Why Evangelical Socialism?
You don’t have to give up orthodoxy to oppose capitalism.
I am an evangelical, and I mean that in the strong sense. I was raised an evangelical by two parents who attended an evangelical seminary. I grew up going to a large evangelical church, was read the Bible every day as I homeschooled through elementary school, went to an evangelical Christian high school where I took daily Bible classes, committed a year of service with an evangelical gap year organization, and got my undergraduate degree at an evangelical university. My house is filled to the brim with books from evangelical publishers.
But far more than these cultural signifiers, I have been forced to reckon with the fact that even as I’ve spent time with the Mennonites and settled down for sacramental worship for the long-haul, I am still a theological evangelical. I always seek the Bible as the primary theological authority. I believe in a Jesus-focused Christianity that underlines the work of Christ on the cross. I think human beings have to be converted to live the Jesus way. I also think the Gospel must work itself out in our lives. I hold to the central doctrines of the Christian faith expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. I believe Jesus really is God, that he really died and rose for our redemption, and that he has really sent his Holy Spirit to the church to be his people in the world.
Somehow, I have remained an evangelical all these years and have become convinced that democratic socialism is a good and faithful politics for Christians. This is not a popular evangelical position. Even what historian Kristen Du Mez recently called “IVP [InterVarsity Press] evangelicalism” is more frequently centrist when it comes to the economy. There are many historical reasons for this, but I think one primary reason is that Christians have become convinced that in order to be a socialist, you have to throw away your orthodoxy. Socialism just sounds so extreme — and doesn’t Jesus transcend political categories?
I hope this essay will begin my answer to those questions. I hope to make the case that socialism and evangelical theology are not at odds with one another by giving a case for a socialist critique and alternative to capitalism in a specifically Christian register.
The Gospel and the Image of God
The Bible opens with the story of God’s creation of all things set in theological terms. Bible scholars such as John Walton have recently called attention to how the creation narrative is structured like building an ancient near-eastern temple, and that is indeed what the Eden garden was: a place where God’s space and the world’s space overlap. Human beings are created and tasked with being God’s “image.” In ancient temples, “images” of the gods were idol statues, and they resided in the center of the temple. This is the role human beings were given. This is why were are not to make idols of God: he already has them. Every single human being reflects his image back to him.
So what does that mean? This is an assignment, a holy lifelong vocation God has given to each of us. We are all to reflect the wise rule and care of God into the world and to sum up the praises of all the earth back to God. We are agents of his creative order, continuing the work of creation into the world. In the ancient near-east, rulers were called images of God — but just the royals, not the ordinary folk. Our story says that God has made all of us to be his images in the world. We share this delegated authority over the world together, and the world was given in common to us as God’s appointed representatives.
Humans were made to rule, but we do not go long in the Bible before we encounter human beings deciding to rule the world on their own terms. They decide to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is our attempt to usurp God’s wisdom. We think we ought to rule the world on our terms, and God cannot allow us to live forever in that way. So he banishes us from the place where heaven and earth overlap. We’ve become subject to the spiritual powers that stand behind all human rebellion.
The fall means our role of caring for and ruling the world comes out all wrong. Instead of common care for the gift of God’s creation and a recognition that we are all God’s ambassadors, human history — not least the Bible — is littered with regimes of power where people grasp for rule on their own terms while most human beings languish in suffering and cruelty. Our life with the material world is crooked. Kings and rulers pile up wealth, and the rich join “house to house and field to field” while many others go hungry, excluded from the resources they need to live as flourishing images of God. And God despises this evil. Even God’s own chosen people, whom he lifted out of enslavement and gave instructions on how to ensure that no one in their society was poor, repeatedly decided to rule on their own terms. The Old Testament, particularly the Prophets, are God’s word of judgment over this way of injustice, which was never far away from idolatry, since worshiping something other than God gives us license to destroy those made in his image. But they also promised a hope: redemption for God’s people, and an end to the crushing violence and deprivation that have been the horrifying hallmarks of our history. God promised to rescue his people — and all his wayward creation.
That rescue came with Jesus, who was himself the perfect image of God, the Lord come down in person to fulfill the human vocation. He was Israel in person as well as God in person, come to rescue humanity from the despotism of our crooked rule. He inverted everything and won his ultimate victory against Sin and Death precisely by giving up his own life. His power was displayed in his shame and weakness. He crushed the power of injustice by being crushed under it, an unexceptional poor man. He seemed to everyone another pretender hung on the cross of history like so many other would-be revolutionaries. Instead, though, he was raised to life again on the third day, vindicating him against those evil powers and showing to all the world that the history of horror and injustice was not all there is. He renewed the human vocation, and ascended to God’s right hand where he now has all authority in heaven and on earth. The Bible promises to us he will return and once and for all repair all the injustice and evil in the world and restore us to be truly human in the renewed creation, where heaven and earth are one. Until then, Christians are to be the sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s coming kingdom, fulfilling the human vocation by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and proclaiming that Christ has won our redemption for us.
Human beings are made to image God, but our sin hinders our ability to accomplish the task that comes along with this in two ways. First, it afflicts us each individually. We fail and struggle against the temptation of evil within us. This is the side of sin we are most familiar with. But what I wanted to highlight in my outline of the Gospel above is that sin also corrupts our ability to be truly human by putting within us the desire to rule the world on our own terms. We grasp for power to dominate over others and call what is good evil, and evil good. Our domination of one another means some people elevate themselves as if they were the true images of God while making flourishing life and co-rule with God inaccessible to others. This is the power of sin that gets built into the fabric of society, and like all evil ways of being, it as an affront to the Almighty Creator.
What’s Wrong with Capitalism?
This is the theological ground from which I hope to present the socialist critique of capitalism. If there is anything the varieties of socialism share, it is a critique of capitalism that goes basically like this. Under capitalism, there are some who have control over all the economic resources necessary to produce all the things humans need and desire: factories, power lines, iron ore, and so on. A very small proportion of society owns all of these parts of creation, while the vast majority of people have nowhere near enough of these resources to subsist on.
What happens to the majority of people who have no resources with which to make a life for themselves? They have nothing but their own bodies and minds. Their choices are to beg and possibly starve, or to sell their bodies and minds for most of their waking hours to the people who own all the productive resources in society. Under this agreement, the owners are able to ask virtually whatever they want from their workers, and are completely unaccountable to them. Who gets to produce things, what gets produced, how much, and for whom are not choices allowed to be made by the workers, but by the owners — or by special workers delegated to do the will of the owners, since frequently owners can’t be bothered to take part in even that kind of work. Labor does all of the actual production — they’re the people who make all the stuff. But when the stuff is sold, and the price is higher than the price of labor and resources it took to manufacture it, the extra goes to the people who own the resources, and only goes to workers if the owner chooses.
See what’s happened? The owner started out owning the resources needed for people to create products, and subsequently took advantage of the vulnerability of those who don’t own any resources to get them to do all the work to make the products. And even though the workers did all the work to make the products, when they’re sold at a profit, the owner gets to take the extra. Workers can’t opt out of this system, since they don’t own any of the productive resources. They have to take this kind of deal, whether it’s with one owner or another — the only alternative is deprivation.
There is yet another problem with capitalism, though: about half of people at any given time are not workers or owners. Children, elderly people, the disabled, people caring for family members, and those between jobs — these groups of people make up the vast majority of those who neither work nor own. Under pure laissez-faire capitalism, these people get nothing at all from the economy, even though they need resources. If a worker lives with one or more non-workers, they will be worse off than another worker who lives only with other workers, even if they’re nominally paid the same amount of money. In the first instance, people who own very little have their vulnerability taken advantage of by those who own a lot, and in the second, those who don’t participate in the formal economy are not distributed nearly enough resources. In virtually every industrialized society, poverty would be between 20% and 35% if the resources were just distributed to owners and workers.
These two problems — the problem of exploitation and the problem of poverty — are why I am a socialist. An economic system that runs on one class owning almost all the resources and taking advantage of the vulnerability of everyone else is just one more way of ruling the world on our terms of domination rather than God’s terms of co-rule and co-caretaking. Further, an economy that fails at the minimally sufficient task of providing for the basic needs of all in a society is an economy that insults the will of God as well as basic human prudence. How can we continue to make luxury yachts when we have tens of thousands without a roof overhead and children going to bed without adequate nutrition? What good is it to keep the wheels of production going when almost all the gains in productivity go to the very top of society, while the people who do the producing see their wages stagnate?
Socialism and the Christian View of Property
This is the problem socialism aims to solve. “Socialism” is such a polysemic term that I feel compelled to state the basics of what I mean by it. The socialist solution is to subordinate the economy to society, not the other way around. Socialism means designing an economy that is purpose-built to ensure that the means to live a flourishing life are genuinely accessible to everyone. In particular, it erases the divide between “owners” and “workers” by bringing the productive resources of society under democratic control. The profits from our industry should flow to the whole society, not just to a small class of people who pile wealth upon wealth. In the same way, decisions about life at work — compensation, conditions, treatment, management — should not be made by the unaccountable will of bosses. Socialists want to give workers a say in how they go about their work. It also takes into account the fact that many people are not working at a given time, so it builds distributive institutions to make sure children, the elderly, the disabled, caretakers, and the unemployed have incomes as well. For the whole society, public services like healthcare and education are made freely available.
These institutions do not eradicate human sin, nor do they guarantee there are no economic problems. There have been debates for a long time for how best to handle each aspect of what I just outlined. But this is the kind of economic order that I, as a Christian opposed to the exploitation and poverty caused by our current system, believe we should work to build. I have only spoken about one way domination happens in human life, and I have not yet even begun to discuss what this means for how we should think about the global economy, but I think this is enough to chew on already.
A great many Christians at this point protest that it is all well and good to want to solve poverty and the like, but that property rights should not be infringed to do so. It’s one thing, they say, to want to help people, but we should not use force through the government to do it, so socialism is ruled out — it’s little more than theft. But this argument falls flat.
First, all property distributions, including the capitalist one, are upheld by government force. The government makes the rules of property and excludes by force anyone who violates those rules. The question is not, fundamentally, whether a distribution is held up by government force, but which distribution should be enforced by the government. In other words: how do we decide what rightfully belongs to whom? That is not merely a procedural question, but a moral question. Although the Bible does not explicitly set out the rules for how Christians ought to organize ownership, orthodox Christian thinkers for centuries have articulated a position deeply at odds with how capitalism distributes the goods of society. These Christians elucidated a rich theological portrait of property, riches, and wealth steeped in the Scriptural understanding of the world.
According to the church fathers, the created world is God’s, and stewardship over it has been given in common to all humanity. Since the earth is a gift to human beings in common, to claim what belonged to everyone was an act of violence. According to St. Clement of Alexandria,
Private property is the fruit of iniquity. I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use shall be common. The use of all things that are found in this world ought to be common to all men. Only the most manifest iniquity makes one say to another, ‘This belongs to me, that to you.’ Hence the origin of contention among men.
St. Ambrose of Milan’s words reflect those of Clement:
Private property is not a matter of justice, for it is not according to nature, which has brought forth all good things for all in common. God has created everything in such a way that all things are to be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation the mother of private right.
Private property, by nature of its violent seizure of what previously belonged to everyone, is understood to be the source of the deprivation of the poor of their material needs while the rich accumulate more goods, according to St. Basil the Great:
“I am wronging no one,” you say, “I am merely holding on to what is mine.” What is yours? Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.
St. Thomas Aquinas believed that ownership of things was acceptable for the reason that it was socially useful — an innovation of human reasoning, even though by natural law, all things were given in common to humanity. Property is a secondary and derivative good and must be subject to human need: for instance, Aquinas claimed it was not theft to meet someone’s urgent need out of the use of someone else’s property. Property is neither a divine nor an absolute right — its justification is solely in terms of its usefulness to the needs of human beings, and it is primarily a right of use.
Even John Locke, long hailed as one of the earliest in the liberal conception of private property as absolute human right, continued this exact tradition. Here he is quoted from his First Treatise on Government:
God, the lord and father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.
He uses this exact logic to oppose the concentration of resources leading to the exploitation of human vulnerability:
And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.
Given the Christian tradition, we cannot say that whatever people possess they simply have a permanent, God-given right to. Property — and thus, the whole of economic life — must be subsumed to justice and human need, not the other way around. What belongs to whom is not set in stone, but a human-made institution. Further, when the distribution is such that some have a great abundance while others lack the means for their subsistence, the poor have a moral claim to the excess of the rich. In this instance, then, it is in fact theft under the moral law for the government to forcefully exclude the poor from the means they require.
The capitalist system of absolute, exclusive private ownership of the productive resources of an industrial economy runs afoul of this traditional Christian understanding all over the place. Property construed as rights for use is allowed for the sake of human good and the reduction of conflict in the traditional Christian conception, and is, without question, morally secondary to meeting the needs of all. It’s precisely the opposite for capitalist property. The private and absolute ownership of the productive goods of society concentrated in one class is required in order to coerce the propertyless into labor on behalf of the owners. Advocates of capitalism call this “free” because they intentionally ignore and discount the massive asymmetries of power inherent to the labor relationship. The mythology of a natural human right to absolute ownership that supersedes meeting the needs of everyone should be transparently false to Christians. So, too, should the idea that there’s nothing wrong with one class racking up economic power so as to dominate another.
I want to make plain that owners do not dominate workers because they’re particularly nasty or sinful people. Of course, capitalism provides a way for very greedy people to have their greed rewarded by unimaginable wealth and power, but not all owners are that way. Rather, domination is required by the structuring of the system. It is how things get made. To end this state of affairs requires a change in how the system works: from unaccountable control exercised by a class of owners to control exercised democratically by the whole of society. The only way to end the conflict is to do away with having warring sides to begin with.
There is much more that can be said (and in fact I frequently say more at the Evangelical Labor Institute), but this, in outline, is why I say I am a democratic socialist as an evangelical Christian. I don’t believe for a moment that human political action will bring about the kingdom of God in the world — that is the act of Jesus, the kingdom in person. Nor do I think human beings are basically perfectible, since even a society that has made an economy that works for everyone will not have fully freed itself from sin. But I sincerely believe that, as a witness to Christ’s resurrection and reign, I have the responsibility not to shrug my shoulders in the face of evil and injustice. Our politics will never be our salvation, but I believe that because the world is saved, we can confidently contend for the kind of society where no one is deprived of the material means for their flourishing. You can say with your chest that Christ has died and risen for your sins and that we can do better than capitalism.