We hear it all of the time, from the political far-left, that Jesus was a Socialist. While I believe it is mostly a schoolyard taunt, from those who are basically irreligious, the claim itself is worthy to be examined. Was Jesus, through his focus on the poor, downtrodden and marginalized, basically in agreement with the politics of Karl Marx and the Socialist far-left?
Was Jesus a Socialist?
There is a valid critique of American love of money and consumerism. This obsession with material gain is repackaged as the false “health and wealth” Gospel, that is preached by some who could be classified as being Evangelicals, and should be rebuked. It is also very disturbing when those who profess Christ seem to care more about the bottom line than the welfare of those whom they employ. All of this goes against the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, in seeing the sins of those who enjoy the prosperity of Capitalism and how there is a lack of care for the poor, as is clearly a part of what Jesus taught, some see Socialism as the solution. Socialism, using the most basic definition, is redistribution of wealth and could sound a lot like Christian charity to those who only have a few Biblical proof-texts or nominal understanding of the Gospel.
But there are key differences that make it impossible to reconcile true Christianity and Socialism. Yes, some of the practical ends may be similar, but the means and driving philosophy are entirely opposed. Here’s an outline of some of the differences:
1) Jesus Yields Power, Socialists Demand It
Jesus, during his temptation, was offered the kingdoms of the world. He could have taken over all world governments and then installed a redistributive regime, so all the poor had their needs provided and there would finally be justice. And yet He rejected the offer, and instead Jesus picked the way of the cross and lived the example of self-sacrificial love. This is a very stark contrast to Socialism, where promoters of this leftist ideology feel entitled to power and will take to the streets to protest and demand what they think they should have.
Jesus was meek, and this is what He told his followers about those seeking to control others:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)
Socialists seek political power, and the ability to bend others to their will, but Jesus taught that empowerment comes by giving up our rights and serving others.
2) Jesus Taught Personal Responsibility, Not Collective Action
Every verse quoted in support of Socialism is directed at the individual. In other words, when Jesus said “sell all and give to the poor” he was speaking to specific individuals and not endorsing a collective movement to take from others to provide for the poor. His words are not about creating a system or using state power to compel others. Socialism, by contrast, is all about coercion and using the power of the collective to force others into compliance.
Everything Jesus taught is for his followers to do personally, for our own salvation, not so we can go around Lording over and guilt-tripping others:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “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.’(Matthew 25:34-40 NIV)
In the passage above there is no mention of what is done on our behalf, instead, it is all about who we invited in, and who we personally provided for and visited. In Socialism, these tasks are delegated, turned into systems or state programs, and established by force of law. But in Christianity giving to others is always for us to do voluntarily, as willing individuals, and coordinated by the Church never the secular state.
3) Christianity Is About Community, Not Mandates
Christianity is Communal, a community of faith. Socialism is about forcing people to give of themselves through taxation and threats. A community is voluntary, never forced, and the Christian community is centered on the Church rather than the government. Yes, early Christians gave to help each other, some even had “all things in common,” as we read in Acts. But this was never a requirement. The real point is not about money either. No, according to Jesus, are supposed to leave everything behind in pursuit of Him:
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.(Matthew 19:29-30 NIV)
Christianity means giving up everything, not just our wealth, to follow after Christ and build His kingdom. Christianity is about a family of faith, a community centered on Christ. The welfare state, by contrast, has destroyed families and made many dependent rather than free. As with the passage above, Christianity is about being ready for eternity, whereas Socialism is all about what we can gain for ourselves in the here and now.
4) Kingdom Focus, Not Utopian Idealism
The first to distort the point of the Gospel message were the disciples themselves, they had pictured a Messiah that would overthrow their Roman rulers and give them power over their abusers. They wanted a worldly kingdom and thought they would soon rule over their enemies. But Jesus subverted all of these national socialist ambitions. He wasn’t there to eliminate poverty, or to challenge the political and economic regime, but rather there to point people toward true worship:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples [led by Judas according to the Gospel of John] saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”(Matthew 26:6-13 NIV)
Socialism is humanist. It is motivated by this desire to create a perfect world through the use of political power. But Jesus said that poverty can’t be eliminated and he rejected the utilitarian impulses of the disciples (led by the thief named Judas) who had twisted the teachings of Jesus about giving to the poor. Jesus answered their indignation over waste by recentering on worship. Our giving is to point people to God. Socialists, on the other hand, worship the state.
5) Socialism Is Motivated by Envy, Christianity by Love
The most valid claim against Capitalism is that it is all about money and greed. People present Socialism as being an alternative and yet it really is only a different form of the same thing. Socialism is about power and envy, as much as Capitalism is about self-interest. But, unlike Capitalism, where the means of production are attained by work or negotiation, Socialism is always maintained through the use of coercion and force. So, although the rich Capitalist may be guilty of many sins, it is a corruption of the free market to take from others by deception or fraud, whereas you can’t have Socialism without manipulations and violence.
A person can own Capital and be Christian, but they can’t be full of jealousy, envy, or judgment towards others:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.(Galatians 5:19-21 NIV)
Sure, like Judas who hid his true motivation under concern for the poor, Socialists are very skilled at selling their own desire for the things others have as a virtue. But the reality is that it is not our job to decide who else is greedy or has too much, as St Paul asks his readers, “who are we to judge another man’s servant?” Judgment is for God. Which is what was so terribly wrong with how Judas had used the words of Jesus as a way to condemn and he used them to condemn a woman more righteous than he was.
Capitalism isn’t Christian. However, property rights are, as is workers keeping the wages they’ve earned and this protection of private wealth is what the commandment against theft is about. Sure, it is the job of a Christian to give to the poor and needy, but profit for labor is not greed nor is it a sin for one person to have more than others do. Socialism, on the other hand, is incompatible. Yes, a Christian can live as a slave to the secular state, but it is not Christian to use government power to compel people to give their property to you to redistribute.
The Difference Is Direction
The left confuses Christian compassion for the poor with a political system. This could be cynical, simply to persuade the nominal Christians to their side or it could be entirely genuine. Either way, despite this similar starting point as Christianity, Socialism is headed in a completely opposite direction and is all about worldly power rather than the love of Jesus that transcends.
Jesus was not Capitalist or Socialist, he was none of the above, apolitical, and all about building a kingdom that is not of this world. Trying to pigeonhole Jesus as a Socialist entirely misses the point of the Gospel. Jesus, while tempted to overthrow the oppressor, did not choose to do this. He picked love instead, to love even the Romans, and this was to reject the Zealots, like Judas, who were motivated by the dream of having political power in their own hands.
It is the direction or orientation of Socialism that is wrong. Christianity teaches us to care for the poor, yes, but Jesus also said we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That is revolutionary, but in a completely different way from the divisive power and social order-obsessed philosophy of Marx and Engles. Christianity is about bridging gaps through voluntary self-sacrifice and forgiveness, Socialism widens gaps and always stirs conflict for the gain of some over others.
Christianity is about pointing people to a heavenly kingdom, where money and power don’t matter anymore, therefore we give voluntarily to show people this alternative. Socialism is completely focused on this world only and fighting over who should rule who. But Christianity is about laying down our lives and investing in something greater than politics, power, or privilege. One is heading towards the lowest common denominator, taking what we can, while the other is giving all and aiming to transcend all.