Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jesus: More Socialist than Obama?

I watch The Colbert Report every single evening. It might be the most consistently funny show on television right now. Colbert's constant accusations that Obama is a socialist were, for some reason, ringing especially loudly in my ears this week. Luckily for me, the question of whether or not Obama is a socialist is not that important to me. But what about Jesus? Whas Jesus a socialist? A couple of weeks ago, I went to a clergy conference where the main speaker was Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a noted Old Testament scholar. In his talks, he took what has come to be a popular idea in New Testament studies (that Jesus was a political radical, having come to set himself against The Empire, both as it existed in his day and as it exists now) and applied it to the Old Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament was written after the Babylonian exile as a religious treatise against Empire (in whatever form it takes) and Empire's influence over our lives.

Now that we don't have something as easily identifiable as The Holy Roman Empire to think of when we think of "Empire," Brueggemann and others would have us look at the "military-industrial complex" or "Western consumerism" as the Empires against which Jesus would have us rebel. Brueggemann's thesis, along with Colbert's rants, have got me thinking: Was Jesus a socialist? Was he interested in creating a socialist world?

Consider this classic description of the early church, shortly after Jesus' ministry on earth:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 42-47)

Sounds like socialism, right? The believers "had everything in common," and "gave to anyone as he had need." I asked Dr. Brueggemann at the conference if this "Christianity as anti-Empire" message posited a Jesus who was a politically dissident leader, and if so, did that have any effect on the definition of "the Gospel." He saw through me instantly, and knew I was asking about the Atonement. He told me, and the assembly, that the Gospel is Jesus' announcement that there's a new government in town: no longer the "Evil Empire" but a Christ-led government which cares for the poor, meek, and downtrodden rather than rewards the obedient consumer.

All well and good, you might think. But isn't it a gross overestimation of human nature? Why is it that socialist governments in the actual world always turn into socialist...dictatorships? Well, it seems to me that once people get into a place where they have enough power to put a socialist agenda into place, they start to think to themselves, "Well, I'll keep a few extra things for myself. I deserve it!" A typical home is pictured to the left! You can see the slippery slope from there.

So, in the end, I'll claim Jesus as a theoretical socialist. I'm a socialist too, if not for my view of human nature, which keeps my support of socialism to the theoretical level, and not the practical one.


  1. A couple things -- the definition of socialism here is important. When I think of socialism, I think of the government countrolling the means of production (i.e. industry, business, etc.). To me, the criticisms of Obama being a "socialist" center around a misconception/false statements about his healthcare plan and that suddenly the federal government is going to be a healthcare provider for all of the uninsured. These mischaracterizations are coupled with a notion that this healthcare plan is somehow taking us toward socialism and away from that market based healthcare that we have in the country. Neither of these assertions are true as the government would at most serve as a regulator of an industry (i.e. tell insurers that they cannot dump someone with a pre-existing condition) or an insurer of the uninsured (i.e. like traditional Medicare -- the most popular insurance program in the country that happens to be run by the government). These roles are not new to our government or liberal democracies with market-based economies worldwide and certainly do not constitute "socialism".

    The definition is also important given the assertion every country that practicies socialism devolves into a dictatorship. The French government could be considered socialist in that it has majority stakes in railway, electricity, telecommunications. Other European countries have similar stakes in industry. Issue here is that socialism and communism are economic systems and their understanding is often conflated with political systems that have prominently been associated with them (former Soviet Union being the best example).

    In regards to the statements about Jesus and his political philosophy, I have a hard time not thinking them absurd. I am not sure of his evidentiary base about the old testament being written completely after the Babylonian exile and I also question how the OT can be considered a coherent treatise on any given subject, save Judaism. The 39 books of the OT are very diverse and serve many, many different purposes from outlining law to recounting history to providing a common mythology to Judaism. They do not have a singular authorship or subject matter. Finally, if the OT books were truly a treatise against empire -- a political organization of disparate states and peoples under a single authority -- then I don't think they effectively argue against it by positing a monotheistic faith with an all-knowing and all-powerful God.

    In short, if the OT books are as the gentleman describes them -- a treatise against Empire -- then they are perhaps the world's worst treatise.

  2. I think Brueggemann must have been a little poetic with his claim that the OT is a treatise against the Empire, similar to the previous commenter's point.

    However, I do think the OT suggests some important characteristics of the Hebrew God's view on government, particularly around I Samuel 8. There, Israel asks for a king (ostensibly, a formal governmental structure) and God says (v7) "...they have rejected me as their king."

    When one then considers Jesus' teachings in the NT, they strike me as remarkable in the marked disregard he shows for the political situation of His day. Considering the time -- the Roman occupation -- and the commonality shared by most other self-proclaimed Jewish messiahs around that century -- pulling together revolts against the Romans -- Jesus' ignoring of the political climate is rather telling. The closest American equivalent might be the Revolutionary period, and one doesn't see any (to my knowledge) American intellectual leader of the day ignoring the political climate. But Jesus does: He's almost dismissive of it, as if He were saying the equivalent of "give the baby his bottle" (e.g. "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's", and Him paying his taxes by pulling the coin from a fish's mouth!).

    When I put political comments like that (both of which I believe come from the mouth of God) together, I don't think Jesus is a socialist -- He's nearly an anarchist (at least when limiting attention to governments of people by people).

    Then the Acts passage (on sharing what they had) is not a political statement so much as a social statement -- that the church is an (adopted) family.

  3. As I do not believe the following: "...both of which I believe come from the mouth of God...", my understanding of the cited passages will be different.

    The text from 1st Samuel is an interesting one and one that I don't consider to be a clear illumination of the Hebrew God's opinion about government and Empire. The old testament was carried down through word and writing of the priesthood and the religious leadership. Israel's request of a king is a rejection of this religious leadership and thus it is unsurprising that the religious leadership that authored 1st Samuel would conisder this to be a rejection of God.

    I agree with SPJ on his thoughts about Jesus' political proclivities especially in light of the politics of the period. Given this, I have always been bothered by those that would use the Bible to justify the legislating of morality. I am not sure I would consider Jesus to be an anarchist as I consider the term. An anarchist to me is someone that considers a government to be unnecessary and/or harmful and prefers no government. Jesus' words -- especially in the pasage cited about taxes to Caeser -- do not seem to comport with that of an anarchist. I see his message as underlying essentially that a system of government or the role of government is irrelevant to an individual's righteousness.

  4. I don't think Jesus was a socialist by the modern meaning, as someone who wants the government to intervene in the private economy. But I do think he had some socialistic ideas.

    For example, in Matthew 6:19 he says "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth", and in Matthew 6:24, he says "You cannot serve both God and Money". Also, in Luke 6:24 he says "woe to you who are rich."

    I think Jesus thought it was wrong for some people to live in wasteful luxury while others starved.

  5. The Colbert is a show designed to poke fun of shows on FOX news. When Colbert calls Obama socialist, he is making fun of people that accuse him of socialism. He used to work for the Daily Show, and got his own show as a spoof on shows like the O'Rerilly factor.


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