Christian Socialism?

What it is and What the Gospel Says About it.

 

Video transcript:

RICHARD
Hi, I’m Rich; this is Maureen, and we’re embarking on a new series talking about Christianity and socialism.  

MAUREEN
Which is sure to freak some people out.

RICHARD
Have no fear. The reason it’s a good time to talk about Christian socialism is that enthusiasm for political socialism is on the rise although as Ezra Klein points out in a recent Vox article the enthusiasm is likely more for a socialist ethic (solidarity with the underdogs) than socialist economics. Now a lot of older folk in particular, are dismayed by socialism’s resurgence because they conflate socialism with repressive Communist regimes of the 20th century. And they’re not wrong to be concerned. Much evil has been done in the name of socialism.

MAUREEN
Just because evil has been done in the name of socialism doesn’t mean the ideals socialism promotes are evil per se. Let’s start by discussing how Christianity and socialism overlap, not in terms of a political system but as a practical way of living. In Acts 2 and 4, the earliest example we have in the gospels of church community, all goods were commonly owned and there were no rich and poor. Common ownership and economic equality are also hallmarks of political socialism.

RICHARD
The zeal of the early Church cooled over time although voices like that of Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom continued to decry economic inequality. And while the concept of the universal destination of goods – the idea that God gave the earth and its goods to the whole human race – remains a principle of Catholic doctrine, it’s honored more in the breach than the observance. Modern political socialism by contrast espouses some of the same values exemplified by the early Church, but it does it without Jesus. It replaces voluntary acts of love and self-giving with political system that ultimately relies on coercion, bureaucracy and force. That, in my opinion, is why it mostly hasn’t worked historically.

MAUREEN
But Christianity is also incompatible with capitalism. Any economic system that is built on self-interest – let’s just call it greed – instead of love, is not in the spirit of the gospel. Socialists are right to critique this.

RICHARD
The thing with a term like socialism is it is hard to pin down what exactly people mean by it

MAUREEN
Half the time the word seems to be used as cultural shorthand for “anything but capitalism”. So what exactly do we mean by Christian socialism?

RICHARD
Rather than try and define it we’re going to look back to some people who were promoting Christianity-infused socialistic ideals prior to their adoption and perversion by authoritarian regimes in the 20th century. This is a very incomplete list to be sure but we chose them because they’ve been sources of inspiration for us on the Bruderhof. I’ll start with a fairly obscure one: Herman Kutter, a Swiss Protestant theologian and one of the founders of Christian Socialism in Switzerland. His book Sie Muessen or They Must is a defense of a much-maligned early 20th century worker’s party but it’s primarily a challenge to Christians. He wrote, “When you Christians say "Christ alone," tell me, how do you show it? If Christ and Christ alone is important, why do you find it so difficult to start practicing his gospel, which overthrows Mammon! Do you still want to take refuge in the excuse that it is meant "only in an inner sense"? Doesn't the inner side have to find expression in the outer side? Haven't the Early Christians shown the fruit of the Spirit in their community of goods?”

MAUREEN
I admit I have not read much Kutter. My go-to Christian Socialist is Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, a 19th century Lutheran pastor who is rarely mentioned today, but whose writings influenced Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others, including the founding members of our own church. He relentlessly called for people to live out the Kingdom of justice in their time and place, and to see God at work in people who skipped the “Lord, Lord” chanting and just got busy doing what he says we should do: He wrote, “How can you see yourself as noble and religious if you eat well but do not think of those who are starving? Today you have to think of them. It is a service to God when we stand up and say, ‘They also want to live.’ It is often the so-called Godless people who toil and work in God’s vineyard… They pretend they have no religion. Yet isn’t it religion and praying when one strives for the vindication of each person’s rights?”

RICHARD
Going back a little farther, there’s John Ruskin, the Victorian firebrand who called himself a communist but who diverged from Marx in drastic ways – As Eugene McCarrahar points out; “where Marx emphasized communism as a form of property – common ownership – Ruskin emphasized communism as a principle of morality” And here he is himself,…The art of becoming 'rich', in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbour shall have less.

William Morris, another romantic and protégé of Ruskin was less interested in the technicalities of socialism (in fact admitting his complete ignorance of economics) but called for, “a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all”.

MAUREEN
No brain-sick brain workers. Wow!

RICHARD
William Morris also wrote A Dream of John Ball, a novel about the English Peasant’s rebellion in the 14th century that contains some inspiring passages about holding things in common including this one where the title character’s imagining a world without masters, “And man shall help man, and the saints in heaven shall be glad, because men no more fear each other; and the churl shall be ashamed, and shall hide his churlishness till it be gone, and he be no more a churl; and fellowship shall be established in heaven and on the earth."

MAUREEN
Another ardent socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, was deeply respected by Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold. After she was murdered by the German military in 1919 he wrote to a friend, “the living faith that was in her cannot be killed.” An extraordinary statement as she was by no means a fan of institutional Christianity. Luxemburg once asked, “How does it happen that the Church plays the role of a defense of wealth and bloody oppression, instead of being the refuge of the exploited?” But she pointed to the Christians of the first and second century as models of communism citing the words of the early church fathers.

RICHARD
For more recent proponents of religiously motivated socialism there’s of course Martin Luther King Jr. who particularly towards the end of his life spoke openly about the failings of capitalism and a more just distribution of wealth comparing the evils of capitalism to the evils of militarism and racism. Then there are the more than 200 communal houses of the Catholic Worker movement which was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin whose beliefs include the establishment of farming communes where each one works according to his ability and receives according to his need.

And that’s just a short-list of folks who saw socialist ideals less as a political program than a moral imperative. And a number of them came to that conviction as a result of what they read in the Bible

MAUREEN
Which begs the question: Was Jesus a socialist?

RICHARD
Well, he is clearly not merely concerned with inward transformation. He is interested in justice. The social gospel calls for an entirely new view of life that encompasses all areas, not just spiritual matters and personal behavior.  It was Karl Barth who said: “Jesus knows and recognizes only the kingdom of heaven that is within us, but the kingdom must obtain dominion over the external—over actual life—otherwise it does not deserve the name”.

MAUREEN
It is, after all, right there in the Gospels – central texts that call followers of Jesus to a radically different way of living. Take Luke 14:33 where Jesus states clearly that only those who renounce all that they have can be his disciples. You can’t renounce something and continue to possess it.

RICHARD
Matthew 5:3 - the first of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. How can we be poor in spirit if we cling to possessions, which so easily become idols that replace God?

MAUREEN
Also in Matthew 5:19 Jesus says don’t store up treasures on earth. I’ve heard people argue away the line about not serving two masters by saying you can have mammon without serving it, but I don’t think there’s much room for interpretation in “Don’t store up.”  Like that second rented storage unit.  

RICHARD
And he confronts the owner of (presumably) many storage units in Matthew 19:21 when he counsels him to sell what he has and give it to the poor in order to be perfect.

MAUREEN
That story, speaking of the rich young man, ends with the lines, “and he went away grieving”. He was grieved to know that his possessions had too great a hold on him to give him the freedom of obedience. As opposed to someone who dropped the fishing nets and followed without a backward glance, or who picked up his bed and walked. His story could also have ended, as others do, with “and he went on his way rejoicing.”

RICHARD
In John 16:13, Jesus says that the Spirit of truth who is to descend upon the disciples will guide them into all truth.  When this occurred at Pentecost, they became of one heart and one soul, and had all their goods in common.  This same phrase is repeated in Acts 2:45 and 4:32-34. Community of goods was and is the outcome and result of the love and grace the believers experienced when they were filled with the Spirit. 

MAUREEN
There are many more, but here’s my closer: 1st Corinthians 12:25-26 speaks of the church, that there should be no division, but that each should have equal concern for the others. Is that even possible when some are richer than others?

RICHARD
The same is true of 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 where Paul clearly states “The goal is equality”. 

MAUREEN
But I earned my money. God must want me to have it. In fact, it’s a sign that I’m doing his will, and I’m being rewarded for it.

RICHARD
“Those who say material possessions are a sign of God’s blessings ignore the fact that material wealth is a power that requires inequality and injustice to exist.”

MAUREEN
Did you just make that up?

RICHARD
Nope. Herman Kutter.

MAUREEN
Guess I better get reading.

RICHARD
And to give you time to do that, we’ll wrap up this first video.  What’s your take-away?

MAUREEN
Something I was convinced about without reading Kutter. (Yes! Yes! I will still give him a chance.)  Jesus offers people a new life where any kind of power over others is replaced by love.

RICHARD
 Agreed. And power over others means any kind of domination, be it over others’ labor, or by hoarding wealth at others’ expense, or by ignoring the suffering of others when you could do something – anything – to help. In the end, love should rule all relationships, both social and economic.

MAUREEN
Thanks for watching.