For many white North American evangelicals, the basic assumption that capitalism is Christian and socialism is hostile to Christian faith has been an unquestioned assumption. This is an expectation that is grounded in beliefs about major developments in European politics from the nineteenth century.
New socialist movements, especially the form of socialism developed and championed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, gained prominence and rode a wave of popular dissent in the mid 1800s. Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people,” meaning that it was used to pacify and distract the working classes from the oppression being inflicted on them by the upper classes, a fact that made many Christians view Marxist socialism as inherently anti-Christian.
The policy of state atheism implemented after the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s cemented this perception. Socialism, or communism (most westerners did not differentiate between the two) was atheistic. Therefore, capitalism, the system operative in the west where Christianity is practised freely, must be the Christian alternative.
But here’s an interesting fact. In 2011, an online article in Christianity Today reported the results of a Public Religion Research Institute survey asking Americans whether they believed Christian values and capitalism are at odds. Tellingly, more respondents answered they are at odds than that they are compatible (44 to 36 per cent). What was particularly interesting was that the responses differed according to race, income, and gender.
White evangelical men with higher incomes were more likely to be more favourably disposed toward capitalism, while Christians from minority groups, especially those with lower incomes, had more concerns. This seems to be a good example of how context affects one’s theological perspective in a key ethical issue.
What’s a theologian to do? First, we need to define our terms, because capitalism and socialism encompass a variety of expressions. Because we are framing the discussion theologically, our definitions will be fairly simple and modest. For our purposes, socialism will be defined as a socioeconomic system based on some form of collective ownership of, and centralized control of the economy (i.e., production, distribution, and exchange) intended to maximize benefits for all members of society.
Capitalism is “an economic system based on wage labour in which the means of production is controlled by private or corporate interests for the purpose of profit, with prices determined largely by competition in a free market.”
Next, we need to think about the assumptions and principles underlying the two systems. Socialist economies are somewhat neutral in their expectations about human nature and the goal of the system. Individual participation is expected based on the benefit one will receive, as well as on a commitment to the common good. The integrity of the system depends in large part on the structures set up to control the economy.
Socialist economies built on democratic governments create better accountability than those that are controlled by a small group or a dictator. This can also influence the overall expectation that citizens are contributing to the common good. This is not an explicitly Christian aim, but it is not too far from the goal of mutual edification expressed about Christian community in the New Testament.
A more definitive answer would rely on how one understands the common good. This is a consideration that transcends our evaluation, but it may or may not be friendly to Christian values. A socialist economy will produce goods according to a plan that is intended to match production to the needs of the citizens, so that in a best case scenario, people are producing basically most or all of the goods that they need.
What does the real world evidence tell us? A variety of cultural and other contextual factors can influence what a socialist economy might look like – for example, socialism will look very different in Finland compared to Venezuela, but the reasons may have little to do with the economic system in use and more to do with other political and cultural factors.
According to global economic indicators, democratic socialist countries are some of the countries with the highest standard of living in the world, and the countries with the highest happiness index in the world. For reference, happiness was measured by evaluating six categories: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.
Capitalism takes a different set of presuppositions as a starting point. The primary motivating factors in capitalist systems are self-interest, the profit motive, and regulation of the market by natural market forces (although most capitalist systems employ some regulation).
While the original expectation was that capitalist markets would be motivated by individuals operating according to principles of “enlightened self-interest” – meaning that they were assumed to be guided by at least residually Christian scruples that should restrain their baser instincts for profit – the principle of self-interest is not a Christian principle. Rather, it is more obviously connected to root issues that lead to sinful behaviour than righteous.
Similarly, the desire to make profit, not inherently problematic in itself, can become problematic if it is unrestrained by conscience. Capitalist markets rely on individuals to restrain themselves, as well as on market forces like the law of supply and demand to help the market find equilibrium.
In theological perspective, in the absence of explicit regulatory controls, it would appear that only impersonal forces restrain the greed of individuals in capitalist markets. It seems difficult to reconcile capitalism with Christian values, unless one has profited in a capitalist economy. Then, as the survey I cited indicates, a wealthier, more privileged person is more likely to give an endorsement.
What precedents in the Christian tradition might Christians find to give clarity in this matter? The teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church in Acts 2 lends weight to the idea that Jesus taught a form of socialism. Church teaching in Paul’s letters seems to corroborate this by exhorting believers to renounce self-interest and look to the needs of others.
Extending these thoughts into economic matters seems to point toward socialism more than capitalism. Certainly, socialism can be exploited, but it can also contribute to Christian community, and arguably better than unrestrained capitalism does.
How did capitalism become prevalent in societies that saw themselves as in some way Christian? The answer seems to centre on the principles of personal freedom and responsibility. Freedom was initially viewed in relation to religious freedom in Europe, in contrast to religious oppression, the enforcement of some form of religious conformity.
Religious freedom led to freedoms in other areas, and in the context of an evolving economy and other social forces, it led to the acceptance of ideas about economic freedom, especially those with economic resources at their disposal. Personal responsibility in economic matters is an extension of personal theological responsibility, the corollary of which is that one’s economic level was seen as an indicator of one’s moral uprightness.
So those who became rich were righteous. Those who became poor must have brought misfortune upon themselves. The free market became an evaluative tool for making moral judgments on a social scale. Today, ample evidence exists to show that wealth is distributed not according to righteousness, and certainly not equally, but along lines of race, class, and gender.
The distribution of wealth globally is becoming more unequal over time, with more wealth concentrated among fewer people than ever before. And there are more economic concerns that Christians need to help address. We not only can do better, we must.
 https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2011/april-online-only/do-christianity-capitalism-clash.html, accessed 16 September 2022.
 https://www-oed-com.twu.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/27454?rskey=zKWZl7&result=2#eid, accessed 16 September 2022.
 https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/happiest-countries-in-the-world, 16 September 2022.
2 thoughts on “Jesus was a socialist”
Thanks for sharing… interesting perspective. I think you get a few things (very important pieces) wrong.
I certainly agree that Capitalism is fraught with corruption, which is why I adhere to “neighborly capitalism” (my term): It is the idea that one must look to their neighbors interests, as well as their own, all the while remaining responsible for their own decisions and seeking to add-value to the world (I think Adam Smith would word his approach differently in our current context). His use of the word “self-interest” is dissimilar from our current understanding (the word seems to have devolved). And does “self interest” imply that I care nothing for my customer? Not necessarily…
Socialism, in almost all its current winning forms, has its origins in capitalism and has evolved into capitalistic-socialism…. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada didn’t “start” where we are today. We have the luxury of benefitting from the capitalistic endeavors of people who came before us (and some of the egregious failures as well…sadly). Furthermore, it was centralized planning that wrecked havoc on so many people (indigenous peoples in our context (they weren’t allowed to “own” their land…it as appropriated…hmmm.), Mennonites in Prussia and Russia, etc.). Societies who have sought to start their system via socialism (centrally planned systems) tend to digress rapidly into fascism or communism (dictatorship). I think Brian jumps to the desired end, without providing the roadmap to achieve a positive system based on centralized planning (starting from the ground up).
Furthermore, the claim of Acts 2 as an example of “centralized control” fails in understanding the transformational power of the Holy Spirit as freeing people from a “blind ownership” perspective/character to one of generosity that reflects the amazing glory and love of God. He suggests this behavior as “prescriptive.” I view this beautiful transformation as “descriptive.” There is, as you know, a significant difference. One is coercive and forced, the other a beautiful invitation and response to the Good News of Jesus alive in us! AWESOME! If Brian wishes to remain committed to the idea of “centralized control” found in Acts 2, then it is GOD who makes that call, not us (perhaps a modern day Theocracy is what Brian is asking for… I’m listening).
In addition, God’s commands provide for individual stewardship and temporary ownership (He ultimately owns all things, as is communicated in Scripture). The rebuke of Ananias and Saphira (as juxtaposed to Barnabas’ generosity) in Acts 5 speaks to their freedom to do with their land “as they wished.” God invites us to be transformed and experience His amazing Kingdom… of which personal responsibility, freedom, and ownership remains an integral part.
Lastly, Brian fails to inspect the vile aspects of debt and the financial system which is NOT capitalistic, but is actually CENTRALIZED control in its most insidious form (Revelation 17-19:6 and the Whore of Babylon are a fitting description – fiat currencies with no intrinsic value serve as one example). Debt, as condemned by God in virtually ALL forms, has become the basis for centralized control perpetrated on the people (of all nations, faiths, backgrounds, etc.), and it exploits the marginalized, savers, the value of labour, etc. and rewards those who hold assets and debt! Ironically it was corruption and centralized control of this type (in spirit if not in practice) that Marx and Engels sought to violently overthrow (and replace with benevolent, merciful centralized control?). If a debt-induced orgy of consumption is capitalism (I do not believe it is), then I would whole-heartedly recant my position. Centralized control (Central banks and government bureaucracies, lobbyists, etc.) are indicative of corruption and evil… NOT the tenants of Capitalism. I’m sure these evils don’t exist in socialistic or communistic contexts….
Thanks for reading all the way through… 🙂
Kurtis, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think that your neighbourly capitalism may not be terribly far from the type of Christian socialism I would advocate, but the term capitalism does convey that at least a significant goal of the enterprise is the acquisition of capital. As a theologian, I think that this sets one on a faulty foundation; making capitalism neighbourly may soften it, but I think we can do better. As for Adam Smith, he knew what self-interest was, and his definition was not far from ours, which is why he advocated constraints to prevent self-interest from running amok, as it is inclined to do.
Socialism has many forms and shapes; I agree about that. The socialism of Scandinavian countries is democratic socialism, and it allows for free enterprise, of course. But it also contains tax rates and legislation that ensure distribution of wealth and benefits across society. And these countries suffer in no way from having some of the highest tax rates in the world. Interestingly, the United States had much higher income tax rates in the past than today. For example, in the 1950s, the highest marginal tax rate was 90%. That was a period of possibly the greatest economic growth and prosperity in US history.
The appropriation — oh, call it what it is — theft — of First Nations land by North American governments was colonialism, not socialism. The middle of the nineteenth century was a period of virtually untrammeled capitalist exploitation — the Gilded Age — and was followed historically, especially in the US, by a period of legislative controls — anti-trust and other laws — intended to check the very sort of capitalist excess that human nature breeds.
Some societies that began with central control of the economies have moved toward more extreme forms of socialism, but, totalitarianism, the loss of democratic control is a qualitatively different thing compared to socialist economics. It is fear-mongering to suggest that socialist societies will tend to move to extreme socialism or communism. History is full of examples of socialist societies that were stable and functional.
The example of the early church in Acts is a great example of functional centralized decision-making and community of goods, whether we look at it as prescriptive or descriptive. Recall also that the Anabaptists of the 16th century practiced community of goods in a variety of expressions (some of which allowed the ownership of private property) because they found the example of the early church so compelling. What do we know that makes us think it not to be feasible now?
Nor is suggesting that it is God who makes the call rather than us a reasonable principle to assert. Since it is the community of believers that is commissioned to discern the leading of the Spirit, and since no one can claim exclusive access to the voice of God, such a statement is not helpful. Yes, individuals have considerable freedom to do as they wish with the goods God has entrusted to them, but Christians are nevertheless called to look to the interests of others ahead of their own. This is a call to holistic discipleship, including the use of money, not merely a call to piety.
Centralized control is not intrinsically problematic. Think of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that gave counsel to the churches seeking to know how to enfold Gentile believers. That was centralized control. The problem identified in Revelation is godless centralized control. It is a problem because it is godless, not because it is centralized.
As for debt, that may be the gospel according to Dave Ramsey, but it is not the gospel according to the God of Scripture. Scripture has a lot to say about lending to those in need, not exploiting them, and actually cancelling debts periodically to eliminate generational cycles of debt. Of course it is foolish to undertake large amounts of unsecured debt such as credit card debt. In this case, debt indicates a deeper problem — greed, among other things — and leaves unwise people to exploitation. But debt is not a sin.
In response to this, the call for Christians is to not exploit the foolish. Rather, we are called to serve the mandate of the Kingdom, in some cases by offering loans to people to help empower them. For example, in many countries, microloans have been used with great effect to empower enterprising nationals and provide economic stimulus. You might call this neighbourly capitalism. I call it enterprising socialism, because it forsakes exploitation, or even pursuit of the highest possible rates of return, to build others up.
Yes, I believe the current debt-induced orgy of consumption is capitalism — or at least the fruit of it. That’s my point. I stand by my statements.
Thanks for an interesting exchange, Kurtis.