Idealism is the elixir of the young. Today many millennial Christians—and some older—are inspired by the socialist vision of the abolition of wealth accumulation in the hands of greedy capitalists and the emergence of economic equality through socialism. Leading the charge in politics is the young congresswomen from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or, AOC), and the much older Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who almost won the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020. Christian voices chime in as well. Sojourners magazine has long advocated for what essentially is a socialist approach. The Institute for Christian Socialism claims socialism is the way of Jesus. But when it comes to Christianity and socialism, what should Christians believe?
As candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 to a plumber who challenged his tax policy, “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” But is it? Why can’t we eliminate or alleviate poverty by spreading the wealth around through taxation and more government programs? I used to think we could, until I got “mugged by reality” (to borrow an expression by Irving Krystal) years ago. By reading books by William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and R. J. Rushdoony, I began to see the flaws in socialism and the virtues of a free market. When a friend told me he would rather get more money by not working (through welfare) than by working, something clicked as well.
Many people in our churches are wondering how to address economic matters, especially considering the economic disadvantages that people of color may face. Let’s consider facts, logic and scripture.
Concerning economics and politics, Christians should seek the welfare of their communities (Jeremiah 29:7) as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Besides communicating the gospel to our neighbors, taking care of our families, and supporting our churches, we also should also concern ourselves with the financial welfare of our neighbors, especially the poor and voiceless. Many scriptures challenge us to take up the cause of the needy, to not exploit workers, and to serve Jesus by caring for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:41-46). We should not hoard wealth, but be generous. When we see poverty around us and great disparities between the wealthy and the rest, we may be tempted to embrace socialism as the means to the biblical end of caring for the disadvantaged. But that is a bad idea.
What is Socialism?
Socialism takes various forms. The most brutal and barbarian is Marxist socialism, which was the leading cause of approximately 100,000,000 million state-sponsored killings in the USSR, in China under Mao, and in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The ruling Marxist party becomes the absolute authority—Marxism is atheistic, so there is no fear of God—and brooks no dissent, which it deems counter-revolutionary. All wealth and property are controlled by the state, since private property is considered a source of evil. However, because this Marxist system failed to provide for people’s material needs, Lenin allowed for some capitalism to revive the economy. Similarly, China has seen millions of its people lifted out of poverty by allowing some free enterprise. Sadly, in neither case did political freedom come with economic opportunity and development.
Many claim that Marxism need not be the model for socialism. Supposedly, we can leave German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) behind and find a better model for economic equality. But all forms of socialism are dogged by ineradicable flaws. First, socialism does not allow the free exchange of goods and services in an open market. This leads to shortages and massive inefficiencies, since centralized control tries in vain to take the place of the distributed intelligence of a free market. (On this, see The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek.)
Second, socialism does not allow individuals to advance (or decline) according to their personal industry and resourcefulness. Rather, the state (to one degree or another) controls the economy and takes over essential services such as education, health care and agriculture. It imposes severe taxes on the wealthy, such that they cannot venture to create new goods, services, and jobs. Instead, their money is redistributed by the state, which, in itself, generates no wealth at all. It can only confiscate through taxes; it does not create through productive enterprise. That requires the incentives and opportunities of a free market.
Isn’t Capitalism as Bad as Socialism?
But some might say, “Isn’t capitalism just as bad as socialism. if not worse?” Let me respond to several challenges to a free market economy: that it allows the rich to exploit the poor; that it promotes greed; and that since the early Church was socialistic, we should not be capitalists.
First, while the Bible condemns the rich who exploit the poor, that does not mean that all wealth comes at the expense of the poor. In the ancient agrarian economy of the Bible, exploitation was common. Thus, James writes to some of the rich of his day, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4, NIV). God hates economic injustice, but not all wealth is earned unjustly. Today, making a profit and developing a business need not exploit anyone, since the economy is not a zero-sum game. Wealth can be created through new products and services. Bill Gates is a billionaire, but—unless he broke the law somewhere—his wealth is not at the expense of anyone else. Rather, he generated computer software that has benefitted millions and also provided jobs for numerous people. Yes, in a fallen world, some wealthy people will dishonestly exploit others (poor and rich), but financial gain in itself is not immoral. Moreover, a basically free market system can allow for the civil government to provide a safety net for the disadvantaged without setting up a welfare state that undermines personal responsibility.
Second, some argue that capitalism promotes greed. In the film Wall Street (1987), the leading character, a cut-throat business tycoon, Gordon Gekko, intones that “Greed is good.” No, it isn’t. Jesus knew better: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). In a free market society, advertising may appeal to greed, and some businesspeople and consumers may be greedy. But greed comes from the fallen heart and may appear in any society, whether socialist or capitalist (Mark 7:22). Guarding against greed is better done by guarding one’s heart against sin (Proverbs 4:23) than by exchanging all the good aspects of capitalism for the false promises of socialism. Although it is often said that “Money is the root of all evil,” Paul wrote something quite different: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Greed is one thing; wealth is another.
Does the Bible Endorse Socialism?
Third, some think the Bible endorses socialism because of the lifestyle of the early Church in the Book of Acts. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). Many Jews had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost, and many were unexpectedly converted to following Jesus (Acts 1-3). Because of this, they stayed longer than expected and needed support for their stay until they returned home. So this situation was temporary, given an exigency. Most importantly, the Church acted voluntarily. Socialism is a matter of state control of the economy; there is nothing voluntary about it. What works in a temporary situation by common consent is far different from a command economy enforced through civil law.
I could say more, but I encourage church leaders to deepen their knowledge of this issue by reading Jay Wesley Richard’s fine book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. On the surface socialism may seem to be a good idea, even a glorious vision, but as Jesus said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).