By Barry Casey — “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So said Inigo Montoya in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The word under scrutiny in this article is “socialism,” and it was used in the last U.S. presidential election to demonize, terrify, and coerce people.
Many of those who feared the outbreak of socialism, should the Democrats prevail, came from lives upended by communism, the centralization of power in the state, power to control the economic means of production and every aspect of social interaction. Power to repress religion, censor artistic expression, rewrite history, and co-opt athleticism for the glory of the state. Marx’s dream of the state withering away under communism turned into the nightmare of the state becoming all-powerful. No wonder they were afraid. I have been reading books about socialism, the better to understand and decide whether Jesus was a socialist. Once you enter the forest of such books you learn that you walk always in the hours before sunrise, never in the light of day. The sky, when you can see it through the trees, is an indeterminate shade of gray: it could be cloudy, or it could just lack light. But daylight does not come. The promise cannot be fulfilled.
It’s not that there is a lack of definitions, it’s that there are too many of them. There are so many precisely because there are so many variations of socialism that one definition cannot characterize all of them. The one that seems to me the closest to the ideal is Michael Newman’s. “In my view,” he comments, “the most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society.”
That is a commitment that I share and that I believe most Christians could share. It is a hope that is rooted in the Gospels and in Jesus Himself. And Jesus held it because it was an ancient calling to righteousness that Yahweh, through the prophets, had held up to God’s people.
But we do not get far into discussion of socialism—or any social and political movement, for that matter—without running up against the nature of humanity. What kind of creatures are we?
Christians say we are made in the image of God and that image has almost been effaced in all of us. It’s still there, traces of it, sometimes more in the ideal than in the actual, but it is our highest and best hope for an egalitarian society. A society of people who regard each other the way God regards each person.
Christians thus believe that humanity has incredible potential, but that it is bent away from that potential by sin— by willful disobedience, by ignorance of the truth, by an inability to hit the mark because of our finitude.
Those are three options in this game of life and the one we choose to view ourselves and others by makes a lot of difference in how we go about doing anything in this world. For many Christians, what is most striking about their view of human nature is how low a value they put upon actual, present, living, human beings as opposed to the abstract principle of Life. They echo Linus in the Peanuts cartoon, “I love mankind . . . it’s people I can’t stand.”
Generic socialism, based on a materialistic philosophy of life, looks to the empirical as its foundation and believes that our failings are through ignorance. Knowing rightly makes acting rightly possible, hence the emphasis on education and even re-education.
Ignorance as a cause of injustice is also reinforced by the appalling conditions of poverty and oppression imposed by a system that exploits the many and benefits the few. That is something many Christians can agree with.
Yet, there are plenty of Christians who make the argument that Jesus endorsed capitalism, not socialism. They point to Jesus’ refusal to make a man’s brother split his inheritance with him, and they hold up the parable of the talents as Jesus’ stamp of approval for capitalistic investment. The parable of the Good Samaritan, they claim, calls us to aid those who are hurt, not to fund the welfare state through our taxes.
Likewise, the story Jesus tells of the landowner who hires workers at the end of day and pays them the same as those who worked all day, is a testament to supply and demand, the right of private property, and voluntary contracts, not socialism. They assert that Jesus’ command to help others is rooted in free-market capitalism, the only thing that has generated wealth. Individual responsibility, not coercion by the state, is what Jesus wants.
That would be ideal if all of us, acting in our God-given freedom and from our moral responsibility, were to care for each other. But as we’ve seen in this pandemic, millions of us cannot be relied upon to care for others through the simple act of wearing a mask and social distancing.
Here is the weakness in trying to build a society on the notion that Jesus was—or was not—a socialist: both positions misunderstand moral responsibility. Those for free-market capitalism believe they have few, if any, responsibilities to their larger community, while those for socialism don’t trust individuals to contribute to the welfare of the community.
If our individual measure of success is the ability to make and keep as much money as we can, then capitalism is the best means to that end. If our measure of an equitable society for all is our goal, then some form of democratic socialism is our best bet. The problem is that we want both: unfettered opportunity for individual wealth and no poverty in our society.
The most revolutionary statement of human rights is the Sermon on the Mount. To read its three chapters, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, without sanding down its sharp imperatives is to be twisted like a pretzel. We long for such a world, yet we admit, in frustration and even anger, that it is nigh impossible, given our desire for autonomy and comfort. The closest that some have come to it are the Bruderhof, religious communities that hold no private possessions but share everything in common.
But what makes the Sermon on the Mount so revolutionary, so dauntingly comprehensive, is that Jesus includes actions and intentions. Turning the other cheek springs from gentleness and courage; not giving in to lust begins with respect for another; not making a show of your religion arises from faith and humility. In every measure we could apply, Jesus asks more of us than can be achieved, either through personal will or state requirements.
We cannot legislate morality, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore those whom Jesus especially cared for, much less exploit them. If we could do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly as Christians in our society, those actions alone would redress a multitude of sins. If we can speak clearly and courageously to the systemic injustice that locks in exploitation and misery for millions, the text, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” becomes our means to that end.
Was Jesus a socialist? No, he was so much more, more than any ideology could contain or aspire to. Light of Light, Day Ascending, Word from the Beginning, Alpha and Omega.
–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. Read more of his work on his blog, “Dante’s Woods.” Casey’s first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]