Welcome to the last installment of the “What is Socialism” series. Part 1 gave definitions of socialism, communism and capitalism. Part 2 gave a couple historical examples of societies as they experimented with socialism but eventually moved into capitalism. This week, I will explore what God may say about that matter through reading the Bible.
Throughout the Old Testament, land and personal property were considered very important. There was only one time when the Israelites held things in common and received from the government their daily needs. It was when they were held as slaves in Egypt. After that, God met their needs in the desert, and thereafter he instructed them to meet their own needs via the land he gave them in Canaan. He also set up rules regarding the acquisition, sale and transfer of land. In Exodus 20, two of His Ten Commandments commanded that the Israelites not steal (take which is not willingly given) or covet (desire that which you did not work for or purchase) In Leviticus 25:25, you were not to even sell your land except to a family member. And even then, it was only temporary – it was to be given (not sold) back 50 years later at the Year of Jubilee.
Since God was the ruler of the Israelites, there was no need for centralized government as in Egypt. He only required a tenth of their increase to be given back to Him at the temple to provide for the Levites who were in charge of taking care of it. Other than some other additional sacrificial ceremonies on the Sabbath and throughout the year, the remainder was theirs to do with as they pleased. However, He did instruct them to provide for the poor. He told them that when the Israelites harvested their fields and vineyards, they were not to reap to the very edges or go back and gather what was missed. They were instructed to leave this for the poor (Lev 19: 9-10). In this I noticed two things. First, God did not instruct the property owner to give his land to the poor – only that small portion of the harvest. Second, God said to “leave it” – the poor were still required to get out and work to receive their provision. It was not a free ride.
In addition to property, hard work was also seen as a requirement to living a prosperous life. In fact, there are many references in the Bible where God’s blessing is equated with prosperity of goods, but it is never separate from work (Pro 10:4, 22, Pro 14:23). God not only says that work is good for you, but it is a gift (Ecc 5:18-20). He also said that the fruit of one’s labor should be enjoyed only by those who worked for it, not by others who did not (Isa 65:22-23). In the New Testament, He is even more concise: if you do not work, you shall not eat (2 Thes 3:10).
As I read further into the New Testament, I found few specific instructions about property or wealth, only that one should be wise with their wealth. Jesus said that it can be a distraction (Matt 13:22), it can easily become an idol and inhibit your salvation (Matt 19:16-23) and it can be fleeting (1 Tim 6:17). As such, wealthy Christians were instructed to not hoard wealth (James 5:3) and to be willing to share (1 Tim 6:18). Wealth was acknowledged, but never condemned.
In the book of Acts, it says that Christians had things in common and sold their things to give to those that had need. (Acts 4:32-36). There is even one story of a couple who were struck down dead because they failed to give the group the full price of property they sold. (Acts 5: 1-10). One may think that these passages are perfect examples of socialism in the Bible, however, one needs to read more closely before coming to that conclusion. First, there was no government or state involvement. Second, everyone had an individual choice; no one was forced by anyone else to sell their things. Third, all were of the same belief system. Fourth, they did not force non-believers to sell their property and give the money to others. And fifth, regarding the dead couple, they were not struck dead because they did not donate the full price from the sale of their land. They were struck dead because they made it appear like they did when they actually did not. They died because they lied. (Acts 5:3-4) Paul teaches “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (II Corinthians 9: 7). Honest, free-will generosity seems to be the celebrated virtue here for Christians, not socialism.
So what was it that Karl Marx missed? Simple – his theory did not allow for Man’s sinful nature. Socialism cannot succeed because it does not acknowledge that human beings are imperfect and corruptible. That is why socialism has always led to tyranny- for the theory to “work” it had to be forced onto its citizens. Capitalism thrives because it does not fight against human nature. You can work as much or as little as you want, keep or give as little as you want. Yet, even this theory too has flaws – it tends to breed greed. So, in order to find balance, one must look at God’s approach to the economic system. In both the Old and New Testament the Lord instructed that giving was to be a personal act, not a government one. If His wisdom was followed, each man would be rewarded for his labor, the lazy would be built up by work, and the truly needy would be recognized and taken care of from the charity and compassion of individuals. Tyranny is avoided, laziness is marginalized, and greed is overcome with love.