This month, the Wendland-Cook Program for Religion & Justice and the Institute for Christian Socialism are launching a co-hosted series, “Engaging Christianities and Socialisms.” Over the next three months, we will convene a cadre of thinkers, organizers and working people to reflect on which forms of socialism, past and present, might be advanced by Christians and how the power to realize them might be organized. The series will feature written contributions from panelists, published at both The Bias and Wendland-Cook’s Interventions, as well as a follow-up webinars.
We encourage you to register for the first Zoom webinar here.
The first event focuses on the question, “What Have Christianity and Socialism to Do With Each Other?” and features Cornel West, Joerg Rieger, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Angela Cowser. This is the first written contribution for the event by Joerg Rieger.
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WONDERING about connections between Christianity and socialism must appear odd to most people raised in the United States. There are many taken-for-granted assumptions about socialism and about Christianity that make this an unlikely if not incongruous pairing. In addition, both terms evoke strong reactions among many, both positive and negative. Nevertheless, while putting socialism and Christianity in conversation does not seem to make much sense to some, there is growing interest from others based on new embodiments of socialism and Christianity. What is going on here, and how might things be developed?
From the very beginning, socialism has had plenty of detractors in the United States. During the Cold War, the pushback against socialism became even more pronounced as it was decried as atheist, unpatriotic, totalitarian, unrealistic, and generally misguided. Christianity, by contrast, has enjoyed broad support in the United States but has found itself dealing with a growing number of critics in more recent years. Younger generations in particular see it as out of touch, a bastion of conservativism, and the handmaiden of a status quo that perpetuates the inequalities that capitalism, racism, and sexism keep producing.
The track record of Christianity on those counts is indeed problematic. Too often, Christians and their organizations have supported injustice rather than justice. But throughout the ages, there have also been embodiments of Christianity that promoted justice over injustice. In the United States, for example, the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women and minorities, civil rights, and even the labor movement were supported by people of faith and some of their communities. Unfortunately, many of these histories have been forgotten or suppressed. Present engagements, like faith communities supporting the Occupy Wall Street Movement or the Black Lives Matter Movement, are not widely known and get little attention in the media.
The track record of socialism has its own ups and downs. Unfortunately, collective memory in the United States hardly remembers the ups, and there is widespread confusion about socialism, even among those who are open to embracing it. Some initial clarifications are in order before we can tackle the relation of socialism and Christianity.
First, socialism does not necessarily require overbearing governments or totalitarian politics, as is often assumed, although too much government has indeed been a problem of certain socialisms in recent history. Neither is socialism by nature undemocratic or even anti-democratic. Second, it is often mistakenly claimed that socialism requires naïve idealism or optimism about human nature. It is true that utopian socialisms have at times lacked a certain sense for reality, but those traditions have mostly failed and do not necessarily define the heart of socialism. Conversely, most socialisms would question the optimism of capitalism, which assumes that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and that its leaders have done so.
This brings us to some intriguing parallels of socialism and Christianity that merit greater attention and ongoing conversation beyond what can be presented here.
Parallels of socialism and Christianity are sometimes seen in an ethos of sharing. The references in the book of Acts (2:42-47; 4:32-36), where the early Christian communities are described as holding everything in common, may serve as an example. This so-called “love communism” has inspired many through two millennia, although these communities have rarely been sustainable in the long run. Even in the book of Acts itself there are indications of failure (Acts 5:1-11). In socialist discourses, this ethos of sharing has sometimes been taken ad absurdum, inviting jokes about the practicality of sharing toothbrushes and underwear. More down-to-earth socialisms, by contrast, understood that the question of sharing is related to the ownership of the so-called “means of production”—such as tools, machines, and other assets of corporations—involving not only shareholders but the workers themselves. This conversation has been embodied, for instance, in the cooperative movement that has on occasions worked in connection with religious communities. These relationships are growing again today.
In the socialist tradition, it has been assumed that Christianity is characterized by a “socialism of sharing” and socialist traditions by a “socialism of production” (Karl Kautsky). Socialisms of production are concerned with the exploitation of working people and with what difference the agency of working people can make in the transformation of the world—not only in economics but also in politics and culture, including religion. Similar concerns, however, can also be found in the Jesus movement and even in some of the Pauline literature, where the focus is on organizing peasant communities and urban communities, which are trying to carve out productive spaces in the world of the Roman Empire. It can, therefore, be argued that a concern for production and agency is at the heart of both Christianity and socialism: in Christianity, terms like sanctification can be interpreted in this way; in socialism, it might be terms like economic democracy. Note that these are not just intangible ideas, as religion and labor movements have embodied these concerns since the beginning of capitalism and are picking up steam again today.
At first sight, atheism appears to be the point where Christianity and socialism are in diametrical opposition. Most intriguing, however, is the fact that, for good reasons, early Christianity was also accused of atheism. After all, Christianity presented a profound challenge to the theisms of the Roman Empire, which worshiped the gods of power and might and of the respective status quo. It is no mere coincidence that these are the kinds of theisms that socialism also questions. In some of their traditions, both socialism and Christianity are deeply suspicions of anything that is worshiped as ultimate if it is presented in the image of the few who dominate rather than in the image of the many who work. Isn’t the God of the Abrahamic traditions the one who gets the divine hands dirty by creating Adam from clay and by planting a garden, and doesn’t this God take the side of the Hebrew slaves in the Egyptian Empire?
Conversations between Christianity and socialism, which have deep and long roots, deserve to be picked up again for all of these reasons. There is a great deal of resonance on both sides, and the emerging challenges and tensions might prove to be productive, leading us beyond the impasses of the present.
Joerg Rieger is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair of Wesleyan Studies, and the Founding Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice. He is also on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Christian Socialism.