Sunday, 26 May 2013

Marx vs Jesus? Why Christianity and Socialism Should Go Hand-in-Hand

I am a Christian, and I am a Socialist.

You may read those two statements with some bewilderment, and you may wonder – wasn’t it Marx who said that religion was the ‘opium of the people’? Doesn’t the ‘C’ in ‘CDU’ stand for Christian, and don’t most Christians vote conservative? While all these things may be true, I believe that Christianity and Socialism are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. I will argue that a coalition of Christianity and Socialism is not only possible, but desirable. I will now proceed to argue this claim from two perspectives – one philosophical, and one moral. It is then up to you to draw your own conclusions.


Capitalism and the Worship of Greed

Capitalism is more than a way to organise the political economy, it is, in fact, an ideology. The ideology of Capitalism presumes that we live in a world ruled by self-interest. The dynamic of the economy develops as the result of the greed and selfishness of every human being. Every decision is based on self-interest, and everyone is attempting to gain as much as possible for themselves. As a result, models can be developed, which attempt to predict human decisions. If we assume that every actor in a situation will always attempt to maximise their profit, human decisions become foreseeable. The natural world is bound to laws, and the behaviour of human beings too, is determined by laws. Capitalism thus views us like automatons in a machine – our behaviour is in essence no different from that of a computer, dictated by the algorithm of self-interest.

You may read this, and you may think that this is not too far from reality. The truth is though, that it removes the ability of human beings to make their own decisions. Free will becomes an illusion, implying that we can no longer be held accountable for our choices. Capitalism is the ultimate apology for greed, selfishness and pride, which Christians see as the worst of human vices.

Historically, Christians have debated intensely about the idea of predetermination. In fact, I have recently read the Epistle of the Ephesians, which seems to suggest that salvation is indeed predetermined (Ephesians 1, 5). However, why would God send prophets to Israel to warn them what would happen, if the Israelites did not change their ways? Why would Jesus call on us to have faith, and to show our faith through our actions, if we have no choice about it? Free will seems to be at the very heart of Christianity.

A machine-world that is pre-determined is alien to Christian theology, for it would portray God as unjust, having created the world knowing full-well that he would plunge us into misery. I can only believe in a just God, if he allows us to make our own choices. I therefore feel that Christianity is philosophically it odds with the logic of Capitalism, allowing me to embrace an idea that allows humanity to choose its own destiny.


Socialism and Christianity

There is something that has always struck me when I read the book of the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke often portrays a utopian society of believers. Private property does not seem to exist, for everything is shared out among the entire community:

“All the believers were together and had everything is common. They sold property to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2, 44-45).*

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claims that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. […] And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all, that there were no needy persons among them. For 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.” (Acts 4, 32-35).

Other books of the New Testament also speak of a social responsibility of people who do well materially:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written, ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’.” (2 Corinthians 8, 13-15).

You may call me old-fashioned, but my definition of Socialism is very similar to the Biblical depictions of early Christian communities. Material success in a capitalist society depends on a number of factors. In our society, being male for example, and coming from a well-educated family, multiplies your chances of making lots of money.

Jesus as a Socialist?
Without the social protection provided by the state, far less people who take the risk of opening up a new business. The state provides social and material security, education and healthcare, and countless other benefits, and the material success of the rich is in part owed to the state, which is what justifies higher taxes for those who can afford to pay them. The Bible confirms Socialist morality with the verses mentioned above, and also with one of Jesus’ most famous statements: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6, 37).

For me as a Socialist, the long term aim of humanity should be to bring about the emancipation of every human being from all kinds of oppression. Humanity ought to escape the shackles imposed on it by capitalist determinism. Everyone should have to chance to live his life as he wants, and everyone should be able to use her gifts.

Even in the EU, which is the part of the world with the highest income-equality, this is not the case, and social mobility remains limited. On top of that, three billion human beings do not even have access to clean drinking water. I believe that the only way to provide for the fair distribution of resources is to authorise a central authority with that task – the state. By that I do not mean a Soviet-style undemocratic dictatorship, but a welfare state in which basic services are public property (such as energy, water, banking, traffic infrastructure, public transportation), and in which large private companies function as Mondragón style co-operatives. The implementation of this alternative way of organising society is what I believe the medium-term goal of Socialist parties in Europe should be. I believe that these goals are achievable and that they are in line with Biblical ideas. The establishment of the Socialist society can go hand in hand with following the guidance of Jesus.


Overcoming Old Misconceptions

Christianity and Socialism are two world-views that have remarkably similar political implications. Despite that, many Socialists have historically shown animosity towards Christianity, and vice versa. It often strikes me as hard to believe that Marx so radically misjudged the nature of Christianity by mistaking it for the nature of the Catholic Church. One of the major tasks of early Socialists was however indeed the emancipation from the bondage of organised religion. Socialists today have to beware not to equate the message of Jesus with that of the Church.

Christians, in turn, have to overcome their apathy towards politics. Charity is good, but it will not fundamentally alter the structural problems in human society that cause poverty and human suffering. It is only through political action that poverty can really be alleviated. It is heinous that Christian political engagement today is limited to debates about same-sex marriage, abortion and stem-cell research. The most important commandment of our Lord is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves – how can we follow that commandment without attempting to change the way our society is organised?

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (ESV – 1 John 3, 17)

I place great hope in political action that is inwardly fuelled by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and Christianity that is outwardly enriched by the political principles of Socialism. The antagonism that has long separated Christians and Socialists has got to be overcome.

Harald Köpping


*All quotes from Bible apart from one are taken from the New International Version.

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