What is Christian Socialism? Have Christians always been Socialists?
In this article, I aim to explain the origins of ‘Christian Socialism’. I will attempt to analyse its basis on Biblical principles, and relate the massive effect it has had on history. I will mainly focus on Early Modern-Modern examples of this.
From the Levellers to the socialists in Parliament today, Christians have been at the forefront of social reform. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, Christians from all political backgrounds have been heavily involved in helping the poor and sick in society; moreover ‘Christian socialists’ have been important reformers.
Before I start, let me define the term ‘Christian Socialism’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that “The term was generally associated with the demands of Christian activists for a social [programme] of political and economic action on behalf of all individuals, impoverished or wealthy…was used in contradistinction to laissez-faire individualism.” When we talk about this, we do not mean Marxism, or Communism. They are ideals that are unreachable and are in fact quite dangerous to the average person on the street. Christian Socialism is therefore about helping the poor, helping the rich, and above all combating the individualism mentality, so prevalent today.
I consider myself a so-called ‘Christian socialist’, and believe that Christians have been called to be ‘social warriors’, fighting to help the lives of the poor and vulnerable.
Common objections to Christian Socialism
Some use the argument that these earthly needs will soon pass, this world is not important as the next (which is true), to argue against the political work of Christians. But to this, I say, look to the Bible, what did Jesus do and preach? He looked after the poor; he gave to the poor, and ultimately gave them the ultimate gift – His life. He healed the sick and stood up for the vulnerable. He didn’t just give the blind, lame and sick the Gospel, he healed them too. He had little care for money, or for material needs (which is something the church seems to care too much about today).
Another argument against getting involved politically is that, Jesus never supported any political institution; his focus was on the word, and on those around him. That is indeed true, and in the modern world as Christians, we can have a massive impact outside politics, but we can help inside politics too and we must take action to help all those in need. We shouldn’t be driven by political allegiances and divided by political divisions, but by a strong desire to help, and thus being that light. Personally, I couldn’t give a monkeys as to what political party you belong to (though I think the extremes of either left or right should be avoided), but as Christians we should do our upmost to help people. Christian Socialism is a means to do this.
Christian Socialism is not just for Parliament, it is how we interact with the world – seeing that it needs that light, and thus trying to help all those around us. It recognises that Capitalism can be evil, rooted in greed, idolatry and oppression and that the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Some may think that I am suggesting that we must bring down the system, we must revolt! I am saying neither of this, but rather suggesting that Capitalism has its faults – it is a product of a sinful world. Sometimes Christians can excuse themselves, stating that God has put them in that place so it doesn’t matter, but it does! Sin has put people in different places, and we must tackle the evils, to help those around us! It is our duty as Christians, to actually make an impact; we are not to be idle and be lazy, but to be active! The world idolises money, status and fame, as Christians we shouldn’t want any of that.
Christian Socialism – Biblical basis?
Before I go into the history of the movement, let us examine the Scriptures and see what they say. James 5: 1-6 (in the context of rich oppressors) says:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up for treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter
James isn’t holding back here is he! The rich and the wealthy that store it all for themselves will reap what they sow. Those who oppress will be judged. This warning should be taken seriously by Christians, and by no means should we be happy with a system that does this. The Old Testament has a variety of verses that tell us not to be idle, but to do good and help people. Isaiah 1:15-17 says:
Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow
And Psalm 82:
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked
And Psalm 112:
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!…He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honour
The Bible certainly doesn’t suggest that we should be rising in revolution, bringing down the state and living on communes. We definitely shouldn’t be militant; but it does suggest a change of heart, one that seeks to help the poor, that hates oppression, loves justice, does good and cares for all.
So far, we have seen that there are passages in Scripture that show Christian Socialism is based on Biblical principles. The Early Church can be argued as an example of ‘Christian Socialism’ in practice. Acts 2-5 promotes a life of sharing and giving. Whilst doing research I notice that some sites, such as The Gospel Coalition seem to suggest otherwise.
I do think their arguments are really hazy and seem to me, they are trying to make excuses. There also seems to be confusion between Socialism and Communism. There are many strands of Socialism, for example. Christian Socialism is one of these many strands. The Early Church can be seen from these passages to share what they had, there was no class structure either. They were united in their one desire for God. The Church were being different, it shows us how we should live. A desire for private property is worldly. Yes, there is nothing wrong with owning a house, don’t get me wrong, but if we cling to these, if we are not prepared to give them up at a moments notice, then we are doing it wrong.
History of Christian Socialism
Earlier forms of Christian Socialism include radical dissent movements in the Middle Ages (the Peasants’ Revolt, John Wycliffe and Lollards), Levellers and Diggers in the time of the English civil war (1642-1651), and the Corresponding Societies of the 1790s as well as several prominent figures of the Victorian era. Remember none of these were revolutionary movements, when we use the term ‘revolt’, it means in simple terms that the people wanted to be heard and ‘revolting’ was a way of getting their grievances addressed properly by the central government, not a full-blown revolution. Let us now jump to the 17th century. It’s a period I know fairly well. There were certainly socialists before this time and Christians were making a big impact socially before the 1600s, but for sake of space and time, let us look at the Levellers. For a greater look into this, do read my post I made for the Christians on the Left.
The Levellers have often been looked down upon by certain Christians, mainly as they opposed certain factions within the Puritan movement, notably Parliamentarians. When I discuss Puritanism, I effectively mean the middle class during the middle of the seventeenth century, those in the Church of England and those who were in power. Levellers argued for votes for all men, and social justice, they wanted a fairer society for all. The Parliamentarians during the civil war, under Cromwell, crushed their protests; their ideas of social reform threatened those in power. They were a mass movement, and desired change through their petitions, pamphlets and protests. They weren’t revolutionaries; they were just political reformers who were seen as a threat to the established order and Church, kind of like how the Wesleys were seen a century later. That dreaded word – change. They were before their time and looked to the Bible for answers. They can be a great inspiration for all Christians and probably the first real ‘Christian Socialists’! It is interesting to note that many of the leaders of the Leveller movement were ex-Puritans and their following were the poor. As stated, to me Puritanism was generally a middle class movement, whilst Levellers included everyone, regardless of class or position and were therefore more inclusive. One argument made by them and that Diggers (True Levellers) was who actually introduced a class system? For it was not God surely? But man’s desire to rule over one another.
Christians should be proud of the actions of the Levellers and for what they stood for, we need to be inclusive like they were and fight for social justice. If you are someone who follows many of the Puritan writers, then you still should not be against what the Levellers stood for. Yes they did conflict a lot with the Puritans, but it is worth looking into what the Levellers actually wanted, for yourself. Find out; see if they were a positive force in English politics.
In the eighteenth century, we can note the rise of Methodism led by Charles and John Wesley. This movement along with the actions taken by key preachers like George Whitfield and Howell Harris has many similarities to Christian Socialism. In the local prayer meetings and services, there was unlikely to be any issue of class. Both women and men, poor and rich gathered together to worship. They also started many Sunday schools to help educate the poor children to read and write. Methodism promoted a universal fund where those in need to go too if they were in hard times, this can be seen to be a biblical principal as found in 2 Corinthians 8, no one was to go needy. The church was meant to look after its flock, look after the people in its area and therefore it was to play an important role in the community for everyone. In fact when the agricultural and industrial revolution took place in England, it was the Methodists who pressed manufacturing owners to treat their workers well and to feed and pay them fairly. Although we should never consider Methodism as a political movement, it is argued that it prevented revolution in England (compared with the turmoil across the Channel), as it helped quell the concerns of the poor, even if the establishment believed they were trying to stir up revolution by breaking class divides and the like. Methodism therefore was a movement for everyone, but focused its attention to the needs of the poor, especially their greatest need.
If we fast-forward to the 19th century, we will find a vast movement of Christian socialists, some of whom were the founders of the Fabian society, which would latter help in the creation of the Labour Party. Three founding fathers of what we now call ‘Christian Socialism’ in its modern sense were Fredrick Maurice, John Ludlow and Charles Kingsley. According to Dr Andrzej Diniejko, ‘They believed that the Christian Gospel contains the key to the social question, particularly in its teaching of the brotherhood of man. The chief mission of the Christian Socialists was to win back the workingmen to the Church. Christian Socialism meant for them social, cross-class co-operation and partnership under the leadership of the Church.’ These three men wrote many tracts and publications. They advocated ‘the moral regeneration of individuals as a means of alleviating acute social problems.’ They appealed to the charity of the rich, to give to the poor.
Victorian Christian Socialism, like today in many respects, was not against the class system. It did not want to bring the whole system down, nor did it want to fight the rich. What it wanted to do was transform peoples’ attitudes, to fight the injustices in the world, and to be a true light in a dark place. It is clear that these Christian Socialists were against unrestrained laissez faire Capitalism. It is also clear that they ‘emphasised the collective responsibility of society to deal with economic problems. The Victorian Christian Socialists contributed to adult education, the co-operative movement, friendly societies and the Labour movement. Christian Socialism placed a greater emphasis upon moral and social requirements of human life than other strands of Victorian socialism.’
In the twentieth century, we see movements towards the social gospel. The Social Gospel as it become known tried to apply Christian ethics to social problems, such as such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labour, inadequate labour unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Leading Evangelical lights such as John Scott have argued that this movement desperately needs to be revived today. Although it has links to the ecumenical movement, the social gospel is something many churches have lacked for a number of years. The Bible is meant to give life and hope, it calls us to proclaim to word, but it also calls us to help the poor and needy, something which we severely lack today.
If we fast forward to today, we note that Christian Socialists are still a force in England, notably within the Labour party as the Christians on the Left. They advocate a fairer tax system, but also no trading on Sundays and state that we must disagree well with other political forces such as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. I am a strong advocate of disagreeing well! After all, there are Christians on both sides of the political spectrum, who believe that their stance will benefit people more. I don’t doubt that we all share values of Christian Socialism, and even when we find ourselves in our different political tribes, our primarily focus is always the Kingdom of God.
Christian socialism is not a directly-Biblical notion, but its values are. Its use throughout history has been to help people, to fight injustice. It differs from other socialism as it does not want to bring down the establishment, rather reform it via the works of the gospel. Christians have a duty to help people, by getting involved in politics. We can achieve this. However there is often talk of ‘Left versus Right’. This is not how we as Christians should tackle this issue. We should love people of different political backgrounds, get passionate about what we believe, warn people of dangerous political followings, but also remember that Christians can be Labour or Conservative, and still have a desire to help people.
To conclude, Christian socialism is important to me as I believe it is a way where we can make an impact in people’s lives. Some will disagree and believe in a more Conservative approach, which is fine as well. What should be the focus is a desire to make a difference no matter what our political leaning is. We need to focus on the Kingdom, to love one another, and spread the Gospel of our Glorious risen Lord. There should be no hate in Christians of Conservatives or Labour, that is wrong, and if you do hate…cut it out now! Christian socialism has had an enormous impact in the world’s history and impacted the lives of countless millions. The values of this are what Jesus has called us to do, love our neighbour, reach out to the poor and outcasts in society and be that light in this dark world.
God is not a capitalist, he’s not a socialist, he’s not Labour, he is not a Conservative, Democrat or Republican. God is not to be put into a political box, he is on no political party side. This is why even though my personal political beliefs label me as a Christian Socialist, I know that politics is not the be all and end all, we are meant to do his will whatever party is in power and we must work with those from all political backgrounds in order to help all classes in society. God has his own agenda, and loves his people whatever their political agenda, Labour/Conservative even Liberal Democrats!
Therefore let us disagree well with our brothers and sisters. Capitalism has its many flaws, and has left many poor and needy behind. It’s our job to help those and care for them, and we all have our different thoughts on how this is done. For me, answers can be found in Christian Socialism, for others it is not. Again let us disagree well. Christian Socialism has a rich and powerful history, God has worked in it for his own agenda, like he has worked in the conservative movements. We have our different political tribes, but we all belong to one Kingdom, our Father’s.