Most people believe they must decide between capitalism or socialism when it comes to their sociopolitical choices. To properly understand what each of these theories represents, I give the academic definitions for each. Capitalism features the private ownership of production which establish free markets that guide and distribute income with minimal government regulation. Conversely, socialism calls for public ownership of production and property, mainly with a central government to oversee it. The primary reason I am writing this blog entry is to provide a solution for those who feel disillusioned with both capitalism and socialism. Then, I offer a middle-ground option, which I believe is most in line with scripture. This political theory is distributism, and I will return to it later in this essay.
Synagogue and State in the First Century
So, how does a post about distributism relate to the overall historical-grammatical theme of Christian Origins/Current Faith? Granted, it is anachronistic to read a modern political theory into scripture. The early Jesus movement could not fathom a society in which they influenced the government, let alone voted in a democratic republic. Rome enforced military occupation throughout Judea and did not extend citizenship freely. The relationship between the Romans and the Jews was already tense, so the followers of Jesus inherited this tension. Moreover, it intensified when Christians rejected the empire’s mandate, “Caesar is Lord,” while openly proclaiming Jesus as king. Whereas we see the title “Messiah” primarily as a religious one, the Romans knew exactly what it meant: Jesus is a king to rival all the kings of the world — to include their emperor (cf. Luke 23:2; John 19:12; Acts 17:7).
Let me be clear: neither Jesus nor his apostles laid out a system of government in their time, and they would not do so today. To be sure, Jesus himself taught, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Likewise, Paul of Tarsus wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God. . . . Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:1, 7). Any thinking adult should know that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, neither Conservative nor Labour. Instead, he asks us, “Look, those who wear soft robes fancy suits are in royal palaces ornate government buildings. What then did you go out to see?” (Matt. 11:8). Okay, so in the immediate context, Jesus was asking this question to Jews who went out to the Jordan River to meet John the Baptizer. In short, these people ventured out to see one of God’s prophets. We must seek God’s kingdom before we trouble ourselves with this-worldly politics. That is not so we should ignore them, either.
To Meet the Needs of All
When I first started Christian Origins/Current Faith in 2013, one of my goals was to leave politics behind and have fellow Christians focus on biblical theology instead. Too many churchgoers link Jesus with their sociopolitical beliefs rather than more spiritual concerns such as compassion or salvation. I have not completely abandoned this idea, but I have since learned about a political theory I think best increases God’s concerns laid out in scripture. In other words, I have a solution instead of just decrying politics as too this-worldly. Although the kingdom of heaven is not of this world, we must show compassion and meet the needs of others before we can introduce it into the hearts of people. However, we must be vigilant in not letting politics be our religion. No politician, no matter how honest or effective, can meet all of our needs. They cannot save us from sin or the consequences of evil. Inner peace and salvation belong to God and to God alone. For this reason, our Jewish brethren often recite a short creed known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Hebrew: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad; Deut. 6:4).
For national Israel, God did establish a system of government that we would call a theocracy, which is the rule of clergy. He wanted the Jews to be a nation in which no one went hungry, no one who worked lived in poverty, all orphans and widows were provided homes and basic needs, no one was ripped off in the marketplace; all government decrees and court rulings were both fair and just, and all worshiped God in spirit and truth. These themes are common to every biblical text, but the most poignant are these words from Jesus:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . .You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me (Matt. 25:34-36; 41-43).
To be sure, Jesus began his ministry with a sermon many biblical scholars call the Nazareth manifesto: “[God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). This was not just a spiritual message, but a very loaded sociopolitical one. The “year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee, in which God expected the Jews to liberate every slave and return all property to the original owners every fifty years (Lev. 25:8-10). Of course, we can say we Christians are exempt from this law, but why did Jesus repeat it several times? Because God’s concerns for the oppressed and the poor have not gone away under the covenant of grace.
The early Christians understood this when they first organized their churches. Soon after Pentecost, Jesus’ apostles led believers to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). I can already hear the objection: “Brother, this was between friends and not a system of government.” The point is for the church to create a just society, not just a spiritual one. Oftentimes, the church cannot meet the needs of the most desperate people, whether it is a lack of funds or lack of know-how. Sometimes, meeting the needs of the poor involves police protection from all who exploit them. Sometimes, it involves hospitals and insurance. In other words, most churches and individual Christians lack the infrastructure needed to bring justice and life without government support. This was also true of the early church and the Roman Empire.
Distribute the Proceeds to All
As a political theory, distributism focuses most heavily on socioeconomic justice for everyone, not just the rich (i.e., capitalism) or the poor (i.e., socialism). Many observers also describe this concept as “Christian democracy” because of its meshing of conservative church teaching with a more liberal view of social justice. It is both center-right (socially) and center-left (fiscally) on the political spectrum. Distributists emphasize the need for a government to defend human dignity, while still allowing education and social values to remain grassroots concerns. They allow corporations to turn a profit, but not to the extent of exploiting workers and the environment without regulation. Distributism calls for the fair distribution of personal property and resources, but also never to overrule basic human rights. For example, an American distributist would have been a strong advocate for slavery abolition and for the Civil Rights movement. However, most distributists are pro-life and against the death penalty. They believe in a doctrine known as the “consistent life ethic,” or the “seamless garment.” That is, neither government nor society has the God-given right to take someone’s life no matter what. There is some disagreement over whether war can be justified or if distributism should involve pacifism. At this point, most agree with the traditional Just War Theory.
Historically, distributism is tied most to Catholic social teaching, especially in the writings of British authors G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), as well as papal encyclicals such as Rerum novarum (known in English as “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”). However, this should be rightly understood as a biblical notion based on Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto and how the apostles evenly distributed goods throughout the church. The idea of Christian democracy is open to all believers who want to see God’s kingdom in the hearts of everyone. We have no reason to wait for the end times to fix what we should be fixing in the here and now. In fact, this is what we really pray when we say, “Your kingdom, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Or do you just mumble your way through this petition?
Many European nations already have a distributist party or even laws in place. In the United States, the official distributist platform is the American Solidarity Party, which began only in 2011. It is named after the Solidarity (Polish: Solidarność) movement that brought democracy to Poland in the 1980s. However, they also claim “solidarity” as a movement for all people, to bring about a just and equal society in the name of Jesus. That is not to say distributists call for a national religion, but still promote the liberal democratic ideals of conscience and informed decision-making. The official motto of the American Solidarity Party is, “Common Good, Common Ground, Common Sense.” This captures the full meaning of its platform, emphasizing the typically liberal concern for social justice; the need to resolve sociopolitical differences through constructive dialogue; and the generally conservative demand for fiscal responsibility. Oftentimes, people on the right and the left criticize those in the middle, the centrists or moderates, for being weak and unable to take a side. However, distributism is a centrist/moderate paradigm with teeth; it has its own meaning and purpose. The goal is none other than the fullest measures of justice and opportunity for all people. This is to maximize the steadfast love of Jesus to everyone, especially to those who need it most.
For a well-rounded case for Christian democracy, check out this collection of essays by various distributist authors called The Hound of Distributism: A Solution for Our Social and Economic Crisis (ACS Books, 2015).
Ahlquist, Dale. “Who is this Guy and Why Haven’t I Heard of Him?” Minneapolis: The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 2019. https://www.chesterton.org/who-is-this-guy.
Ball, Terence, and Richard Dagger. “Socialism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/socialism.
Bunn III, Willard. “Hilaire Belloc.” Chicago: Poetry Foundation, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/hilaire-bellochttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/hilaire-belloc.
Encyclopædia Britannica, eds. “Capitalism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/capitalism.
Munro, André. “Christian Democracy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christian-democracy.
New Revised Standard Version. New York: Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.