Kevin Sartin | Theology Columnist
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ continued rise in the polls has brought the topic of socialism to the forefront of the discussion in the political realm today. Socialism, by definition, is a political theory advocating state ownership of industry and an economic system based on state ownership of capital, but in today’s vernacular the term has become a shorthand way of talking about services that the government provides which are paid for by taxes. Bernie Sanders has been campaigning on a platform of socialism, dangling the promise of a government-funded utopia in front of anyone and everyone who will listen. And people are listening. Sanders has been surging in the polls as of late, and anyone searching for proof of his popularity has only to look at his near victory against the supposedly unbeatable Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus on February 1st and his blowout win in the New Hampshire primary barely a week later. Sanders’ message has found particular resonance with Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2004), with some polls showing him currently holding an 11-point lead over Hillary Clinton among voters under the age of 35.
While part of Sanders’ popularity with younger voters certainly has strong economic undertones – this is exactly the age that is impacted the most by the promise of free college and forgiven student loans – there also seems to be a moral factor involved. Many younger people, dissatisfied with the cultural Christianity of their parents and frustrated by the inequality present in American society today, have begun to trumpet socialism as the morally responsible “Christian” form of government. One Sanders supporter even went so far as to identify Jesus as the ultimate socialist at a recent Sanders political rally in Alabama.
I’m not sure if the belief that Jesus was a socialist is indicative of a misunderstanding of Jesus or of socialism, but even a cursory reading of Jesus’ words from the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was certainly not a socialist. Yes, Jesus had concern for the poor. Yes, Jesus challenged the rich. Yes, He forcefully warned of the eternal dangers of loving money and He encouraged His followers to “store up treasure in heaven” rather than on earth. But Jesus never even so much as hinted that the answer to poverty and income inequality was forced redistribution of resources. And neither did the apostles who took Jesus’ message to all of the known world and established His church after His resurrection and ascension.
At the church’s inception, believers initially displayed a commitment to one another’s needs that bordered on a true communal model of living, voluntarily selling off possessions and property and giving the proceeds to church leaders so those funds could be distributed to the impoverished of the group. But after that initial brush with a shared existence, believers soon returned to their former model of individual property ownership, albeit with one important distinction – they were still expected to use a portion of their resources to help meet the needs of those in the group who were unable to provide for themselves. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, for example, the apostle Paul instructed believers to work with their own hands so that they would have something to share with those in need. This new model of living still wasn’t socialistic, however, because the giving was to be done on an individual, voluntary basis. Even when urging believers to follow through on a previous promise to contribute to a collection for needy Christians in Jerusalem, Paul refused to command participation, writing instead that believers should give only what they had decided to give – not “reluctantly or under compulsion,” because “God loves a cheerful giver.”
Based on biblical evidence, socialism isn’t any more “Christian” than capitalistic greed is. If a true biblical economic philosophy is what you are really after, I would submit for your consideration John Wesley’s trilateral approach to money and possessions taken from a sermon he once preached based on Luke 16:9. His three suggestions from that sermon: Gain all you can; Save all you can; Give all you can. The freedom to gain and to save form the foundation for the freedom to give – a freedom rooted in a Gospel-inspired love for God and our fellow man that supersedes our love for money and possessions.
The bottom line, morally speaking, is that socialism is simply a cheap substitute for the power of the Gospel. Socialism attempts to compel through the force of law what the Gospel produces naturally in the transformed hearts and lives of believers – the compassion and generosity that not only sees, but also seeks to meet the needs of fellow human beings.
It is certainly the right and privilege of any American citizen who wants to cast a vote for Bernie Sanders and socialism to do just that. My only request for those who choose to do so is this: please leave Jesus’ name out of it. I’m pretty sure He would prefer it that way.