment of “the least of these.” He gave no indication that such matters should be left up to individuals without any government involvement.
The laborers in the vineyard
Another objection is the notion that rich people deserve to keep everything they worked for. Here we’re getting into one of the fundamental myths of capitalism. I don’t want to get too distracted at this point because the primary concern here is about Jesus’ views. At the same time, it should be abundantly clear that the wealthy do not always become rich by hard work alone.
Of course, there is little doubt many wealthy people are indeed hard workers. That is not in dispute. But gaining excessive wealth also requires a good deal of luck, right connections, previous wealth to build upon, shady dealings, or any combination of the above. The rich may work hard, but they do not work harder than the poor. And even if they did, it would not entitle them to an exorbitant lifestyle while others cannot afford basic necessities.
In any case, Jesus had some thoughts about this as well. On the one hand, he affirmed that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7). But on the other hand, Jesus disagreed with the idea that greater work inherently deserves greater pay, as he explained in his parable of the “laborers in the vineyard”:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1–16, NRSV)
Even though some of these laborers worked much longer/harder than others, it did not entitle them to greater pay. Rather, the landowner was concerned that they all receive “whatever is right,” which came to a normal daily wage for everyone.
So why was it right for everyone to receive the same wages, even though some worked harder? Because the wages they received were the wages they needed to care for themselves and their families. If the landowner had paid lower wages to the workers who came on later, he would have left them without enough. But if he had paid higher wages to the workers who came on earlier, he would have given them an excessive amount beyond what they needed.
God’s notion of what is right has little to do with proportionality, but it has everything to do with ensuring that all needs are met. According to Jesus, and according to socialism, it is not right for some people to earn excessive wealth while others do not have enough. It may sound counterintuitive to those of us indoctrinated in capitalism, but this is how the kingdom of God is supposed to work.
The shrewd manager
Related to the above objection, some will say that it isn’t fair to take from some to give to others. However, we need to understand that the ultimate goal of socialism—and of the kingdom of God—is not so much taking from the rich to give to the poor as it is restructuring society so that there are no rich or poor, to begin with.
That said, as we progress toward that state, one immediate method for reducing income inequality would be to implement fair taxes. The people who earn the most should also contribute the most back into society. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren have both recently proposed tax plans along these lines.
But Jesus seems to suggest that we go even further than that. In his parable of the “shrewd manager,” Jesus defies our notions of “fairness.” The manager blatantly gives away some of his master’s wealth by canceling portions of the debts others owed him:
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1–13, NRSV)
Some biblical teachers have twisted themselves in knots trying to get around what this passage seems to say. In fact, so have I. But maybe this text isn’t that difficult at all; perhaps we just don’t like what Jesus said.
The shrewd manager gave away his master’s wealth, and he was commended for it. Jesus then turned to his disciples and essentially said, “Go and do likewise.”
The rich man likely became rich precisely by holding the poor in debt. New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright explains that “Jews were forbidden to lend money at interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose” (Luke for Everyone, p. 193).
But even if he wasn’t charging interest, the fact remains that he was rich, and his debtors were poor. He had enough that he could have chosen to “lend, expecting nothing in return,” as Jesus instructed in Luke 6:35. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Some Ancient authorities read, “despairing no one”). Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
If we’re willing to take Christ at his word, then perhaps we can accept that he wants us to use other people’s wealth for kingdom purposes. We are actually called to do this as an act of faithfulness. A democratic “wealth tax” frankly pales in comparison to this radical idea from Jesus.
The rich man & Lazarus
Yet another objection claims that socialism is coercive. This view sees God as being non-coercive, and it asserts that we should thus avoid coercion as well. While I agree with the premise of non-coercion, this principle can easily be taken to an absurd extreme if not properly understood.
When I say that God is not coercive, I mean that God does not override free will and that God is not manipulative. God allows us to make our own choices. However, our choices have consequences, and the wrong choices can harm people.
We may have the free will to be able to make harmful choices, but that doesn’t give us free reign to do so. God is not coercive, but Jesus certainly issued warnings related to our behavior. And some of the direst consequences Jesus warned about had to do with hoarding wealth that should be given to the poor:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’” (Luke 16:19–26, NRSV)
As for implementing democratic socialism on a national scale, we’re not talking about threatening the rich with violence or any other way to force them to give up their money. We’re talking about using our democratic system to move toward a more just society that works for everyone. This will be no more an act of coercion than any other aspect of government.
Of course, it is possible to argue that a certain amount of coercion is inherent in any legal system. And if you want to be consistent enough to oppose all legislation of any kind, then more power to ya! No more setting speed limits or establishing fire codes or anything of the sort. But if that’s not what you have in mind, then it doesn’t work to oppose democratic socialism on the grounds of it being coercive either.
Jesus is Lord
As a final objection, some Christians say that we should stay out of politics altogether. There was a time when this was the way I rolled. Like so many others, I was in the process of extracting myself from the idolatrous relationship between rhe extremism of fundamentalist/conservative Evangelical Christianity and the GOP. I was coming to understand how the religious right had sold its soul to nationalism, transactionalism and Republican partisanship, and I was determined to have no further part in it. My initial “solution” was to have nothing to do with politics whatsoever.
I considered to have been a healthy place for me at the time. I needed the chance to detox from my politically conservative past. But this would not have been a good place for me to have stayed indefinitely.
At the most basic level, opting out of politics is itself a political position. And it’s a position that defaults to allowing evil politics to harm the most vulnerable members of society. As Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
There’s this fear that we will turn political involvement into an idol. And given the example we see in the religious right, that fear is not completely unfounded. We would do well to avoid partisan politics—giving blind allegiance to a party no matter what direction it may take. But the answer is not to opt out entirely and allow society’s worst inclinations to take hold.
The answer for Christians is to affirm that Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus truly is Lord, then Jesus must be Lord of our political life, as well as our spiritual life.
Christ’s’ gospel of the kingdom is intensely political. It cannot be avoided nor ignored. Hopefully, that has been well established in most of this narrative. To accept Christ’s theological teachings while neglecting or outright rejecting his politics is to render a partial gospel
This is not to suggest that we must out of necessity affirm socialism itself as a part of the gospel. There is room for discussion and debate on such particulars. But we must engage in the politics that advocates for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the poor. This is absolutely central to Christ’s message. His gospel simply is not the gospel without it.
At this point, whether or not you agree with my claim that Jesus was a socialist, if you’ve at least caught a glimpse of how central economic justice is to the gospel of Christ, then We will have been successful.
This is one of those principles that one cannot unsee after having once seen it. As other gospel texts are read, we might start noticing little hints in this direction scattered throughout. They’ve always been there, but they may not have been quite as obvious before. There is much more to say about this “corrective,” but I am old and need to get some rest.
Still, I would enjoy reading any thoughts or feedback. I do have a request to make of any readers. This is just the initial portion of a lot more work I plan to do on this subject. I would ask that you exercise great care in sharing these words with others. Believe it or not, when certain words are used in this culture of political and religious dystopia, it quickly becomes a means of totally defining someone—and in this case, me! So…let’s start a conversation… eventually.