Have you ever heard the argument that Jesus was a socialist? I have, often.
As I’ve studied the economics of income redistribution, many of my colleagues in secular academic circles point out the seeming discrepancy between two of my main disciplines of focus: faith and economics.
How, they ask, can I reconcile my recommendation that government programs be downsized with my belief that we are to care for the poor and those in need?
Restricting government involvement seems heartless, and denying the call to care for others is sinful. How can we accurately read Scripture in this case?
If you have struggled with this question, let me recommend a new resource from the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). FEE’s president, Dr. Larry Reed, recently published an excellent essay, “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?,” which unpacks this very topic.
As Dr. Reed finds,
The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Jesus that endorses the forcible redistribution by political authorities. None, period.
Dr. Reed goes on to delineate a key nuance in the common understanding of the term, “socialism”:
A reader may object to [his description of the term “socialist”] by insisting that to “socialize” something is to simply “share” it and “help people” in the process, but that’s baby talk. It’s how you do it that defines the system. Do it through the use of force, and it’s socialism. Do it through persuasion, free will, and respect for property rights, and it’s something else entirely.
Legitimate wealth – the kind that does not come about at the expense of others – is earned through voluntary exchange. It is the result of mutually beneficial, free exchange, the observation of property rights, and genuine care for others.
Helping the poor should not come about through violence.
Neither should it come out of a heart filled with envy of the rich or reckless, shortsighted generosity, and it most certainly should not harm the very people it intends to serve.
Ultimately, the heart attitude determines our effectiveness.
Close study of scripture reveals that there isn’t a discrepancy between faith and economics, nor between diminished government involvement and helping the poor.
In fact, all economics comes from God’s creation of man, our anthropology, and what God has given us to fulfill his glory. Those who have faith in Jesus share the imperative to help the poor, and they are called to do so in a way that aligns with the economic realities which are woven into the very fabric of creation.
Understanding what the Bible says about the government’s role in poverty alleviation is essential to our ability to help others effectively while on earth.
When we spend our energy in ways that counter God’s design, we are ineffective and our efforts are fruitless. But when we seek to act in harmony with God’s desires for us, we find ourselves instruments used to bring about flourishing.
Want to read more about what the Bible says about wealth redistribution? Check out Dr. Art Lindsley’s writings about Jubilee and Acts 2-5 as well as IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.
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