There’s a weird sort of sound-bite going around- I can’t even begin to explain how many times I’ve heard the sentence “Jesus was the first socialist”- and to be honest, I find it kind of funny. Regardless, due to its recent popularity (Famous YouTuber Painthad Bernie Sanders exclaiming “I’m the second most popular socialist jew being praised in this nation”), I figured it would be beneficial to actually take a look at the evidence and see what this is all about.
Disclaimer: This article is not political- I’m more interested in the reason why people are saying this rather than the pros and cons of socialism and capitalism.
My middle school history teacher always reminded my class to always start with defining your terms, and so I begin.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “socialism” as “A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
Let’s break that down a bit, shall we?
A political and economic theory: Socialism is a view of how the government should work.
Social Organization: Socialism is about how we should organize society. That’s the only possible way I could think of rephrasing this one.
Here’s the key bit-
It advocates the means of production should be (in this case) regulated by the community as a whole. This usually means that the government provides the needs of the citizens, but unlike communism, wage is still based on work rather than need (cue some George Orwell reference).
So was Jesus a socialist? I think the easy answer is no. But most are not satisfied with the easy answer (as they shouldn’t be). I think if we work through this definition we can get a more clear answer.
I tried, I really did. I looked through all four gospels, and found Jesus saying absolutely NOTHING about what the role of the government should be. He just doesn’t. In fact, the only time Jesus mentions the government was a comment on the role of people in response to their government.
“And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’
But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius(coin) and let me look at it.’ And they brought one. And he said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s’. Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. And they marveled at him”.
He says nothing about what Caesar should do- he instructs the people to respect their government, not what that government should be.
I think people here need to note their preconceptions about socialism. Jesus does often talk about helping the widow, the poor, the sick. But he’s not advocating that the government should provide this help: Israel being under Roman rule at the time, it wouldn’t make contextual sense for Jesus to suggest this to layman Jews. Rather, he’s telling people to take care of others. That’s not socialism in any sense. In fact, from the aforementioned verse, it could be argued that Jesus is saying that taking care of the less fortunate is not the of “Caesar” but of “God”- not political at all.
But I did say that this phrase “Jesus was a socialist” is quite amusing to me. Here’s why.
People trying to fit Jesus into their political ideology is exactly what happened during his time too. Jews were sick of Roman rule, and they thought the incoming Messiah would be a zealot who would overthrow Rome and become King. We like the Jesus who caters to our own needs. But Jesus wasn’t a socialist, a capitalist, or a communist. His entire ministry was not focused on how people should organize themselves down here, but on the coming of the kingdom of Heaven.
I don’t know if this sound-bite is mostly a joke, or if people are taking it seriously. But we are missing the point. Jesus calls us to love each other and to love our enemies. This entire election is driving everyone mad as people divide across the lines of politics. But Jesus supersedes those lines. We can argue over who would be the better president, or rather, who would be the least evil president, but at the same time we need to be able to look past mere political views and love each other as God intended.
- Alexandra Kytka