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I am a self proclaimed coffee addict and Executive Director of a non profit missions agency working primarily in the Mexican cities of Oaxaca, Guadalajara, and Ensenada. I've been married for over 30 years to Chelle, and we have one grown son, Joseph, a graduate of Auburn University in Alabama.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Socialism and the Gospel

Here are a few understandings of socialism gleaned from a variety of online sources including Wikipedia and Webster's:

[It] refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and the creation of an egalitarian society.

Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

[It is] a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.

Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods or 2 a system of society or group living in which there is no private property.

I've been thinking a lot about this subject lately, perhaps in part because of the political races. Recently I decided to reread Karl Barth's lecture
"Jesus Christ and the Movement for Social Justice" which was published in December of 1911. [Sorry, I was unable to find an online link.]

Barth, best known for his commentary on Romans is probably the most influential theologian of the last 100 years. He defines socialism this way:

Socialism is a movement from below to above. [It] is the movement of the economically dependent, of those who earn wages working for someone else, for a stranger; the movement of the proletariat, as literature calls it.

In his lecture he talks a lot about private property, something one could find hard to square with Jesus' New Testament teachings. Barth also notes how Jesus invested his life personally in the poor, choosing to live amongst them, holding this out as a model for us to try and emulate.

For another take, try this on from the "On Faith" pages of Newsweek, it is from Anthony M. Stevens Arroyo. The entire article can be found here.

I was driving home when I heard on my car radio a minister say that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was a Looney-tune idea. I don't make a habit of speaking back to the radio, but I couldn't help but scream, "It's in the Bible!" Acts 2: 44-45 reads: "And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need."

Arroyo writes that Catholics should be pretty comfortable with chosen socialism, as opposed to forced.

For me, I am trying to square what I see as a pretty strong biblical call towards socialism and an almost knee jerk reaction against it here in the United States. Perhaps it is because what we have seen as socialism globally are terrible attempts at living it out in a Gospel way.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Comments on "Socialism and the Gospel"


Blogger Patrick M said ... (3:07 PM) : 

Dave, I think you've just given me yet another reason why we should stop meandering (or sprinting come '09?) down the socialist path that this country is on. For you, and for anyone who takes that verse to heart, it is a personal moral choice to live in that way.

However, our Constitutional government was designed in such a way that people could seek out their truth, their beliefs, and their way of life free from the religious imposition of another, provided they did not, in turn, violate the freedom of another.

I would compare the imposition of a moral law creating socialism to one that would impose Sharia law. And taking a religious doctrine and codifying it is specifically forbidden by the establishment clause of the First amendment.

For socialism to truly work, a change in the mindset of all participants is required, in which they work without an expectation of compensation. However, you, and I, and every person who has looked at the hears of people, knows that human nature is competitive, finds value in their work, and discriminates against those who take without giving.

To sum up: To live the life of a socialist is a choice. To force others to do so is tyranny.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (4:23 PM) : 

Barth explains the dilemma this way. Man has screwed up socialism in his attempts to live it out.

At it's core, he sees it as more closely resembling life as Jesus desires.

Unfortunately, I think once the state gets involved it does tend to get ugly.

Now, how do we explain the contradiction between a seeming socialist bent in Christianity, and capitalism in what we have been told a million times, a Christian USA?


Blogger Bullfrog said ... (8:01 PM) : 

I think what what was happening in Jesus' time can better be described as community rather than socialism. It was a expression of brotherly love.

Taking a portion of money I have earned and giving it to the needy either directly or through a church or private charity, and forced compulsion though taxation to do what is arguably dissimilar (and I am being generous here) is not the same thing at all. I would even call the latter downright immoral.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (11:12 PM) : 

Bullfrog, your best word there was community.


Blogger Patrick M said ... (11:44 AM) : 

Now, how do we explain the contradiction between a seeming socialist bent in Christianity, and capitalism in what we have been told a million times, a Christian USA?

Oh, I could go on a while here. But in short:

1. shallowness - people don't think, or are lodged in their ideology that they simply vomit what they've been taught.

2. there is no socialist bent if you understand that it must be a choice and not a compulsion.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (1:10 PM) : 

I think my point being that people who claim to live as followers of a specific set of beliefs, cannot also, logically, support as system that is the antithesis of that set of beliefs.

Thus the question becomes, along the WWJD line of reasoning, would Jesus, based on what we know of Him from New Testament teaching, support his followers in a capitalistic system that has as one of it's main tenants, the accumulation of wealth?

Any takers on this one?


Blogger Patrick M said ... (2:47 PM) : 

Being the masochist I am...

I have an interesting perspective my dad came up with. Everything about Jesus as laid out in the bible is based on writings of true believers, and not the people he spend most of his life with. So setting aside the spiritual figure of Jesus, let's look at the man, based on what we can guess, and the small amount that is written.

Jesus was not poor. He was a tradesman by birth, as his Earthly father (Joseph) was a carpenter. We're talking someone well off from supplying everyone with the furniture and such they need, up to the Romans. He even had to travel to Bethlehem to pay his taxes. And it's entirely plausible that JC spent those lost years (between birth and 12, and 12 and 33) building stuff and making money, enough so that He would be able to go on the road, gather a following and lead a revolution of thought for the 3 years of His active ministry. And among His followers were not the poor, but gainfully employed men prior to meeting him. He also cultivated sinners whose sin led them to some good change (tax collectors, prostitutes). And once He had a sufficient following, in rolled the donations, including those loaves and fishes, which go a long way when your Messiah can multiply. And that stuff rolling in kept Him on the road until He caused enough of a stir that the entrenched hierarchy of the Jewish faith arranged to have Him killed off.

So while Jesus preached the virtues of the poor, he was most likely not one of them.

So in this case, is it possible we're misinterpreting what Jesus really said. After all, they did misinterpret that thing about tearing down the temple, then He could rebuild it in three days.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (4:44 PM) : 

Nice out of the proverbial box thinking. Any evidence to support it? Or is it just a theory?


Blogger Bullfrog said ... (8:11 PM) : 

"A capitalistic system based on the accumulation of wealth"

As opposed to, say, being broke on purpose? The freedoms this country protects make it possible to be successful IN SPITE of the IRS robbing us annually. It sounds like you are saying Jesus would not approve of financial success, but on what moral grounds would He do so? Remember, He said that it is not money that is evil, but love of money.


Blogger Patrick M said ... (6:12 AM) : 

Dave: Well, we know Joseph was a carpenter, which is a trade, and that he had the means to travel and pay taxes. We know Jesus didn't really get going until about age 33. We know the types of people He collected as apostles. We know the kinds of sinners He embraced. We know He led a revolution in thought and was killed for it. All of those things are mentioned in the bible.

The rest is arrived at by looking at Jesus as a man, which is necessary as He became man, with all the frailties and imperfections and emotions that involves. And we also know that the poor generally don't lead revolutions, the well-off not in power do so.

Look at it outside of the theological box and it all makes sense.


Blogger TAO said ... (9:23 AM) : 


Karl Marx would be appalled at all the attempts we have seen over the years to institute his thoughts of economic development into reality. Marx believed that society evolves from one level of economic system to another. If you try to jump ahead, like the Russians, you will fail. Karl Marx also believed that the first true communistic society would be the USA! We have to grow through socialism (which is a blend of capitalism and communism and we have been a socialistic state for at least 80 years) before we have to start worrying about communism.

The GREAD PARADOX of the last 20 years of American politics has been the merger of what is called the religious right with the conservative right. Logically, Christians, at least new testament believers should be liberal. You just cannot balance nationalism, militarism, low taxes, cut government spending with the true word of God....you cannot criminalize abortions and then not be responsible for the fetus after birth. You cannot believe life is precious and then be so stingy with your money....thus the demise of conservatism as it stands today.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (9:33 AM) : 

Tao, you hit the nail on the head regarding the NT and nationalism, militarism, etc.

I am still waiting for a "conservative believer" to square how they integrate those beliefs into that NT theology.


Blogger Pastor David Curtis said ... (10:19 AM) : 

A fascinating discussion that I feel compelled to contribute to.

Patrick M:

While your thoughts concerning Jesus' financial well being are interesting they are quite unfounded from the standpoint of biblical scholarship and a thorough understanding of the first century culture.

To say that Joseph had the money to travel an pay taxes does not equate with wealth. The offering of two young pigeons that Joseph and Mary made in the temple to dedicate Jesus (Luke 2:21-24) says more about their financial ability than anything else. Pigeons or turltedoves were the alternative for those who could not afford the regular offering. If Jesus had gained large amounts of wealth for himself we would have to call his teachings regarding wealth heretical. Jesus honored the poor in his teaching. He declared that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God when He commanded others to give away all of their money (Matthew 19). Jesus even declared that he had no home (Matthew 8:20).

Yes Jesus was supported by his followers and was fed and taken care of, but by no means would anyone consider him wealthy. I am sorry but that line of reasoning just doesn't hold water.

To say that the New Testament has a socialist bent is not too far off. However to take Acts 2 as a mandate for socialism would be taking it too far. Not that I am accusing you of that Dave.

On the political side of this issue I will confess that I am not as politically minded as the rest of you. However I think Tao makes an excellent point that is highly frustrating to me as a young evangelical. The mixing of the religious right with the conservative right has caused major issues within evangelicalism in the last twenty years. To equate conservative finanical policy, foreign policy, gun control policy (or lack of), with Christian belief is a diservice to the gospel and is, I think, displeasing to the Lord.

I am not proposing or supporting a political agenda, but when I am saying is that when the religious right makes their political agenda a mark of Christian faith or spirituality then we have set up something other than Jesus as our savior. Sorry, Dobsonites, I think you guys have put your political agenda in front of the core of Christianity which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whew. I guess I just need to sound off on that.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (10:24 AM) : 

Great stuff David. I knew I could flush out a scholar sooner or later.

Mind you, the Acts passage is only quoted from the Newsweek article.

But David, I hope your not equating many of us with the Dobsonites.

I assume you saw "the letter."


Blogger Patrick M said ... (10:41 AM) : 

Pastor David: I'll grant that you can quote the bible better. I am a Catholic, after all. :)

I never said Joseph was rich, just well off. and being that both Joseph and Jesus were likely working for a decade and a half together, it means productivity, which means decent money. If we were to equate them to any group in the modern age, it would be comfortable middle class; enough that He had the time and ability to get going on the ministry.

From a non-theological standpoint though, I have to make assumptions based on the fact that Jesus taught about the virtues of poverty. That means some degree of slant in the Gospels to support those teachings.

The problem is that we really don't have that many verifiable hard facts on the life of Jesus outside the Bible.


Blogger Pastor David Curtis said ... (2:09 PM) : 


No I am definitely not equating you or anyone else on this blog with the Dobsonite crowd. That was just me going off on an excellent point from Tao.

I am actually uncertain as to the "letter" you are referring to.


We are dealing with a few unknowns regarding the innerworkings of first century carpentry. I would probably equate the trade with a lower middle class blue collar job. From the research I have read it was back breaking hard labor (no power tools or home depot), but I don't know of any research biblical or extrabiblical that speaks to the financial means of a carpenter. This is why I will always take it back to the gospels and see what we do know for sure.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (2:38 PM) : 

Dave, here is the link to the infamous Dobson letter.




Blogger Bullfrog said ... (4:23 PM) : 

One more try, maybe I'll get a response this time...

How is the teachings of Christ that encourage giving to the needy like socialism? And I keep hearing that Christians are "logically liberal", but that is the extent of the argument. Prove that financial success, militarism, and nationalism are "un-Christian" if that is your claim.

When Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, He was not condemning wealth, He was saying the poor have less to distract them from the Gospel and a relationship with their Creator than a wealthy person. There is no implied condemnation of being successful.

Patrick: Pastor David soundly dealt with the issue of whether Jesus was well off or not, and by all accounts He and his apostles were homeless and depended on donations to survive. You mentioned the feeding of the 5,000 with 1 boy's meager lunch, but that wasn't all; they also collected 12 baskets of left-overs when everyone else had eaten. Why 12 baskets? Because the 12 apostles had to eat too. That doesn't sound like well-off people to me...


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (8:27 PM) : 

Bullfrog, as for the eye of a needle example, let me quote Barth.

Jesus is more socialist than the socialists. Here [Matt 19.24] ... clever theologians have made the discovery that the eye of a needle is not really the eye of a needle, but a Palestinian name for a narrow gate through the city wall. A camel could pass through this gate only with great difficulty; thus a rich man, if otherwise virtuous, could supposedly enter the kingdom of God, albeit with great difficulty. This is the Gospel watered down! No, no the eye of the needle is, and remains the eye of a needle, and Jesus really wanted to say that a rich person, a possessor of worldly goods does not enter the Kingdom of God.

I don't think I have made any statements on nationalism. I think that belongs to Tao.

I would argue that accumulation of personal wealth, and capitalism, whereby the cacique's, latifundos, or proletariat, need a steady stream of low cost labor to be successful, while uniquely American, cannot be supported biblically.

I see no instances in Jesus life where he preached the blessings of wealth, or owning private property, as he called us to leave everything, including our families, behind in order to follow him unencumbered.


Blogger Bullfrog said ... (8:43 PM) : 

dave: So, according to your man Barth, any man who possesses worldly goods does not enter the Kingdom of God. And how do you hope to apply this in the real world? Does that mean Christians should rent instead of own? Lease a vehicle instead of buy? Never save money in a bank, but spend every penny from paycheck to paycheck so they never really possess anything? Taken to it's logical conclusion, this teaching puts a high price on salvation, which man was never meant or able to pay in the first place; hence, Christ's death and resurrection.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (9:17 PM) : 

It sure makes grace all that more important doesn't it?

The reality of all of it is this. There is no way we can ever hope to measure up to the standard that Jesus sets for all of us.

Thus, His grace, and not what we hope to do, or how hard we work to live "Godly" lives is what'll ultimately lead to an eternity with God.

Barth was an incredibly radical thinker and one of the biggest critic of the liberal leanings of theology in the early 20th Century.

Most serious students of theology and especially people who study Romans, are, mostly unknowingly, influenced by his thought and scholarship.


Blogger Bullfrog said ... (9:28 PM) : 

I think Barth's views on election are frankly what is missing from the modern church, and his teachings on the Trinity are spot-on.


Blogger Patrick M said ... (5:30 AM) : 

Bullfrog: They were not "homeless" but were on the road constantly. They all had family and friends who did have homes so there was no need.

You miss my point that I'm taking the theology out for a moment. That means I have to make assumptions that the Gospels were written to support a specific point of view, and I have to treat anything that supports that (poverty) with a certain skepticism.

Besides, the exact amount of money that Jesus and his followers had, in the long run, is irrelevant in the framework of faith. But a more complete picture of His life might illuminate things we got wrong.

Again, this is not to argue the point to death, but to explain how I got to where I got.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (7:44 AM) : 

Isn't it amazing the passion that both religion and politics bring out in people.

Could it be that for us, in America, those are the two institutions that we believe have the most power, or biggest opportunity to change lives?

For better, or for worse.


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