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Jesus the socialist

Poverty

The Washington Post "On Faith" column gives space to writers of all religious persuasions, including atheist Gregory Paul. I guess that makes sense if he writes about other people's faith, especially if he can work in their politics. His latest column zings American evangelicals who supposedly wave the flag of capitalism, venerate Ayn Rand, and believe that God favors deregulation and low tax rates. He finds it odd that so many Christians adapt happily to a Darwinist ("survival of the fittest") model for the marketplace but reject it when applied to biology, where it belongs. And he wonders why communists reject God but adopt the only economic system apparently sanctioned by God in the New Testament.

To support the latter point, Paul references Jesus' blessings on the poor and his warnings to the rich about how hard it will be for them to enter the kingdom. Sealing his case is the depiction of the early church in Acts 2 and 4-how believers shared all their goods in common. To Christians who insist that such giving was voluntary, not government-enforced, he slams back the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Aha! God zapped these two for failing to give the whole amount of their real estate sale. "And great fear fell upon the whole church." Does that sound "voluntary"?

Here the writer does the same sort of cherry-picking he accuses Christian capitalists of, for he doesn't include the actual condemnation. The couple was struck down for lying, not for hoarding their property: "While it remained unsold [said Peter], did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? . . . You have not lied to men but to God" (Acts 5:4). Besides misapplying Scripture, Paul lays about with such a broad sword he doesn't really skewer anybody, and convinces only those who are already convinced. The case for Christian socialism has been made often, and better, by those who claim to be Christians.

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That said, I agree with him that "Jesus is no free marketeer." But neither was Jesus a socialist. His primary concern was not saving the economic system but saving individual souls. He has no more encouraging words for the revolutionary socialist than for the laissez-faire capitalist. I would not go so far as to say that God favors one economic system over another. Maybe He left that up to us.

It seems that every generation becomes encrusted with its own catchphrases and angle of repose. Christian baby boomers cheered the Great Society; their Gen-X children joined the Reagan Revolution; now Millennials are asking, along with Jim Wallis, What Would Jesus Cut? It's not enough to fall back on the saying (wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill) that a 20-year-old conservative has no heart and a 40-year-old liberal has no brain. Young people are capable of thinking as well as feeling, but free-market parents can't assume their children will absorb their economic values as naturally as their faith.

Some issues require going back to the basics in every generation. Given that a just society cares for the poor, what is the best way to do that? What responsibility belongs to government, what to the church, what to the family? What is the historical record of entrenched welfare? Does it have a discernable effect on human responsibility and family structure, and do the consequences outweigh the benefits? Knowing that no society will be perfect, how much good can we achieve? When does social justice become social engineering, and how do Christians balance charity with liberty?

There's a case to be made on both sides, and the only way to determine the better case is to discuss these questions honestly, with mutual respect and open debate. Since that's not likely to happen in the public sphere, it had better happen at home.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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