No doubt because Bernie Sanders is making a serious run for the presidency here in the United States, this question is on the minds of some podcast listeners. One, named Christian, writes in to ask, “Hello Pastor John! How should Christians view socialism?”
Well, I suppose I should put all of my misgivings up front to say I am not an expert in political science or economics. So take it for what it’s worth. Here we go:
I think the first thing I should say is that in the church no one should go hungry. No one should be without a place to stay. No one should fail to get the healthcare they need. No one should go without a job if it is possible for believers to help them find one. And so on. All of this should happen through the free and uncoerced help of other believers.
When Luke writes in 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,” what he means is that every need was being met by other believers, even if they had to sell things that they owned in order to help meet them—and this was done freely. It didn’t remove but rather presumed the ownership of private property. Indeed, all of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, assumes both the legitimacy—and, I think, the necessity—of personal ownership.
“Thou shalt not steal” makes no sense where no one has a right to keep what is his. The reason I stress that all of this is uncoerced, free, not forced, is because of a heavy emphasis that Paul puts on giving to the poor in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Freely, cheerfully, not under compulsion.
I remember I had a big debate when I was in Germany with a professor and other students because of the way they fund the state church there through taxes. I said, “That just doesn’t fit.” Without compulsion, cheerfully and freely. In other words, there is built into the Christian faith an inner impulse by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to make sacrifices so that others have their needs met. And there is no such impulse built into human nature or the human heart apart from God’s grace. It is so vital that this kind of love and mercy and sacrifice be free and uncoerced that this is laid down as a principle by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9 and by Peter in 1 Peter 5 as he instructs the elders.
Now Socialism as I understand it (and I don’t know much about it) refers to 1) a social and economic system that through legal or governmental or military coercion—in other words, you go to jail if you don’t do this—establishes social ownership at the expense of private or personal ownership and/or you could say 2) where coercion is used to establish social control—if not ownership, at least control—of the means of production in society. And thus, through control, you effectively eliminate many of the implications and motivations of private ownership.
In other words, Socialism borrows the compassionate aims of Christianity in meeting people’s needs while rejecting the Christian expectation that this compassion not be coerced or forced. Socialism, therefore, gets its attractiveness at certain points in history where people are drawn to the entitlements that Socialism brings, and where people are ignorant or forgetful of the coercion and the force required to implement it—and whether or not that coercion might, in fact, backfire and result in greater poverty or drab uniformity or, worse, the abuse of the coercion as we saw in the murderous states like USSR and Cambodia.