Sunday School for Socialists

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of lefties on TV and elsewhere trying to argue that the New Testament supports the idea of government-enforced wealth redistribution, a la Obama.  In fact the Voice of the Messiah himself has made that claim (in more general terms) in several of his speeches.  This is certainly not a new idea of course; it’s been around for centuries.  The most often quoted verses used to back up the argument seem to be:

Acts 2:42-47:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

or the similar Acts 4:32-35:

32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

or any of the verses containing Jesus’ exhortations to certain individuals to sell their possessions or to his followers to care for the poor.

And while this is not new, it’s an idea that seems to be gaining traction among Christians as of late.  This is not too surprising considering that so many are suddenly bending over backwards trying to justify voting for a presidential candidate and a party whose policies they know contradict a quite a few Christian principles.  So I thought it’s about time I posted a little response to this argument.  Perhaps someone may find it useful.

There are MANY reasons why using these verses to support government-enforced wealth redistribution (i.e. socialism) is really a gross misapplication of scripture.  I don’t quite have time to draft the 50-page fully-footnoted essay that is required for this, but I’ll attempt a few critical points at least:

  1. The church as described in Acts was a small group of seriously dedicated Christians who were voluntarily sharing their resources so they could all concentrate their efforts on their #1 goal: spreading the Gospel.  This is hardly analogous to a huge secular government of 300 million culturally and religiously diverse people, most of whom are primarily concerned with promoting their own self-interest.
     
  2. Membership in the church was completely voluntary.  Like other private charities, church-based charity has a chance of actually being effective precisely because it is voluntary.  Donors can stop giving when they see corruption and mismanagement or they can leave and form new organizations.  In other words, the church or charity is accountable to the givers.  With government it’s exactly the opposite.  You are forced to give no matter what.  Those who decide to spend your money have no incentive to be efficient and are motivated primarily by political considerations (i.e. buying votes by handing out other people’s money) rather than doing what is effective.  In other words, they are held “accountable” by the recipients – a pretty bad idea for obvious reasons.
     
  3. Giving can be effective within a church (or private charity) because the church can demand a change in behavior as a condition for remaining in the church (the Acts church certainly did!) and therefore it has some real chance of success.  Government can’t do that without “legislating morality” (not a government with a First Amendment, anyway).  Nor is there any reason why politicians would feel the need to demand a change in behavior.  Quite the opposite.  Nobody wants to be told they have to change their behavior as a condition for receiving free handouts from the government.  Instead, they will always vote for the politicians who give them what they want.  That’s why when government tries to do charity work it usually ends up rewarding people for bad behavior and punishing them for being responsible.  And it partially explains why government entitlement programs are not only horribly inefficient and prone to corruption and abuse, but they usually just exacerbate the problems they are supposed to solve.
     
  4. In the New Testament there actually were a certain group of people that supported the idea of government-run wealth redistribution.  They were the Pharisees.  And they went around lecturing people about paying the various temple taxes* (much of it to be used for the poor) and bragging about how generous they were.  Sounds a lot like a certain one of our political parties.
     
  5. People on the political right who are anti-socialist are also usually very pro-voluntary giving.  That’s why conservatives give much more to charity than liberals.  And I mean higher percentages, not just higher dollar amounts.  So, considering how effective the (private and voluntary) Acts Church was, I think the example actually makes a pretty strong argument AGAINST socialism.

Remember, Jesus said YOU should give to the poor.  He didn’t say “go get a group of your friends together and force your rich neighbor to do it, at the point of a sword, so that you won’t have to give as much.”  In fact, that kind of thinking is pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.  But THAT’s what you have to believe he meant in order to argue that his teachings support government-enforced wealth redistribution!

And all this is just a partial argument against using the Bible to justify socialist economic policy.  It doesn’t even deal with the numerous Biblical principles it violates.  On top of that, the practical, experiential and economic arguments against socialism are even more extensive and more persuasive than the scriptural ones, IMHO.  But I could fill a book with those so I’ll leave them for another time.

*Yes, I know the temple taxes were imposed by the the religious government, not Rome, and most Pharisees did not like the idea of paying taxes to Rome, but the temple still had actual government authority and the temple taxes were not voluntary.

UPDATE 10/31: For a good Biblical example of what happens when you substitute the state for what is properly the role of the church, see: I Samuel 8:10-18.  (It’s interesting that Samuel considers an additional 10% tax to be an example of oppression.)

UPDATE 11/01: Added some links, minor edits and an asterisk.

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10 Responses

  1. A couple of quick points about your post:

    1) The Law never puts requirements on people who receive charity – whether citizenship or holiness. Even Jesus who, when healing would tell them to go and sin no more, never put requirements on charity. The poor will always be with you.

    2) The Law was for both for personal and national application. The proof of the later can be found in the prophets where the destruction of the nation is blamed on the not just personal sin but on the corporate treatment of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ prophetic ministry bears this out as well.

    Other than that, I wholly agree that giving should always come from a cheerful heart and that giving can only happen when it’s not compelled. Still, the human heart is a dark one.

    UPDATE: All that said, the NT church is a terrible case for how to run a nation. There have been a number of commentaries that suggest the NT church would never have chosen to sell everything if they knew the second coming wasn’t going to happen immediately. You also have the story of Ananias and Saphira which is problematic at best.

  2. The Law never puts requirements on people who receive charity – whether citizenship or holiness. Even Jesus who, when healing would tell them to go and sin no more, never put requirements on charity. The poor will always be with you.

    Imagine you are making a monthly financial donation to a person who’s having persistent financial difficulties and you discover that the person is actually a severe alcoholic who is using your money to buy booze, and worse — he has turned down several perfectly good jobs because your money has been enabling him to pay for his bills and food while he continues to drink all day and watch TV. So your donations are actually helping to keep him in poverty. Would you continue giving him money simply because Jesus never said anything about putting requirements on your giving? If a charitable organization were unconditionally handing out money in a similar fashion, would you support it? Judging from his teachings, do you honestly think Jesus would tell you to continue giving in such cases?

    It’s true that Jesus didn’t specifically tell his disciples to put common sense conditions on their giving, but he also never tell them they shouldn’t do so when it makes sense. I think he expected them to use their brains. Unfortunately some people are simply irresponsible and, without external pressure, will never change the behavior that is causing their financial difficulties in the first place. And a smaller subset of those will simply refuse to change, no matter what, even with external pressure. Maybe that’s why Jesus recognized that we can never completely eliminate poverty, no matter how much we try to help people: “The poor you will always have with you“. I always wonder how left-leaning denominations rationalize that verse with the belief that we, as Christians, can gradually create heaven here on earth.

    The focus of my first post was the example of the NT church and, as I pointed out, the NT church absolutely DID have requirements for receiving charity. The Christians were sharing their possessions within the church and there were very specific moral and behavioral requirements for belonging to the church. (See Paul’s letters telling them to expel the immoral brother, etc.) Do you really think the Acts church would have allowed the person I described above to remain in the church and leech off the free handouts? Was the Acts church in violation of Christ’s teaching by ONLY sharing their wealth within the church, rather than just handing it out to everyone, believers and non-believers alike? Of course not, because without the behavioral restrictions of the church, irresponsible and lazy people would have taken advantage of it and the whole system would have collapsed.

    God doesn’t expect us to be fiscal idiots in our efforts to help the poor. Voluntary donors usually are not idiots –because it’s their own money that’s at stake. Politicians usually ARE — because it’s someone else’s money.

    The Law was for both for personal and national application. The proof of the later can be found in the prophets where the destruction of the nation is blamed on the not just personal sin but on the corporate treatment of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ prophetic ministry bears this out as well.

    You already partially made my next point in your updated comments (and I’m glad you also mentioned the Ananias and Sapphira example which I considered adding to the previous post — “after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?“, etc.). So I know you probably agree with most of this, but I’ll expand on it a bit anyway for the sake of anyone else reading this:

    Yes, the OT law established an actual government (not just rules for personal morality) because it was a theocracy, run by prophets, priests and direct revelation from God. But, that is not even slightly analogous to our modern secular government. There are so many things in the OT law that we no longer subscribe to that it’s absurd to use it as an example of how we should run our modern government. Attempting to do so would be insane. And what is the justification for picking out one single aspect of OT law (like the charitable tithing requirements) and saying we should do that but not any of the other stuff (stoning homosexuals, etc.)? I know of a few people on the true “far right” who believe we should emulate OT law in our government, but I suspect most people on the left who make an OT-based argument for our corporatle responsibility for the poor would have a BIG problem with that. Luckily that portion of the “Christian Right” is extremely small, despite the Left’s perpetual paranoia about them and wild exaggeration of their influence.

    I think most Christians recognize this problem with the OT law, which is why the pro-scriptural-support-for-socialism people put most of their focus on the New Testament — especially the example of the church in Acts that many Christians believe is more directly applicable to our lives today. That was the point of Sean’s post and also the focus of my response. I was trying to explain the many reasons why even that example is not in any way applicable to modern economic policy.

    Yes, it’s a really bad idea to use either the NT church or the OT theocracy as models for modern government. It’s interesting that the religious left and the extreme religious right both make the same mistake in this respect.

    I think the only sane thing for Christians to do is to look to scriptural examples for how to live our own personal lives, try to extract principles to determine how we should interact with others and then use our own God-given powers of observation and reason when it comes to establishing an economic policy for a government that is not (and should not be) run like a church (or a theocracy).

    UPDATE: One last point – When the OT talks about oppression of the poor, it usually means ACTUAL oppression – i.e. taking away their land, making them slaves, etc. – not simply a failure to give them enough free handouts from the temple treasury.

  3. I’m going to work out of Luke 16 today, so if you could all open your Bibles…

    The Christians were sharing their possessions within the church and there were very specific moral and behavioral requirements for belonging to the church.

    Jesus’ parable of Lazarus doesn’t include any such requirement. And to be clear, the sin of the rich man wasn’t “taking away their land, making them slaves” – it was a sin of omission, not taking care of Lazarus with “with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.”

    Voluntary donors usually are not idiots –because it’s their own money that’s at stake. Politicians usually ARE — because it’s someone else’s money.

    To quote Jesus, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” Later, we’ll look at a group that was faithful with unrighteous mammon because the children of light weren’t prepared to do their work. I’ve worked with a number of Christian charitable organizations and the most effective tend to work with the money of non-Christians.

    Imagine you are making a monthly financial donation to a person who’s having persistent financial difficulties and you discover that the person is actually a severe alcoholic who is using your money to buy booze, and worse…

    I can imagine that example very easily (my sister) but I can also, having worked extensively with the poor of San Gabriel Valley, recall the lives of women – day laborers who worked every single job they could pick up, saved enough for $50 a night in a motel room and some McDonalds for their kids. These women couldn’t get into church shelters because the churches in the area – afraid of “riff-raff” and having catered to the sort of Christianity that doesn’t respect the poor – had been pulling out of the cold-weather shelter in droves. They couldn’t get into long-term programs because of their children or, in some cases, because they didn’t want to leave their husbands. They returned to the church day after day hoping for a coupon for some fast-food so that their kids would eat.

    I can also recall an educated father who had been bankrupted when he brought his wife to the area to receive cancer treatment. He watched her die as the bills piled up. He worked three jobs to keep his daughter and himself afloat in a dangerous neighborhood and couldn’t – a number of us sat down to help him work out his finances – make it. His only hope was to uproot his family and live on the charity of family in South Carolina while his daughter lived with her grandparents. I watched him come home from work exhausted and desperate, looking for financial assistance that a church of 200 people couldn’t ever give him.

    I’ve volunteered out at the Los Angeles Mission – a Christian organization that serves thousands of homeless and needy on Skid Row. They do amazing work, challenging the chronically impoverished to rely on Christ, hope and education to turn their lives around. Their graduating classes show real transformations and they move a huge number of their people back into society to be contributing members. The problem is that donations from churches don’t meet their needs. For example, in order to build their gymnasium, they had to rely on a gift from Hugh Heffner’s foundation. If you look at their donor board, you see extremely wealthy non-Christian idividuals and companies contributing and making the ministry happen… compelled by tax incentives and legislative requirements. The Mission is very aware of the message this sends and tells trainees that they are following Jesus’ suggestion to be crafty with the resources of the world, using unrighteous mammon to do good work.

    I’ve sat on boards where churches attempted to put together workable budgets but knew that they wouldn’t make their final budget numbers, what with giving being harder and harder for people whose dollars could purchase less and less and people in the community less interested in a church that seemed more and more disconnected from reality.

    The sad truth is that churches are ill-equipped to meet the very serious needs of the poor across the country. This has less to do with the desire of the church to meet the needs of people, but rather the dwindling numbers of faithful, the economic pressures people within the church themselves face, and the deep need that we see all around us.

    Yes, the OT law established an actual government (not just rules for personal morality) because it was a theocracy, run by prophets, priests and direct revelation from God.

    Some theologians would suggest that the Law describes God’s perfect will for his people, that the Law applies to our lives no matter where we are: in Judah, Assyria, Babylon or… even the US. The exiles in Babylon brought the Law with them to the country they lived in. They didn’t impose their religion on others, but sought freedom to worship. They also brought healthy diets to the courts of the king while being faithful to God. Their approach is a great example to us living here… be in the world, but not of it.

  4. Noel – can you fix my blockquotes?

    Done.

  5. I would potentially support a city- or county-based plan for serving the poor. I would under no circumstances (that I can imagine) support such a program at the federal level.

    Churches, I agree, lack the resources and frankly the will to serve the poor at the needed scale. But so many times in conversation with people, they seem to think they’ve won the argument about federal programs once I concede that we have a societal, moral obligation to each other, including those who are poor.

    The reflexive delegation of responsibility to the federal government is certain to waste money and fail utterly.

  6. And I’m right there with Douglas, mostly. I think we do end up with a problem of funding when we split things up (just a fact of life and why we always come back to progressive taxation) but the best example of how the federal government can completely screw things up are the dams of this nation. That’s right… I said dams. Freaking dams.

  7. I also agree with Doug. I seem to remember Doug and I having this discussion on more than one occasion.

    Obviously there are some things that are too big and affect too broad of an area and therefore must be more centrally managed. But, for the most part, I think local governments should be allowed to do whatever they want (as long as they don’t violate some very fundamental rights). I don’t care if some decide to go full-on marxist. People can always move to the next city if they don’t like the one they’re in. With the federal government that’s not an option.

    But most importantly, devolution of power allows for a competition of ideas. We can argue all day about whether it’s better to teach a man to fish or just hand out free fish. But the only way to prove it is to let communities try whatever approach they want and see which ones do a better job of reducing poverty.

    I had some comments on your previous post too, but I can’t concentrate right now. (I’m too excited about our new savior-elect.)

  8. This post is a confession of sorts, on behalf of Christian liberal Democrats. I offer it here because of a conviction that “Christian” is a more important label than “liberal Democrat,” though I lose sight of that at times… especially in the politically charged times we’ve been going through during this finally finished campaign season.

    I agree with Doug, that many churches are unable (supposedly) or unwilling to serve the poor at the needed scale. I think it says a lot about the failure of the church to live up to its calling to be the presence of Christ in the world.

    I think that we get hung up on our own limited resources and see our inability to fix the problem as justification for not accepting our role in addressing it. It’s easy for liberal Christians (yes, I am a Democrat, and am linked to this bunch, so I include myself in this critique) to focus our “faithful response” on demanding and pressuring for political solutions: forcing the population at large to take on a mission given explicitly to the church by Christ. Not to say that political leanings and action cannot be part of a life faithful to the gospel, but when it ends there and a Christian isn’t also using their own time and resources to directly serve and care for the poor then their political actions are devoid of integrity.

    The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is worth reflecting on at this point. (It’s in all 4 gospels, I’ll work mainly from John 6.) Imagine this retelling of the story:

    “….a great crowd of people followed [Jesus] because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Feast was near.

    When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

    Philip answered him, “Eight months’ wages[a] would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

    Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

    Phillip grabbed the loaves and fish and shook his head. “If only we had enough to feed these people!” he lamented, and then ate as much as he wanted. He then gave the rest to the other disciples, who each got a little crumb before the food was gone.

    When he had had enough to eat, Phillip said to the people, “Herod doesn’t care about you. Elect me, and I will take bread from the rich to give to you.”

    Andrew didn’t want to count on the government to solve the problem, so he went and got a job and worked for 8 months to buy bread for all of the people, but they had all died by then. He ate the bread himself with his family. Andrew decided that Phillip was right: only Herod had the power to force the rich to feed all of the poor.

    When other poor people came and asked for a bit of his bread, Andrew sighed and said, “even if I feed you, there are still thousands who will starve. If Herod would take extra bread from me and others, then he could give it to you. But he doesn’t care enough about you, and that’s the problem.” The poor left empty-handed, angry at Herod and Andrew but mostly hungry.

    Because Andrew loved the poor so much, he voted for Phillip, then wrote angry blog posts about his brother Simon Peter who had voted for Herod (even though Simon Peter gave half of his food away to poor people every day, he couldn’t hope to care for all of them, so not voting for Phillip was the only evidence of Simon Peter’s attitude toward the poor that Andrew cared to consider).”

    Now clearly, the people in the story are not identified as being hungry because they are poor, rather they need food because they’ve followed Jesus to a place without hot dog vendors. The point, though, is that Jesus is the one that provides what the people need, but he still expects the disciples to be faithful with what they have. They’re only able to come up with a few loaves and fish, but the fact that their resources are inadequate to the task doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t expect them to be faithful with what they have anyway.

    So, like the disciples in the story, the church is unable to feed and clothe and find jobs for and train and educate all of the world’s poor. That doesn’t matter, though, because Jesus is the one who will take what little we have and use it to do what we can’t do with it. If we keep our bread and fish in our lunch-boxes, however, Jesus won’t be able to multiply it.

    After we’ve been faithful and generous with what we have, then we can go and vote for whoever we think will do the best job of leading our country. But for Christians to pin their hopes for the poor solely on a particular party or politician denies the power of God and the gospel, and is too often an excuse for our own lack of generosity and obedience.

  9. I like your retelling and agree with your conclusion. It’s very easy for Christians on either side to lose sight of what’s most important, especially during an election season. I do it myself all the time. I think at least part of the problem stems from the fact that political policy and economics are more tangible and more easily subject to testing, debate, and re-evaluation — basically the scientific method. It’s much easier to argue about those things. For me at least, it means there’s a chance of reaching conclusions that seem very clear.

    The practical application of our scriptural obligations, on the other hand, remains frustratingly vague and often requires faith over logic — faith that God will multiply the fishes, for example. Sometimes faith is required even in the face of contradictory prior experience! That’s definitely not easy.

  10. For anyone else following this, there is a related discussion that some of us have been adding to over here.

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