Jesus was a Socialist
Image credit: "Icon of the laborers in the vineyard," Ted at Flickr
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
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:
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 will be defending in this article.
Third, in the interest of full disclosure, I am myself a democratic socialist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. 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 a sort of mission statement for his ministry. Composed mostly of quotes from Isaiah, it summarizes Jesus' gospel of the kingdom:
Of note, 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. 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:
And these same reversals of power to care for the poor can be found among the blessings and woes Jesus pronounced:
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:
When we say that "Jesus is Lord," we are proclaiming him to be the 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:
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. Per 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, and the placement of these two stories in such close 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:
In both cases, what is clear is that excessive wealth has no 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:
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:
I've always heard this passaged 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 "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.
Can we be honest for a moment? Can we admit that this just isn't true? Can we accept that it 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":
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:
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?
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.
Even if we were to assume, for the sake of argument, 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. Jesus cares about how nations conduct themselves, and he 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 idea 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, as this article is supposed to be about Jesus' views, but suffice it to say that the rich do not become rich by hard work alone.
No doubt many wealthy people are indeed hard workers. That much is not in dispute. But gaining excessive wealth also requires a good deal of luck or the right connections or previous wealth to build upon or 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 can't afford basic necessities.
In any case, Jesus had some thoughts on 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":
Even though some of these laborers worked much 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 excess 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 cancelling portions of the debts others owed him:
I've witnessed biblical teachers twist themselves in knots to try to get around what this passage seems to say. And I've spent a fair bit of time doing so myself. But maybe this isn't that difficult of a passage at all, and 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 (Luke 6:35). So that's what he should have done. Instead, this man who had more than he needed demanded repayment in full from those who did not have enough.
Jesus said that the manager's method of reducing income inequality was an example of faithfulness. And then Jesus charged his disciples -- and by extension us -- to likewise be faithful with the "dishonest wealth" that "belongs to another."
If we're willing to take Jesus at his word, then perhaps we can accept that he wants us to use other people's wealth for kingdom purposes. This we are called to do 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:
As for implementing democratic socialism on a national scale, we're not talking about threatening the rich with violence 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.
I suppose you could 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. For a while, this was my position as well. Like so many others, I was in the process of extracting myself from the idolatrous relationship between conservative Evangelical Christianity and the GOP. I was coming to understand how the religious right had sold its soul to nationalism and Republican partisanship, and I was determined to have no further part in it. My solution was to have nothing to do with politics whatsoever.
I think that may have been a healthy place for me for a 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.
Jesus' gospel of the kingdom is intensely political. I hope we've established at least that much in this article. To accept Jesus' theological teachings while neglecting or outright rejecting his politics is to have only half of his gospel.
I'm not suggesting that we necessarily have to affirm socialism itself as a part of the gospel. There's room for discussion and debate on such particulars. But we must engage in politics that advocate for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the poor. This is absolutely central to Jesus' 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 Jesus' gospel, then I'll count it a success.
This is one of those principles that you can't unsee after having once seen it. As you read other passages in the Gospels, you just 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. Perhaps I'll cover more of them at some point, but I think this article has gotten long enough for now.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I have a request to make. I don't often beg my readers to share my posts, but then I don't often put in quite as much effort as I have for this one. If you've found this article to be thought provoking, would you mind sharing it wherever your people are to be found? Let's start a conversation.
© 2019 by Chuck McKnight (Hippie Heretic)
Some books on politics in the Bible, and critiques of modern 'socialism' :
Can A Catholic Be A Socialist? by Trent Horn
The Problem with Socialism by Thomas DiLorenzo
The Case Against Socialism by Rand Paul
The Bible in Politics by Richard Bauckham (2nd edition)
Politics - According to the Bible by Wayne Grudem
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