Doctrine Slot 2: SOCIALISM



In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual via tolerance and reason, were perhaps working from good instincts in opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all things as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – for instance the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.

Now today we move onto another great political movement – Socialism.

What is socialism?

As a starting point, we can say that socialists are those who want redistribution of wealth, seeking greater equality. They have seen the world in terms of class differences and have opposed capitalism because it promotes inequality and exploits the poor. Whilst the end-dream of early socialists was a perfect stateless society, in the meantime they have supported a bigger state – one that provides services and runs industries for the common good, rather than leaving it to individuals seeking profit.

What does it look like?

The father of ideological socialism was Karl Marx. He believed all human history was explained by economic systems – each one brought to an end as its ruling class was displaced. He believed that industrialised Capitalism would bring about the greatest struggle yet; between the labourers – who did all the work for poor return – and the middle classes they worked for – who got rich without breaking a sweat. He felt it inevitable that the workers would rise up in violent revolution, bringing about true socialism and, ultimately, a perfect Communist world where each worked according to his ability and received according to his need.

In the UK, we have a less revolutionary mindset. Thus, UK socialism has taken a more democratic, gradual approach to class conflict – the idea being that workers will vote for Socialist governments, who can then redistribute wealth via taxing the rich, can help the poor via the welfare state and can take over major utilities like gas, steel or railways to run for the common good. This is the ideology of Old Labour, largely abandoned by New Labour since the 90s.

Meanwhile, some countries did have their revolution – but not the industrialised superpowers as Marx predicted, rather relatively backwards regimes like China and Russia. Here we saw redistribution of wealth and the abolishment of the old order but, as time went on, socialist dictators seizing ever greater power and becoming ever more corrupt.

What’s right about it?

Socialism has a very bad rap in the evangelical church, far more so than liberalism. However, a heart for the poor and oppressed is profoundly biblical – Christian Socialist movements and individuals have a proud and rich history we should respect. Indeed, Belgian socialist Henri de Man wrote how he founded his movement ‘in the name of all those spiritual values – the ideal of equality, the sentiment of human dignity, the desire for justice and caring – which Christianity has brought to the world’. It’s great then that people here are helping the homeless or visiting prisons. For a long time social justice was the neglected Evangelical ministry, but Jesus is crazy about it. To the man who loves wealth too much in Matthew 19 he says to sell all he has and give to the poor. To his disciples a few chapters later he says that if they help the ‘least of their brothers’ they help him. This is not a new idea but one found throughout the Old Testament:

Ps 140:12 – God gives ‘justice for the poor’

Prov 14:31 To help the poor is to honour God

And after the gospels it continues…

1 Tim 6:18 Command them to be generous and willing to share

1 John 3:17 – If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

This is how the early church lived. They shared all they had and lived in community.

However… it’s worth noting that in none of these cases does the Bible talk of Christians giving to the state in order to help the poor. It is the responsibility of the individual and of the church itself to help – first – brothers and sisters in Christ and then others in need. In doing so we model Christ and point towards him.

What’s wrong about it?

Well, to continue on that theme, whilst we must give taxes to the state as required – rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – we are not necessarily seeing God’s will enacted in terms of where the money goes. The welfare state and NHS are admirable institutions… and our government – whoever leads it – is relatively upright… but the state does nevertheless endorse and fund organisations that the Bible opposes – eg other religious groups or those who carry out abortions. More power and money in the hands of a non-Christian state rarely serves to advance God’s glory; thus we might choose to question it. And we must not be satisfied to leave to the state those roles God means for us, whether caring for need in our community or providing for our families. It is good there is a safety net, particularly at the moment, but we are called to work and to look after one another and we should always try to do so.

There are other issues. Returning to Marx, as well as calling religion the ‘opium of the masses’, he believed that all wrongdoing and selfishness in the world was the result of Capitalism. He therefore believed that a post-revolutionary world could become perfect and selfless – an idea rather let down by attempts since. As Christians we have a different understanding – the reason for bad behaviour is sin, the only solution to it is Jesus’ death on the cross and we won’t know a world free from sin until he returns. Indeed, a revolution, certainly for such motives, would be a godless violation of 1 Peter 2:13’s command to ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’.

Some socialists have also been guilty of hating the rich. Yes, God issues plenty of warnings to those he entrusts with money… but bitterness is the wrong reaction. Abraham, Solomon and some among Jesus’ followers were certainly wealthy. 1 Samuel 2:7 states that ‘the Lord sends poverty and wealth’ – financial gifting, like spiritual gifting, is not equally distributed and we’re never told it should be – rather we’re told that for those given more there is greater responsibility – as shown in the Parable of the Talents.

What should we do about it?

To both the friends and critics of socialism I would say be careful. Be careful about endorsing too much power for the state and be vigilant in checking what they do with it – particularly given recent moves against public Christianity, of which we are perhaps seeing only the start.

But, to those who oppose Socialism, check your motives. If you want to hold onto wealth for your own comfort then perhaps it would be better that it was taken from you to do at least some good. But if you’re saying it is up to us, not the state, to care for the poor – then show that by doing the job better than them, according to your resources – or at least by supporting those who do. I certainly hope that those American Christians shown in the media as loudly opposing all taxation and state healthcare in the USA are, in their own lives and churches, quietly acting vigorously and sacrificially in order to care for the poor of their communities – we should expect so.

And to a socialist, we might congratulate them on their heart for the poor and oppressed, indeed show we share that instinct, but might then seek to convince them that true justice will be found in the coming kingdom… and that, unlike Lenin or Mao, there was one who didn’t let all the riches of heaven corrupt him, but rather gave his very life for poor and wretched humanity.


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