Sunday, September 15, 2019

Was Jesus a Socialist?

Breitbart News’s daily emails of “Latest News” often includes something labeled “Social Justice Jackass.” Under that label on Sept. 2 were these words (and this link): “Rev. William Barber: ‘Jesus Is a Socialist.” So what about it? Was Jesus a socialist, or is Rev. Barber a “jackass,” to use Breitbart’s inelegant word? 
Cartoon by Bill Day, 2009
Barber’s Assertion
Most of you know of William Barber II, the Disciples of Christ minister who has been president of the NAACP's North Carolina state chapter since 2006. (If you need to review a bit about Barber and what he has done, check out my 9/15/16 and 5/5/18 blog articles.)
The link Breitbart gave was just a short snippet of a longer interview with Barber and his friend Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove by Joy-Ann Reid on her regular Aug. 31 AM Joy program on MSNBC. (Here is the link to the whole 7.5-minute segment, including what Barber said in an Aug. 23 talk.)
Even the Brietbart website accurately states that Barber said that “if caring for the sick and poor is socialism then ‘Jesus is a socialist’”—and that is enough to label Barber (and maybe Jesus?) a “social justice jackass”??
When I printed off the article more than a week ago, over 1,000 comments had been posted there. (I didn’t print them all!) The first ones that I read were almost all negative toward Barber and what he had said.
For example, “If idiots like Barber think Christ was a socialist, why do socialists recoil at his name?” He is “a Trojan horse sent to do the bidding of evil.” And, “Rev. William Barber is a MarxistAss clown.” Also, “For sure the ‘Rev.’ does not know what he’s talking about.”
The Republicans’ Strategy
It seems quite clear that Republicans, on both the national and more local levels, are using socialism as a “scare word” for political gain. Harry Truman denounced that use of socialism back in 1952 (see this Snopes article).
Just last Tuesday in North Carolina (hear here), DJT said that a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is “a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.” Mark it down: this will be what we will repeatedly hear between now and Nov. 3, 2020.
Also last week, Missouri Governor Mike Parson kicked off his 2020 bid for re-election by warning against the “rise of socialism.” (The Kansas City Star article about this is here.)
This is all a part of the strategy to demonize or ridicule Democratic politicians and to win votes for GOP candidates. That was doubtlessly the intent of Breitbart’s calling Rev. Barber a “social justice jackass.”
The Plight of the Poor
Journalist Errol Louis (born in Harlem in 1962) recently wrote an op-ed piece titled “‘Socialism’ isn’t a boogeyman in an unequal world.” If you’ll notice, most of those who denigrate socialism in this country are white. By contrast, according to a June 2019 Pew poll, 65% of black Americans and 52% of Latinos have a “positive impression” of socialism.
The theme of the Summer 2019 edition of Plough Quarterly (published by the Bruderhof) is “Beyond Capitalism.” In the powerful opening editorial, Peter Mommsen (who is white) writes,
Socialism’s champions know how to take effective whacks at capitalism, and they get at least one thing right: the fact that we live in a society of immense affluence and desperate poverty is a public sin with which no person of good will can be at peace.

Because of great economic inequality — and the looming risk of catastrophic climate change! — something is badly needed. If Jesus wasn’t a socialist, maybe what he taught and the way his first followers lived do point to what is so badly needed today.


  1. As usual, Leroy, you've got us thinking. Thanks for that. Of course, we tend to create (and transform) our deities into the political and economic ideologues that correspond to our biases. That's as massive an issue as the political ones Americans are facing. The choices between extremes of socialism and capitalism seem too much to embrace in a single election, though. However, conceiving of ad hoc approaches that take "more or less socialistic" approaches (e.g., analogous to government attention to the infrastructural federal highway system, etc.) might be a less alarming way to approach the upcoming election, and a more long-term successful approach to economic inequality.

    1. Milton, thanks for your comments; it was good to hear from you again.

      I agree with what you wrote, but I don't have much hope that our national politicians in the next 14 months will take any "long-term successful approach" to economic inequality or anything else. The focus, I'm afraid, will be only on the frantic short-term desire to win. And I feel quite sure that the Republicans will think that, especially if anyone other than Biden is the Democratic nominee, decrying socialism will be one of their major keys to success.

  2. This is a thought provoking Blog and I tend to fall somewhere in the middle.
    I would take the Best of both philosophies and meld them Together to offer the Best to Everyone.
    This will Not work without JESUS running it because our Hearts are evil above All else.
    We should be taking care of the poor, widows, orphans and the disadvantaged.
    Only in Heaven will this happen.
    John(Tim) Carr

    1. Thanks for your comments, John Tim.

      I think "democratic socialism" is, in fact, "somewhere in the middle" between harsh state socialism and harsh, unfettered capitalism.

    2. Thanks Leroy and Good observation&response.

  3. Faithful Thinking Friend Eric Dollard of Chicago sent the following comments about 7 a.m. yesterday:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing some great observations.

    "The term 'socialism,' along with other political terms such as 'conservative' 'liberal, 'radical,' etc. has become essentially meaningless. There are many different definitions. The scare tactic used by Republicans is to try to equate 'socialism' (whatever that means) with Soviet style communism, but no Democrat is advocating Soviet style communism.

    "Almost every economy on the planet is based, at least in part, on private enterprise. (Cuba and North Korea are exceptions.) Americans, who are called 'socialists' are not generally opposed to private enterprise, which includes both capitalism and small businesses; what they are promoting is social justice, something that is possible within the context of a private enterprise economy, but Republicans, by and large, are not interested in social justice.

    "I would not characterize Jesus as a socialist as he did not advocate higher taxes or government programs, but he clearly advocated social justice and strongly implored the wealthy to share, or even give up, their wealth to help the poor--an inconvenient fact for Christian Republicans (and perhaps Democrats as well)."

    1. Thanks for your significant comments, Eric.

      Yes, the conservatives/Republicans who are so strong in their criticism of socialism--and linking socialism to their criticism of their liberal/Democratic opponents--try to make socialism only that of failed state socialism of the former USSR and, now, of the state socialism of Venezuela. As you correctly point out, no Democrat is advocating that kind of communism/socialism.

      As for Jesus, of course, he was not a socialist or a capitalist. Those were terms and concepts that were not developed until centuries and centuries later. But, again, as you also accurately pointed out, Jesus "clearly advocated social justice and strongly implored the wealthy to share . . . ." And that was Barber's central point: “if caring for the sick and poor is socialism then ‘Jesus is a socialist.’”

      In light of your lucid comments, I highly recommend the reading of Mommsen's article linked to in the article.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson of Kentucky, who often makes brief, and appreciated, writes,

    "Bravo, Leroy! A thoughtful and interesting presentation of this political flash point."

  5. Thinking Friend Mike Greer, who also lives in Kentucky, raises these important questions:

    "Is the accusation of being a socialist a 'safe' way for white supremacists to attack those who are not supremacists? Does it not also serve the goal of protecting a form of capitalism that demands inequality and an economic and racial/gender division that primarily insures white male rule in a system of apartheid that pretends to be democratic?"

    1. Thanks for your important comments, Mike. It was good to hear from you again.

      Yes, I think you are right in seeing capitalism being linked to white supremacy and patriarchalism. That is one of the main reasons, I think, that we see far more criticism of capitalism and support of socialism by people of color and by women than by white men.

  6. Local Thinking Friend Bob Leeper, writes,

    Leroy, thanks for addressing this question. I had my career path greatly altered by my boss’s boss who believed I was a socialist or communist in favor of a PLANNED ECONOMY. It is a label which is easily thrown around.

    "I like Barber and the work he does to up-lift the UNDER-DOG; perhaps the same mission as Jesus."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Bob. I fully agree that Barber's work to uplift the underdogs in society is fully consistent with the mission of Jesus.


    "I am always skeptical of labels. I even wrote an article that appears in one of my self-printed books about the danger of labels. Certainly, there are principles that Jesus taught that are similar to principles in Socialism. But to call Jesus a socialist is no different than calling him a Republican because he has similar principles as the Republican Party. This analogy can be made in so many other areas.

    "The early Church could be described as Socialist, because, 'they had all things in common" (Acts 2:44-47). It would be helpful to employ the term in two venues; cultural and political. Jesus was definitely not a political Socialist but could be, along with the early church, a cultural socialist.

    "That's my take."

    1. I failed to identify the above comments as being from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona.

      Thanks for your meaningful comments, Truett. Certainly there are problems with using labels, especially when those labels are used as a form of attack. I have often quoted words I probably first heard nearly 60 years ago: "All labels are libels."

      In words similar to my response to Eric above, I highly recommend the reading of Mommsen's article linked to in the article. He writes about the "socialism" of Acts 2.

  8. This morning I received the following thought-provoking comments by Thinking Michael Olmsted in Springfield, Mo.

    "Words gather preferential meanings from our common discourse, such as political, social, certainly nuanced ideas. Socialist … government control … taking from the rich (and deserving) … just a step away from communism! Jesus a SOCIALIST!!! So that means he was in favor of government control and forcing everyone into one common status?

    "Read the story, all four versions, and the epistles and you discover that Jesus cared about people, all kinds of people, even people who 'do not deserve compassion or a helping hand because they want an easy life,' people who are different from US. A simple reading of the Bible and examination of Jesus' actions and words reveals the idea that God loves us beyond our social status, financial history, and imagined worthiness. That love is so unlike our human definitions of love that we have to include the word grace. Grace means God sees beyond the surface, beyond the trophies of life, beyond national borders, and beyond our preferred status.

    "So, with ideas like compassion and generosity and love … we choose to use that common dirty little word 'socialist.' Aren't we clever!"

    1. Thanks for your comments, Michael.

      Yes, it is amazing how some people can put a label on the matters you wrote about in the second paragraph and then use that as a scare word for political purposes!

  9. Creative anachronisms, like science fiction, are great ways to explore the complexity of modern life. Jesus lived is such a different society with such a different worldview, that comparing the gospels to socialism is hardly going to lead to a definitive answer. What we can do is compare the gospels to socialism, and learn a little more about both. In the same vein, my bookclub (AKA Sunday School Class) read "Was Jesus a Muslim" by Robert Shedinger (2009). On one level, it was an anachronism, as Jesus lived centuries before Mohammed, but it was still fascinating because they actually did have a lot in common, such as a concern for justice.

    Another book I recently read, "...and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year" by UMKC economics professor Michael Hudson (2018) made the claim that Jesus died for our debts, not our "sins" or "trespasses." He points out that in most languages these separate words do not exist. The cover of his book is illustrated by Albrect Durer's 500-year-old "Christ Expelling the Money Lenders from the Temple." Now this might play into the question of whether Jesus was a socialist. Ironically, it was the ancient kings who forgave debts to reinvigorate economies until they were overthrown by oligarchs who began to insist that debts must be paid, no matter how much damage was done to both individuals and societies. Guess where we live! Hudson begins his book by explaining that even the Statue of Liberty's torch and our Liberty Bell harken back to ancient Babylonian symbols of liberation from debt. For thousands of years that torch has called out to huddled masses yearning to be free (from debt). We are rarely told about these things because we live after the Roman oligarchs overthrew their last king. Not even Julius Caesar could turn back that clock!

    People of good will can learn. Others will use every tool available to engage in the politics of personal destruction. Depending on which worldview is used to view socialism, it can mean many things. If we try to view socialism in isolation, it becomes simple collective government action, which is pretty much the definition of government; whether it is establishing a currency, an army, a justice system, or the British healthcare system. Virtually all economies, certainly all successful economies, are mixed economies where some functions are performed by government, and others are delegated to the private sector. Our great political fights are over where to define the boundary lines between public and private functions. Even the richest plutocrat has certain functions he wants a strong government to perform; such as establishing a currency, enforcing contracts, stopping foreign armies, and protecting the plutocrats vast private wealth. Other people will have different lists of what a government should do. The United States Constitution, for instance, begins with such a list:

    "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

  10. Thanks, as always, for sharing significant comments, Craig.

    You rightly refer to anachronisms, and as I wrote in response to another comment above, "As for Jesus, of course, he was not a socialist or a capitalist. Those were terms and concepts that were not developed until centuries and centuries later."

    And then with regard to your last two paragraphs: certainly there is a decisive difference between state socialism and democratic socialism. The Republicans (and others) who say such negative things about socialism are talking mainly about state socialism, which most Democrats do not advocate in the least. But democratic socialism includes what you mention, and it is ironic how the vocal critics of "socialism" also are, for the most part, advocates of democratic socialism--as long as it is not called that.

  11. After posting a link to this blog article on Facebook, some comments were posted there. The first one is by John R. King in Florida.

    "There is a simple answer and a very complicated answer. The simple answer is Jesus was not a socialist. Why? Jesus did not propose any particular economic theory and he certainly did not propose an economic theory or system that had not been developed until centuries after his life.

    "The more complicated answer: It depends on what you mean by the word 'socialism.' With a definition of socialism big enough and squishy enough, the message of Jesus can be described as socialist. However, I would think such a description will cause a great deal of confusion.

    "Finally, I would say that our popular conversations have used the word socialism in so many different ways that the meaning has been become confused and fuzzy."

  12. Then, partly in response to the above comments, it seems, Cody McMahan in Texas wrote,

    "I find the demographic info interesting. I am 54 yrs old an I find that I am on a tipping point in this as in many things. Aside from those who have adopted strong political philosophies themselves people younger than I do not have visceral reactions to socialist as a provocation.

    "I agree that the common use of the word has made the meaning 'fuzzy.' The problem conservatives will have is that fuzziness leads people to look up the word and definitionally 'Socialism' is attractive. especially when considered as a limited philosophy that conforms to popular programs like law enforcement, social security, and Medicare.

    "Re: Jesus, he taught that foundation of a holy community should be based on compassion, that pride and greed are incompatible with that community. I'm not sure that one can extrapolate government control over industries or economic sectors but it is a profound criticism of unbridled capitalism and of personal behavior like white flight to private schools and payday lenders. profit based healthcare and education."

  13. And then by email I received the following fairly lengthy, and personal, comments (and his permission to post them here) from Thinking Friend Frank Shope in New Mexico:

    "I hate the socialist label and cartoon. The term and cartoon are used to discount those in need and discredit people who genuinely care for the poor and call attention to poverty.

    "I grew up in great poverty and reject the simplicity used by the word socialist. Poverty, announces to the world that America does not care about people. America, with its obscene use of wealth. Its blindness to all the social ills that plague us as people, deserves to be held accountable. Rev. Barber is a voice working to bring awareness to the issues that millions of Americans suffer from.

    "Where is the public outcries and the church in the crises of poverty? Why does the church continue to enjoy its pleasure and prosperity rather than being like Jesus. Where are the captives, poor and sick being released because the church is doing its job? There is enough wealth to share basic resources and care for the poor.

    "As a child my father worked 12-15 hours a day seven days a week trying to escape poverty. We were not poor because my dad was lazy! We were not poor because he believed he deserved welfare (which he never took)! We were poor because the wealthy used him and his physical ability to gain more wealth. In our part of the world the 'company store' closed the door to finical gain. Be it picking apples in Washington or milking cows the 'company store' always had a bill to be paid. Like the suffering humanity of Appalachia there was the suffering humanity of the West. Like the current poor soul (immigrant) working their life away, poor white America does the same.

    "The hell holes that corporate America and the wealthy create abuses the poor for profit!!!

    "Along the Southern boarder of New Mexico Kraft Industries builds substandard housing, provides poor medical care and fills the need for employees by never paying enough to get out of the economic trap of poverty.

    "I stand as a Christian who believes that every human deserves to be treated as a child of God. NOT, some commodity to be abused and trodden under the wheel of pleasure of prosperity. If that earns me the title socialist so be it. But those who fix labels need to understand that the wheels of God's justice are always grinding to establish his Kingdom. The Kingdom will release the poor and the sick.

    "Thanks be to God!"

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Frank. I appreciate you taking the time to write so much and with fervor.

      At first I was a bit taken aback by your opening words, but I take it you dislike the use of "socialism" as a scare word or a smear word and that you hate the hypocrisy that is depicted in the cartoon.

  14. About an hour ago I received the following email from Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan in Louisiana:

    " I am not a political parson, so I try not to let this kind of 'stuff' into my mind. It is not good for my Irish nature, and it is not good for my Christian nature. I prefer to try to have a positive mindset, and let these things pass me by. You are capable of handling it. If your aim is to inspire discussion, you have certainly done that. Intemperate words, however, draw an intemperate reaction. I don't want either.

    "Was Jesus a Socialist? He was not a Democrat, Republican, Communist, Socialist, or any other thing. He was a merciful Savior and welcomes all stripes of political people, but I think he want us to keep those things from going to church with us by 'Rendering unto Caesar what is his, and rendering unto God what is his.' My rule is, Don't take your politics to church with you."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dan.

      Concerning your last paragraph, I would like for you to share it with Ralph Reed and the Faith & Freedom Coalition he leads. It is a strongly conservative organization that is openly for Republican candidates for the highest political offices in the land--and their main target is churches across the country. Here is from their website:

      Target Goals of The 2020 Project
      · Voter Registration - 5 million new voters
      · Voter Turnout - 18 million to the polls
      · Voter Education - Mailing over 100 million pieces of voter mail

  15. A local friend (as well as FB friend) posted these comments on Facebook this afternoon:

    "Calling Jesus a Socialist by definition of a modern economic theory is an anachronism. However, clearly almost entirely throughout the Bible, people understood themselves as members of groups/tribes/nations (though not in the modern sense) over our individualist understanding of personhood. That means that Jesus, a Biblical person, would support values associated with Socialism far more than those of individualist Capitalism!"

    1. The local friend mentioned above is Ken Grenz, whom I failed to identify.