Before Karl Marx, there was Jesus Christ. And before secular socialism, there was Christian socialism.
MAXINE PHILLIPS and FRAN QUIGLEY
Democratic Socialists of America
The Acts of the Apostles describes the first Christian communities as being profoundly socialist. For example, from Acts, chapter 2, verses 44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone in need.” Later, in chapter 4: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
This system was a fresh response to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves and see Christ embodied in the poor and the sick. The early Christians were also deeply familiar with the Hebrew Bible’s many mandates to redistribute wealth. Consider Deuteronomy 24:19-22’s call to leave a portion of harvests available for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, and Isaiah 10:1-2’s emphasis that the poor are not to be pitied and given alms – they have rights to be honored.
The scripture reflected the law of the Hebrew communities, carried out in the Sabbath and Jubilee years of debt forgiveness and free access to harvests (Leviticus 25:10 and Deuteronomy 15:2). And they lined up with the consistent obligation tzedakah imposes for Jews of means to give their surplus to the poor – which Jewish scholars insist is more akin to a tax than to charity.
Later, Basil, the fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea, heeded the Gospel demands by creating a poorhouse and a hospital and giving away his own inheritance to the poor. “The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked,” he said.
Augustine of Hippo agreed, holding up the Acts-era socialism as the model: “This is how we want to live; pray that we may be able.” For those who chose a more acquisitive path, Augustine’s message was blunt: “Riches are neither real nor are they yours. … Assisting the needy is justice.”
Eight centuries later, Thomas Aquinas affirmed in Summa Theologica that individuals have no right to possess excess wealth. “According to natural law, goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor.” If an individual refuses to voluntarily disgorge their excess wealth, what is to be done? The state can and should step in to make things right, Aquinas says. A prince’s duty, he wrote, is that “provision must be made so that no person goes in want.”
As Aquinas said, our Christian obligations go beyond mere charity. Here in the capitalist United States, we are more charitable as individuals than people of other nations, but our government is quite stingy. The United States has the highest poverty and wealth inequality rates among similar nations, meaning that millions of US. children go hungry while plutocrats luxuriate poolside at their third homes.
Our Christian obligations go beyond mere charity. Here in the capitalist United States, we are more charitable as individuals than people of other nations, but our government is quite stingy.
As the earliest Christians realized, tossing a few spare coins to a beggar is not a sufficient response to Jesus’ teachings. Philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart, like us a Christian socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has concluded, “I have heard American Christians claim (based on a distinction unknown in the New Testament) that Christ calls his followers only to acts of private largesse, not to support for public policies that provide for the common welfare. What they imagine Christ was doing in publicly denouncing the unjust economic and social practice of his day I cannot guess.”
We are not alone in reading the Gospels and seeing a mandate to reform our economic system. Following on a robust European tradition of Christian socialism, Baptist minister and Social Gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch and Episcopalian Vida Dutton Scudder were among several generations of U.S. Christian socialists. Many were close allies with Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who famously concluded that “Socialism is Christianity in action.”
In one of our nation’s best moments, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, Christian socialists played major roles. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were very open about their socialism, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who praised democratic socialism both publicly and privately, stood on the shoulders of previous generations of socialist African American social gospel leaders.
These Christian socialists agreed with Karl Marx’s ground-breaking analysis of the devastating impact capitalism wreaks on working people. But they parted ways when it came to Marx’s antipathy to religion, and they rejected Marx’s exhortations to revolution by any means. For religious socialists, the instrument of revolutionary reform is a political one at the ballot box and nonviolently in the streets. That approach works. Consider the many nations comparable to the United States, particularly in western and northern Europe, where socialist advocacy within the democratic process has led to universal healthcare, progressive taxation, and comprehensive social services that assure safe housing and a minimum income. Compared to the United States, life there is far closer to the kingdom of God on earth.
We are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose membership has swelled from 5,000 members in 2105 to more than 70,000 today. That growth reflects the fact that a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24, and a majority of U.S. women aged 18 to 54, prefer socialism over capitalism. Our Religion and Socialism Working Group within DSA publishes weekly articles and produces monthly podcasts, now supplemented with a series of webinars.
More U.S. Christians are recognizing, as the earliest Christians did, the clear meaning of Jesus’ teachings. The signs of the unemployed who marched during the Great Depression read, “Damn your charity – we want justice.” Christianity makes the same demand, with every bit as much passion.
The response to that demand is socialism.
MAXINE PHILLIPS and FRAN QUIGLEY
Maxine Phillips is a member of the editorial team of religioussocialism.org and a longtime member of Judson Memorial Church in New York. Fran Quigley is director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and a religioussocialism.org editorial team member. Both authors are active with the Religion and Socialism Working Group of Democratic Socialists of America.
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