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Was Jesus a Socialist or Capitalist?

Given that political identity in our culture is so heavily linked with either a socialist or capitalist ideology, it is common to hear discussions on where Jesus would have fallen on the political spectrum – was Jesus a socialist or capitalist? Did Jesus even express sentiments that indicate a particular political leaning? Before commenting on this, it is helpful to briefly describe these two political systems.

In essence, a ‘socialist’ holds that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be organised and regulated by the government – this often expresses itself with the notion that wealth should be distributed equally through society which is seen as a fair and egalitarian way of controlling provision.

A ‘capitalist’ on the other hand seeks to limit government control and instead encourage private ownership, free trade and allow market forces to steer society – proponents will argue that this system encourages hard work, enterprise, and personal responsibility which promote improved living standards and opportunity.

It is important to acknowledge that both socialist and capitalist systems promote virtues which have strong Biblical support and we would add that neither systems would play out within the strict definitions above. A blend of the two is usually found in practice which is certainly true of British society at present. So, where, if anywhere, would Jesus fall within these two systems?

Jesus strongly advocated generosity and the sharing of wealth – in fact, the ‘love thy neighbour’ mandate is the highest call for compassion and mercy which is central to Christian living. However, where socialism most obviously falls down is that it forces (or re-organises) the re-distribution of wealth, rather than relying on the individual freedom to choose charity and generosity. If wealth is distributed by compulsion, this obviously cannot be considered an example of love, compassion or mercy – it is coercion.

While it is true to say socialist ideology finds support in Scripture, the same is also true of the capitalist worldview. The Bible strongly supports the notion of personal responsibility and hard work – the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-29) is the most obvious example, but many other Scriptures promote similar virtues. The freedom to create and innovate are natural attributes of humanity and capitalist systems provide both the mechanism and incentive for diligence, creativity, and generosity. However, the main objection to capitalism is that it is not seen to distribute resources fairly and it is said to oppress societies most disadvantaged – the rich tend to get richer and the poor tend to get poorer.

We are certain that Jesus would have been horrified by the greed and excess of the minority who exploit both systems for their own advantage. Also, while there are noble virtues with both systems, they are also heavily tainted by the sinful nature inherent within all of humanity.

However, out of the two systems, we would lean towards a capitalist system as being less repressive in practice than socialism, even though we acknowledge there is huge potential for harm with this system and we would concede that some degree of government control and welfare is imperative to provide a degree of balance and equality within society.

Crucially, because of the problems with both systems, we believe it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have expressed solidarity with either the capitalist or socialist ideology. Furthermore, we are convinced Jesus would have kept a distance from any political party or movement. This is not just due to the flaws in both systems that recent history can demonstrate, but there are two other key reasons which are crucial to this discussion:

  1. Jesus did not proactively engage with the secular political authorities of His day and He did not seek to overthrow or transform the Roman political system that operated at the time. Although he did engage with the religious authorities of the day (from whom He reserved His most severe criticism), this was not the case with the secular politicians. When Jesus did teach and encourage moral principles, He engaged with individuals and people-groups throughout society. He did not seek the establishment of a Christian political system or to force the implementation of certain moral principles – the transformation was supposed to come from within each person, rather than forced through coercion from the outside. In fact, Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world…my kingdom is from another place.’ (John 18:36 NIV, emphasis added) This leads to the second point…
  2. When we observe Christians insisting Jesus would have followed a particular party or that Christians should establish/support a particular political movement, we believe this displays a misunderstanding of God’s Kingdom. It is Jesus Himself who will establish His Kingdom, not us! Furthermore, there is no Scriptural support for imposing the Christian faith on others through coercion (via the legal or political means) which appears to be the motivation behind some Christian political activism. God’s Kingdom exists in part through the body of believers throughout the world, but its true manifestation is yet to come, and Jesus Christ will instigate this!

Although we have a duty to display the highest possible virtues and seek the welfare of those around us, we should be very cautious in politicising Jesus. We do not believe Jesus would have pursued political activism – He could have chosen this path, but he deliberately avoided this course of action during His life.

It’s certainly unwise to promote Jesus as an example of either a socialist or capitalist. Jesus was neither – He was (and is) beyond any political identity. Jesus came to restore the broken relationship between us and our Creator God by paying a price we could not pay ourselves. Our mission is to point others to repentance so that they can experience rebirth in Christ. Whilst we seek this, we wait eagerly for Jesus to return and establish the perfect theocracy as King of Kings and Lord of Lords which the Christian has the glorious privilege of being part of.

Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31 NIV)

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