Jesus was “pro-socialist,” American Christians are in thrall to Ayn Rand, and the early Apostles concocted a system of “egalitarian socialism backed by fear of death.” Such are the wild claims Gregory S. Paul made Friday on this site.
Socialism is a relatively modern construct, a governmental system invented roughly 1,800 years after Christ’s death, not a biblical mandate. The question, then, is whether socialism is compatible with Christianity, not whether the Bible mandates socialism.
How can Mr. Paul claim Jesus was “pro-socialist?” Jesus, after all, despite many demands from His followers, pointedly refused to establish an earthly government. Undeterred, Mr. Paul interprets Jesus’s “substantial encouragement for the poor” and warnings against the moral pitfalls of wealth as support for socialism. Yet one has to travel quite the intellectual and theological distance to equate admonitions towards charity and warnings against greed with divine sanction for the destruction of private property rights and the forcible redistribution of wealth.
But this isn’t Mr. Paul’s main argument. He claims the Jerusalem church’s famous voluntary sharing of goods and property wasn’t voluntary at all but instead represents a “form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death.” This theological assertion -- a reading of Scripture that has completely escaped theologians for two millennia -- rests on the story of Ananias and Saphhira, who were struck dead after they “lied to the Holy Spirit.” They had sold land, given part to the Apostles but claimed that they had given all. Here are the Apostle Peter’s words to Ananias:
Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.
Catch that? The very passage which Mr. Paul believes clinches his argument that the Bible endorses “terror-enforced-communism” actually reaffirms private property rights. The land belonged to Ananias, and after he sold it, the money was “at [his] disposal.” (Indeed, Jesus Himself declared that “the worker deserves his wages.”) His crime wasn’t withholding money; his crime was lying.
While the Bible is hardly an economics text, some economic and social themes do endure, and they are incompatible not just with socialism but also many aspects of the modern welfare state.
While the Bible calls us to help the poor, it is also clear that the poor must help themselves to the extent they are able. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul warns against idleness and says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” In 1 Timothy 5, Paul also declares, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Even inclusion on the widows’ “list” (which entitled widows to receive aid from the church) was conditioned upon age and good conduct.
The requirement that the poor be industrious is also found in the one earthly government that God did explicitly create: Old Testament Israel. In the midst of comprehensive laws that govern everything from religious ritual to sexual conduct to diet comes this instruction: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.” Not only is private property recognized (“your land”) but the welfare that does exist requires the poor to actually engage in the harvest to collect the gleanings.
Finally, it should be noted that Scripture hold societies responsible for outcomes, not just intentions, and the verdict of history is clear: Socialism creates poverty. The old Eastern Bloc fell, collapsing under the weight of their command economies. China has tossed aside the socialism of the cultural revolution and has surged behind its capitalists to become the world’s second-largest economy. The few remaining, truly socialist, countries are mired in poverty and dependent upon the largesse of others to survive.
Even the capitalist/socialist hybrids of Europe, created in the short window of history when their capitalist success provided the excess wealth for socialist experimentation, are finding that fifty years of welfare is enough, that their safety net cannot be sustained.
Mr. Paul wrote his article as London burned, as Greece and Ireland are picking up the pieces from their collapse, and as Spain and Italy teetered on the brink of oblivion. Their idle but well-fed youth, demanding ever-more from a state they give nothing, are either in the streets or threatening chaos.
There is a reason why Christians have overwhelmingly rejected socialism, and that reason is not found in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, but instead in the pages of a much older -- and better -- book.
God’s people should “strengthen the hand of the poor,” not create poverty. Yet socialism impoverishes. How can a Christian be socialist?
David French is a Senior Counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a graduate of Harvard Law School, Lipscomb University, and a Captain in the United States Army Reserve. Jordan Sekulow is the Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a graduate of Georgetown Law (LL.M.), Regent University School of Law, and the George Washington University.
More On Faith:
Jay Richards: Should Christians be socialist?
Gregory Paul: From Christian socialism to church-sanctioned capitalism