As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to unfold it seems to become more leftist. But as I’ve said before, Wall Street is only half the problem. Harping on the “1%” or “the [nebulous] rich” is a ploy used by class warmongers, most of whom are on the left. But fomenting class warfare is one thing…using religion to do it is a horse of a different color.
At the Occupy London protests, a guy dressed as Jesus carried a sign saying ” I threw the moneylenders out for a reason.” (Never mind the fact that they weren’t “lending” money…but I digress.) Do a google image search of “Jesus and socialism” and you will see some imagery promoting socialism as nearly divinely inspired. But there are way too many things wrong with asserting that Jesus was a socialist.
The most blatant problem with socialist Jesus is the anachronistic context this forces Jesus into, not to mention the glaring double standard of biblical interpretation this entails.
The first century socio-political context was a far cry from today’s social democracies. In the first century, the Roman empire stretched from Spain, across North Africa to modern day Iran, up toward the Black Sea and across southern Europe. Rome was the center and the emperor was its head, although not as autocratically as we usually think. Jesus was born under the reign of Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son.
As emperor, rather than being lord (dominate) of the empire (which was technically still a republic) Octavian preferred to be seen as “first citizen” (princeps civitatis). To consolidate his influence though, Octavian intermingled his own finances with Rome’s to the point that the two were virtually inseparable. It was because of his shrewd use of republican titles and honors that Octavian was able to pass on a throne that wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place.
When Jesus said to “render to Caesar what is Caesars,” in a very literal sense, the money virtually all belonged to Caesar. Certainly he could recall it as he liked in taxation. In the same way, the totality of humanity belongs to God…after all, it would not exist without his making it so. Jesus points out to the Pharisees and Herodians that they should also give back to God what is rightfully God’s in the first place. After all, obedience is better than sacrifice.
Because Jesus preached taking care of the poor and the downtrodden and healed the sick and fed the multitudes himself, Jesus is seen as an innovator in socialized medicine and the originator of food stamps, but this is ridiculous. The only way it would be analogous to today’s “socialism” would have been if the Roman government had confiscated the food and redistributed it or if the Roman government had forced Jesus to heal people. There was no government intrusion involved in Jesus’ admonition to the wealthy young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor nor when Jesus describes the judgment of those who heal the sick, care for the imprisoned, and clothe the naked and those who don’t. Jesus wasn’t teaching socialism; he was teaching individual responsibility to care for one’s neighbor (and if you have to ask who your neighbor is, I refer you to the story of the Good Samaritan…especially if you can find the Cotton Patch version of it.)
In addition, there are passages throughout the Bible indicating the Christian’s responsibility to help “the least of these” and to “look after widows and orphans,” and in Acts we’re told that the members of the early church sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the church and “had everything in common” but these passages don’t point to “socialism” or wealth redistribution any more than Jesus’ own words. They point to compassion, charity and individual moral responsibility. The group dynamic is the church, not the state.
The truth is that Jesus didn’t say anything about socialism (positive or negative) because it didn’t exist at that time (as a footnote, socialism is an economic system, not a form of government for those of you at home keeping score). It’s wrong to force the characters of Scripture to apply directly to our contemporary circumstances. “Prayer of Jabez” – sorry, that was Jabez’s prayer, not yours (However, I would suggest you read Doug Jones’ Mantra of Jabez). Jeremiah 29.11 – God’s plan to restore was for his covenant people, not for individuals today. 2 Chronicles 7.14 – “my people” refers to God’s covenant people, not the United States of America. Find the principles and apply them but don’t make Scripture out to address the 21st century exclusively.
Socialist Jesus not only relies on an incredibly anachronistic interpretation but also on a double standard of biblical interpretation. In my experience, the same people who see Jesus as the precursor of [insert socialist here] are likely to try to explain away various parts of Pauline literature they don’t like. Particularly applicable in this case is a need to explain away a verse like 2 Thessalonians 3.10 (“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘Anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.'”). In very general terms, those who favor socialist Jesus will reject Paul at the drop of a hat.
Yes, many Pauline passages have been misinterpreted over the years, ranging in topics from egalitarianism to slavery and points in between. The misinterpretations don’t mean that the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline books are without merit. It means we must be careful and work harder to try to understand them. And understanding them means we must look at them in context. Each of the letters attributed to Paul was written to a specific congregation in a specific city at a specific time to deal with specific issues. To try to read Pauline literature and apply it to the modern world without any contextual reference is an accurate critique champions of Paul should heed (as is the application of any biblical passage directly to the modern world without first getting its historical context).
In response to the misinterpretation and misapplication of Paul’s letters, many will say they favor Jesus over Paul anyway (after all, Jesus’ words are in red, right?). And so Jesus is quoted indiscriminately as the prototypical social democrat. This is as misguided as quoting Paul as a supporter of chattel slavery in the 19th century. Slavery in the first century was not the same as slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the same way, the economic situation in the first century was not the same as the economic situation of today. Paul was anachronistically used to support slavery in the 1800’s; Jesus is being used equally anachronistically to support socialism. One interpretation is as good as the other and in this case neither is worth a dime.
Taken together, Jesus’ and Paul’s collective teachings insist on personal responsibility and integrity, not coerced charity and legalistic morality. Neither gives support to a particular form of government or a particular economic philosophy, though both would, I think, agree that there are extremes in each that should be avoided. In any case, neither Jesus nor Paul are presenting a political or economic message; they are preaching a spiritual and moral message that requires personal obedience as led by the Holy Spirit that will be judged by God alone, not the holier-than-thou elitists who think they know how God would prefer we use our resources (i.e. the benevolent state run by benevolent, omnipotent do-gooders picking losers and winners and using the citizens’ money to support the winners) nor the equally holier-than-thou moralists who think they know with great specificity how God would have us live our lives (i.e. preaching against homosexuality while the institution of marriage rots on the vine in the church as divorce is as rampant, if not more so, in the pews as it is in “the world”).
You know, it feels so much better and is so much easier to say, “well, the government needs to help them more.” (Sounds a lot like the men who passed the victim in the Good Samaritan.) It’s also easier to moralize and make ourselves look better by saying “well, at least I’m not as sinful as so-and-so.” (Sounds a lot like the Pharisee praying next to the publican.) Well…I guess reassigning blame is the Christian thing to do. After all, Jesus took our sins; might as well blame the rest of our shortcomings on something or someone else, right?