In a conversation with a friend about my previous post “The De-Humanizing Effects of Mega-Corporations” I was asked whether I thought socialism was the “natural economic system of Christianity?”
Here are some thoughts:
If we just took the Old Testament law, the answer would be a resounding yes. There are some very definite socialist prescriptions in the law. There are provisions for keeping the gap between rich and poor to a minimum such as the cancellation of debts every seven years or the returning of all land to its original owners every fifty years (the year of jubilee). There are commands that effectively establish a welfare state, even going so far as having an effective welfare tax in the form of requiring farmers to leave parts of their fields un-gleaned each harvest so the poor could gather food for themselves. The Torah without a doubt makes a significant point of making sure everyone in the society is provided for and makes this not just an ethical obligation for charity but a legal obligation that the state was supposed to enforce. All of this seems “socialist” in its basic underpinnings (though maybe less sophisticated in its structure than modern socialist states). One important thing to note is that individual land ownership still existed in ancient Israel (not collective ownership of property).
While these laws existed in the Torah, it doesn’t seem that this part of the Torah was given much attention in ancient Israel’s history. We have no recorded instances of the Year of Jubilee being enacted, for instance. And the prophetic writings condemn Israel repeatedly for failing to care for the poor. In fact, social and economic justice are apparently so neglected that in several places the prophets record God as declaring to Israel in essence (my paraphrase here) “I have stopped up my ears to your prayers and the smell of your sacrifices makes me want to vomit.” We can take a couple things from this. First, it seems that while the Torah outlines a kind of socialist philosophy, it would appear that in practice Israel was not a socialist paradise. Second, social/economic concerns seem to be extremely important to the God of Judaism and Christianity.
So far, that seems to add up to a socialist norm for Christianity.
The New Testament makes this a little more complicated, however. There is still a strong concern for providing for the lower rungs of society, and even a civil rights movement like note the New Testament declarations that all are equal in Christ: slave, free, Greek, Jew, men, women and other potentially opposing categories are nullified in the Church community.
However, there is a striking difference from the situation found in the Torah. Whereas in the Old Testament the ethical concern for the poor was also a legal obligation written in the nation’s “constitution” in the New Testament the church is not a political entity of the same nature. There are certainly political implications to the Christian message, don’t get me wrong. Rome in large part persecuted Christianity because Christians refused to worship Caesar and instead acknowledged Jesus as “Lord”- the same term Romans used to pay homage to Caesar. However, unlike in ancient Israel where the Torah was the governing law of the land, Christianity is an underground group from its conception. So while Christians do things to care for the poor, it would be better to consider these the actions of a charity group than those of a socialist government (at least prior to Constantine).
Of course, Christianity does not stay an underground group. Eventually, it rises to become a very dominant political force in Europe. Over the course of this history, two basic “philosophies” of looking at the world develop in Christianity. One comes from Augustine, the other from Thomas Aquinas. Augustine’s philosophy is essentially libertarian. He sees the state as there to protect its people, but his view of human depravity is such that he does not think it can accomplish any “good” (which would include providing people’s material needs), and so it’s the role of the church to provide for the poor as a charity. Aquinas has a very different take. He thinks that the state can do material good, and that society as a whole has a responsibility to take care of the poor and oppressed and neglected who form its lower tiers, a much more socialist (or at least welfare state-ish) position. Part of the difference between these views may have to do with the time periods they wrote. Augustine wrote during the Roman Empire when Christianity was still one among many centers of political power and “paganism” still abounded in Europe. Aquinas wrote much later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the age of Church hegemony in Europe. Their different historical situations may have contributed to the differences in their philosophical/political views.
I am more inclined to agree with Aquinas on this point. I’m not sure I would say I am a complete socialist- I think the markets should be as free as they can be. But I also think that society should be able to provide basic needs for all its members: food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. I also think the earliest Capitalist thinkers felt the same way and believed a free market could best provide for all the members of a society. History and experience I think shows us that thought this system mostly works, it might be a bit too optimistic, meaning that some government intervention is required to fill in the gaps.