Why would a Christian be critical of socialism?
Because it violates God given individual freedom.
I’m not sure people who offload personal responsibility for the poor to the government understand what Jesus had in mind. Jesus’ call was absolutely not for Christians to take over political power and use it to redistribute wealth according to their whim. Jesus’ call is for them to sell everything of their own, or at least put what they have been given personally to work, and follow Him. The call is to give and share what we have, in a radical way, not to devise a scheme by which we can force others to give or share what they have. Even while we passionately appeal to another’s conscience and cry out for them to be charitable and faithful with what God has entrusted to them, we nevertheless make no claim on another’s property or liberty. Their charity and faithfulness is between them and God alone.
And so the idea that support for a government program for the poor is inherently faithful only makes sense in a world where the end justifies the means. And it does not.
Now certainly followers of Jesus must heed and obey the scriptural and spiritual call for them to care for the poor or disadvantaged. But that call is to be borne out by individual followers as acts of worship, it is not to be used to justify power-broking monstrosities that choose winners and losers in society. I am not saying there is anything wrong with a society or community that looks to hold some things in common. The early church did indeed hold things in common and took seriously the work of ensuring that people were not left in need. But they did not accomplish this by demand. What they shared was only and expressly voluntarily given. Peter names that freedom when he tells Ananias that his property belonged to him, and that the wealth was at his disposal. His violation was not a refusal to share – he was totally free in that regard. His violation was lying and pretending to share. That pretension is the real sin. And that protected freedom matters.
Politically speaking, socialists will speak about freedom. But what they mean is nuanced. There are two types of freedom: negative and positive freedom.
Negative freedom is natural freedom. It is the great gift of freedom given by God in the creation of humankind and the Garden of Eden, and is best symbolized by the presence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The placement of that tree in the Garden of Eden is a statement that while God commanded humankind not to eat of the tree, the freedom to do otherwise was yet protected. God’s desire was not automatons which could not help but do his will. God’s desire was free persons who chose obedience freely out of their love. Consequently, anything which eliminates or substitutes for that freedom, even in an effort to force people to do good, is wholly out of step with God’s perfect plan. Negative freedom is the freedom to reject, to dissent, to refuse to participate or support, to withhold. It is the freedom we enjoy as God’s gift that allows us to do whatever we wish in the world without interference even from Him – and that gift is essential if we’re to retain the freedom to choose obedience of our own. Anything which forces good violates the freedom which makes a moral act moral, the freedom which makes love genuinely love, and so is a use of power which renders every good act amoral. Negative or natural freedom is the first gift of God after life itself, and to limit it is an abhorrent evil.
Positive freedom is born of the estimation that many people may not be able to actualize their negative or natural freedom. The poor man, for example, cannot buy whatever car he likes because he is limited by a lack of wealth. Positive freedom is an expression of the attempt to alter certain circumstances so that whatever might limit a person or people can be overcome. If people are starving because of a lack of wealth, then providing wealth or affordable food is the establishment of positive freedom for those people. If people would like to work in a nearby community on the other side of a mountain, then building a tunnel would be the establishment of positive freedom for those people. Positive freedom is always an artificial creation design to facilitate another’s natural freedom, and so only results from actions of charity, kindness, generosity, support and compassion. Positive freedom is often necessary for the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick, the oppressed or the victimized to be able to make use of their negative or natural freedom. When we give a gift to a person in need, we have actualized a degree of positive freedom. And so part of the command of scripture and the Spirit is for us to provide positive freedom for those in need.
Socialism is a political attempt to create positive freedom by direct use of state power. If the creation of positive freedom is necessary for us to carry out the compassionate, kind and generous work of Jesus in the world, then why would a Christian ever oppose socialism?
The fundamental problem is that the socialist’s use of state power to create positive freedom for some citizens inherently requires the interruption of the natural freedom of others. In other words, socialism justifies the destruction of negative or natural freedoms, and sets them firmly in tension with positive freedoms. Indeed, to achieve its ends, it must always sacrifice God given natural freedom in the effort to force the establishment of positive freedom according to the whim of the state and her bureaucrats. The redistribution of wealth by state power, for example, is merely stealing from one to give to another. We recognize that this is not properly charity as Jesus would advocate. In fact, when a state plays Robin Hood in this fashion it actually destroys the possibility of real charity.
Faithfulness to Christ is constituted by responsive acts and activity arising out of individual and personal spiritual choices made possible by the gift of natural freedom. In response to the leading of Scripture and the Spirit, the Christian who freely chooses compassion and care, generosity and self-sacrifice, has lived in faithfulness. The same acts arising out of compulsion or manipulation have no value as free responses to the leading of Christ, and so cease to be moral or faithful acts or activities. Suddenly our ‘charity’ is effectively amoral.
This is a serious spiritual problem, so let me explain. For a government to establish positive freedoms at the expense of other people’s natural freedom is destructively immoral. Firstly, it directly undermines the possibility that I may choose kindness and charity for myself since it takes a person’s wealth and so also their choice as to it’s purpose. But there’s a more indirect and perhaps more insidious problem. Socialism paves the way for a citizenry to become unaware of the progressive amorality of their activity. When the state does charity for us, we’re led to the pretension of compassion and care in a way that is fundamentally contrary to Jesus’ command for us to be personally self-sacrificial and charitable. The depersonalized and disconnected activity of the state, well intentioned though it may be, undermines my personal role and responsibility in charity. It glosses over my personal spiritual obligations and anesthetizes my guilt with the fanciful illusion of politically achieved compassion. Care devoid of any personal investment, involvement or sacrifice, is not Christian charity and nor is it faithfulness. In practice, socialism relieves a populace of the sense of the need to give personally and so the individual sense of obligation that Christ has called for.
What that means is that socialism cuts us off from our personal responsibility for the poor. Efficiency and political machinery be dammed, socialism cuts us off from others in need. In 2nd Corinthians 8 we see that charitable giving is inherently relational, and it results in a mutual exchange where different kinds of ‘plenty’ or ‘fullness’ are reciprocated. But when the state steps in by force as my proxy, then no longer must I embrace the disadvantaged myself; no longer must I empty myself for them by my free choice to follow Christ with the whole of my life. Instead, now I can keep a distance and let the state be my proxy in caring, freeing me from personal investment in compassionate living and from relationship with the poor or sick. The consequence is a society of individuals detached from actual need, and restrained from the growth that comes from inconvenience and sacrifice.
Add to that the basic understanding of giving personally and freely as part of the life of worship, and we see that socialism results in a deplorable state where everything that giving means to the Christian is thoroughly eviscerated.
In our current context, this is especially the case when the state does so on the basis of borrowed money for which multiple generations will be irrevocably and involuntarily accountable.
There is often the perception that only the left, the progressives and socialists in our society, care for the poor because only they speak of large government activity to that end. But the political left does not have a monopoly on concern for others – regardless of their press and propaganda. Their only distinctive is that they want to use to government power and structures to accomplish it. The debate isn’t about care and compassion; it is about the means of carrying it out. In fact, economically, in practice progressives’ ideas play irresponsibly with creating inter-generational dependency and so may curse the poor to a class trap wherein the only hope they know is government entitlements in perpetuity. This achieves two dark goals with one firm and deliberate purpose.
First, socialism creates a populace of dependent economic slaves. Indeed, the fight against socialism is properly the Human Rights struggle of the 21st century. The creation of dependency is a dehumanizing and debilitating project designed to facilitate the socialist means of salvation. That, of course, is the second goal. Socialism creates the slave master: the enlarging state. As the state inserts itself into every area of life, the result is a self-justifying loop where an interventionist government uses its power to establish more and more ‘reasons’ for intervention. All this after one ultimate goal: a government structure with the political power required to advance a variety of other progressive causes that can only move forward at the expense of broad individual freedoms. This is the only way for them to create the kind of society they want. Only a powerful socialist state can overpower the objections of individual dissenters or objectors. It’s for this reason that all socialist states move progressively in the direction of practical tyranny. One of the first steps, for example, is total and absolute control of education and the economy so that the foundations of their social engineering can take place unhindered. In effect, socialists are ghouls – they facilitate and then feed off the needs of some, in order to justify their own power over everyone.
Making the matter more bitter, the whole project is simply unsustainable. David Susuki has complained that economics is insanity, and that free market practices are unsustainable, but the truth of his complaint is simply that the reasoned logic of freedom and the free market just won’t let people like him do what they want to do. Indeed, they actually go so far as to define private property itself as unsustainable, and so offer the needless solution that a broad takeover by the government is the only thing that will relieve whatever issues we face. But ironically, it’s really the forcible taking of wealth from some for the sake of others or for other causes which is ultimately damaging to the healthy economic growth that can offer the answer to poverty, suffering and need. And please understand, a prosperous economy, economic growth and the creation of wealth as the solution to poverty and need is not a corrupted materialistic concept. Wealth is just another way to talk about people feeding their families, educating their children, caring for the sick or disadvantaged, and actualizing the positive freedoms of their choice. When people supportive of free market principles speak about the economy, they are speaking about the best practical care possible for the poor and needy in our society.
My contention is that concern for the poor and the establishment of positive freedoms are morally legitimate ends, but Christian morality also calls for the protection of natural freedoms. In other words, acts of charity, kindness and compassion must be wholly voluntary, lest they lose their Christian character and moral legitimacy. A healthy economy and the creation of wealth in a free market is the only practical way to equip individual citizens with the kind of wealth needed to meet the needs of the disadvantaged. Only that strategy can facilitate both natural and positive freedom.
The freedom to dissent from the government in practice, without hindering the individual natural freedom of others, is the basis of a civilized society. Government may be an effective tool for a few social justice projects – but if the project violates any of the above ethical boundaries, then the ethical answer is for the government to encourage and perhaps even promote or facilitate independent activities (which could include groups of people voluntarily assembling their efforts into a collective act.). For the government to take those projects on itself is generally an immoral misuse of its power.
In summary, socialist or progressivist economic governance, even when well intentioned, fails some ethical tests of Christianity for a few clear reasons:
1. While hoping for the creation of positive freedom, socialism sacrifices and so fails to protect essential and non-negotiable negative or natural freedom.
2. Correspondingly it legitimizes theft.
3. It dis-empowers citizens by establishing an invalid and inappropriate level of state power over personal wealth and private property, and their freedom to use it as they see fit, by making the state the only means of help or social advance.
4. It enslaves people by trapping them in a cycle of dependency on government.
5. It separates personal moral responsibility and action (since the government will ‘take care of it’)
6. The practical unsustainability of current socialist style government practices, (evidenced by our European friends who’ve thrown their economy off a cliff – immediately meaning government induced mass unemployment and poverty), inevitably means a cycle of increases in the need for other people’s money and property, and so increases in the power of the state, and so ultimately the threat of violence against those who dissent.