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Is Christian Morality More Socialist or More Capitalist?

with 4 comments

It has been amusing over the last few days reading, and even participating in, the debate in The Washington Post on whether Christianity should favor socialism or capitalism. The leading article From Jesus’ Socialism to Capitalistic Christianity was written by Gregory Paul who argued in favor of Socialism but offered several hostages to fortune in introducing Ayn Rand into the debate, and implying that socialism was necessarily coercive. Two other articles followed refuting Gregory Paul’s argument. One was worthless, written by some Catholic member of the Discovery Institute, and another one, almost as bad but written I believe by a pair of evangelical lawyers, David French and Jordan Sekulow, was titled The Impossibility of a Socialist Jesus.

One of the points Gregory Paul made was that of the sharing of possessions in the first Christian community described in Acts. The act of sharing was so important to them that Luke, if he is the author, described how two supposed recruits, Ananias and his wife, Saphira, are struck dead for not sharing fully. They held back some of their wealth. The Christian lawyers claim the God killed the wicked pair for lying not for failing to share all of the money with the community. They say the notion of an honest lawyer is an oxymoron. It seems it is when it is a right wing preaching lawyer!

The ordinary US Christian is not noted for reading the book they value so highly, so they are easily fooled by right wing pastors and lawyers who cite things selectively. The full story of Ananias and Saphira starts at Acts 4:32, as follows:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common. Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 4:32; 34-37

It says they all had their things in common. The apostles’ community had set its rules, and Ananias and Saphira broke the rules by trying to deceive the community. People joined voluntarily, but once they had, they had to follow the rules. That is true of any just society, surely. As Gregory Paul had said, these early Christians in Acts held everything in common, so Ananias and Saphira were holding from the group some of their wealth, thereby breaking the community’s rules. They need not have become Christians so could have kept their house as their own, or sold it and disposed of their money just how they liked, but they had joined the community of Christians and so were obliged to give up all their wealth. It is justice.

Capitalist societies are not just. In the UK a lot of unemployed young people have been rioting, and not a few employed people too. Why? They have no prospects, and they have just seen politicians and bankers robbing the public purse by billions without being severely punished, or even being properly regulated. When cheating is so transparent in society people get angry. It seems that Peter got angry with Ananias and Saphira, and as the group’s enforcer, dealt with them.

Desperate to avoid the obvious crime, breaking the socialistic rules of the apostles’ community, Christians like to emphasize that Peter in quizzing Ananias wanted to know why he had lied that they had given all the proceeds of their sale when they had not. The crime was lying, they say, not the deed of withholding. Well naturally withholding necessitated lying but breaking the community’s rule was the primary crime and the reason for the consequent lying. But Peter does not ask Saphira why she lied when she arrived a while later. He says:

Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

The Christian lawyers justify capitalism by justifying cheating, though lying is a capital crime in God’s eyes, it seems. Well capitalism depends on both for one necessitates the other. It is quite true that many people have tried to be honest dealers while practising capitalism, but ultimately it is impossible. Christian bankers, politicians and lawyers prove it, all too transparently, and, in the end, the oppressed masses will not put up with it.

The political idea of socialism might not have arisen until the nineteenth century, but it is an ancient economic system, and unarguably the one that the first Christians adopted!

4 Responses

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  1. If you’re going to look to scripture, I would suggest the parable of the Talents, (Matthew 14-30). Here Jesus, whose word I think counts a little more than Luke’s (a bitter ant-semite who would change details for his own ends), praises both the man who leaves money with his servant in hopes of a good return when he comes back (sounds strangely like the modern investment of capital) and the servants who made money off their investment. It is the servant who makes no money who is condemned. Further Jesus praises that each was given money “each according to his ability” the meritocracy of capitalism…you know the opposite of each according to his need, which I think is the chief virtue (evil) of socialism. Further while you can find much condemnation of the rich in Jesus’ words, keep in mind that back then most wealth was made from slave labor, not capitalistic ingenuity. I am not a Christian, but even I know Christianity does not support socialism…personal charity, yes, government run socialism no.


    20 August, 2011 at 4:44 am

    • Dear crisapp444, you make the same suggestion that your capitalist co-religionists made in the Washington Post debate, though your preamble is strange. Are you saying that Jesus’s word in Luke is not to be relied on, but it is in Matthew? Luke is not to be relied upon because he is a bitter anti-Semite, yet he is writing a gospel about a Jew who is a Son of God! And although most US Christians tell us that the bible is inerrant, you are obviously not one of them.

      OK, let us begin with agreement. The books of the bible are the works of human beings with human frailties, so the gospels are no more inerrant than Tacitus, Suetonius or any other contemporary writer, and might be more tendentious, in fact, because, as biblical students admit, these books were not written as unbiased history but to persuade people to convert to Christianity. That said, it will not do to dismiss one writer on spurious grounds. I could equally well suggest that Matthew is even more biased because he was an unsavory Jewish tax collector and publican, according to Christian tradition, whereas Luke was said to have been a physician, generally a respected profession.

      In the case of the parable of the talents, it is plain from Matthew’s account that the man leaving his servants to make money for him is not Jesus as you suppose. Read the parable again, and explain these verses:
      “Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.”
      Am I and anyone reading this meant to accept that Jesus the Son of God could have been accused of being “a hard man, reaping where he hath not sown, and gathering where he hath not strawed”, and could have personally confirmed that he indeed was such a man? You have totally misinterpreted the parable, which is a criticism of such men, not praise for them, though the story has been wrongly presented in Matthew. The whole story is an example of how not to act, and how not to treat servants. And then again, if Jesus is doing what you say and praising usury, how is it that for a thousand years the Churches were, at least nominally, opposed to usury, the very reason that the sojourning Jews of Europe became money lenders, financial advisers to the rich, and generally skilled at using money to make money. Christians were forbidden to do it.

      You have disparaged Luke, so I suppose my next suggestion will get nowhere with you, but the parallel story in Luke is the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:12-27). Here the man who takes the long trip is manifestly not commendable, so the parable is clearer. Jesus is actually referring to the son of Herod, Archelaus, who went to Rome to try to get official rule over Judaea like his father. He was one like the man described, a hard man who took what he did not deserve like his father, and was utterly unpopular, so much so that his petition to Augustus failed, and Judaea remained under direct Roman rule.

      So much for your example, but it really does not wash anyway, because it completely contradicts the general tenor of Jesus’s message which is indeed that the rich are damnable, and the poor blessed. You Christians are kidding yourselves into believing the opposite of what Jesus taught because it suits you better, but the way to salvation, Jesus also taught, was not easy. You all think it is, and you all think you are saved. You seriously ought to read more carefully and try to comprehend what might be initially unpalatable, if you really value the reward you are expecting.

      Mike Magee

      20 August, 2011 at 6:31 pm

  2. First you might try reading yourself. As I said above I’m not a Christian…in fact I’m a pagan, but that is neither here nor there.

    “Am I and anyone reading this meant to accept that Jesus the Son of God could have been accused of being “a hard man,” Yes if you read the New Testament Jesus describes himself several times as being hard, violent, and coming to bring destruction. This warm fuzzy image of Jesus that modern Christians have is not what is presented in the gospels. He portrays himself as a man who, while willing to grant forgiveness to anyone who ask, has quite a temper for those who don’t get it.

    I tend to disregard Luke as reliable historical sources as it was the last of the Gospels to be written, nearly a century after the events described, and it takes the most liberties, deviating the most from the Q document which Matthew and Luke are likely based on. For instance the parable referring to the son of Herrod seems very out of character for the other Parables of Jesus, which makes me doubt how authentic it is to the historical Jesus.

    Jesus’ word however are not as anti-rich as most consider them to be. For instance the idea that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven is not correctly understood in the model world. The “eye of the needle” was the informal name of the smallest gate into Jerusalem, it would be difficult to get a camel through it but certainly not impossible. Yes riches always comes with temptation, but it is not damnable in and of itself.

    Also he does not call the poor blessed, he calls the poor in spirit (those who know they need a closer relationship with God) blessed, if you read the beatitudes it’s a list of ethical virtues not physical conditions.

    Who cares that the church was against loaning at interest for years. They’re still against gays and ignore all those verses where Jesus refers to reincarnation. Just because the church says something doesn’t mean it is any way following the original argument. Further you are confusing usury with investment, just as you seem to confuse capitalism (a system all but unknown in the early Roman Empire) with the slavery based economy they had.


    20 August, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    • Dear crisap444, my apologies for missing the “not”. I guess I was too easily misled by your siding with the capitalist Christians spouting on the Washington Post thread. Pagans do not customarily defend the religion that mercilessly destroyed them.

      Having a temper is not the same as being a hard man. The servant is clear that he is hard and dishonest, and the parable, in my view illustrates the kind of man he was — that is its point.

      The general view of scholars is that John was the last book of the gospels to be written, and Luke was written about the time of Matthew, albeit just a few years later. Then again, Luke is one of the synoptic gospels having the same view of Jesus which is why there are parallels in them. To disregard Luke is your right, but your grounds for so doing, especially in respect of Matthew, seem unsound or at least inadequate. Mark is considered to have been the original gospel for all but a few dissident “experts”, and I think that is valid. I am willing to put more emphasis on what is in Mark than what is in any of the later gospels, but here we are restricted to Matthew and Luke, and it is the capitalist Christian interpretation of the talents that is out of character. What is out of character, though, of Jesus telling a story highlighting the treatment of the poor by a nobleman, when his general themes are against the rich and for the poor? It seems to me to be entirely in character, and so too is Matthew’s hacked about version of it. It is certain that the evangelists writing the gospels to persuade Jews and pagans to follow Jesus would hardly have wanted to depict him as a cruel and harsh man. It is the loss of the context in Matthew that leaves that impression, but the context is restored in Luke.

      Quite how you can come to the conclusion that Jesus is not anti-rich defeats me. It is exactly what modern capitalist indoctrinated Christians conclude to fool themselves that expoitation of the poor is morally acceptable. To a capitalist it not only is acceptable, it is necessary. For Jesus, exploitation of the poor was not acceptable in the least, and the ones who did it, the rich, were damned for it. As an example I suggest you read the post I wrote immediately after this one. It includes the passage about a rich man being like a camel unable to get through the eye of a needle. You wrote:
      “The ‘eye of the needle’ was the informal name of the smallest gate into Jerusalem, it would be difficult to get a camel through it but certainly not impossible.”
      Your excuse makes you again sound like a Christian apologist for it has long ago been discounted, though it was a medieval ameliorating invention, that no one then could contradict, and was freely bandied about until recent times, and in your case, still. No one has ever found any reference to it in contemporary accounts anywhere else or until the time of its invention as an explanation of the saying. Indeed, the closest accounts to the time of the gospels, those in the Talmud have the same expression with the camel, a large familiar animal, replaced by a larger less familiar animal, an elephant. The meaning of such expressions is just what one would expect them to mean. It is impossible. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus (see my next post) the rich man is damned for no reason other than that he is rich but neglects to ease the hardships of the poor man. The poor man however is saved for no reason apparent other than that he has suffered on earth and has been left to suffer by the rich.

      Why would you assume that the rather ambiguous expression “the poor in spirit” means they need a closer relationship with God, and even if it did mean that, why should they be blessed merely for needing it? Doesn’t a Christian think we all need a closer relationship with God, so we must all be blessed? Blessed means we are automatically declared holy and therefore saved. Or does “poor in spirit” mean all those people who are depressed? Are depressives automatically saved? Jesus also says the meek will inherit the earth. That is a reference to God’s kingdom in earth (in the Lord’s Prayer) and so also means that they will be saved. We also have a contemporary reference to “the poor in spirit” in the Dead Sea Scrolls where it means those benefiting spiritually from a desire to remain poor. In short, poverty is spiritually uplifting. That has been the interpretation of millions of Christians — monks, nuns, anchorite, hermits, stylites, and puritans, and Catholic clergy as long as they are excluded — since, and it is hardly unreasonable to see it as Jesus’s meaning.

      You are adept at discarding anything that does not suit you, again a characteristic of modern Christians, and I would have imagined not of Pagans. Whatever the ideas of the Church to other things, here we are talking about just a couple of related ones, and moreover, things taught by the man Christians consider is God. It was a good reason for them to refuse to condone usury that it was exploitation. It was reaping where you have not sown. Usury from the middle ages onwards in English has meant lending money at interest. Investment is lending money for profit. Just what differs between them? How am I confusing capitalism with slave society? That is what you are doing if you imagine Jesus was supporting capitalism, and it is what the modern capitalist dominated Christians you defend are doing. Capitalism is the exploitation of other people’s work by those with the riches to employ them as part time slaves. It existed then, even though it was not so called, just as the notion of a sharing society existed then, and the apostles practised it, but it was not called socialism.

      Mike Magee

      20 August, 2011 at 8:27 pm

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