Christians: called to socialism?

I’m always keen to give other writers a chance to submit articles for this blog and share their views and opinions.  I’ve had two sent to me over the last couple of weeks coming from very different viewpoints on the subject of Christianity and socialism.  The first is below.  It’s by Dominic Moass who is a 17-year-old A-level student.  He describes himself as a right-leaning, Euroskeptic, with a firm belief in God.  He blogs at Politics from A Level Perspective.  Please do give him some feedback.

The second of these two articles will be published next week.

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Reading through the New Testament, it can be easy to see why someone might jump to the conclusion that Christians should be socialists, even communists. Jesus’ primary message was to love others, and former soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev even remarked ‘Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.’ However, why then are there so many dominant, right-leaning Christian groups, the so-called ‘religious right?’ And are there alternatives to this socialism which is seemingly advocated in the New Testament, or are all Christians really called to socialism?

First, an exploration of how some may come to view Christians as being called to socialism, as I put it. Perhaps most obviously, there’s two key verses in Acts 1:44-45 (NIV): ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.‘ It is not hard to see from these verses how one could expect Christians be socialist. Indeed, this goes beyond socialism, sounding instead like the early church was communist. In John 13:34, Jesus also outlines how we should love each other: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Putting the two verses together, one conclusion can be reached almost immediately – as those who ‘had need’ were given to accordingly, the early church seemingly believed this to be the most loving thing.

Indeed, the two verses from Acts seem a fitting description of the welfare state, being that which many socialists, in the UK at least, believe should be used to redistribute wealth in a more equal fashion within society. However, is this the loving thing to do, if love was the basis on which the apostles worked when they gave freely to those in need? This is where I start to build my case that, in-fact, Christians are not called to socialism.

Because, if the early church acted out of love with this seemingly pre-modern welfare state, today it might not be the most loving thing to do. For example, I strongly agreed with the government’s recent curbing of, as I see it, excessive welfare, with measure such as an overall cap on claimants income. My reasoning is that the gradual growth of this ‘dependency culture’ is not beneficial to people, or to put it into the biblical context of John 13:34, it is not the loving thing to do. Rather, making work and an honest wage pay more than benefits is the loving thing to do as they teach valuable life skills about working hard and earning, rather than having everything done for oneself.  Paul writes along these lines in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10 (NIV): ‘For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.  We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”’

That is a very narrow exploration of how Christians aren’t called to socialism, based on the premise of doing the loving thing, as Jesus taught. Key to the verses from Acts 1:44-45 is that those provided for ‘had need’ and thus the loving thing to do was to provide for them.  Modern socialism, however, doesn’t take need into account, and as such things like an over-generous welfare aren’t in accordance with the teachings of the New Testament. Relax, Christians, we won’t be voting Respect just yet.

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Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Bible, Social action, Uncategorized

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25 replies

  1. Thoughtful stuff. I reckon the problem is that government necessarily involves systems. Forms to fill in, criteria to assess. The state is rubbish at responding to the individual. Two people may be in a broadly similar situation. One may need immediate, socialist style direct help. They may need setting on their feet. They may need a companion for the journey, a mentor, medicine, money, someone to help sort them out baby step by baby step. The other may need a kick up the bum.

    State systems are rubbish at differentiating. Perhaps the state should be about miinium provision, and should be giving funds to organisations which are better able to assess the needs of individual.

    Or maybe we need a different kind of kingdom.

  2. Firstly welcome to the blog Dominic, its good to read your ideas. My own view is that the Christianity we read about in the New Testament is neither Socialist nor Capitalist in nature and so trying to work out which creates something of a false dichotomy. That said if one took the line that one was about some rich people and some poor people, and the other was about a society where all had a similar standard of living, it would be tempting for those who like comfort, perhaps at the expense of a fairer society, to tend towards a right wing view of the political system. This is why (in my view) that some first world Christians tend towards the right at the expense of the rest of the Gospel.

    For the record my own views are broadly on the Left although I don’t believe that one political position or worse still one political party can embody the Gospel.

    The passages you refer to are intended as guidance to people who are building a worshipping community with all of the inherent checks and balances, and the fine grain understanding of people and context that as Tracywb so clearly puts it, the state does not possess. As Christian Politicians who see in those passages a template for a good society it is our role to build a state which enable those who are able to work to contribute to it from their hard endeavours, so that those who cannot work (due to age (young & old), infirmity) are supported in a dignified way. The argument between low taxes and high taxes, support at certain levels are not really matters of politics in isolation. The main reason why a benefit cap is needed is that land and property has become disconnected from this notion of a fair society. My ability (speaking personally) to earn a certain wage is not substantially different whether I live in Cardiff or Brighton (where I do live) based on my skills and experience. Yet the cost of housing is almost double between the two areas. This at its heart is why a benefit cap is proposed. Successive Governments have not been good at resolving inequalities in the property market (which would resolve the issue) for various reasons, and this is where the focus should be. Jesus had little time for NIMBYs yet much of our decision making is based on their views because they vote early and often. A Godly politics would be to explain to the comfortable people who are being unreasonable that they need to make sacrifices in order to be part of a safe society where all live in relative peace.

  3. Dear Dominic. Well argued. I think you are on track for an A*.

    Having always considered myself to be on the Christian “left”, it is clear that our welfare state is out of control both financially and in terms of moral incentives. However, it is important not to err to far in the other direction. I lived for over 20 years in a very right-wing evangelical Christian milieu in the USA, and was constantly shocked about the hardness of heart, judgementalism and outright selfishness in attitudes to the poor. As in so much of the Christian life, we have to hold on to what appear to be 2 contradictory views … as if they are live electric wires … if we get them out of balance, a short-circuit can result with painfully negative consequences. Best wishes, John Innes, member of the Executive of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (happy for follow-up).

  4. I think the fundamental problem with this analysis is that it is using a particular example of a welfare state gone a little wrong, which is the result of the combination of socialism, capitalism and a liberal equality agenda and is using it as a proxy for socialism as a whole. It’s rather like attacking Christianity as a whole by using America as an example.

    There’s too much in the Bible about the dangers of money and the injustice that comes from that and which comes from individualism to say that Christians are called to be capitalists. It also depends upon how you view the state. Is it a separate entity to the people above and controlling for its own purposes, or is it the embodiment of the will of the people? If it is the latter then ought it not to act with the compassion and hatred of injustice that we are called to show? Would that not be more communitarian than individualistic in nature?

  5. Interesting article but surely if Christians aren’t called to ‘modern socialism’ could they quantifiably be called to what the author might suppose is the ‘modern capitalism’ he mentions by describing the actions of our current government. Also the suggestion that ‘what was good then is not good now’ opens up a theological can of worms that many Christians are no doubt aware of. For can you really divide the practical commands of Jesus to the ‘spiritual ones’.

    The act of Jesus’s sacrifice when we were in sin was not something ‘earned’ nor something to be ‘repaid’. We cannot really justify it when we then begin advocating tit for tat economics under the pretence of a ideologically fashioned gospel.

  6. I think this article gets off on the wrong foot by asking a slightly misleading question. Christians are called first and foremost to be the body of Christ. The rock of the church, the confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, is the foundation from which all else is built. Standing on this immovable platform, as the world has changed, the ideas of left and right have developed only relatively recently in terms of the history of the church. Therefore, I think it is not a case of asking whether we are called to be on the left or on the right, but rather we are called to be the body of Christ. Standing firm, we may then look around us to see who stands closest to us.

    There is also a conflation being made between economically left/right and being socially left/right. To illustrate, my father is a left-wing in terms of his economics, but is very socially conservative. So when you ask “why then are there so many dominant, right-leaning Christian groups, the so-called ‘religious right?’” I infer a much more social element to the right than economic. The question that then arises in my mind is how you square the implicit assertion with the research conducted by the Theos think tank which culminated in the report authored by Andy Walton which asked the question “Is there a “Religious Right” emerging in Britain?”. You may read the full report here: http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2013/01/30/is-there-a-aureligious-rightau-emerging-in-britain

    In short, the answer is ‘nowhere near as much as you suppose.’

    When it comes to the economic side, one has to ask, what are the founding principles on which socialism and capitalism rest? I say specifically socialism, rather than communism, as Marx’s economic theory was still largely grounded on materialism. So when I talk of socialism, I refer to something more of the ilk of Alexander Dubček & Clement Attlee than Joseph Stalin and Nicolae Ceaușescu. When you strip away much of the rhetoric and the systems which surround each, you get two contrasting values: the value which underpins and fuels capitalism is greed. If you take greed out of capitalism, the ideology collapses. On the other hand, socialism has compassion at its heart. The idea of social security is that it is a safety net that any of us might need.

    To give a personal example, I was made redundant last year and, whilst jobhunting, claimed job seekers’ allowance (JSA). This was £142 per fortnight. The only other benefit I had was that I was allowed to use the library computers for 2 hours per day for research and applying for jobs, free of charge. But in terms of cash received, the equivalent of £71 per week was it. That was to cover rent, utility bills, food and travel. Given that it would take 11 weeks to afford 1 months’ rent (in a 1 bed unfurnished flat), I would dispute your assertion that benefits are “excessive”. They simply eased the rate at which I ate into savings. Now that I am employed, I am happy to pay my taxes, knowing that some of the money goes to supporting others who have fallen on hard times.

    Crucial to your argument is the idea of a ‘dependency culture’. The weakness of this argument is that such a culture is a myth, not grounded in truth and not backed up by facts (see, for example, this summary of research from several research institutes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/06/welfare-britain-facts-myths or look into the joint public issues team Truth And Lies About Poverty http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/). It is a straw man argument that has been employed predominantly by the Conservative party and those sympathetic to its cause.

    One of the mantras often heard is that “work should pay”. This, I wholly agree with. For those of working age who are able to work, being employed should be the source of income security on which we can rely; I have not found many who would describe themselves as ‘being on the left’ who would disagree with such a sentiment. Yet when you look at the government spending on social security, the largest parts of it go to those who are retired and to those who are presently in work, but whose incomes need to be supplemented because wage rates are, for some, less than is required to live on.

    Where the right and left may differ is how change in this area is to implemented. The approach of the current government has been to assume that people are out of work because they choose to not be in work and to cut benefits as a punitive incentive. Though one must note the censure that Iain Duncan Smith received from Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, for his deception in misusing statistics to attempt to justify the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions. On the other hand, there has been a growing call from some on the left of the political spectrum to call for the ‘living wage’ – very much in line with Luke 10:7 and 1 Tim 5:18. It is also pointed out that those who are unemployed rarely choose to be so; I certainly didn’t.

    I try to reflect the grace and compassion shown to me by showing grace and compassion to others, and advocating others to do similarly. Though I do not agree with Marx’s atheistic materialism, I do agree with his maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Such a concept is not alien to christianity and I believe that living generously is a great way for the church (that is, the people, not any particular institution) to make a world a better, more equitable place.

  7. Christians are called to love. All Christians are free to interpret this instruction. If you believe in tough love then that’s your choice. But when you talk about dependency, think about how you were once dependent, what has made you able to move towards independency, how you will probably become dependent again before you die and how we all need interdependence in order to live together in love. I tend to interpret right- wing commentators talking about the dependency culture as selfishly hanging onto what they think is theirs and as being unable/unwilling to share.

    • I disagree in the sense that Jesus speaks to Christians in the context of a community, hence the decision taken collectively to share their possessions. Had it been a case by case basis we might not have had a church to join. That does not prevent different interpretations but it does require us to come to a common mind in the end and create society with supports for the weak and punishment for abusers.

      • VERY late to the debate, but the Christian sharing of possessions in community was with other CHRISTIANS in the community, not with all & sundry outside the community. Similarly OT Israel were told in the Law to look after other members of the covenant community of Israel, not those outside….

      • Hi Helen, its always a challenge to come back after 6 months to a comment written on a blog. The key point I was making is summarised in that first sentence. I believe our Christianity emphasises the me and you, wheras the 1st Century Christianity emphasised the we and them. The same is true for the selfishness of wider society. I was not suggesting that the early church shared all they had with a society that largely persecuted them, but rather that their sense of community and collegiality needs to inform our ways of doing churchre and politics.

  8. The dependency culture thing is based on very little evidence, and comes via rich capitalists and the Daily Mail who are unwilling to give up any of their I’ll gotten gains to others.
    One of the major themes of the Gospels is the problem of money.c.p.modern capitalism. For further reading see R H Tawney, Christian Socialist Website, F D Maurice. The founders of the Labour movement and Trade Union were mainly Christians: see Kierhardie, Tolpuddle Martyrs. English Socialism is Methodist not Marxist in origins.

  9. Well, thank you all for you comments. This has been an interesting experience for me and certainly one I shall learn from in the future. Am appreciative for all feedback

  10. We wrote to Grant Shapps about housing issues when we had been made homeless when I was 8 months pregnant suggesting changes to the law to prevent other pregnant women being thrown out shortly before the birth, He had no interest. Most MP’s seem to have financial additional interests from being landlords themselves so having no interest in rental reform through to receiving money from petroleum companies while supporting the fracking agenda (check the register) and yet still they remain dependent on the tax payer. Who needs weaning off? Until you have tried to cope on benefits and raise a family you have no clue. The job centre treat you with disrespect and disdain, employers who see you have spent any time unemployed wonder aloud why you were not on training courses rather than wasting your time looking for work and raising your children. Groups like shelter who you supported you while you were in work ask for money to help people who own their own homes to continue paying the mortgage while you have never been able to get a deposit together because in rented accomodation you have no security of tenure. Seriously the issue is not about which cross you put in the box, its about not being disdainful of the poor if you are a christian and being willing to walk the extra mile for those in need when they need it and not judge them for the need. Remember what you do for the least of us you do for the Lord. Now thanks to bereavement we have the finance to put down a deposit and take on the crushing burden of a mortgage like everyone else, but you know what a little security doesn’t half chain you. We now have a more parochial and self centred outlook because it is all “ours” and we “need” more to keep up with interest payments than we did when repairs were included and rent was affordable if insecure so in terms of what we contribute, as home owners it is less. We have less free time to volunteer for others as we do our own repairs and keep our own house in order and less available cash to spontaneously give to good causes. Capitalism is bankrupt, metaphorically, morally and literally. And though we bail out banks we should spit on the poor and call it keeping them independent should we? Do wonder what gospel you are reading and presume it is what “mummy and daddy think”

  11. I used to think it was very Christian to be “working hard and earning, rather than having everything done for oneself. ” but isn’t the wart of the Christian message about grace, that God has given us everything when we deserved nothing? How does this fit? Great article, thanks!

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