Monday, January 11, 2010

What's Yours is Ours: Thoughts on the Christian Collective and Socialism as Policy

It's an election year, and I feel like mulling over the oft-asked question "How should Christians think about politics?" Since politics is much too broad an issue on which to focus one singular post, I'll start by narrowing down a particular issue that perhaps hasn't received enough attention among believers of late: Biblical Christian community vs. the American way-of-life.

A YouTube video tangentially touched on this subject, and a friend of mine from church obliged me a comment on the prospect of socialism existing here in the U.S. She said:

"I really wish people would stop the fear-mongering, like the quick flashes of the old Soviet Union flag, other socialist and Communist images in the video, and the menacing music. Fear-mongering promotes hatred and hostility rather than respectful dialogue in which both/all parties can learn from each other and promotes consensus. No elected official is trying to turn the US into a Communist state or even a socialist one.

That said, there is nothing inherently evil about socialism. Communism definitely is inherently evil (denial of God, mindless submission to leaders, suppression of human rights, etc.) - it's an ideology. But socialism is merely another economic system and is in itself spiritually neutral. It flies in the face of our American sensibilities of "every man for himself," but it's actually more in line with the first century church where "they had everything in common" (Acts 2:44)."

I find the point in the second paragraph the most interesting and something that I have pondered at least once or twice before myself. In all practical respects, the early church in Jerusalem did live communally and had a touch of socialist redistribution of wealth in the believers' day-to-day.

"Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need." (Acts 2:44-45)

So, is this a model for Christian life today, not just in America, but everywhere? Can it be? Should it be? If it is, then it cannot be merely spiritually neutral, can it? Specifically, if we see it institutionally implemented as a transformation of society from a non-socialist status quo to one that is, should we not embrace it as a move toward that higher biblical living that we should all strive to achieve?

Before anyone objects, I'll just name an incomplete list of issues that have ushered us to this point in America: state and federal welfare programs, minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, COBRA, the National School Lunch Program, WIC, and state and federal unemployment benefits. We are also almost at the point of adding national socialized medicine to this list. Given the mandate from God Himself to exercise compassion, charity, and to care for the poor, it seems the consistent thing to do as a Christian is to support such programs in the effort to obey, or so it seems of late. As analysts continue to dissect the voting patterns of the younger generation of Christians going to the polls, they so far have corroborated what my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has said about those in the younger Evangelical segment. Younger Christian voters do tend to favor the establishment and expansion of government programs which have the stated purpose in assisting the poor financially. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis finally intertwine in idyllic unity as far as this generation is concerned. The leap, therefore, into endorsing a socialist economic system would be nothing more than taking the next step in realizing a piece of heaven on earth. It seems logical that all believers should do likewise, as maintained by many self-professed Christian Socialists. Indeed, the leaders of churches steeped in liberation theology have long preached just such a message, have they not?

Is it really that simple? Some problems with such a proposition should come to mind. The Kingdom-minded who would like to see the advancement of a socialized economy for the sake of the poor should remember objections leveled at other efforts to bring some Jesus into public life, one of which is the doctrine of the separation of Church and State. Parents who have longed for the ability to send their children to superior private or parochial schools (vs. failing public schools) but cannot afford the tuition have thus far been denied vouchers on the grounds that the possible choice of schools includes those administered by religious entities. Not many who support socialism also support school choice, seeing as the latter is more a feature of a free-market system than socialism.

The limitations that socialism brings on society also pose a conflict for the Christian worldview. As with communism, socialism necessarily strips the individuality of persons and replaces it with a category or class in order to address needs through a system. The Marxist ideal of the classless society is not only unrealized but flatly contradicted as socialism must work by taking from one class to give to another. Indeed, the State defines the nature and level of compassion the needy require and determines the manner of aid distribution. Everything is quantified, even down to the worth of a human being. By contrast, the Christian worldview upholds the humanity and distinction of each human person of first importance in regarding his needs and leaves full discretion to the Christian Body on how best to exercise charity. If Christians intend for the government to render financial assistance to the poor, then when it does not on the basis of some discriminatory policy, the sacrifice for living under socialism will have been futile.

There are more limitations to socialism, but I will simply point out one additional. Socialism has always failed and left in its wake the same financial need, hunger, and poverty that it was implemented to fix, if not more. As a system, it is one that consumes and never generates the resources and wealth that it seeks to redistribute to the poor. Contrast the results with that of the U.S. record of charitable giving for all entities both public and private. In the current non-socialist system, the high wealth generation that exists has allowed Americans to fund relief work on a global scale unmatched by any other country in the world. For Christians, the command is to minister to the poor actually, not potentially. Therefore, believers should think carefully about the kind of amelioration to the poor in which to invest support.

But what about that Jerusalem Church? Its unofficial socialist-like economy did serve a definite good, but before Christians today go viral with the idea, the situation in which the Jerusalem Church found herself bears due consideration. First, the sharing of possessions and food served as rescue from a consequence of belief in Jesus Christ: persecution. Jews that embraced Jesus as the Messiah inevitably faced being disowned and homeless by their families and the greater Jewish community. To avert starvation, those with resources shared what they had to care for destitute brothers and sisters in the faith. Second, we find this specific activity in Acts 2 and nowhere else in the experiences of the other New Testament churches, particularly in the Gentile world where believers could live independent of the Jewish community for sustenance. The motivation of the Jerusalem Christians to implement communal life came about through necessity, not as a model for any ideal style of godly living. Third, the overarching point of Acts 2 starting in verse 40 is to highlight the unity and the Pentecostal movement of God within Jerusalem to bring the believers into faith in Jesus Christ. Given the narrative context of the scripture in question, the Christian reader should be careful not to make an 'is' into an 'ought' from them.

Even without this poring over actuality and context, I cannot help but sense a violation of some subtle grounding principle as believers judge what obedience to God really means in service to the poor. In Matt. 25, with eternal judgment on the line, Jesus explicitly places the believer under personal moral obligation to show compassion and make a difference toward the poor, hungry, and imprisoned. By saying it this way, He undercuts substitutions to third party providers. Why? Such substitutions often result in diminished impact and dependence on a third party. And when it fails, obedience fails, while the moral mandate remains unchanged and unfulfilled.

Christians naturally live in a collective called the Church. In it, believers have the greatest ability to copy their Jerusalem ancestors with the same values and benefits. The Jerusalem Church demonstrated the greatest amount of discretion in a collective moved by God to serve their own. Socialism has shown never to be a simple expansion of this communal life. Socialism in the contemporary sense substitutes the values of the Church for the values of the State. Believers today need to consider what surrendering this discretion to socialism would mean to the actual ability to embody the faith. In the end, the decision is a classic one for Christians living in two Cities about what must one give up to live fully in one City or the other.

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