Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Socialism and Scripture

For longtime friends and readers, y'all probably know that my worldview, while Biblically-oriented, will sometimes veer left of center.

So I offer a disclaimer to this post--I do not identify as a socialist because I do not believe in a government-planned means of production.  Please do not say that I am.  I believe in providing strong social safety nets within the confines of capitalism.

But I am worried that some of my colleagues of the cloth are forgetting that our church was actually founded, at least in part, upon socialist principles in that it practiced the redistribution of wealth.  So, what follows is what I recognize may be a potentially polarizing post in that while I am not defending socialism per se, I do believe that it should not be assailed on the basis of Scripture.  As with all of my more polarizing posts, I hope that you see my heart in this and that I am trying to speak truth in love.

See, the Bible is quite clear that redistribution of wealth is, in fact, a valid spiritual discipline.  I would guide you to Acts 2:44-45: "All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute to proceeds to everyone who needed them," (Common English Bible) as well as Acts 4:32: "...None of them would say, "This is mine!" about any of their possessions, but held everything in common." (CEB) and, finally, to Acts 4:34-35: "There were no needy persons among them.  Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles.  Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need." (CEB)

The context of these passages comes in the midst of the very birth of the Biblical church, which referred to itself as The Way (Acts 9:2).  They belonged to a nation under the rule of a foreign empire that did indeed bring with it many public works (to quote from Monty Python's John Cleese in the hilarious Life of Brian: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?!").

But the Roman empire did not provide anything along the lines of what we would think of today in terms of Social Security--the family unit in New Testament Israel were expected to provide for one another from birth to death.  It is easy to imagine how, for these new followers who likely had to give up many trappings of their previous lives, The Way had become their new family.

I think where all of this gets lost in translation is that the notions of "family" are radically different today--where the nuclear family, rather than the extended family, is the norm.  More and more folks (including yours truly) live by themselves.  Social isolation is arguably on the rise, in spite of the wave of social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

So, who is our Biblical family?  The easy answer is to say, "Everyone!" but for most of us, our actions would demonstrate that we really do not believe that answer.  So the question remains--shamefully--inadequately answered by the church.

And where the church has had to step back--whether through disestablishment, or erosion of moral authority, or dwindling resources, take your pick--the government has stepped up by redefining family in the same mold as, ironically enough, the Roman Empire--citizenship.

There's a scene from an early episode in the first season of the television show The West Wing in which Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet says, in response to a terrorist attack on a US military plane, "(One) could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words 'civis romanus sum.'  I am a Roman citizen."

I bring that quote on purpose, because it is precisely Paul the Apostle's defense when he is arrested brought before a Roman tribunal: "Paul said, 'I am a citizen by birth.'" (Acts 22:28, CEB)  And as Luke conveys, the Roman centurion Paul says this to becomes instantly alarmed that he has detained a Roman citizen.

We American Christians engage in the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of fellow citizens every time our taxes go to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, or any other number of government aid programs (full disclosure--part of the reason this is on my mind is because June 15 is a quarterly deadline for pastors to send in their quarterly Social Security taxes, which churches are by law prohibited from automatically deducting from our paychecks...long story).

We also engage in the redistribution of wealth whenever we give alms or charity.

If you have ever given to my congregation, you've engaged in the redistribution of wealth, because we maintain a discretionary fund to aid needy families with urgent financial crises.

If you have ever given to my denomination, you've engaged in the redistribution of wealth, because the Disciples maintains aid programs through the Global Ministries and Week of Compassion organizations.

So even though I do not identify as a socialist, I worry that using it as a slur or criticism to hurl at your opponents denigrates Christian Scripture and the Church.

And I realize that charitable giving is voluntary and paying Social Security taxes is not.  But if you're arguing that the US government should adhere to a more "Christian" set of principles on other issues (same-sex marriage, creationism, school prayer, take your pick), then that objection would not seem to hold water.

So...if you are a Christian who believes that socialism is, to borrow from Catholic Father Andrew Kemberling, "a foreign threat to our democracy," then I am genuinely interested in learning how you reconcile that belief with the Bible, and specifically with The Way as conveyed by Luke in the book of Acts.

Yours in Christ,

PS: For those of you who read my last post--Gus the Housefly died on the office floor last night, presumably of natural causes (that is--he was not swatted).  Requiescat in pace.

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