Some Christians in America have taken to raging against the threat they believe socialism poses to America and to Christianity. They see socialism as the antithesis of all things Christian and they are not entirely off base in their fears. Some movements and countries that have called themselves socialist have been explicitly anti-religious. The former Soviet Union is a clear example of this. Religious people (as well as many others, it is worth noting) were oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their beliefs. But even so, does it stand that Christianity and socialism must always be opposed? No, it does not. Christianity and socialism actually have much in common.
In the book of Acts, Christ’s Apostles lived in a communal way. The book states that “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32). Holding things in common, giving to anyone who had need, that seems very similar to the radical socialist notion of mutual aid, often expressed in the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The accounts in Acts are born out in the Pauline and the Catholic epistles. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reiterates the egalitarian spirit of the early Christian commune, saying, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (8:13-15). In 1 Timothy, Paul condemns greed, proclaiming “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” before exhorting Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (6:10, 6:17-18).
And Paul is not alone in his epistolary encouragement of equality and charity. James says “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:15-18). Peter writes in his first epistle, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (4:9-10). In 1 John, we are again told “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (3:17-18).
From the Acts of the Apostles through the Epistles it is clear that the Apostles and the early Church believed that charity and a striving for material equality were requirements for being a good Christian. However, this parallel between Christianity and socialism did not arise from Jesus’ followers, but rather from their faith in God’s teachings. Christ himself is the wellspring for Christian socialists.
Christ, in His teachings, repeatedly condemns the rich and the accumulation of wealth. In Luke, Christ declares “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation” (6:24). In Matthew He states, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (19:23-24, 6:24). In describing the final judgement, Christ tells of how He will deal with the greedy by saying, “‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-43,46). Christ’s wrath against greed also takes tangible form when He drives the merchants from the Temple, crying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” and “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (Mark 11:17, John 2:16).
By the same token, Jesus extols generosity and sharing throughout His teachings. In Mark, He tells His followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31). In Matthew, He tells a rich, young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (25:21-22). In Luke, He advises giving to those who cannot give back when He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12-14). He further promised eternal salvation to the generous, saying “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).
Through His teachings and actions, Jesus made it clear that to be righteous the prosperous must distribute their wealth to the poor. This teaching was not some new innovation, but a continuation of God’s teachings as given through the Prophets, David, and Moses. Indeed, in declaring His mission, Jesus cites Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). As Christians, we must strive to emulate Christ’s example.