Since the new poverty-worshiping Pope recently spoke out against the ‘tyranny of Capitalism’, there has been an upsurge in the voices which insist that Jesus was a Socialist. Now before you tune out, thinking that this debate is all about both sides attempting to read ‘political philosophy’ into the teachings of Jesus, let me say very clearly that the central points of Jesus’ ministry had very little (if anything at all) to do with political affiliation.
It's Not About Politics. It's About Morality.
But this debate is not about political affiliation. It is about moral foundations -- which inevitably give birth to political systems. Therefore, this issue is far from irrelevant to those who do not wish to ‘get involved in politics’. It isn’t about politics; it’s about the morality of the Christian worldview, and the central moral principles upon which Christ, the Son of God, operates. These aren’t different views of Government; these are different views of Christ -- and therefore different views of God, and of all of reality.
When someone claims that Jesus was a Socialist, he is not primarily claiming that Jesus advocated State-run charity and wealth re-distribution (though that is certainly included and implied); he is primarily claiming that Jesus practiced and advocated that morality which underpins (and inevitably demands) Socialism: the morality of altruism. Altruism is the moral code which, at its best, states that meeting the needs of others is the ultimate moral imperative; and at its worst, states that self-sacrifice, as an end in itself, is the ultimate moral imperative. While it is understandable that a highly selective and biased reading of the Gospels could result in the belief that Christ taught and practiced this morality, there is no excuse for a truth-seeking, context-respecting Christian to leave the New Testament with that thought.
The Atheism of ‘Christian’ Altruism
Notice that those who claim that Jesus was a Socialist always use the past tense: “Jesus was a Socialist”. Jesus was -- as in: isn’t any more. Jesus was a historical figure, or a good teacher, or a moral leader. Was. Implication: Jesus isn’t around anymore. I realize that it is possible that they simply use the past tense as a convenient figure of speech, but whether it is a figure of speech or not, speaking of Jesus as if He were still dead is absolutely consistent with that moral ideal of altruism. For Jesus to come back to life from the dead would imply that His death, His self-sacrifice, was not an end in itself; it would imply that He might have had something to gain in His death; that His death wasn't entirely altruistic. If Jesus was truly altruistic -- if “Jesus was a Socialist”, He would have stayed in the tomb (i.e. He would have stayed dead). But He didn’t. His death was not an end in itself, but a means to a greater end -- and it is that end which the altruist must consistently deny and evade.
Stop Evading, and Keep Reading
In fact, it is always the end, the ultimate, the big-picture, the goal, which the altruist tends to evade when discussing morality (whether in the Bible or elsewhere). Show me any argument that "the Bible teaches altruism", and I will show you an argument which ignores or evades the ultimate context and reality of what is being taught:
- “Jesus said 'Blessed are the poor'” ... in spirit. Jesus is commending those who see and acknowledge their own spiritual poverty -- not those who lack material wealth.
- “Jesus said 'It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God' -Mt.19:23”.
Keep reading: the disciples responded “then who can be saved?”. Jesus replied “with men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible”. Both Jesus and his disciples make it clear that they understood Jesus to be saying that it is impossible for men, in general, to enter heaven apart from God. The talk of the ‘rich man’ is meant to emphasize ‘the cares of this world’, referred to in other parables, as being one of the main reasons that men do not want to think about eternity. That is the theme, taught here and throughout the Gospels by Jesus: that men who are too easily pleased with the ‘here and now’ will never have the appetite for eternal things.
- “Philippians 2:1-8 says that we should not be selfish and that we should be like Christ who humbled himself to the point of death”.
Keep reading: “...for this reason, God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name...” Christ’s humiliation, from the beginning of eternity, was always aimed at His exaltation. “He endured the cross despising its shame, for the joy set before Him” (Heb.12:2).
But these poverty-peddlers are not only plucking words out of context (as demonstrated above); they are gutting Christianity of its ultimate end, its ultimate value: glory -- and reducing Christianity down to a naturalistic, here and now, make the best of what we’ve got, atheistic worldview. To focus on self-denial apart from the context of ultimate self-gain is to turn self-obliteration into the ultimate moral goal of life, and the ultimate end of the universe; to focus on the suffering of Christ apart from the eternal exaltation of Christ is to rob 'the passion of Christ' of His ultimate passion; to focus on God’s love for men apart from His omnipotent and eternal love for Himself, is to gut God of His highest and chief value.
Love the Poor, But Not Like an Atheist
This doesn't mean that God doesn't care for the poor -- or that Christians should neglect the poor. It simply means that caring for the poor must be understood in the context of ultimate morality and ultimate reality -- rather than being made central to morality. It is very true that God cares about the poor, that Jesus demonstrated great care for the poor while on earth, and that Christians ought to follow suit -- but it is atheistic to stop there. God’s care for the poor is not an end in itself (because nothing but God’s enjoyment of Himself is an ‘end in itself’) and Jesus’ care for the poor was always aimed at something higher, more ultimate, and eternal. Therefore, if Christians wish to imitate God and Christ in their care for the poor, they had better begin to think long and hard about those ultimate and eternal things toward which ‘care for the poor’, and everything else, is to be aimed; i.e. they had better figure out how ‘loving the poor’ can be done in a way that is ultimately aimed at eternal values and self-gain. But before they can do that, perhaps they will need to come to terms with the fact that Jesus was not, in fact, the perfect altruist; that Christ, the Son of God, is risen from the dead in glory because He values His own glory as ultimate. He is risen, and therefore He is not a "Socialist".