Monday, July 25, 2005

Was Jesus a socialist?

I have been involved in an interesting discussion over at Habbakkuk's Watchpost on "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?". It has remained a civil discussion on preaching on sin/repentance vs driving people from the church; contradictions between wealth and Christ's teaching; and evangelism for missionaries. This thread launched this post - and it may be good to read the post and the comments before continuing here.

CS Lewis:

the New Testament . . . gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like . . . It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one's work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no 'swank' or 'side,' no putting on airs . . . On the other hand, it is always insisting on obedience-obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands . . . If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it . . . I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing . . . We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself . . . every one is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity . . .

In the passage where the New Testament says that every one must work, it gives as a reason 'in order that he may have something to give to those in need'.
Charity--giving to the poor--is an essential part of Christian morality: in the frightening parable of the sheep and the goats it seems to be the point on which everything turns. Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to. They may be quite right in saying that we ought to produce this kind of society. But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality . . .

Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or--a Judge . . . A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it . . . I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him . . . we are driven on to something more inward--driven on from social matters to religious matters. --
Mere Christianity [all of the . . .'s in this passage indicate that perhaps you should click this link and read the whole chapter]
One thing wrong in this passage is that I do not believe that a "christian society will arrive" until Christ does. However, Lewis is correct that any hope rests in learning to love God by obeying Him; and not expecting Him to be my ally but my Master.


  1. I don't know if this answers the question you posed in the title of this post, but Lewis' ideal Christian society sounds about as fun and interesting as Soviet-era Eastern Europe. Sometimes I wish you'd temper you Lewis influence with a little G.K. Chesterton (one of Lewis' main influences, I believe) who shares a similar passion for orthodoxy, but isn't so gosh darn stiff. (See what happens when I try to temper my language? It changes my whole style! I'd normally say something here about the rigid pole up Lewis'... well, you get the picture.)

    To quote the Simpsons (in a sense, The Simpsons : Tyler :: C.S. Lewis : JCHFleetguy)

    "Would somebody please think of the children?!"

    I pretty much agree with Lewis (and Paul, for that matter) that he who doesn't work shouldn't eat. I like Clinton's welfare reform, etc. My socialist leanings (some of my friends, the ones accuse me of conservativism, might laugh when I begin a sentence this way) kick in when I see kids punished for the laziness of their parents. Is it Christian to allow kids with deadbeat dads to grow up going to crappy schools? The man who doesn't work shouldn't eat, but his kids damn well should. (Pardon my french.) Oh, I'm a socialist with regard to health care, too. I don't think that the man who doesn't work should be prevented from seeing good doctors, and I know that it's wrong to withhold medical treatment from poor children. The terrible asthma rates among the children of the ghetto is one of the worst problems our society faces.

    I also believe, to a certain extent, in the United States of America and the whole "of the people, by the people, and for the people," and if the government takes care of these problems, (pace J. Budziszewski) it is essentially the same thing as the citizenry taking care of them. If voters support socialized health care and fantastic public schools (or voucher-funded religious schools, for that matter) for Christian reasons, the Government is performing these actions, in part at least, for Christian reasons.

    Lewis: In the passage where the New Testament says that every one must work, it gives as a reason 'in order that he may have something to give to those in need'.

    Does Paul say this in the Thess. passage to which you linked? Did I just miss it? Not that this isn't a good reason; I'm just fact-checking.

  2. Tyler,

    I think Christ handled all the people connected to the lazy person in parables like the sheep and the goats - but here are a list of links if you need them. There could be no reading Biblically that mistakes able-bodied people with those who cannot work. Especially, with our child labor laws stopping 10 year olds from working. Look at passages on widows, etc.

    I was forced for space not to paste this entire passage from Lewis - which is why I linked it; and you might like him better if you read this whole chapter. He mentions the possible Biblical entreaty against loaning money for interest - the underlying basis of all of capitalism. I actually cut some things I should have kept; which may make Lewis seem less stiff (I do not blame him for trying to remain so rational - which is where the stiffness comes from; I know the feeling). I never actually linked a passage on working with the hands to help others because I hadn't found it. (wish Lewis would reference verses, but oh well):

    Went looking just now again and found this:

    Ephesians 4:26 BE ANGRY, AND yet DO NOT SIN; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity. 28 He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. 29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. [I included verses 26-27 and 29 - at the risk of seeming self-righteous - because I think you would do well to take these more to heart. I personally like your style better when you "behave" - and you are more persuasive.]

    Obviously, this could only be a reference to former thieves going to the opposite extreme under grace (Wesley); but most commentaries I read did broaden to the point that our labor is not for just for us - but to help others. (see Matthew Henry; John Gill; Geneva Study Bible). Lewis did, and I would love too. What do you think?

    2 Thess 6-8;11-12 is more a companion piece to the Acts verses CQD quoted in the other post. Christians in Thessalonica were taking advantage of their fellow Christians by not working and doing their fair share - and being busybodies which Lewis mentions too.

    1 Thess 4:11-12 again says for them to work with their hands; but so they act properly to non-Christians and are not in need.

  3. I'd be willing to bet that Paul is using one of those hoste clauses we learned about in Greek class, Tyler. "So that" clauses constrain the preceding clause. If the purpose of work is for charity, then it would follow that work itself is not necessarily virtuous, and that work undertaken for other purposes is not virtuous, either. A lot of Christians seem to argue that work has some kind of moral status in itself, which may be so but is not the thrust of Paul's statement. And there's the related problem of Christians being more solicitous of the moral condition of the idle poor (a rare phenomenon--being poor is very hard work) than the idle rich.

    Anyway, my reading of the statements of Jesus indicates that a "Christian society" would involve a lot of itinerancy, poverty, no stable families, and pacificism. In the unlikely event that such a condition would come to pass, it certainly wouldn't last long. This is perhaps why I fall somewhat into the "two realms" camp with Luther: our earthly obligations (family, country) are not voided by Christ's commands when they're incompatible.

    I second JCH on the cleanliness, too--remember, it is not what enters the mouth that defiles but what comes from it (someday as a pastor I'm going to have to learn how to quote scripture for serious purposes).

  4. Ben

    Anyway, my reading of the statements of Jesus indicates that a "Christian society" would involve a lot of itinerancy, poverty, no stable families, and pacificism

    Itinerancy? Why?

    poverty? Why? I think these quotes point to working to take care of yourself; and being able to take care of others as being a responsibility.

    No stable families? I can understand some of the basis for this view - there are quite a few "Kingdom over family" quotes - but those in Jesus's inner circle didn't follow this. In fact, one of Jesus's last acts was to make sure John took care of His mother. Also, His picking of adultery as a primary thread certainly defends marriage the best.

  5. I think Ben is talking about Luke 14:26 - "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters -- yes, and even his own life -- he cannot be My disciple."

    There're a number of things that those in Jesus' inner circle didn't do. There still are, assuming that self-professed Christians are in Jesus' inner circle. That doesn't make it ok. The NT has Jesus saying anything about adultery 5 or 6 times, tops. (Crosswalk has the word listed in 10 verses, three are from the same speech in Matthew, and one bit of Mark was copied almost verbatim by Matt and Luke) I hardly think that makes it a "primary thread." Seems to me he spent about as much time saying that it's ok to drink wine.

  6. Yeppers,

    but then He told John to take care of His mom from the cross. I am posting on a similiar passage today.

    I think verse count as a means to determine Biblical importance is iffy at best. First, even I, Mister Inerrancy, know that the synoptic writers pretty much followed what Mark was inspired to write - and changed a few things they were inspired to change. John went off on his own completely (either because he knew the synoptics had covered that or just didn't have Mark as a cheat sheet); but wasn't so concerned about Jesus's day to day preaching and moral teaching - but more with developing a clearer Christology.

    I think it is the weight of His words that matter more. The adultery lines are truly different - taking God's view much deeper than the Jewish religion did. In fact, deeper than any (can I get away with that? I think so) other religion on the planet. This is along the lines of the sheep and goats parable - which is perhaps just as far beyond the norm.

    If you look at the Sermon on the Mount - perhaps His greatest sermon - there are no (well, maybe one oblique one) references to feeding the poor or caring for the sick. Almost the whole sermon was on the righteousness and spiritual state of the believer - and adultery and hatred are there.

  7. I'm going to ignore the Biblical citations because they're not what interests me about John's post. (Thanks for the invite, John; sorry it took me a while to see it.) I have some sympathy for Lewis' view of a Christian world; it ties in with similar sympathy for the idea of Communism (I'm relieved not to have been a '30s intellectual; I might easily have wound up in Siberia). I find the idea of a stringent, practically impossible morality appealing, as in Beauvoir's battle that cannot be won but can be lost. I'm often automatically suspicious of ease, esp wealth and unchallenged ideas.

    However, it occurs to me that the example of Christ's death has been fetishized into an assumption that he finished the job, instead of making a beautiful but ultimately futile but infinitely hopeful statement--which Atticus Finch does in To Kill a Mockingbird, but which isn't held up as humanity's salvation and so has a better chance of being just that. Lewis similarly writes of a Christian society as an end-point destination; I'm sure he realizes and states elsewhere that it's a constant striving, but to even suggest such a destination makes me jump ship here--perfection is death. And boring.

    Also, Lewis' privileging of "properly appointed magistrates" and esp of husbands marks him as a creature of his time, in which the educated upperish-class English male assumed he was rationally superior to anyone else, while that looks like swank and putting on airs to me.

    Basically, what I know I do sometimes and what I see Lewis doing is taking it all too seriously. Humor, frivolity, and sillyness (all of which often look like selfishness) are what get us through and make us able to live morally (imperfectly) while still keeping our fellows before us (which helps morality more than anything else).

    I’m listening to Neko Case’s The Tigers Have Spoken album, and she has a between-songs riff on how it would be a good idea to feed surplus children to the tigers in zoos. I laughed.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly