The claim that Jesus was a socialist seems to be growing in popularity these days. An article in the Huffington Post written by Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, claims that “it is worth remembering that Jesus was a socialist.” Dreier goes on to encourage more political candidates who will “build on the long tradition of Christian socialism and social democracy.” In addition, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert recently said on his show, “You know that God’s a socialist right, Jesus didn’t charge the lepers a co-pay.” So, was Jesus a socialist? Let’s take a look at Scripture to find out.
But first, it would be helpful to define what socialism actually is. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” Need a translation? This means that the government owns all the means of production including farms, factories, mines, and raw materials. It also means that the government owns the means of distribution. In short, the government owns all the means of gaining wealth, the people work for the state, and then the government redistributes anything that is made among the people the elites see fit, at least in theory.
So, is this a type of economic system that Jesus advocated?
One verse that is frequently used to claim Jesus was a socialist is Luke 12:15. “And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” (ESV)
Now, in this verse does Jesus warn against owning private property, or teach against private ownership of the means of production (businesses)? Hardly. In this passage, Jesus is warning those who are wealthy to guard against greed. He is exhorting his audience to remember that their worth is not defined by their wealth. This is hardly a passage that gives the image of a ‘socialist Jesus.’
Another passage that is frequently used to advocate for ‘Christian socialism’ is Acts 2:44-45. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (ESV) Now, at first glance, it may appear that this is some sort of socialist commune that the early church created. However, there are two important details to point out.
First, the most important thing to note is that the disciples voluntarily gave up what they owned so that they could care for the poor among them. They were not forced to do so by the strong arm of the government. Under socialism, the government provides for you based on how hard you work. That is not what is happening here. In Acts 2, the disciples have worked for what they own, and have chosen to give up some of their wealth to care for others. That’s not socialism. That’s simply Christians choosing to be generous.
Second, the verse says that they gave to anyone who had need. This assumes that the disciples had some sort of market where they could sell what they owned. Under socialism, there is less opportunity to sell your possessions, because rather than accumulating wealth through private enterprise; most people would spend their time working for the government.
As an important side note, I think it’s quite unlikely that Jesus would advocate for an economic system that “is responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million victims.” Whether it’s under the Communist regimes like Mao’s regime in China, Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro in Cuba, or Chavez in Venezuela, socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried. This is because of one fundamental flaw, namely, the flaw of human nature. Socialism relies on a benevolent, charismatic leader who eventually turns into a dictator to provide for the good of the masses. However, since human nature is deeply flawed, the dictator always seems to become more tyrannical than benevolent.
Back to the passages of Scripture, I think a thorough examination of these passages makes clear that Jesus was not a socialist. However, he did encourage his disciples to hold their material possessions loosely.
In Matthew 6:3-4, Jesus asks his disciples to give to the poor out of a sense of devotion to God alone. “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (ESV)
And in Matthew 25:40, Jesus encourages personal charity. “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (ESV) Notice that Jesus did not say, “whatever the government did to the least of these, you did to me.” Rather, he is encouraging personal giving by his disciples, because what we give to others, we give to Jesus.
Now, Americans sometimes forgot how rich we are, and thereby don’t feel an obligation to follow Jesus’ command to give. However, the facts tell a different story. If you have a net worth of just $93,170, you are among the top 10% of the richest people in the world. If you have a net worth of $871,320, you are in the top 1% worldwide. “ More than 102 million people in America are in the [top] 10 percent worldwide.”
The best way for Christians to follow Scripture is not to urge the government to adopt socialist policies. Rather, it is for individual Christians to be faithful to the commands of the Lord, and to voluntarily give away their material treasures. This way, Jesus says in Matthew 6:20, we will “lay up for [our]selves treasures in heaven.” (ESV)
Where do you give to?