Some seasonal thoughts

By Susan Reider | Dec 23, 2019

Our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus always makes me wonder what kind of a country we are. The Christian Right claims ownership of the American brand, and they provide unflagging support to one of the most ungodly human beings ever elected to public office. But they demonize other political leaders who espouse behavior taught by Jesus Christ. I can’t help but return to the age-old question, “Was Jesus a socialist?”

To those of you who have already extensively researched and pondered this matter, I apologize. To everyone else, I suggest we take a few minutes to think about it together. Personal disclaimer: I’m a lapsed Lutheran with a good dose of Mennonite on my father’s side, so you can factor that into my analysis.

Ever since Bernie Sanders appeared like an Old Testament prophet in his 2015 presidential bid, socialism has once again been variously described as a Communist threat, a ridiculous utopian idea, or a sinister plan to send the black helicopters for your lawn furniture. Instead, Trump was elected and Prosperity Gospel preachers gave invocations at his inauguration.

While the Bible is certainly open to interpretation, most Christians accept that Jesus admonished his followers to love one another, to treat others as they would treat themselves, etc. But a form of evangelical American Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel takes a different view. Faith, positive speech and donations to religious causes will entitle you to material wealth. The contract between God and humans reads: we deliver the faith, he delivers the gold. If you’re not rich, you must be doing something wrong.

This perverse strain of Christian capitalism grew at a frenzied pace in the 1980s and ‘90s with the rise of televangelism in America. Hanna Rosi of The Atlantic argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble leading to the 2008 financial crisis by assuring believers that God would help them with their mortgages. Some anthropologists believe that people in poor Southern communities are particularly vulnerable to its charms because it “explains capitalism.” This belief is characterized as a “cargo cult” in some societies.

How this translates into support for the person currently occupying the White House is not hard to figure. Poor people give money to churches in the hope that they will soon be rich. The church leaders benefit. Tax cuts benefit them further. Poor people are working harder than ever but are falling further behind. The churches exhort them to give more.

Let’s compare this to Bernie Sanders in September 2015, speaking to students at Liberty University about justice. I watched the speech on TV and was struck by how unmoved the audience seemed. Maybe they had just heard Glenn Beck say “Social justice is a perversion of the Gospel.” Whatever. Bernie made a valiant effort to come to them where they were. I wish I could say he made an impact, but I doubt it.

Maybe those kids forgot Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Or when he warned: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Or that Jesus was killed by the Roman government for sedition.

Was Jesus a socialist? That’s a dicey proposition, considering we’re applying modern cultural interpretation to his teachings. But there’s no question that the socialist philosophy of wealth distribution “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” echoes Jesus when he said “Much is required of the person to whom much is given; much more is required from the person to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:48)

Right-wing Christians say these teachings apply only to people, not to governments. But Jesus said that in the final judgement, nations too will be sorted into sheep and goats. We’re supposed to create God’s kingdom on Earth, and take care of the birds of the air, lilies of the field, etc. to assure that all of our human needs will be met.

Right now, we’re goats.

This column is a project of the MidCoast Branch of the Southern Maine Chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors.

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