Recently, Julie Roys, whose work in unmasking evangelical Christian leaders accused of spiritual, sexual, and psychological abuse I greatly admire, wrote an article entitled, 5 Reasons Socialism is not Christian.
It wasn’t the most sophisticated piece, I must confess. Those of us who have lived outside the United States in economies that have been influenced by democratic socialism aren’t quite as spooked by the S-word as some American evangelical commentators. But in the end, frankly, I agree with Roys’ general conclusion: I don’t think socialism is Christian either. But lest anyone think that means I believe the usual alternative, capitalism, is Christian, uh-huh, no, I don’t.
Christians have found themselves at home in both capitalist and socialist systems, and contributed to those systems significantly throughout history. But neither of them can ever truly be home for us.
You’re right, Julie Roys, socialism is not Christian, and neither is capitalism. Here’s my reasons why:
Capitalism benefits the few at the expense of the many
The fundamental principles of capitalism systematically undermine social cohesion, dividing us from each other, impoverishing us, and eventually sacrificing our collective well-being for the benefit of the few.
In his book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Michael Albert writes, “Capitalism revolves around private ownership of the means of production, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates property, power, and to a limited extent contribution to output. Class divisions arise from differences in property ownership, and differential access to empowered work versus subservient work. Class divisions induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life.”
Do I need to list the innumerable times the Bible condemns Israel for allowing the rich to become richer while the poor remain destitute? Or do I need to quote Christ telling us the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, or his condemnation of those who do not care “for the least of these sisters and brothers of mine”?
In the Christian tradition, inequity and poverty have always been seen as evidence of a corrupt and sinful society, and God’s people have always been called to practice the alternatives of generosity, hospitality and justice.
Capitalism promotes greed
I remember hearing an investment banker telling me the market will always correct itself because traders are driven by two primary motivations: fear and greed. Greed drives the free market, and in turn capitalism promotes greed.
In his documentary on capitalism, Michael Moore says,
“Capitalism is the legalization [of] greed. Greed has been with human beings forever. We have a number of things in our species that you would call the dark side, and greed is one of them. If you don’t put certain structures in place or restrictions on those parts of our being that come from that dark place, then it gets out of control. Capitalism does the opposite of that. It not only doesn’t really put any structure or restriction on it. It encourages it, it rewards it.”
The biblical injunctions against greed, avarice, gluttony and self-interest are myriad. As Proverbs 1:19 says, “So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain. It takes away the life of its owners.”
Greed destroys that which we love. It is opposed to our most basic moral principles. And Jesus couldn’t have been more explicit about its corrosive nature, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:15)
Capitalism treats people as commodities
In capitalism, commodification is the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities or objects of trade. At its most basic, a commodity anything intended for exchange, or any object of economic value. We’re okay about products and consumables being exchanged as commodities, but the commodification of human life, when selling their labor on the market to an employer, is deeply concerning because it turns people into objects. And when people are seen, and counted, as objects they are easier to exploit or dispense with.
At its worst, commodification results in child labour and sweatshops in the majority world, paying their workers wages far lower than those that prevail in developed nations. But even at its best, in those developed nations, where there are functional labor laws, it can still be argued by Christians that the very conception of the worker’s labor as a commodity reduces that worker to something less than God sees them.
Christians believe all humans are made in the image of God and share a common value as God’s children. This is why Christians were at the forefront of movements to end slavery and to institute child labor laws and in the fight for civil rights and social justice. It simply isn’t Christian to perceive God’s children as objects of varying or debatable worth.
Capitalism’s quest for constant growth is ultimately destructive
In order to exist, capitalism must expand without end. This is the capitalist dream of continuous economic growth. It is an unquestioned capitalist assumption that growth of gross domestic product (GDP) is essential to a country’s stability and prosperity. As economist Robert Gordon said, “More growth is better, period.”
But the quest for constant growth has negative consequences for millions of people as well as for our fragile ecosystems. Companies say they could grow more quickly if they had fewer regulations on their production, but without such regulations capitalism’s hunger for growth would inevitably destroy the poor and consume all of nature and the ecosystems that we depend on to survive.
Joel Kovel explains it this way:
- Capitalism tends to degrade the conditions of its own production.
- Capitalism must expand without end in order to exist
- Capital leads to a chaotic world-system, increasingly polarized between rich and poor, which cannot adequately address the ecological crisis.
This combination makes for an ever-growing ecological crisis. But Christianity teaches that humankind has been tasked with the stewardship of God’s creation. We are called to preach the Gospel, protect life, and care for the planet. This will include showing compassion for people who suffer from creation’s destruction, as well as resisting those forces that seek to tarnish the glory and integrity of God’s good creation.
Capitalism speaks a lot about freedom, but actually limits autonomy
We all think capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand, but in reality, capitalism slowly ekes away our autonomy and leaves us less free than we realize.
Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have pointed out that, “a market arena of self-interested and anonymous interaction might reduce not only the need for compassion, but also the sentiment itself. In this respect, the economy produces people as well as things, and the capitalist economy produces people that are not ideally equipped with the democratic sentiments and capacities.”
Not only does it make us less civil, it also organizes us in a way that limits our choices. Erik Ollin Wright says, “Capitalism constructs the boundary between the public and private spheres in a way that constrains the realization of true individual freedom and reduces the scope of meaningful democracy.”
It results in elites controlling the political system, governments serving the interests of private capitalists, and very limited autonomy for workers.
So, does all that mean I prefer socialism? Or anarchism? Or libertarianism? Yes and no. There is no political or economic system that can be labeled Christian, only systems that are less Christian than others. In your critiques of socialism, don’t make the mistake of assuming that capitalism is as pure as the driven snow. It’s as slushy and muddy as some of the other alternatives.
As I said at the beginning, Christians have managed to find a home in all kinds of political systems, including socialist Scandinavia and capitalist USA. Christians have contributed greatly to the common good in those systems as well as critiquing them sharply when necessary. Our mistake is to imagine we are ever at home in any of them.