A couple weeks ago I found myself in an online debate with a student of Christian ethics at Cambridge. Her belief is more or less that Christianity requires some form of socialism. At the same time I was flipping through the cable news channels and found a women on Bill O’Reilly’s show claiming that Jesus was a socialist. This isn’t a fringe view among Christians either. There is a rather large, and growing, number of both Catholics and Protestants that believe Jesus’ teachings require socialism. Even the new Pope appears to be a socialist, or at least has strong socialist leanings.
It’s certainly true that Jesus preached compassion towards the poor and called on us to be charitable and help those in need. Indeed, Jesus had a lot to say about it. For example,
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33
Passages like this lead many to conclude that socialism as a political philosophy better fits with Jesus’ message since it proposes a social organization designed around helping the poor.
Where they going wrong, however, is that the defining characteristic of socialism is not compassion and a desire to help the poor, but rather the willing use of institutionalized violence, and threats thereof, to achieve those ends. In my opinion, the major intellectual failure of Christian socialists to recognize this fact. Socialists don’t merely suggest that people aught give freely to the poor. If they did, socialism wouldn’t be any different than other political philosophies. Rather, it commands that they give to the poor with the threat of the jailhouse and the bayonet.
Now let’s ask ourselves, would Jesus approve the use of violence in this manner? Consider, in John chapter 8 the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who committed adultery and demanded she be stoned to death according to the Mosaic law. Jesus responded, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”
In doing so Jesus was certainly not declaring that adultery is all of a sudden morally permissible, but rather he was stating that it is not morally permissible for a group of people to exercise physical violence against someone who has violated the moral law.
In light of this, does anyone believe the same Jesus from John chapter 8 would deem it morally permissible (let alone morally obligatory as some Christians claim) to use physical violence against those who don’t contribute to charity?
Imagine if the Pharisees had brought Jesus a non-contributor-to-charity and said “Rabbi, the law commands that non-charitable givers be thrown in prison for 10 years, what say you?” It would be a great perversion of the Gospel to try to claim that Jesus would order the man to be thrown in prison. And notice that just like the case of the adulterer, Jesus wouldn’t be deeming it morally permissible to hoard your money, but rather that it is not morally permissible to use violence against others.
When I mentioned this to the girl I was debating, she responded, “If you don’t want violence, give freely”.
I was a bit shocked that a Christian would actually say that. It’s no different than saying, “If you don’t want to be stoned, don’t commit adultery”. I would hope it’s obvious to everyone how much that runs counter to Jesus’ teachings. It’s a testament to how much political ideology and groupthink can corrupt your thinking.
I’ve focused in on this one passage from John, but the New Testament is filled with example of Jesus preaching pacifism. The actual message is of a much more libertarian nature — that each one of us is rightfully accountable to God and God alone, not to a mob of other men.
So why is it that so many Christians seem oblivious to the violence pregnant in socialism? I think part of it has to do with the fact that the violence is many steps removed from the person advocating it. When you go into a voting booth and pull the lever for a candidate who promises to tax and redistribute, you aren’t actually the one donning the stormtrooper gear and breaking down someone’s door with an assault rifle while training a laser sight on their chest. You many never see the face of the people who are the victims of the violence you voted for. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Add to that the fact that governments frequently employ indirect coercion as their modus operandi because direct coercion strikes many people as brutal, unfair, and wrong.
A second reason is likely that Christians, like most people, believe that otherwise unjust and immoral acts somehow become legitimate when performed by the State. Almost everyone would recognize that it would be morally wrong for me to personally show up at your door with my .40 caliber and demand you cough up for charity, yet it’s said to be morally legitimate when an agent of the government does this. But why is this? How can it be moral for a group of people to do something that is immoral for the individual members of the group to do? There are a whole host of philosophical theories out there that attempt to justify this asymmetry, but they all fail. I’ve recommended Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority before, and I will do it again here. He spends the entire first half of the book charitably considering all major philosophical attempts to justify this asymmetry and rather convincingly demonstrates why they fail.
In the end, I believe Christians need to fall back on Romans 3:8:
Why not say–as some slanderously claim that we say–“Let us do evil that good may result”? Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.
That is, evil means are never justified by good intentions.
In his Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II wrote that while it is important to consider good intentions and good results, neither justify an evil action:
Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor:
In this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking.
Consequently, no evil done with good intention can be excused.
To the extent that Christian socialists advocate institutional arrangements that use systematic violence to achieve a vision of social justice, they are not following in Jesus’ footsteps. They would much better serve themselves and society as a whole to adopt the philosophy of pacifism that Jesus actually did preach.