Friday, June 26, 2009

Is Socialism the Natural Economic System of Christianity?

In a conversation with a friend about my previous post "The De-Humanizing Effects of Mega-Corporations" this question was posed to me. I said I would think on it and write some thoughts later.

My initial reaction is to say yes. But on further consideration, that is far too simple.

If we just took the Old Testament law, the answer would be a resounding yes. There are some very definite socialist prescriptions in the law. There are provisions for keeping the gap between rich and poor to a minimum such as the cancellation of debts every seven years or the returning of all land to its original owners every fifty years (the year of jubilee). There are commands that effectively establish a welfare state, even going so far as having an effective welfare tax in the form of requiring farmers to leave parts of their fields un-gleaned each harvest so the poor could gather food for themselves. The Torah without a doubt makes a significant point of making sure everyone in the society is provided for and makes this not just an ethical obligation for charity but a legal obligation that the state was supposed to enforce, which certainly seems socialist in its basic underpinnings (though maybe less "sophisticated" in its structure than modern socialist states). I think its important to make a distinction here- these prescriptions could be considered socialist, but I would say this is different from a "communist" state- individual land ownership still existed in ancient Israel, there was not collective ownership of property.

While these laws existed in the Torah, it doesn't seem that this part of the Torah was given much attention in ancient Israel's history. We have no recorded instances of the Year of Jubilee being enacted, for instance. And the prophetic writings condemn Israel repeatedly for failing to care for the poor. In fact, social and economic justice are apparently so neglected that in several places the prophets record God as declaring to Israel in essence (my paraphrase here) "I have stopped up my ears to your prayers and the smell of your sacrifices makes me want to vomit." We can take a couple things from this. First, it seems that while the Torah was socialist, it would appear in practice Israel was not. Second, social/economic concerns seem to be extremely important to the God of Judaism and Christianity. So far, that seems to add up to a socialist norm for Christianity.

The New Testament makes this a little more complicated, however. There is still a strong concern for providing for the lower rungs of society, and even a civil rights movement like note the New Testament declarations that all are equal in Christ- slave, free, Greek, Jew, men, women and every other potentially opposing category are nullified in the Church community. However, there is a striking difference. Whereas in the Old Testament the ethical concern for the poor was a legal obligation written in the nation's "constitution" in the New Testament the church is not a political entity of the same nature. There are certainly political implications to the Christian message, don't get me wrong. Rome in large part persecuted Christianity because Christians refused to worship Caesar and instead acknowledged Jesus as "Lord"- the same term Romans used to pay homage to Caesar. However, unlike in ancient Israel where the Torah was the governing law of the nation, Christianity is an underground group from its conception. So while Christians do things to care for the poor, I think it would be better to consider them a charity group than a socialist government, at least in their early years.

However, Christianity does not stay an underground group. Eventually, it rises to become a very dominant political force in Europe. Over the course of this history, two basic "philosophies" of looking at the world develop in Christianity. One comes from Augustine, the other from Thomas Aquinas. Augustine's philosophy is essentially libertarian. He sees the state as there to protect its people, but his view of human depravity is such that he does not think it can accomplish any "good" (which would include providing people's material needs), and so it’s the role of the church to provide for the poor as a charity. Aquinas has a very different take. He things that the state can do material good, and that society as a whole has a responsibility to take care of the poor and oppressed and neglected who form its lower tiers, a much more socialist (or at least welfare state-ish) position. Part of the difference between these views may have to do with the time periods they wrote. Augustine wrote during the Roman Empire when Christianity was still not a key political power and "paganism" still abounded in Europe (some would say not much has changed…). Aquinas wrote much later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the golden age of Church "domination" of Europe. Their different historical situations may have contributed to the differences in their philosophical views on the question of societies obligation to the poor. However, there are other underlying philosophical differences. For metaphysical reasons, I am more inclined to agree with Thomas Aquinas, and because I think his system is logically coherent, to also adopt his view that society can and should take care of its people. I'm not sure I would say I am a complete socialist- I think the markets should be as free as they can be. But I also think that society should be able to provide basic "needs" for everyone in the society- food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. I think the earliest Capitalist thinkers felt the same way, but they believed a free market could provide all these things for all the members of a society (and would therefore be the best way to do that). History and experience I think shows us that this is a bit too optimistic, and so I think some government intervention is required to fill in the gaps.


  1. I would buy all of that. To me it is the natural course that humans evolved within the context of primitive communalism, and this is the way that we still think and still the course that defines us. However, we have a perversely "individualistic" society, wherein we fit much like round pegs in square holes. To me, true individuals, people who are truly on the path toward self-actualization, will necessarily realize the importance of communalistic and collectivist tendencies; only people indoctrinated with "individualism" will parrot that ideal profusely, though will not make to differentiate themselves by any means other than consumerist impulses. But I ramble. And I digress.

    I think we're on the same page with christian socialism; that the course of history has not lived up to prescription, though ideal is still there. I would posit - and not be the only one to do so - that it was the switch to agrarian society from nomadic society that gave cause for poverty, and that much of the bible is really just trying to mesh the ideal of human evolution with the new rise of accruing and possessive societies.

    If you ever come across Ishmael, or if you have already, I would be very interested to hear your take on it.

  2. I definitely agree that we live in an oddly individualistic society, quite unlike the normal mode of thinking throughout human history.

    I'm not sure that I would agree with your assessment of the Bible. I don't really sense a tension between nomadic living and agrarian society in scriptures. Some of the Patriarchs in Genesis are quasi-nomadic shepherds, but they are not devoid of agricultural knowledge. The nation is nomadic during the Exodus, but its not supposed to be- they have a goal of taking the land and being agrarian, they just haven't gotten there yet.

    There is definitely a tension between collectivism and individualism, though. The Old Testament thinks in very nationalistic terms- the nation is punished for one person's sin, the kings represent everyone before God, etc. People don't stand alone, they function as a part of the larger whole. And yet there is a tension over individuals who act on their own and neglect the whole, a tension that doesn't always portray the individual badly. Great example is Ruth. The New Testament makes this more apparent because it defines the "people" on more ideological and less nationalistic lines. So without a nationalistic mentality, individuals have to act on their own. But there is still a tension- the individuals are expected to acknowledge that they are part of a larger entity and they all have to work together as a group.

    Going beyond the scope of this, but I think the historical coincidence of the Protestant Reformation with the Renaissance and the rise of Humanism has led to Protestant Christianity being especially individualistic. The further evidence of this is that Protestantism is primarily centered in the United States, a fiercely individualistic nation- most European countries are much more Catholic and much more collectivist in their mentality.

    I haven't read Ishmael but I will add it to my list of things to read.


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