Was Jesus Christ a communist?
This article is an adaption based on a talk given by James at LibertyFest Brisbane 2018.
Definitions are important. A quick dictionary definition of communism tells us that it’s a theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. We’ve all heard that before.
It’s not a bad idea in theory, but of course, we know that in practice every manifestation of communism in the world has ended in a bloodbath. So I’m dubious that Jesus was a communist. He might have agreed in theory with the idea, but in practice we see that communism does not live up to its altruistic ideals.
The devil is always in the detail, and the words “system of social organisation,” are the danger. With any system of social organisation, the essential question is: can I opt out? And in every manifestation of real world communism you cannot opt out. In recent history we’ve seen walls erected around communist regimes with people trying to tunnel or climb their way out, often dying in the attempt. So, it’s hardly Christian in practice.
Recently I was directed to the following comment on Facebook:
Jesus was a homeless Palestinian anarchist who held protests at oppressive temples, advocated for universal health care and redistribution of wealth, before being arrested for terrorism, tortured, and executed for crimes against the state. Now go ahead and explain to me why he’d vote conservative. I’ll wait.
Well, that’s not snarky at all is it? It’s also not entirely accurate. For a start Jesus wasn’t a Palestinian. He was Judean, and under law he was a Jew. He advocated for a structure of leadership under God, with God being the highest authority, though He was close to being an anarchist in that he did not advocate for coercion. He held one protest at a temple. And he certainly did not advocate for universal health care.
But let’s look at what He did say about how to treat others. In Luke 12:33-34 He says “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As ever throughout the Bible, Jesus commands us to turn our eyes not to worldly wealth and not to material possessions, but to the treasures of the spirit and of the kingdom of heaven. To look to spiritual wealth, and to let go of the things that we cling to in this world. A very powerful message.
1 Timothy 6:18 says “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Christians, certainly, are generous and willing to share. Many of the great charities of the world are run by Christians and it is a Christian system of thought that’s paved the way in the West for welfarism and for policies that are designed to enable the weakest among us to be lifted up. Generosity and sharing are crucial part of Christianity.
The following is probably the best Biblical evidence supporting the idea that Christianity could be a communist system. It’s from the Book of Acts and describes the activities of the early church:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continue to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time, those who owned land or house sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it all at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
That very much sounds like communism in theory, but the crucial part here, as always, is: can I opt out? Is it voluntary or is it enforced by violence? Did the apostles demand at gunpoint that these members of the church sell their properties? Certainly not.
There are many examples in recent times and throughout history, all the way back to when Jesus was here on earth, of people trying to co-opt Christ for their own political ends. That’s what the zealots wanted; they wanted him to be a revolutionary for them even though He had no interest in a political uprising.
People exploit the figure of Jesus in order to pursue their own ends. Why? If you can co-opt Jesus as a spokesperson for your movement, then you can play to the emotions and spiritual desires of Christians everywhere. Or even people who are sympathetic to Christianity, or even people who are cultural and nominal Christians who grew up knowing about the love of Jesus and thinking he’s a pretty good guy. He was the most excellent example for humankind, and everyone wants a piece of that for their movements.
Let’s look at the Christian symbol of the cross – what does it symbolise? Willing self-sacrifice. Countless Christians have died for their loyalty to Jesus Christ, and they’re dying because they’re going out and they’re preaching the word, and they’re doing it willingly; they’re sacrificing themselves. They are selling their land. They are giving up their careers and their businesses here in the West and they’re going to very deep and dark places in the world, in the very troubled countries and very dangerous places. Christians today are still getting murdered for preaching the word of Jesus in these foreign lands. They’re giving up a lot and doing it willingly. Voluntary charity: a principle which lies at the heart of liberty.
Communism banks on love. It borrows from the altruism and the loving kindness of Christianity, but it only pays out death in reality. The reality of communism is that it’s a tyrannical movement enforcing so-called kindness. But the foundational theory, the charity, the loving kindness at the base of the ideas behind communism are not wrong, they are Christian. The early Christians in the church, as demonstrated in the Book of Acts, did engage in a communion in which they shared everything, but they did it voluntarily.
We need to get back to that value of voluntary charity. Welfarism, as we can see, doesn’t actually help people. It traps them in the system. It makes them dependent on the state. It also gives lazy Christians an opportunity to hand their responsibility to someone else to let the government do the charity for us, so we don’t have to actually take the shirt off our own back. So we don’t actually have to get out there and get our hands dirty and put ourselves at risk.
If you meet people who are communists wanting to claim that Jesus is on their side, ask them to show you in the Bible where Jesus endorses the state as the intermediary for charity. They won’t find it. You won’t find it. And it’s because Christianity is about individualism.
God has a vested interest in all of us as individuals. He created this experience of consciousness that we have, and He created us to be individuals who voluntarily engage in various collectives. You can’t avoid collectivism altogether. “A man who can live alone is either a beast or a god,” as Aristotle said, and none of us are either of those. We need to work together. We need to collectivise to some degree. But as soon as the collective becomes involuntary, something you can’t opt-out of, it completely falls apart and fails to be anything remotely Christian.