Should Christians be socialists?

Jay W. Richards

Washington Post | August 15, 2011 | Jay W. Richards

In “From Jesus’ socialism to capitalistic Christianity,” Gregory Paul argues that American Christians who defend the free economy are involved in a profound contradiction, since Jesus and Christianity are self-evidently socialistic.

Let’s pass over his caricature of capitalism, since no one would defend the idea as he describes it, and get to the two big holes in his argument. The first is his claim that “many of these Christian capitalists are ardent followers of Ayn Rand,” a known atheist and anti-Christian. The second claim is that Jesus and the Bible are pro-socialist rather than pro-capitalist.

Mr. Paul’s attempt to paint Christian defenders of the free market as “ardent followers of Ayn Rand” might be more successful if he had bothered to give examples. Instead, he mentions Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, the skeptic-comedians Penn and Teller, and atheist Michael Shermer. All of these gentlemen are libertarians, but none is a Christian.

He observes that Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, has required his staff to read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Logicians will note that this fails to establish that Mr. Ryan is an “ardent follower of Ayn Rand.” Lastly he mentions me (also a Catholic) and my book, Money, Greed, and God, which is especially unfitting since I am a vocal critic of Rand, as anyone who has read my book or Googled my name would know. Mr. Paul then asks, “Can a stranger amalgam of opposing opinions be devised?” The strange amalgam of ardent Christian Randians, however, is a construct of Mr. Paul’s partisan imagination.

His assertion that Jesus and Christianity are inherently socialist fares no better. Although he refers to Jesus as a socialist, the only biblical texts he appeals to are from the book of Acts (chapters 2-5), which describes the early church in Jerusalem (after Jesus ascension into heaven). The central text is worth quoting:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it as the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Act 4:32-35)

Mr. Paul insists, “Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx-who likely got the general idea from the gospels.” No serious biblical scholar, or economist, would mistake the practice of the early Jerusalem church for Marxism. First of all, Marx viewed private property as oppressive, and had a theory of class warfare, in which the workers would revolt against the capitalists-the owners of the means of production-and forcibly take control of private property. After that, Marx thought, private property would be abolished, and the state would own the means of production on behalf of the people. There’s none of this business in the books of Acts. These Christians are selling their possessions and sharing freely.

Second, the state is nowhere in sight. No Roman centurions are breaking down doors and sending Christians to the lions (that was later). No government is confiscating property and collectivizing industry. No one is being coerced. The church in Jerusalem was just that-the church, not the state. The church doesn’t act like the modern communist state.

Mr. Paul completely misreads the later text in Acts 5, in which Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira for keeping back some of the money they received from selling their land. Again, it helps to actually read the text:

Ananias . . . why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the lands? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God! (Acts 5:3-4)

Mr. Paul asks, “Does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death? Not only is socialism a Christian invention, so is its extreme communistic variant.” The only problem is that the text says exactly the opposite. Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira not for failing to join the collective, but for lying about what they had done. In fact, Peter says explicitly that the property was rightfully theirs, even after it was sold. This isn’t communism or socialism.

Third, the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem is never made the norm for Christians. It’s not even described as the norm for the Jerusalem church. Acts is describing an unusual moment at the beginning of the church in Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews had come from a long distance to worship in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and then become Christians. They would have had to return home soon after their conversion but for extreme measures taken by the newborn church to allow these Christians to stay in Jerusalem. Given the alternatives, a mutual sharing of possessions seemed like the obvious solution.

Compared to modern nation states, the Jerusalem church was a tiny community dealing with a particular problem. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the Jewish diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Most probably returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.

Fourth, we know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had quite different arrangements. For instance, St. Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to “earn their own living,” and warned, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10, 12). Apparently some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. Given this all-too-human tendency to free ride on the generosity of others, it’s no surprise that the early communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for the how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state abolishing private property. So, contrary to Mr. Paul’s confident assertions, the early church in Jerusalem was not socialist and does it set a Christian precedent for socialism.

The Bible isn’t an economics textbook, but I and many other Christians believe its underlying principles are most consistent with the free economy. There are reasonable critiques of that opinion, but Gregory Paul’s is not one of them.

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, and author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.