Jesus, Socialism, and Capitalism

Via Nancy French, I learned of a bizarre online article by Liberty “University” professor Johnnie Moore, in which he claims that Jesus was a capitalist fundamentally opposed to socialism.

Why this person thinks it wise to pontificate about Jesus and the Bible without first studying them in their historical context is beyond me.

Here is the core of the piece:

First, Jesus encouraged his followers to exclusively practice voluntary, personal charity. At no point—either in Jesus’ ministry or in the ministry of the early church—were Christians forced to surrender their money so that elders might distribute it to others. On the contrary, they were encouraged (even in Acts 4:32-35) to give voluntarily, and they did so.

Secondly, in two awfully capitalistic moments, Jesus once stated outright that “a worker deserves his wages (Luke 10:7),” and delivered an entire parable praising the profitable, investment strategy of some workers while condemning the single man who didn’t make a profit as “wicked and lazy.” Jesus even says, when the servant returns with no profit, “you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (Matthew 25:14-27)” Jesus liked bankers.

Thirdly, Jesus didn’t see the government as the answer to society’s greatest moral and social ills. In fact, up until the very end of his life, he fought against his own disciples who were imagining a revolution that would end in Jesus being set up as an earthly king. He once said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight… (John 18:36)”

Jesus’ first followers also had a similar view of the role of money and of government. In fact, almost immediately we find other examples of property rights, the apostles condemning people who expected to eat without working, and proclaiming that Christians should give willingly, not out of coercion.

Jesus, for sure, believed that the government had an important (and limited) role in society, and that’s why he said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (notice he didn’t say “render unto Caesar what is yours”). Jesus also believed in and taught the most generous kind of lifestyle.

But, in so doing, he diminished the importance of the “public sector” and emphasized the role of the “private sector.” He believed that it was the role of God’s children to take care of those who were also God’s children who were struggling through life. He taught the primacy of personal charity.

Modern research backs Jesus up on this. Studies have shown time and again that the vast expansion of government always “crowds out” personal charity (there was, for instance, a 30% decline in charitable church activity in the immediate aftermath of the New Deal), and private charities are far more efficient and effective than public programs.

So, when big-government liberals use Jesus’s name to make government our de facto God-on-earth, they are, in effect, creating systems that make it more difficult for regular people to give more help to others.

Suffice it to say, if Jesus dropped in on our 21st Century like he did in the first, chances are he wouldn’t be a card-carrying socialist. To the contrary: Jesus was, is and would be a capitalist.

Where to start?

First, Jesus said nothing about implementing any Christian principles in government, unless one includes the future Kingdom of God he envisaged as involving “government.” It would, after all, apparently involve apostles sitting on thrones and judging the tribes of Israel, but whether that was a one-off occurrence or an ongoing state of affairs is not specified.

But since Jesus did not live in a democratic context, there is nothing about Christians working to see their views implemented in legislation.

And yet most conservative Christians are happy to see their views implemented when it comes to marriage, abortion, and many other topics. And so unless Moore is calling for such Christians to abandon that sort of advocacy, then his removal of economic justice from the realm of things Christians ought to work for is duplicitous and hypocritical.

The appeal to the parables of Jesus is problematic. The individuals in the parables in question were often acting in ways that were assumed to be wrong in Jesus’ time, not assumed to be appropriate upstanding capitalist behavior as in ours. Why Jesus compared God to an absentee landlord, a master who rewards those who lend money and charge interest (something that was not merely frowned upon but against Biblical law), and an unjust judge, to name a few examples, is an interesting question. But it does not seem to have been to give a stamp of approval to those sorts of individuals in the human realm.

It is important to note as well the simple fact that other readers of the Gospels get a completely opposite impression from Moore. Here’s just one example at random, from Thurman Hubbard:

Those who refuse to accept the fact that Jesus Christ was a progressive, a liberal, and a socialist are either in denial of what the Gospels say, or they are hopelessly ignorant; content to be misled by the charlatans whom their tithes support. Study the Gospels and you will have no honest choice but to conclude that Jesus Christ was a radical liberal in his deeds and ideas.

This is just some guy on the internet that I came across through Googling, who draws the conclusion from reading the Gospels (with no more sophistication or scholarly concern than Moore) that Jesus was a socialist. My point is not to simply adopt this view, but to highlight that it should be obvious that one’s assumptions influence one’s impression on this matter, and so not to assume that either is correct, but dig deeper.

The question that many ask when seeking guidance not just for their behavior as individuals, but for the policies they vote for and try to see implemented in federal or state law, is “What would Jesus do?” Why would anyone think that, even though according to Luke he demanded that his followers give up all their possessions, and give it to the poor,  and even though he healed the sick, that Jesus would be opposed to a society doing those things, and to his followers voting for those things to be done?

Would he not rather say to all those wealthy people who claim to be his followers and who claim him as a conservative and a capitalist that which Luke 14:33 records him as saying? Here it is, since many today seem to have forgotten it:

So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

  • Claude

    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?

    • Gary

      That brings back memories. I was a grad student in LA when Janice Joplin overdosed. Shocked, when someone that has apparently everything killed herself, even when she had more money than I can imagine. There is obviously something more than capitalism and socialism that makes people happy. That, combined with the Silmar earthquake made for a sad time in LA.

      • Claude

        She was only 27! Heartbreaking.

  • Sherry Peyton

    sometimes my head just hurts trying to make sense of these people. And the likes of Moore to the Christianists who simply “understand” the bible because God made it that way, and you have a recipe for a book to mean anything that strikes one’s fancy. They actually are repelled by actual expert opinion, because God made the bible to be understood by anybody whose “heart” is right. Good grief, save us all.

  • arcseconds

    It’s true that more welfare is associated with less charity.

    However, it’s not proportionate. Americans give more to charity than, say, Netherlanders out of their own pockets, but the total spent on the poor is far greater (proportionally) in the Netherlands.

    • plutosdad

      Americans mostly give to their churches, not charities that directly help the poor.
      And since churches do not have to report to the IRS, no one really knows what % of donations actually does directly to helping people. Some churches will report to their members how the money is spent, but there is no good nationwide data for all giving. And most balance sheets that i’ve seen the amount spent on helping the needy is far less than 80% which is the very minimum that a good charity will spend.

      And probably that is why a number of studies also show that the more charity there is in a society as opposed to social services, the more economic inequality and suffering people experience. This could be correlative – people give more because they see more need, or causative – there aren’t enough social services in the first place.

      • arcseconds

        That’s a good point. I think the study I was looking at was comparing total charity donations to government tax-transfer, or something like that, so they weren’t looking at where the charity was going.

        I’m not quite following you with the correlative/causative thing? It seems likely that lack of social services helps to cause economic inequality, and it also seems reasonably likely that a larger number of very affluent people and very poor people will result in more charity, as the first group has plenty of disposable income and they can see the need of the second group.

        If most people are bunched somewhere in the middle, there’s more people who are ‘doing OK’ but still have mortgages to pay etc. who aren’t inclined to give large amounts, especially when the poorer people are propped up to a vaguely acceptable standard of living by the Government.

      • arcseconds

        oops, got carried away with my own explanation. Is this the sort of thing you were thinking of?

      • Jacob Goldman

        Most church pastors are gangsters in suits. Its legalized embezzlement and I hope these greedy pastors and their congregations come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. If I had the choice to work as a drug dealer or work one day a week in a church and turnover millions of dollars a year, Id choose being a Pentecostal pastor. Id get a nice house, big car, small basic salary to make it look like Im not getting much, but there would be loads of golden handshakes, under the table tips, bonuses, re-branded as “love gifts” or “love offerings” without having to pay any tax.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com/ Rebecca Trotter

    Yeah – this is another example of why I just can’t even try being in dialogue with these people. That verse about God allowing people to be given over to the degenerate mind due to their sin often comes to mind. I realized a while ago that human beings are capable of an infinite amount of self-justification and can come up with reasons to believe what they chose to believe. It’s a how we make ourselves blind.

    But, if you’d like to cleanse your palate and read a much more life affirming explanation of the story of the talents, I did one not too long ago:
    http://theupsidedownworld.com/2012/11/26/church-and-the-parable-of-the-talents/

  • arcseconds

    I would say that Jesus always struck me as being somewhat insouciant about government, what with the whole ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’ bit, and not getting with his revolutionary followers’ programme.

    It seems to me that while he certainly shows considerable care for outsiders of various sorts, his main concern with wealth seems to be that it’s an impediment to spiritual welfare or something like that:

    “”If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the
    poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

    The point here doesn’t seem to be that the poor will benefit, but rather you will. Or maybe the difficulty is in following the second imperative, and if that’s the case maybe there’s a certain similarity with Buddhism here.

    There does seem to be kind of an argument floating around that by reducing the need for charity, increasing welfare results in less opportunities to practice virtue. Madhabmatics in a recent comment on Slactivist called this ‘virtue ethics’.

    I don’t really think this is something a virtue ethicist would come up with, but I can kind of see how a twisted version of virtue ethics could condone it, which is interesting. I’ve always thought it was a rationalization of an already-accepted position, but if we take them at their word, a form of egoism.

  • Mary

    Yes when people try to make Jesus into a capitalist, they ignore the fact that the political system and cultural system was completely different back then. The quote “Render under Ceasar” had to do with the fact that they were being occupied by a foreign government. Therefore many Jews considered paying taxes to be traitorous to their faith and to God. Jesus pointed out that they should stop worrying about that and concentrate on following God on a personal level. He wasn’t out to overthrow the government like his followers wanted him to.

    Most people when they think of social programs think of welfare, while often being unaware of programs that work extremely well and actually put people back to work. THE FACT IS THAT THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT THE GOVERNMENT CAN DO BETTER THAN CHARITY CAN BECAUSE THEY CAN CO-ORDINATE SERVICES TO HELP THOSE IN NEED. (I am using caps for emphasis only, not yelling). I am talking specifically about mental health services that help people get off the street and out of the hospitals by getting them the help that they so desparately need. A charity cannot simply provide the comprehensive help that the government can, such as providing medication, appropriate housing and financial assistance and help with getting back to work.

    I have addressed some of these issues in my blog:

    http://www.bipolarlessons.com/2012/11/30/we-should-not-write-off-the-mentally-ill/

    http://www.bipolarlessons.com/2012/12/01/work-and-the-mentally-ill-an-all-too-common-problem/

    I almost hesitate to post these links due to the high emotions about the mentally ill generated by the recent school shooting. I only ask that people be respectful on my blog. Thank you.

  • Bruce Gerencser

    This is a reminder that Jesus is easily molded into our own image. He is the ultimate chameleon. In my view, Jesus was a countercultural socialist quite similar to myself. :)

    That said, I have a hard time finding a cogent capitalistic worldview in the Bible. (as the verse you mentioned above shows)

  • http://www.facebook.com/oun.kwon Oun Kwon

    ‘Jesus was a socialist’? That guy must be a near-sighted ant looking for a crumb.
    What about G-Mt 20:1-15 (parable of vineyard laborers]? It surely sounds something happened there in harmony with a capitalistic principle. I’m taking ‘capitalism’ as a principle of free market and profit making along with private ownership of properties, before it is used as an ideology, whether implemented right or wrong ways. Socialism of holding wealth by the state with handing out and taking care of welfare scheme has nothing to do with the teaching of Jesus in the Bible. Some did take Him as ‘revolutionist’ as in the (in)famous liberation theology.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think the very notion that the parable of the vineyard laborers is intended to advocate an economic policy is problematic from the very start. Is that really what you understand the text to be about?

    • Mary

      First of all, as James pointed out, this story is a parable. Second of all, the workers who had not worked a full shift like the ones hired earlier were paid the exact same wage. This goes against the capitalist principle that if someone doesn’t work that they shouldn’t be paid.
      In reality I can’t say that the bible supports or negates either socialism or capitalism. Those systems of government didn’t exist at that time. All we can do is ask ourselves what we think is most compatible with the spirit of Jesus’ teachings.
      The fact is that in this country we are neither dealing with pure socialism or pure capitalism. We are dealing with a mixture of both and the issue is not so much as to which is “right’ and which is “wrong” according to the Bible. The issue is whether socialist programs are both practical and humane. The reality is that some are and some aren’t. Some work quite well and some are abismal failures. We need to examine them from that standpoint.
      One thing that needs to be pointed out is that many programs that exist that can be labeled “socialist” benefits everyone in this country. The most obvious is free education K-12. Without a literate society all the wonderful technological advancements in this country would never have occured. We would mostly be a country of illiterate farmers like our ancesters. And of course Benjamin Franklin came up with that horrible “socialist” idea of having free public libraries.
      Isn’t it time we start working together instead of all this stupid in-fighting?

      • smrnda

        I thought that parable was about the idea of people becoming ‘saved’ later in life, or because people would be chosen for disciples from among Gentiles instead of Jews – Jesus is saying “don’t hold it against me that I show equal mercy to the person who finds Jesus at age 60 than I do with the person who has always been a Christian.” Attempting to make the parable about work and wages is to confuse the metaphor for the message.

        • Mary

          Yes that is always how I took it too. I was only pointing out that if it was taken literally then there are problems with the idea of that story supporting a capitalistic point of view.

    • Ymoore

      The parable of the vineyard workers is about the grace and generosity of God. It starts out “For the Kingdom of God is like a landowner who…” and ends w/Jesus saying, “So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” 

      If we want to know what Jesus thought about making the market  god, a better passage to examine is Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” 

      I always think of this when the talking heads and politicians go on and on about “the market” correcting a wrong or fixing whatever problem they are dodging. In Luke 16:9 he urges us to “make friends” w/”unrighteous mammon” so that we can learn to be as  resourceful and crafty in our pursuit of the things of God as they are of money and wealth. As for government systems, Jesus was dealing w/and occupying force, not a government aiming to be self-governing and “of, for and by the people.” They had no say in how their tax dollars were used; we do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/domy.domy.79 Domy Domy

    Prof. McGrath do you think that the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household, who helped Jesus and the Twelve had given away all his possessions to the poor?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Had given away all her husband’s possessions?

      • http://www.facebook.com/domy.domy.79 Domy Domy

        Prof. McGrath, do you think that she had given away all her possessions?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          As a woman in a patriarchal society, I could only speculate about the extent to which she even had possessions that could be considered her own property. Whether she had an allowance from her husband that she could do with as she wished, and she gave all of it to Jesus, I do not think we have any way of knowing. What do you think?

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I think you are right, James — it is hilarious to see people manipulate their religious figures to puppet their own opinions. I see this also in Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Christianity. Everyone does it.

    Heck, I think the gospels were written by folks doing the same: trying to take a Jesus figure (mythical or real) to say what they wanted to. So it is hard to imagine what a “real” Jesus said anyway.

    But if a fellow named Jesus (Joshua, or whatever) really proposed a sharing of all goods through central distribution, then we have even greater evidence that we should ignore such a chap (or such a puppet). Well, unless he meant sharing inside a family — but Jesus wanted us to leave our families and give up our money because he felt Yahweh’s kingdom was imminent and that we wouldn’t need such things in his kingdom. See, it is clear that we should ignore the lad (fictionalized or real).

    James, you say, “My point is not to simply adopt this view, but to highlight that it should be obvious that one’s assumptions influence one’s impression on this matter, and so not to assume that either is correct, but dig deeper.” But James, I can’t see how ‘digging deeper’ is going to tell us much more and that even if it does, we would or should we care? Though I agree that it is good to minimize poverty, I am very glad that my grandparents and parents did not give up all their possessions. I am happy they were not followers of the Jesus you seem to be eulogizing here.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think digging deeper almost always tells us more. Sometimes what it tells us is that we do not know what we thought we knew, or that our impression about a subject is wrong. I envisage digging deeper into the teaching of the historical Jesus would, in most cases, reveal not only how much less people who claim to be Jesus’ followers actually do what he taught, but also that the reasons he taught certain things were convictions that we do not and cannot share.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        @ James F.,

        Many apologists dig very deep — lots of Greek, lots of other passages, themes and metaphors — all very good support for the same hogwash. Deep, in the hands of a trained intellect, often means more covering up.

        Valuable deep-digging happens when you can really test knowledge and hypothesis — and in theology and many other areas, this is not possible. Homeopathy and Astrology have tons of complexity and depth — and all hogwash too.

        Questions:

        (1) Am I wrong in assuming that you are telling us that you know what an actual historical Jesus taught?

        (2) Do you disagree with some of the teaching that you think this historical Jesus taught?

        [please answer with plain answers]

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          1) I think we know (to the extent that historians “know” things, i.e. with probability) some of the things Jesus taught.

          2) Yes.

          I hope that’s plain enough!

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Ah, so,

            (1) Have you written anywhere to tell us what you feel you think the true historical Jesus taught about economics, money usage and such?

            (2) Do you agree with him? What parts do you agree with, which parts don’t you agree with?

            (3) How do you pick and choose what parts of Jesus’ teachings you agree with?

            PS – the new DiQus system works much better

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Let me first mention that I have briefly turned off the newest Disqus features, since they were preventing comments from loading on some browsers. It should only be temporary, as presumably they will fix whatever was wrong eventually!

              I have not written anything detailed about the economic teachings of Jesus. Perhaps a series of blog posts is in order! But the expectation of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, the call to those who follow him in the period before it (anticipated to be brief) to give up their possessions, and the pronouncement of blessings on the poor and woes on the rich with promise of a reversal of fortunes in the kingdom of God, all have much that can be said in favor of their authenticity.

              It might be interesting to consider the possibility that Jesus did not view the kingdom as something that would arrive purely miraculously with no human participation. But either way, as a person living today, it makes no sense to expect that a kingdom of that sort, said to be arriving “soon” 2,000 years ago, is still just around the corner.

              I try to be open to being challenged by the teaching of Jesus. But one cannot simply set aside considerations of reason, evidence, and even at times common sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-McLaughlin/100000039777325 Matt McLaughlin

    thee apostles supported themselves from a common pot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-McLaughlin/100000039777325 Matt McLaughlin

    the American government paid no attention to who married whom til late.

  • smrnda

    I see no evidence that private charities do anything better than government agencies. EVIDENCE please? In nations with comprehensive welfare states there are less of the problems that we have here, and another problem is that government programs are means-tested. Anybody, no matter how needy or not, can access the ‘food pantry.’ You don’t get government aid unless you can show you don’t have the $$$.

    A historical reason for the New Deal was that private charities were unable to handle the problems at that time. The other problem is ‘poverty’ has structural causes, among them workers being paid very poorly and shareholders ( who do not work) making lots of cash. Jesus most certainly would have condemned people who do not work but who profit through the work of others. Even unemployment is part of the squeeze on workers – keep fewer workers working harder to keep down wages so you can say “at least you have a job.”

    Something I get sick of is the belief that socialism is taking money from people who work and giving it to people who don’t. The existence of the working poor is enough evidence that poverty has little to do with work ethics, and more to do with whether you work, or whether you profit from the work of others.

  • ezra

    I think it was Mark Twain who said, in the beginning GOd created man, and man has created God ever since. .. It is just human nature but, people want to justifiy themselves and their beliefs with the bible. Often people use the bible to “prove” they are right, when in reality, we should allow the bible to shape our theology and beliefs.
    while I agree Jesus was in no way a capitalist, .. i feel the author pretty much does the same thing to “justify” the other side. .. Just my opinion, i think Jesus would roll his eyes and laugh out our silliness over conservative and progressive .. these two systems had not been invented yet and dont relate to the ancient world very well .. to say Jesus was either cannot be supported with the bible when taken in its natural context. ..

    but i am glad i found this site :)

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    The person who suggest that Jesus was a capitalist really stretched the Bible there, LOl. Then again, what’s new. The Bible means whatever we want it to say. *cough*

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

    Bless your heart for continuing to read the French’s posts.

    • abombt1

      Kimberly, I get nauseated every-time I read her posts. 
      Then I think of people like you and my gay friends, and I get infuriated.

      • Seekingsophia

        I know so I am actually grateful that you are willing to expose yourself to their willful ignorance and intentional, hate-filled audience building garbage so that I don’t have to. Really, bless your heart.

  • Mary

    One of the things that I have trouble with is the fundamentalist idea that the bible holds all the answers from now to eternity. This is one of the reasons why people are so eager to read things into Jesus’ teachings that aren’t there.  Why would Jesus teach about economics in the 21st century 2000 years ago??? Didn’t he have enough to worry about teaching the people who needed his help then?

    I can only conclude that the main reason is that people want simple answers for complex issues. Yes, the life of a fundamentalist is made so much more simpler when they “know” all the answers.

  • ben

    I can only assume Mr. Moore is trying to drum up conversation by creating controversy from the christian community. (perhaps he is succeeding, too) But, I agree with most that this type of interpretation is not very helpful or healthy.

    This does not seem like the first time Mr. Moore has stretched common biblical stories to match his own opinions.  Last year he attempted to justify Donald Trump’s comments during a convocation speech at Liberty University; in which, the Donald told the graduates to “get even” against those that would take advantage of them.

    Mr. Moore defended the comments by saying that there is biblical precedence (as demonstrated by vengeful acts of God and Jesus) to “get even” against those that did you wrong.  I find it disturbing that this is what is being taught to young Christians.  I hope they can see through this way to interpret biblical stories and are not caught up in Mr. Moore’s type of thinking.

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/09/donald-trumps-holy-war-spokesman-defends-get-even-comment-at-christian-university/

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