Bernie, Pope Francis and the Biblical Mandate for Socialism

By Jamie A. Duncan,

Senator Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis on inequality: Francis

On Monday, September 14, Bernie Sanders spoke to students at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, evoking the Gospel of Matthew’s Biblical mandate to take care of the “least of these” in society, as I previously explained in detail. His message to the Evangelical Christians was clear when he said, “When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little. There is no justice when the top one-tenth of 1 percent today in America owns almost as much as all of the wealth at the bottom [garnering a “mostly true” ruling from Politfact].”

This week, Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. and on Thursday, September 24th, he will speak to a joint session of Congress. His message will likely sound much like Sanders’. In November 2013, Pope Francis wrote his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, translated into English as The Joy of the Gospel. In it, Francis criticized consumerism, saying “the desolation and anguish” it cultivates creates a “covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” He warned that, in the self-absorbed soul of the consumer, “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.” The Exhortation attacked what he called the “idolatry of money” and called on politicians to provide “dignified work, education and healthcare”, arguing that “[a]s long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved … no solution will be found for this world’s problems”. Further, Pope Francis argued that “the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life”, which must now be extended as a mandate to also “say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. …How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

It is clear why Bernie Sanders often quotes Pope Francis: both see economic disparity as a moral dilemma that stands in the way of progress and justice; both see it as government’s responsibility to change systemic problems that perpetuate poverty.

However, many politicians and pundits of all stripes bristle at the suggestion that governments have a responsibility to provide for the economic welfare of its citizens (the idea of a “We the People”, to establish a “more perfect Union…[to] promote the general Welfare” variety of government not valid here, I suppose), and conservative Christians often contort themselves in strange positions to substantiate such claims with scripture.

The “free market” Christian rebuttal: 

Hrafnkell Haraldsson reports that Southern Evangelical blogger Chris Queen of PJ Media immediately responded to Bernie’s speech at Liberty University, arguing that Bernie’s “words sorely lacked actual scripture” (a categorically false statement), which would have instructed him that “the God of the Bible is not a Socialist. He commands us to take care of the poor, but His commands don’t apply to governments–they belong to individuals, families, churches, and synagogues. We are to help those who need help out of the overflow of our love for God and for each other, not because a tax code or government entity forces us to do so.”

Queen defends his position with Acts 4:32-35, which describes the early apostolic community (a koinonia, the pre-church “fellowship” of believers), in which members were not allowed to claim “any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Following with a non sequitur, Queen elaborates: “Again, this isn’t a communal system.” He fails to mention that, according to Acts 5:1-10, the punishment for withholding material wealth from the koinonia was instant death.

Queen further argues “The early church didn’t lobby Rome for higher taxes to help the needy; they acted out of their own love for each other and out of their obedience to God.” He does not elaborate, nor does he discuss the actual history of the Catholic Church (forebear of Western Protestantism), which, by the fourth century, would ally itself with Rome and use Roman laws to eradicate heterodoxy under the narrative of “apostolic succession”, and amassing tremendous wealth for the Vaticana tradition Pope Francis has begun to criticize and reform. Without the collusion with state power, the Church would never have controlled such vast resources throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.

After all, amassed wealth results directly from political coercion, whether through laws, ideology, physical violence, or a combination of such. It is systemic.

Queen also ignores the absence of such a communal ethic among many high-profile Christian leaders. Theologies like Prosperity Gospel claim to megachurch and televangelist audiences that giving “seeds” of faith (in the form of donations) will benefit believers financially, a faith-based system that is supposed to raise the “right-belief” individuals from poverty. The corollary argument, of course, is that the sinful cannot rise out of poverty, no matter how much the government tries to help (and so helping the poor is itself sinful). Modern theologies such as this have resulted in a long list of millionaire pastors, yet the poor continue to get poorer (only Rick Warren of Saddleback Church gives a majority of his wealth–91% of his income–to charity). This results in millionaires in the pulpit telling us God doesn’t want us to raise taxes on millionaires to help the poor.

Author Haraldsson reminds us that Queen is not alone when he claims that Jesus is a free-market capitalist and that the Bible prohibits government care of the poor: “According to the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, Jesus had capitalism ‘in his DNA.’ And we shouldn’t forget Glenn Beck, who said social justice is ‘a perversion of the gospel.’ Self-described ‘Christian, patriot and defender of liberty’ Bill Flax said in a Forbes op-ed back in 2012 in response to President Obama citing Jesus that ‘Socialism renders workers slaves to the state.’ …[and] Jonathan Moseley writing in World Net Daily [said] that Jesus can’t be a socialist because ‘By “socialism,” we must understand “theft.”‘ Haraldsson points out that, while the Bible does not prohibit a relationship of power between church and government, it does clearly warn against the consolidation of wealth as a hindrance to personal salvation in such passages as Matthew 6:24 (“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money”), Luke 6:24 (“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort”) and Luke 12:15 (“Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’).

Similarly, Egberto Willies tells us that David Hope, pastor of the Word of Life Church in Texas, wrote an essay for the Kingwood Observer titled “Jesus is not a socialist”. In it, Hope claimed that “Capitalism is like the kingdom of God. Everyone has an opportunity to make it to the top, but there won’t be equal outcomes. When government tries to manufacture equal outcomes, it brings everyone down.” He argues that Capitalism is the “most compassionate system” and “the best way to reduce poverty”, because “it promotes wealth into the hands of those who serve others and have a heart to give to those less fortunate” as God has designed. He does not, however, explain why economic inequality has increased exponentially over the last 30 years.

Adrian Rogers was a key figure in the “Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Take-Over” of the Southern Baptist Convention (the schism’s moniker depends on whether the historian identifies as “conservative” or “moderate”) in the late 1970s and a three-term president of the SBC beginning in 1979. The SBC traditionally promoted the “priesthood of the believer” and allowed member congregations to remain independent on controversial social issues such as abortion and school prayer. Rogers ousted any high-ranking members he felt were “left-leaning” and made “culture war” social issues central to his leadership.

In his book “Ten Secrets for a Successful Family”, Rogers said: “You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the industrious out of it. You don’t multiply wealth by dividing it. Government cannot give anything to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. Whenever somebody receives something without working for it, somebody else has to work for it without receiving.”

This short excerpt implies that wealth is only acquired by the “industrious” worker (ignoring inherited wealth, the working poor and individuals who benefit from the “rigged” system, such as Trump, who is currently worth about $4 billion after benefiting from four bankruptcies, and ex-hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, who was able to buy the patent for an HIV treatment and raise the price more than 5,000%, an increase that will mostly effect insurance companies and tax payers); that the poor simply have not worked hard enough (ignoring the “working poor” who live below the poverty line despite full-time employment, children, the elderly, the disabled, and the transitional populace such as returning veterans, who often rely on public subsidies to survive); that taxation is theft and unfettered wealth is just reward granted by God; that structural inequality is a fairy tale, so that wealth and poverty are simply the result of individual choices (or “sin”); and that personal self-worth (and salvation, perhaps?) is measured by how effectively the body is used for labor. This is a fully Capitalist perspective, an abstraction of the human body that turns it into a commodity.

As I said in a previous post, the collusion of socially conservative Christian leaders and free-market politicians throughout the twentieth century (elaborated most effectively by Kevin M. Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America) results from the embodied dominant discourse of neoliberalism, which, according to Sean McCloud, “desocializes, decontextualizes, dehistoricizes, and–ultimately–dematerializes the world”, resulting in a spiritualized perspective that blames individuals for trauma and poverty and literally demonizes Keynesian economics (the economic philosophy that grew the middle class during the 1950s and 1960s) as “atheistic”, a denial of God’s limitless control over available resources and unlimited economic growth. Conservative Christianity, imbued with neoliberalism, dematerializes the body and natural resources so that material aspects of existence such as hunger, disability and environmental degradation are abstract concepts, while wealth is “proof” of God’s reward.

ruled by wealthDoes the Bible promote Capitalism or Socialism?

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist.” Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian archbishop

The short of it is: the Bible does neither, and we’re not talking about Socialism anyway. Capitalism and Socialism (and Democracy, for that matter) did not exist until recently, so any “Biblical” perspective is a matter of interpretation and not verifiable as a “literal” reading of the texts. (The Bible also does not mention gay marriage or abortion, for that matter, so all attempts to interpret federal law through Biblical mandates are subject to interpretation).

Further, even though Bernie does not argue with anyone who calls him a Socialist, his economic plan is explicitly “Democratic Socialism”, which, as Politifact discovered, is not like socialism at all: “These policies include ‘strong labor rights, progressive taxation, a robust array of public goods like child care, health care, and higher education,’ all advocated by Sanders, said Schwartz. With these positions, Sanders is technically a social democrat — he isn’t calling for a red revolution, just ‘a way of making capitalism humane,’ according to Peter Dreier, a leftist political theorist at Occidental College.”

Sanders’ Democratic Socialism is a return to Keynesian economics, relating most closely in U.S. history to the presidency of Eisenhower, during which tax rates for the wealthy were very high and the government invested heavily in education, infrastructure and scientific research, contributing to a prosperous middle class and a successful economy. In his campaign, Sanders has compared his plan to Nordic democracies like Denmark or sometimes to Canada, demonstrating that, in comparison to other Western models and, indeed U.S. history prior to the Reagan administration, his vision is completely mainstream.

That being said, I am a scholar of religion, so let me try to tease out some possible answers to the question of whether there is a Biblical mandate for government charity.

Haraldsson argued that Jesus was speaking to “the priests who ruled Judea for Rome, and to Rome itself”, evidenced by the charges of sedition. This evidence speaks to the life of Jesus himself, however, and Christians have rarely emulated his political radicalism, just as they hardly ever have made personal sacrifices for the communal koinonia, as in the early apostolic community (which required 100% donation of personal property to the group; or, Communism). The most popular form of practice in history involved voluntary participation in the ekklesia (church) institution. Queen attempted to make the leap from the early apostolic community, which shared everything, to the later Roman Church, which colluded with Roman power, equating the two periods of early Christian development to argue that Church politics has always been separate from government (when, in fact, the United States invented the separation of church and state and “voluntarism” in church attendance).

And, although Jesus was a radical figure who often told people to give their belongings to the poor, did he ever command human institutions? Paul’s letter to the Romans, in 13:7, commands that Christians pay what is owed: “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” In parallel passages Mark 12:16-17Matthew 22:21 and Luke 20:25, Jesus likewise tells Christians to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Apparently, taxes are just, even for the radical Jesus.

In the parable of the “Sheep and the Goats” (Matthew 25:31-46) it says that, when the son of man “comes in his glory…All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The “nations” here operates colloquially, referring to the races of humanity rather than the governments (although “race” is a recent social concept and, at that time, referred to the “lands” where people resided as inherent to their identity). Still, the stakes for all the people of earth are quite high, regardless of social standing, according to this: 

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”

This association between eternal salvation and personal responsibility to “the least of these” does not absolve anyone because of participation in government, and may well imply that government institutions that contribute to suffering (rather than alleviating it) may be punished collectively. Ezekiel 16:49-50 would certainly contribute to this reading: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” According to Genesis 18:16-33, Abraham convinced God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous individuals could be found among them, but not enough were found. Clearly, the cities were judged as a whole, the evil endemic to the population rather than the individuals. Sodom as a whole was condemned for being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” 

This is the kind of mindset certain conservatives embrace when they warn that God will punish the entire nation for certain legal rulings, such as the SCOTUS gay marriage rulingBy that logic, as attested by Matthew 25 and Ezekiel 16, it stands to reason that the nations divided into “sheep” and “goats” could be interpreted to apply to sovereign nations: or, governments. Certainly Pope Francis reads the scripture this way when he argues that “the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life”, which must now be extended as a mandate to also “say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” It is expensive to be poor under current economic policies, which Bernie Sanders rightly describes as a system deliberately rigged to benefit the 1%. For conservative Christians, government must be used to prevent abortion and gay marriage, which are not mentioned in the Bible. Ergo, government must be used to assist the poor, which is repeatedly mandated by scripture. Of course, the Bible requires none of these things of government, but government is made up of people, and 90% of Congress is Christian.

Bernie on a worldIn a recent interview, Pope Francis argues that his request that governments care for the poor is not “liberal” : “Some people might say some things sounded slightly more left-ish, but that would be a mistake of interpretation. It is I who follows the church…my doctrine on all this..on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church.” If it is not a “Christian value” to provide universal health care to protect the poor from financial ruin in the event of an illness or if the Biblical mandate to take care of the “least of these” does not apply to a progressive tax policy to provide affordable education, family leave for new mothers or a food program for impoverished seniors, certainly even the most conservative reader of scripture can agree that it is immoral to allow an economic system persist that continually funnels wealth from the general population to the 1% through mere policy alone. Sanders’ policies simply seek to reverse the redistribution of wealth that began through neoliberal economic policies with the Reagan administration and has diminished the middle class. After all, the policies of “free market neoliberalism” (which are regulated to benefit the wealthiest and so are not actually “free” markets) do not result in individual freedom, but, rather, in oligarchy, as argued this week by President Jimmy Carter and Stephen Colbert. This view was confirmed by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page in a study that recently determined the United States is an “oligarchy” because its economic policies and election rules are rigged to benefit the 1%.

This is not hatred of the wealthy, of course, and this is not class warfare. If 90% of America is staring down the Kochs and Waltons (“the top one-tenth of 1 percent today in America owns almost as much as all of the wealth at the bottom”), this is a cry for democracy. One individual, one vote, regardless of economic standing. And certainly I understand the simple tension here. “Structural inequality” implies a sociological perspective that absolves agents from responsibility, rich and poor alike, while the ethic of neoliberalism argues that there are only willful agents with no sociological ties. Yet, “willful agency” implies that the system has been rigged on purpose and the “millionaires in the pulpit” are purposely colluding for their own benefit.

At least from a sociological perspective, those who perpetuate the system of inequality might be forgiven for their ignorance, right? Certainly someone has the wool pulled over his eyes. And for this reason, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

How else to explain the massive shift in perspective for this country, in which the pro-Keynesian economic policies of Eisenhower would be considered far left of center in today’s political climate of neoliberalism and Jesus’ commands to care for the poor are framed as “liberal” when spoken by Pope?



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