I know, I know, miraculous charity is different than socialism – but the feeding of the 5000 was a long overdue declaration of the goodness of the Year of Jubilee and a reprimand for its neglect – and if Jubilee wasn’t a form of socialism – I don’t know what is.
Now my brother had a great clarifying question regarding this. He asked,
“It would only be socialism if you also adopt a theocracy, right?”
The reason that this is a great question is that the commands surrounding the redistribution of land (wealth) and the freedom for slaves in the O.T. – the year of Jubilee – were directly connected to the fact that for Israel, the land did not belong to them to begin with.
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you – and you shall return every man unto his own clan, you shall return every man to his family.
The land must not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners, my tenant farmers.
So the issue is the idea of “ownership” or the ability for a human being to own something in creation. There existed in Israel, a very sophisticated system of redistribution and reciprocity for every inhabitant and it was all based on the allotments they received based upon their tribal affiliation. One was allowed to sell their property to another and allow oneself to be enslaved for financial reasons, among others. But in the back of everyone’s mind and during any transaction there was an understanding that this would all be reversed at least once in their lifetime. The problem began when the people of Israel discontinued this practice – a violation that the prophets of Israel denounced them for time and time again. Along with the “spiritual” denouncements for their idolatry, there were social and economic denouncements that went hand-in-hand with the spiritual ones. In fact, they weren’t seen as different.
Now back to my brother’s question – “It would only be socialism if you also adopt a theocracy, right?”
The answer to this is a resounding YES – but yes because they didn’t separate government from spirituality and judicial regulations from worship of God. The reason for that is that all people’s at that time had some form of a theocracy. That understanding of government was as much a contextual choice as it was a God-ordained choice. No Ancient Near Eastern country or people group functioned outside of a theocratic reign. All believed that their god(s) ran their country and was ruling over them. For Israel to have a theocratic form of government was not unique.
What was unique was the way in which Yahweh, compared to other gods, called them to treat each other with equality, to forgive debts and to free slaves based on a calendar and then to redistribute wealth and land. Every fiftieth year – everything was reset! That was the unprecedented aspect of Israel’s God who provided them with instructions for a very sophisticated form of “socialism.”
So the question is what would change if God acted in a different context or time – the form of government or the “socialistic” actions taken?
Either way, Israel was called and designed by God to be a microcosm of the eventual macro-cosmic or global reign of God. What carries over for us today is the understanding that everything in the earth is the Lord’s and that he is a God who cares much more for how we steward what we’ve been entrusted with rather than how well we own things. If it’s all his and continues to be his, what does that do to ownership when others are in need and it is in our power to give? But our hearts don’t like to give, at least consistently enough to meet the real needs of people all around us? This broken dynamic requires some sort of regulative body who will help us to not exploit our opportunities for our own gain without considering the consequence it deals out to the “other.”
If we don’t do this and lean on ownership, it ends up being an excuse for selfishness, rather than an aspect of how God has entrusted us to steward “his” stuff. Left to ourselves, we will always take care of ourselves more often than others (with a few great exceptions) and anything we do to redistribute still wrests the power in our hands. Socialism isn’t just about redistribution of resources but also of power.
So, to finish, it seems that in the O.T. and in the early church (Acts) – God was much more of a fan of a socialistic form of community governance than what we experience in America today. So, is Jesus a socialist – probably not in the strict sense, but I think it would be safe to argue that he was definitely not a capitalist, in whatever sense we could conjure.