As political division increases, people on every side are increasingly keen on bolstering the legitimacy of their political philosophy. Sometimes, this means reaching outside the realm of politics and into religion to attempt to appeal to higher values. For some, this involves going so far as claiming that Jesus Christ himself would be a supporter or believer in one side or the other. Many Christians, even some conservative Christians, will admit that they believe Jesus envisioned an idealized socialist society for humanity. Their claim is that socialism represents Christian charity put into widespread practice. (As a note, in this article I will be referring to Jesus in the past tense, though Jesus is alive in heaven today, just for simplicity, and to indicate that I am referring to his time teaching incarnate.)
I think it’s important that we define socialism in the way that socialist Christians would before we can address this idea. When people make the claim that socialism and Christianity go hand-in-hand, they are referring to an idealistic and theoretical sort of socialism. We all know that, in reality, socialism as it has been historically implemented has not worked. Socialism, in theory, means that the community owns the means of production of goods and handles distribution of wealth. This would allow for provision for the poor while opposing extreme wealth by a few. It means radical social change and justice for the underserved. By itself, this sounds like something that Christians really ought to support. These ideas are, after all, part of the worldview that Jesus spent time promoting. Of course we should want to serve the poor. On the surface, it makes sense that we should vote for a system that would implement Jesus’ teachings, even if it wouldn’t work out as intended. However, voting in favor of socialism would actually go against many of Jesus’ teachings.
First, Jesus would not have been political at all. Had Jesus been alive (in the flesh) today, he would not have participated in marches or engaged in political debate or even voted. You will never find an instance anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus endorses politicians or bureaucrats or gives them the power to allocate resources, nor does he tell anyone how to run their business. He really has nothing to say about how the economy ought to be run. Christians in support of certain modern political structures fight to claim Jesus as their own or as the ultimate authoritative supporter of their ideals. Forcing Jesus and his teachings to conform to the structures we have developed today subverts his universal and ultimate authority by making him fit into our limited view of the world.
At the very core of his being, Jesus was charitable. The definition of “charity”, according to the King James Bible dictionary, is “In a general sense, love, benevolence, good will; that disposition of heart which inclines men to think favorably of their fellow men, and to do them good”. Charity is, importantly, freely given. Consider 2 Corinthians 9:7, which says that “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. You are not fulfilling your Christian duty to help the poor if you “give” because someone with more power forces you to do so.
The truth is, socialism is completely antithetical to the Christian ideal of charity. There is no benevolence in socialism. There is no free will in socialism. Even if socialism “worked” as it should, if all the funds taken by the government were redistributed to the poor, it would not be Christian.
But, what about the events in Acts 4:32-35? This seems to be an ideal society of believers providing for one another by laying their money at the apostles’ feet, who would then give it to anyone who had need. Further, in Acts 5, a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property and only gave part of the proceeds to the community. The apostle Peter knew of their deception and condemned their actions, at which point God struck them dead. Does this not indicate that we should aim to live in a redistributive society, and that people ought to be punished who don’t do their part? Answer: it does not.
What should be noted about this passage is that the believers did not live under a governmental regime that held the threat of force over their heads lest they not pay their societal dues. Everyone participated and contributed willingly, and the only one who reserved the right to inflict punishment for disobedience was God himself. Additionally, the apostles were the ones carrying out redistribution. They were men of God and their actions were according to God’s will. The same cannot be said for money laid at the feet of a secular governing body. Such a body cannot be trusted to carry out the Lord’s will, and as such, giving money to them, rather than to legitimate men of God or directly to the needy, will not carry out the Lord’s will.
Jesus wants people to choose to follow him. He wanted them to want to give charity due to a personal spiritual drive originating in the heart. This is the core of the principle of free will. You aren’t doing your Christian duty by simply paying your taxes under socialism. Charity is freely given and done as a result of faith, as a part of free will. Socialism tries to appear charitable, but even if it did “work”, the “giving” would not come freely from the heart and would therefore not be Christian.
Socialists claim that Jesus disdained the rich, citing his driving of the money-changers from the Temple and his remark that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Jesus did condemn the hoarding of wealth, telling us that it is better to lay up treasures in heaven than on earth. But you’ve the right to be a rich atheist if you choose. You can also be a rich Christian, if you use that wealth wisely. Implementing socialism in the name of the Lord Jesus will bring us no closer to the world he envisioned for humanity. All it will do is create a worldly body that infringes on people’s legitimate rights to their own property and mask the crucial importance of the heart in matters of giving.
Government controls from the outside-in, while discipleship transforms from the inside-out. Jesus sought to complete his vision via discipleship, focusing on the means rather than on the ends. He didn’t establish a government or any sort of governing body during his time on earth. Outside-in control will lead to resentment and rebellion and resistance against truth. Inside-out transformation will lead to new life and to revelation of the truth.