Current Affairs

Was Jesus A Socialist?

Well, he wasn’t a libertarian. Dan Walden talks Lawrence Reed’s new book, and the many modernities of Jesus.

If you were to ask most people in the United States what the Christian scriptures teach about wealth, they would probably tell you that the Bible is very suspicious of riches. Even people with no religious upbringing could probably quote sayings like “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25; Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:24), or “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), which would seem to position Christianity very much against the excessive accumulation of wealth. This poses a problem for Christians on the American right, because American conservatism has long been dominated by a right-libertarian ideology that sees wealth accumulation as an inherent good, venerates those who amass sickening quantities of money, and seeks to remove every obstacle that might stand in the way of amassing even more. One of the time-honored ways to draw attention away from your own moral failings is to attempt to discuss someone else’s, which is where Lawrence Reed’s Was Jesus a Socialist? comes in. Reed is both a Christian and a libertarian, and has spent the last 12 years as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank. His book attempts to show that Jesus was not a socialist and would not have approved of socialism, because socialists, much like the Bible, are also highly suspicious of wealth accumulation.

In my last essay  for Current Affairs, I reviewed a book by Matt Walsh that, I thought, displayed genuine but deeply misguided fear about what contact with contemporary American society means for Christians. It was a political book—in the sense that it positioned itself on the political right through being published by an avowedly right-wing press and relied on its author’s reputation as a columnist for the Daily Wire—but it was not directly concerned with political systems. Reed’s Was Jesus a Socialist?, by contrast, tackles the question of political Christianity head-on. Unfortunately, it’s also precisely the kind of book with which no real dialogue is possible, because it does not see itself in dialogue either with its audience or with Christian traditions. Its vision of religious life is nothing but a series of propositions: it poses the question of whether Jesus was a socialist and answers it in simple, modern terms. But Jesus is not a modern person, and it is not immediately clear why it matters whether he subscribed to a modern political ideology.

In one sense, then, the question around which Reed frames his book is trivial. Jesus was obviously not a socialist, because he lived in first-century Palestine under Roman occupation, about 1600 years before the first stirrings of capitalism and 1800 years before the European industrial revolution gave rise to socialism. This is not mere pedantry: socialism is a very historically specific response to social conditions that did not exist in Europe prior to the development of mass production. Among the contributing factors to these social conditions was the development of a legal concept of inviolable private property rights, which would have been inconceivable even two centuries prior, let alone nearly two thousand years: even English nobility, for example, often had no power to sell or transfer their hereditary estates without resorting to complex legal fictions until as late as 1833. The response of Christians to the contemporary social order must necessarily look very different from our responses to previous ones: it must account for the particular evils of the present order and for our social capacity to rectify them.

But Reed wisely decides not to pursue this line of discussion, and instead opts for the traditional libertarian definition of socialism: “No matter which shade of socialism you pick—central planning, welfare statism, collectivist egalitarianism, or government ownership of the means of production—one fundamental truth applies: it all comes down to force.” (Apparently, a libertarian regime in which homeless people are shot by private security forces for camping on a vast private estate has nothing to do with force.) Since Jesus is opposed to the use of coercive force (that is, the threat of prosecution and punishment), then, in Reed’s view, he must also be against using force for the purposes of reducing inequalities of wealth or resources. Given Jesus’s own quite specific announcement that his return in glory would involve literal damnation for people who had refused to feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick or imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-48), I am not sure that Reed’s definition of coercive force holds water.

This myopia around a nebulous and incoherent concept of “force” carries through to Reed’s exposition of several of Jesus’s parables, among which his treatment of the parable of the workers in the vineyard stands head and shoulders above the rest for its exegetical crudity and moral infantilism. The parable, which begins chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel, likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyards at a standard day’s wage. Throughout the day he hires more workers, promising to give them “whatever is right,” and even hires more workers at the very last hour. At the end of the day, he gives all of them a full day’s wage, no matter how long each worked, and tells those who object to his generosity that he may dispose of his money as he pleases. Like all of Jesus’s parables, and like the Jewish allegorical tradition out of which they arise, its combination of simple narrative language and slightly off-kilter logic invites deep thought about how this exemplifies the kingdom of heaven and how human beings should conduct themselves on earth. Reed, however, declines to take up the parable’s invitation to thought. Instead, he glosses it as follows:

The ingredients of this parable are: A private individual who owns the land; workers whom he hires and who willingly accept his compensation offers; employment terms that involve a wide disparity of hourly wage rates; an implicit assumption that work is good and idleness is bad; claims of unfairness and inequality, though no dishonesty or breach of contract; and an unequivocal assertion of the rights of private property and contract.

Supply and demand probably come into play here, too. As the day wore on, the landowner offered an ever higher hourly wage. He probably had to do so to attract additional workers and bring in the harvest.

None of that reads like a tract on socialism. Everything is voluntary and market-based. Jesus never mentioned government, and he never suggested greed or exploitation. The kicker is the landowner’s response to the workers who complained about their higher-earning comrades: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”

This parable, of course, is explicitly an allegory for the kingdom of God, not a business manual. Reed acknowledges this, but contends that “[the allegorical] view is not inconsistent with the more economic interpretation I’ve provided. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that Jesus’s story rests on fundamentals of private enterprise, not socialism.” But his “economic” view is, in fact, wildly inconsistent with the basic structure of the parable, and the hypothetical reader’s objection to Reed’s casual steamrolling over the content of the Christian scriptures is not, in fact, hypothetical. Interpretation of this parable has a long and storied intellectual lineage, articulated most famously and beautifully in the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every year to inaugurate Easter in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches. Its first portion borrows heavily from the structure of the parable, but interprets it very differently:

If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.

This is a far cry from Reed’s obsession with contract and property. Through Chrysostom’s preaching we read the parable with new eyes as a story of unconditional welcome, of God’s total disregard for who is “worthy” and who is not. It shatters the logic of contract and property, because the very idea of “earning” becomes meaningless: for Chrysostom, the parable illuminates the joy of Easter precisely as a picture of a divine generosity that draws no distinctions between those who have long pursued the work of holiness and those who have just begun. By transposing the structure of the first, third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours, his homily illuminates the parable’s moral logic, and the image of the severe and inscrutable landowner is transformed into the master of the house whose generosity needs no explanation, only celebration. This is not socialism—it is something far beyond socialism, a foretaste of the society of perfect love that Christians call the Kingdom of God. But it is clearly something totally alien to Reed’s vision of a legalistic paradise in which the angelic choirs and the orbits of the stars are set in order by the sovereign might of Contract, and the ceaseless cries of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” are rendered as our eternal rent due to the landlord of heaven and earth.

Reed’s glib refusal to put himself in dialogue with this ancient and traditional reading of the parable is, in many ways, essential to the success of his argument: if he were to place the two expositions side by side, it would only underscore the sheer ineptitude of his reading and reasoning. The ease with which his argument falls apart in the face of this contrast means that he absolutely cannot engage in a substantive way with competing interpretations, even when those interpretations are central to the worship and belief of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. By refusing serious dialogue with the enormous tradition of literary and theological commentary, Reed is able to construct an intellectual greenhouse in which his cultivar of mutant Christianity can thrive despite its severe allergy to sunlight and oxygen. But there is a reason that a walk in the woods is far preferable to a tour of a greenhouse: a greenhouse, even a large one, is not a true ecosystem, and an argument sealed against outside considerations is not true thought.

As Reed moves on to treat the “values” of Jesus, his book becomes progressively more dishonest. For example, he discusses chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, which comprises three famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, all of which are part of Jesus’s response to the charge that he associated with sinners. The first parable tells of a shepherd who loses a sheep, tirelessly searches for the lost one, and celebrates with his neighbors once he’s found it; the second tells of a widow with ten silver coins who loses one and does the same as the shepherd; the third and most famous is the story of a young man who demanded his inheritance, spent it all, and was nonetheless welcomed back by his father with a great feast. These parables, Reed says, “emphasize the critical value of the solitary individual.” I invite readers to glance through these parables themselves and decide whether that is a tenable reading. In fact, they seem horrified by the idea of the “solitary individual” cut off from a community: the rejoicing of the shepherd, the widow, and the father celebrate the lost and alone being reconciled and returned. This is not libertarian individualism: it models the sort of deep concern with each member that communities ought to have, and the kind of love that recognizes our collective duty even to people who have severely wronged us—the love that sees someone realize their wrongs and says, as in the parable of the prodigal son, “It [is] fitting to make merry and be glad, for this [our] brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” How can anyone be concerned with property and debts and finely-printed contracts when faced with such love?

There is a kind of individualism and solitude, much valued by libertarians, that views one’s own life as property, as a bounded and finite thing that can be shared or withheld at a whim. Reed’s paean to the virtues of private charity celebrates this: “No one is compelled to provide assistance. No one is coerced to pay for it. No one is required to accept it. All parties come together of their own volition. That’s the magic of it.” But what a bleak and terrible worldview this is: the presumption that we are ultimately alone, that lurking underneath our joys and friendships is a deeper reality of final isolation, that even sharing a community and living day to day with someone creates no real bond between you. It grieves me to see this passed off as a Christian way of being in the world, because even the creation story rejects this solitary picture of humanity. In the second chapter of Genesis, God looks upon Adam and says “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and in creating Eve allows Adam the chance to live a fully human life. Contrast libertarians’ near-solipsism with the example of Julian of Norwich, a great spiritual writer and the earliest known woman author in English. She was an anchorite, a kind of urban hermit who consecrated herself to God and then was sealed up in a cell attached to the local parish church. There she lived out the rest of her life, given food by her community and offering them prayer and spiritual counsel in turn. This is a solitude that finds its fullest expression amid a community, that recognizes our radical dependence on one another and resolves to embrace and live out that dependence. In putting herself in her city’s hands, Julian saw more clearly than most one of the deep truths of Christianity. In the Shewings, the record of her mystical visions, she writes of seeing creation itself:

And in this he shewed a little thing, the quantitie of an haselnott [hazelnut], lying in the palme of my hand, as me semide [“as it seemed to me”], and it was as rounde as any balle. I looked theran with the eye of my understanding and thought: “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus: “It is all that is made.” I marvayled [marveled] how it might laste, for me thought it might sodenly have fallen to nawght for littlenes. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it. And so hath all thing being by the love of God.”

Julian saw directly what most of us only catch in fleeting glimpses: that we do not sustain ourselves, and our lives are not truly our own. Capitalism pushes all of us, even those of us on the left, to value “self-reliance” and “independence,” but these are some of its greatest lies: anyone who has taken part in a labor action or in mutual aid knows that the “weakness” of dependence is the foundation of solidarity, and that reliance on one another is the pillar of strength.

I wish that I could give a step-by-step method for engaging with arguments like Reed’s; certainly it helps to know both the subject matter and the kind of moral language that the other person understands, and this is where religious leftists can do important work. But we have not been given a roadmap into other selves: this is the greatest frustration and the most wonderful mystery of being human. Evangelism of any kind does not proceed by arguments and propositions, but by attempting to see someone’s needs, whether spiritual or material, and meeting them. In the rule laid out for his new order of poor friars, St. Francis of Assisi exhorts “all the brothers” to “preach by their deeds,” even those who could not give public sermons. This seems to me to be a much more reliable guide for all of us. The love that will break open the most determined solitude is not something we decide to show or feel: it shows itself through us, in those moments of coincidence or grace when we really want the best even for the person we oppose.

Jesus was not a socialist. But socialists, I think, understand something about Jesus that libertarians, even Christian ones like Lawrence Reed, do not: that the world at which we aim, the kingdom whose coming Christ proclaimed, will not settle our debts and contracts but abolish them completely; that even those who didn’t join the struggle until the eleventh hour will be welcome at the feast; that the moment at which love appears utterly defeated, when it looks to the world like a victim crucified by state violence, will in the end be revealed as love’s final, all-embracing triumph. In the capitalist logic of debt and property, there is nothing more foolish than the love that gives all for one’s enemy. But remember what the Apostle Paul says: that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Our struggle is not to raise ourselves above our enemies, but to love them fully, because to abolish class means abolishing what makes them our enemies at all. This is a hard task, demanding of us a revolutionary discipline that puts the most hardened Leninist to shame; it is always easier to entertain fantasies of violent retribution in which those who oppressed us finally face the other end of the gun or the other side of a prison bar. But the world that we want to build, the society of love, calls us beyond these impulses. It demands that even rapacious billionaires not be sent to prison. It demands that the children of those billionaires go to good schools for free. It shames those impulses, which we often see as a desire for justice, because it shows us that justice demands not the reversal of exploitation but its end. And in rising to those demands, however briefly, we work toward that day when we can truly say, with the anchorite Julian, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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