by William Deatherage, Executive Director
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk! (Is 55:1-3)
These words are not from the Communist Manifesto, yet they are often invoked to justify Christian socialism. While Christians are certainly no strangers to dreams of socialist utopias (see St. Thomas More’s Utopia), Communism’s destructive tendencies in the 20th Century showed what many consider to be the logical consequences of a micromanaging super-state. While extreme capitalism and socialism have been condemned by several popes, both schools of thought have looked to the Bible to justify themselves. And though Christ was certainly no economist, He provided plenty of direction for how we ought to live. It is therefore imperative that we evaluate the impact that different economic systems will have on the Christian life.
The first step towards evaluating economic systems is understanding what God asks of us. Fairly quickly, we can deduce that we are not called to prosper, at least in the modern Western sense of prosperity. We know this because the bread that God offers us is not of this world. The Gospel Acclamation is quite clear in this:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (Mt 4:4)
Furthermore, the pursuits of the Apostles and early martyrs were certainly not ones of material wealth. In fact, many of them lived in poor conditions and died in quite gruesome manners. This does not mean that we are all called to martyrdom, rather the ultimate reward we seek is no earthly one. But if entrance to the Kingdom of God cannot be bought by Earthly currency, then how is it procured?
Freedom is the state of being that enables all men and women to encounter the world authentically, meaning they accept the grand possibilities God has presented them with and discern how live out their best lives. Freedom’s cultivation requires liberty, or the ability to make decisions without hinderance from others. As I wrote last week, freedom and liberty are not interchangeable; in fact, they are often antithetical. A person who goes through life doing whatever they want simply because they can will likely enslave themselves to addictive behaviors. A truly free society is not a laissez-faire technocracy in which men come back from work with fingers chopped off due to the lack of regulations, but it is also not one in which the government micromanages how its citizens behave. One of the primary problems with socialism is that its centralization of economic institutions is often coupled with a centralization of its media, health care, religion, and most importantly education. Money is quite powerful, and those who control the circulation of money have power over what a civilization prioritizes, as well as which ideas live and die. Even if a socialist project begins with noble intentions, human nature has shown that the few with the power of the purse will become corrupted. The beauty of capitalism is that it distributes this authority into several smaller private and social entities, thus allowing for a diverse set of values to emerge from a marketplace of ideas, bringing forth fertile soil for authentic freedom to grow from.
There is a delicate balance between authoritarianism and unfettered liberty, neither of which positively contribute to the human condition. A prime example of this balance is the family, which governs but does not choke out its members. Interestingly, many prominent 20th Century socialists understood the family to be the greatest obstacle to their movements. The family’s emphasis on cultivating eternal virtue stands in stark contrast to socialists who begin with an economic agenda of superficial prosperity. Of course, proper virtue requires proper living conditions, and it is a government’s duty to provide its citizens with the tools to succeed. But the best way to promote authentic Christian cultivation of virtue is to divest a central government of its authority and return it to families and local communities. It is only through diverse familial tradition that we collectively discern the best paths to human freedom. Such an effort is only stifled by socialism, which risks monopolizing worldviews like a modern Tower of Babel. Christ may not have explicitly campaigned against socialism, but no good Christian should warp His words into endorsing a socialist message.