While riding the bus home today from work, I saw a red Ford Focus station wagon with a mass of bumper stickers on it. Predominantly, they were stereotypically “liberal” bumper stickers. They said phrases like, “Proud to be everything conservatives hate” and “1492: The year when a group of Native Americans found Columbus lost at sea” (I actually like that one). One of them I found completely offensive since it was about how people destroy the environment. Ford station wagons, keep in mind, are not the most ecologically friendly of vehicles (and vehicles are not particularly ecologically friendly to begin with). One bumper sticker above all the others stuck out to me. It read, “Jesus Was a Radical Socialist Hippie”. Obviously, as one who believes Jesus was no less than G-d incarnate, such an absolute claim as to who and what Jesus was interested me. As someone who stands against socialism in all its oppressive might, I felt aggravated by the obvious falsehood of the statement. I want to approach the absurdity of this statement in
depth as a launching off point to make a sustained theological and ethical argument against socialism as a viable form of governance. I plan on putting forward an anarchist alternative to socialism as well as a biblical critique of Jesus’ alleged socialist agenda.
Initially, we must define socialism. Socialism indicates state ownership of the means of production. When someone owns the means of production, any profit made from whatever good is produced goes straight to them. Typically, they enter into agreements with other people who promise to do the work of production for a wage or salary. If I own the means of production for a field of corn, I own the field, the seeds, the sprinklers, all the harvesting equipment, and all the money made from selling the corn goes directly to me. People may agree to help me do the work to produce the corn, and I would subsequently pay them. They are laborers, employees, and a whole list of other names. In socialism, laborers still exist; Marx called them the proletariat. The owners, however, are replaced by the state.
What precisely is the state? Defining the state is tricky business. When defining it, one must decipher between the government and the state. Governments identify the style of bureaucratic make-up of the state. Therefore, a government can be a democracy or a dictatorship as well as a plethora of other configurations. Governments change. In hereditary monarchies, the government changes with the death of one monarch and the assumption of authority by the monarch’s child. In republics, governments change according to election cycles. The state, according to Wikipedia (which, contrary to what your teachers tell you, is a reliable source of information), is “a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory”. In other words, the state comprises a physical entity decided by a group of people, and they sustain its boundaries through the use of force (violence, economic accumulation, political maneuvering, etc.). The government acts as the medium of the state. Unlike the government, the state does not change according to a legal schedule. The state links all forms of government together as the common denominator. When people claim, “Dictatorship is bad; democracy is good,” what they mean to say is one government is better than the other, but the government still has the power to use force in the name of the state.
Socialism means the state—who owns a monopoly on force—owns a monopoly on the means of production. In more basic terms, the people who hold the power to kill you hold the power to feed you. Since the state, in socialism, replaces owners, one must work to
produce for the state, and in return, the state will grant what is owed to you for your work finished. Socialism relates itself more near to the state than it does the government. Socialist countries can be dictatorial or democratic. It really depends on how the state wants to organize its government. The state robes itself in all economic transactions. All citizens become state employees. This is socialism.
The ultimate goal of socialism appears admirable on paper. It runs counterintuitive to capitalism in which economic production occurs under the supervision of private owners. Instead, all items belong to the public which make up the citizens of the state. The difficult issue residing in the construction of such an economy is the question of distribution. The purpose of socialism is to distribute through the state rather than accumulate wealth through private ownership. The hope being that no one will be in need. It is admirable however naïve. From the anarchist critique, scarcity is a product of overconsumption and wealth accumulation. Overconsumption and accumulation are products of hierarchies. Hierarchies purport that one person is more valuable than another and therefore requires more resources: better food, nicer clothes, bigger houses, etc. The Christian critique of this notion derives from Romans 12.3-8 in which all body parts are considered equally important. Socialism does nothing to remove these hierarchies. It merely reinforces them by changing their nature and by claiming the hierarchies are for the public rather than for themselves. Disturbingly, hierarchical structures cannot be for others. Hierarchies intrinsically imply self-promotion. They literally are power over another. Any hierarchically structured organization will eventually give way to power grabbing, resentment, and oppression. Early anarchists contemporary to Karl Marx elaborated how his notion of proletariat upheaval would lead only to a repressive regime if it was not for the purpose of eliminating class and the elite. The U.S.S.R., the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and a list of other nations have proved the early anarchists right.
In first-century Palestine, socialism did not exist. To read Jesus as a socialist is ludicrous. Of course, as equally ludicrous and stupid is to read Jesus as a capitalist, anarchist, communist, or any other variety of governmental philosophies. Reading those theories back into the story of Jesus is called anachronism. Why would someone write something as foolish as “Jesus was a socialist” or “Jesus was a liberal” on their car? The simple answer lies in the cultural context of the bumper sticker. Since the conception of the United States, political groups proclaimed important historical figures as guarantors of their ideology. The president of Harvard in the 1770’s gave a speech about the newly formed colonial union making up the new Israel. Both the Union and the Confederate sides of the Civil War utilized the American Declaration of Independence to substantiate their right to maintain or dismantle, respectively, the United States. And more recently, George W. Bush used G-d (of whom most Christians believe Jesus is) to legitimize wars of aggression in the Middle East. The “Jesus was a socialist” bumper sticker responds directly to the outspoken, Christian, conservative capitalists in our society who profess G-d’s and, therefore, Jesus’ blessing on a capitalist economic system. Essentially, the person who owns the bumper sticker does the exact same thing conservative Christians do: claims Jesus to be on her side!
From where does this person understand Jesus to be a socialist? Did Jesus encourage the state to overtake ownership of the means of production? Did Jesus involve himself in any way, shape, or form with the bureaucratic make-up of governments? The obvious answers, “No and no” leave us with the question: was Jesus concerned with political issues at all? Of course, any 8-year-old could read the words of Jesus in which he tromps around the countryside proclaiming the “Kingdom of G-d” and answer that Jesus clearly gave political speeches about a state that was an alternative to the current one. Of course, if this state’s medium of power was exerted through the kingship of G-d and if Jesus believed G-d was king of the whole world, then the monopoly of force existed only with G-d. The clear indication from this belief displays Jesus’ belief in the invalidity of the state’s use of force. Jesus realizes he cannot simply avoid the state and its authority to use force. He seeks to prove G-d’s authority and confronts the state head on. After they kill him, his resurrection proves their impotency.
Herein lies the issue at hand. Whose side is Jesus on? By now, I hope the answer is clear. Jesus does not side with the people who seek to make the state the owners of all means of production nor does Jesus side with the people who want the state to own the rights to kill but not the means of production. Jesus stands on the sides of the people who believe G-d alone has authority and live accordingly by looking the state straight in the eye and saying, “You are evil in the sight of G-d!” Neither you nor me nor any of us have the right to coerce or use force over others. This is what Jesus taught us. That is who Jesus is! Jesus preaches a gospel of care for the outcast, the poor, and the powerless. He is for the people subjected under the calculated hierarchies that kept the rich rich and the poor poor. The easy solution for Christians who want to follow Jesus would be to look at the goals of socialism and jump on board. Jesus’ and socialists’ goals seem the same, correct? We must take one more step and look at how each seek to accomplish those goals. Socialism does it through domineering hierarchies that distribute wealth to people as equitably as possible; Jesus completely circumnavigates the state. He simply puts trust in the hands of poor peasants to organize and become a community of those who help those with need. Jesus subverts the hierarchies that promise peace and security.
Growing up, people always told me Jesus’ kingdom looked upside down in comparison to the world. Nevertheless, these same people thought there was a proper party to vote for and civic duties to engage in. They believed in a daily attitude that involved everything worldly. Is it not time to actually live in a way that is an upside down kingdom? Let us take away the power of the state and live like G-d really matters. Let us act like this kingdom is upside down rather than a socialist, hippie state where Jesus picks the right candidate. Peace!