Does the Bible Teach Socialism?
With the rise of a young, avowedly socialist movement in the USA, there is renewed interest in the history, nature, and prospect of socialism. What is it? There are several definitions or several variants of socialism. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives the following baseline definition:
A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
This has often been summarized with the slogan: “The public ownership of the means of production.” Of course, “public” can mean the people themselves considered as a mass (as in some sort of co-op) or it can refer to the government, that entity with the authority and means to enforce laws and rules by force.
Even to speak of a “publicly owned company” can be confusing, since private companies that issue shares of stock on the stock market become, in some sense, “publicly owned,” i.e., owned by shareholders. In this case, however, we might think of a water utility that is owned by the citizens of a town. To speak of “state-owned” conjures visions of fascist governments taking over companies in the 1930s. Of course, the fascists had socialist roots, and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) was a member of the Italian Socialist party and always considered himself a Socialist.
In Marxist theory, socialism is a transitional phase in history between capitalism (the private ownership of property and the means of production) and communism, the eschatological (final, glorious) state of being in which all things are had in common by all, where no one owns anything in particular and everyone owns everything. One of the communist slogans was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This distribution of goods, however, turned out to be trickier than Marx thought. In practice in the Soviet Union, it led to a small group of people who lived well, lording it over the rest of the people who lived miserably.
Unfortunately, the Millennials who seem attracted for the moment to socialism seem to have little awareness of how socialism has actually been practiced in Cuba, China, or the Soviet Union. Perhaps their history teachers have not told them about how folk were so desperate to escape from East Germany that they were shot for trying to escape, or how the Soviet Union was described as living behind an “Iron Curtain” because it held millions in captivity in a terrible police state. Stella Morabito was an intelligence analyst who focused on the Soviet Union. She knows the history of socialism in the Soviet Union very well and has recently provided a very helpful survey. The very short story is that the actual history of socialism as practiced after Marx is bloody and miserable.
As I indicated, the word socialism is used to describe a variety of views, some of which are quite distant from the others. For example, Europeans have “Social Democrat” parties and have practiced forms of so-called “Democratic Socialism.” American advocates of this form of socialism have long pointed to Sweden as their ideal. Anthony B. Kim and Julia Howe, however, contest the popular assertion that Democratic Socialism leads to prosperity for all. They argue that Sweden and Denmark largely abandoned the very model to which Social Democrats point. They abandoned it in favor of privatization, because even that version of socialism failed. In other words, there are strong reasons to doubt the claim that socialism has failed because the right people have not yet tried it.
What should Christians think about socialism? After all, there are Christian Socialists (sometimes known as Christian Democrats) in Europe. There are Christian traditions that embrace some version of socialism and, according to some Christians, God requires Christians to practice some version of socialism. We see some types of socialism in Christian history in the rise of the coenobitic (communal) monastic movements in the fourth century in Egypt. There monks lived together and shared all things in common, ostensibly in imitation of the apostolic church. More about that in a moment. Read more…
R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).
What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
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