Was Jesus into Social Justice Part II

by on January 6th, 2011

Since, the holidays are over and school is about to reconvene, I am (to put it mildly) busier than a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest as we say in Mississippi. However, I wanted to revisit the discussion about Jesus and Social justice because we got such interesting responses. One good comment was about Christians who claim to be Communists or at least Marxists:

One teaching of Communism is that communism is completely anti-religious. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, extreme Communists, both spoke out against religion altogether in rise of Communism. If Communism preaches against religion altogether, why would Jesus be a Communist? Doesn’t make sense for anyone to say that or think that if they any Biblical knowledge at all.

This is an important point. Can one be a communist without being an Atheist? I think so. It is true that Lenin and Marx were Atheists and Marx famously viewed religion as an “opiate for the masses” to lull them into complacency and subdue their radical rebellion to the bourgeoisie. However, Communism itself is an ideology about private property, and those who control the means to produce goods. Both of which are ideas held by Christians. Could they be held by Jesus? It certainly seems possible. The difficulty is that Jesus isn’t interested in doing economic theory. So he doesn’t say anything directly about the subject. That means it is a dangerous thing to ascribe any particular political or economic theory to him lest we create another Jesus just as John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar has done more than once in their Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus.

Another commenter picked up on this theme of painting Jesus as a Communist or a Libertarian:

but what puzzles me most is that the overwhelming majority of American Christians are committed to a type of economic libertarianism with its historical roots in Randianism. I see the historical marriage that began in the late 1970′s between Goldwater economic libertarianism and Atwater/Reagan social conservatism, and how this coalition rose to political prominence. I just find it difficult to see how this coalition resulted in the dogmatization of economic libertarianism to the extent that it has.

Now this is a legitimate worry of mine as well. As my friends will tell you, I have libertarian tendencies. My morality tends to fall in line with that of Evangelical conservatism but, as I have said, I disagree with much of the Religious Right in the manner in which we seek to promote that morality. So I really have to watch that I don’t start making Jesus into Milton Friedman. The commenter gives a broad sort of outline from Rand to Goldwater to Reagan. The commenter could have mentioned a few others. The aforementioned Friedman and Fredrick A. Hayek to name two. Neither were Christians. One well known Roman Catholic,  William F. Buckley, comes to mind as well. There are similarities between Libertarians and the Reagan revolution. However, it would be a mistake to say that Reagan, Buckley, or Margaret Thatcher were disciples of Ayn Rand. Rand was an Anarcho-capitalist who thought government was useless and mostly evil. This is not the case for Buckley or Reagan.

But I think there is a bigger issue here. Suppose alot of Christians do buy into free market libertarianism with the likes of Milton Friedman and Hayek. Suppose we do agree with former Primeminster of the UK, Margret Thatcher that Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty is the guiding force for her economic philosophy? Is this allegiance ill placed? If so, we need to know why. We need find out not who Jesus would side with because he has not left us enough evidence to make that claim but rather we need to know which economic philosophies are incompatible with Christianity. That is the sixty four million dollar question. Instead of asking is Jesus a free market Randian capitalist, we should rather be asking “Is free market capitalism contrary to the tenets of Jesus and the Apostles?” For instance consider this comment:

I see millions of conservative Christians with a great deal of animus toward the idea of “re-distribution” of wealth by government agency, but without a care in the world about how our social structure “distributes” wealth to begin with. It seems as though no one cares how wealth is distributed as long as political agency plays no active and visible role in it.

Good point. The whole idea that social structure “distributes” in an unjust way is exactly what Hayek and his detractors like G.A. Cohen argue about. The statement above implies that it is possible for social structure itself, the way our system of property and political offices are arranged can actually lead to an unjust outcome. But this implies that there is a set range of just outcomes. How do we decide that? The commenter is right that Christians don’t think about these things. But that doesn’t mean there could be a good and intelligent reason to argue against political distribution of resources that is also compatible with a Christian world view.

Maybe we’ve hit on something here. Could it be that sometimes, playing bible ping pong, using isolated verses from the New Testament to paint Jesus red or blue, is far easier than studying the economic philosophies and the thoughts of their founders and bringing them captive to the biblical world view (i.e. II Corithians 10:5)? After all, its easier to quote verses to show that Jesus agrees with me than it is to test all things and hold fast to what is good. For one thing, it means I don’t have to read a lot of people who disagree with me.

I look forward to your thoughts.

2 responses to “Was Jesus into Social Justice Part II ”

  1. smijer says:

    It is gracious of you to give serious consideration to the comments I left here before. I kicked myself for leaving Milton Friedman out of the mix. I think that he was at least somewhat influenced by Rand himself, but his impact on modern conservative economic thinking is probably far more direct than Rand’s.

    Rand was an Anarcho-capitalist who thought government was useless and mostly evil. This is not the case for Buckley or Reagan.

    I smiled when I read this. I see a fine line between Rand’s anarcho-capitalism that thinks government is mostly evil and Norquist’s (for instance) libertarianism that thinks government is a beast which should be starved until it is small enough to drown in a bathtub. I see more of this in today’s Tea Party conservatism than maybe Buckley or even Reagan would have accepted in their own day.

    I guess it is worth noting that Adam Smith was a deist, having rejected orthodoxy in his youth. Be that as it may, his view of capitalism still has a lot to recommend it today. I would guess that a capitalism modeled loosely on his ideas would sit more comfortably with the progressive ethic (be it Christian or non-Christian) than the current anti-government trends.

    Bearing in mind that at least in theory, if not in practice, government is an extension of the will of the people and the tool by which we act corporately as a society of individuals, I think you are right – it is worth investigating whether our markets and other institutions are acting according to principles that jibe with our moral viewpoints. You mentioned re-thinking various economic philosophies. If you haven’t spent any time with the (mainly Catholic) distributists and agrarians – especially Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterson, I think you may find it worth your time!

  2. Ben says:

    “Could it be that sometimes, playing bible ping pong, using isolated verses from the New Testament to paint Jesus red or blue, is far easier than studying the economic philosophies and the thoughts of their founders and bringing them captive to the biblical world view (i.e. II Corithians 10:5)?”

    Good question. Veiled statement actually (maybe you’ve been analyzing emergent material recently?) :) but still good stuff.

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