“To make Jesus of Nazareth a socialist is to give credence to an alternative account in which he is useful only when he speaks of someone else’s finances.” Tom Plum
Editor’s note: The heart of socialism/communism is Marx’s definition viz., the abolition of private property. Neither Jesus Christ or the early church ever called for the abolition of private property. See Acts 5:1-4
Throughout the entire 2016 election and onward, a tired line heard from within the Progressive Christian camp was that it was Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared “democratic socialist,” who spoke from a policy platform most comparable with the New Testament ethic. The assumption is that Jesus was himself a quiet socialist, and that his charity while acting as Lord, feeding without profit and giving without return, was to become the governmental archetype for any system built upon the imperative of public utility. Too often, this assumption is met with shrugged indifference, forcing Christians choosing the moniker of capitalist to do so beneath a darker cloud of judgment.
It must be said that Jesus was and is not a socialist by anyone’s definition, save those of his revisionists. The Gospels do not speak of a heavenly economy of democratic access. Instead, they speak of the Kingdom of God as the advent of an impending regime change whose topsy-turvy standard of behavior threatens the lives of the unprepared. Where Jesus stands in the face of government saying his kingdom is not of this world, those aligned with him, the corpus mysticum, stand as a historical reminder that power itself is fleeting and its programs destined for collapse. With king as his lexical base, Jesus contends for all our titles, and his seat at the right hand of God is the fulfillment of an all-conquering, one-world rule originally of Israel’s national vision.
It is this image of Christ the Contender that thrusts the conversation into its most fundamental conflict. The question is something like this: has the individual an inalienable right to private ownership, or has power the obligation to ensure a common equity? From the raw data of the world’s wealth concentrations, some draw the conclusion that competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive and that the ever pressing reality of competition has blinded populations from the possibility of human benevolence as a guiding principle of government. Thus is the new expectation for the Christian eschaton, when a final install of programmatic distribution makes fruit possible without labor and labor without the pressure of personal improvement. Such an expectation is foreign to that of the prophets, who gave the image of one sitting “under his own vine” as an anticipated era of peace when one’s self-sufficiency goes uninterrupted.
Moreover, outside the point of exchange between producer and consumer, there is cooperation, where two or more parties agree to compete beneath the same body of rules. The ethic of competition is that the boundaries of human interaction are set, and within these boundaries, one’s worth becomes intrinsic to one’s quality of behavior. What duty one has toward the rights of his competitor is an equality of access upon the same ground of risk and possibility of reward. After all, to review the etymology of “compete” lands one at the Late Latin competere or “to strive in common.” Where there is competition, so there is, too, a commonality that appraises victory as an end worthy of mutual struggle.
The most glaring deviation of socialism from the Christ of the Gospels is that for the socialist, human suffering is a problem of economy, whereas Christ’s language of salvation assumes a robust moral definition of sin as an adverse world state requiring its reset. By neglecting bad behavior as a condition of the spirit, socialism treats individuals as “personification[s] of economic categories” – not as the imago dei, but as the “bearers of class-relations and class-interests.” Where its use of religion ends at religion’s philanthropy, the secular becomes offended by appeals to order beyond its span of control. Life is more than food. The body is more than stuff. And so, as one free from envy is immune from want of another’s commodity, so one becomes a barrier to progress if progress is but the solution to an unshared problem.
Standing on a hillside in rural Palestine, Jesus silences all the whispers of messianic militancy, choosing instead to challenge the assumption that resistance is the right of the righteous. Neither his commands to charity nor his chosen company of disrepute sealed his execution. But because to him was ascribed the office of highest power despite his very public cynicism of existing political structures, Jesus’s death was declared a necessity to spare those structures. When pressed by the experts about the rightness of taxes, he is frustratingly noncommittal. When enquired by the state about the nature of his kingship, his speech is aloof. His example in the midst of power is one above its dominion.
That the lordship of Jesus is her basic Christian confession makes the church a political alternative whose presence is a nagging witness that neither system nor system actors can be improved into utopia and a sign that the reign of humans over human affairs has ended. So, then, when anyone attributes the qualities of Christ to one whose enterprise of salvation is getting more stuff to more people, their conclusion of what ails the whole of history is of critical departure from him whose definition of poverty assumes a hunger alleviated without food, a thirst without drink, and whose social ethic persists already in the lives of changed people. As it pertains to his interpretive history, the image of Jesus as Christ is given to the recurring comedown of premiere humanitarian rather than resurrected Lord, which imputes a certain foolishness upon the Gospel writers, who wrote of Jesus’s act of self-sacrifice as an example to follow for an audience already in peril.
To make Jesus of Nazareth a socialist is to give credence to an alternative account in which he is useful only when he speaks of someone else’s finances. The socialist structure demands giving without first inspiring generosity and getting without gratitude, but as for the Kingdom of Heaven, the object of its judgment is the inner life, ignoring status, and calling to account the conduct of the slave as a slave and the master as a master. It is her witness to this judgment that makes the church a body of grave opposition to those like Bernie Sanders. For above one who seeks power in his or her image, there looms the Kingdom of Heaven, whose agency has begun in the lives of those who are poor and do not suffer, and who do not participate in democratic processes expecting Heaven on Earth by means of imperfect systems replacing imperfect systems.