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GOD, CAESAR AND MONEY

 In 2013, the Christian Socialist Movement voted to change its name to ‘Christians on the Left’. Some argued that people were put off by the word ‘socialist’. The Guardian journalist Peter Ormerod – an active Anglican – wrote half-jokingly that it wasn’t the word ‘socialist’ that put people off, but the word ‘Christian’. 

Paradoxically, the name change is an opportunity to revive the language of Christian Socialism. The Christian Socialist Movement effectively served as a group for Christians in the Labour Party. Under its new name, they still operate in this way, though I’m pleased to say that they are happy to campaign alongside others on the left who are not Labour supporters.

However, Christian Socialism is older than the Labour Party. As early as 1848, Anglican priest Frederick Denison Maurice argued that ‘Christianity is the only foundation of socialism… a true socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity’.

Christian Socialists welcome debate and do not all share an identical understanding of socialism. Nonetheless, I suggest that socialism must involve radical change. As Christians caught up in the mind-bendingly transformative work of Jesus, we should be especially equipped to support alternatives to the sort of ‘accountancy politics’ that sees politicians argue about which of them could best manage the economy. Let’s transform the economy, not manage it.

The term ‘Christian Socialism’ developed in the mid-nineteenth century, but the movement drew on a range of Christian and other traditions going back to the Bible. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Christian Socialism has overlapped with other movements, including Liberation Theology, Christian Pacifism and Christian Feminism.

Common ownership is at the heart of socialism. I am conscious that readers of the franciscando not need me to tell them that monastic movements provide numerous manifestations of communities holding possessions in common. While the Reformation is often associated with a rejection of monasticism, the practice of common ownership proliferated among groups linked to the ‘Radical Reformation’. In the sixteenth century, Anabaptists shared goods in common, citing the New Testament to justify their practice.

In 1649, a group of radicals began to dig up common land in Surrey and to share their produce together. They are commonly known as the ‘Diggers’. Their inspiration was explicitly Christian. They wrote that God ‘made the earth to be a common treasury… not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another’.

The Diggers were not saying only that common ownership was right for themselves. They argued that it was right for the whole world. For the Diggers, those who regard the earth as belonging to ‘lords and landlords’ are sinning and holding ‘the creation under bondage’.

Socialism involves a conviction that the world’s resources must be shared. Those who mock this idea suggest that it would mean not having your own bed or your own underpants, as someone else would be able to use them. This is to confuse availability with property. While something may be allocated to me, or chosen by me, or used by me, no part of God’s creation can ever truly belongto me.

Many socialists, including Karl Marx, have been dismissive of attempts to set up communities of common ownership within capitalist systems. Their criticisms are at least partially unfair. Of course, it is wrong to imagine that any such community could be uninvolved in the injustices of capitalism. To think this would be to underestimate the reality of sin. Some communities, however, are meant not as an opt-out from the world but a signpost to the future. Syndicalists (who advocate a bottom-up socialism based on workers’ control of workplaces) talk of ‘building the new world in the shell of the old’. The aim, however, is to extend common ownership to the whole of society. For Christian Socialists, this is a religious imperative.

‘The Christian Church exists for the sole purpose of saving the human race,’ wrote the US Christian Socialist (and Episcopalian bishop) Franklin Spencer Spalding in 1914. ‘Therefore, the Church must destroy a system of society which inevitably creates and perpetuates unequal and unfair conditions of life’.

There are many reasons for Christians to reject capitalism – the perpetuation of poverty, the wastefulness of over-production, the maldistribution of wealth, the idolatry inherent in making human needs subservient to markets and money. For me, the strongest reason to reject private property is the example of Jesus.

It is widely recognised by New Testament scholars that Jesus and his followers lived in some sort of common-purse community as they travelled around proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This radically subversive act, which saw them reject social norms by leaving their families, was a lived commitment to a different set of values. The rich man invited to sell his goods was not being asked to make himself destitute but to join the community. The Jerusalem Christians who shared possessions in common were not starting something new but continuing Jesus’ practice. Opponents of Christian Socialism like to point out that this was voluntary. They maintain that Jesus did not want to change society. Yet Jesus was inspired by the Hebrew prophets, whose condemnations of exploitation are unavoidably political.

Centuries of establishment teaching have made us familiar with interpretations of Jesus that favour the status quo. Thus the ‘parable of the talents’ is presented as a story about using our gifts wisely. I found a very different response when I was researching my last book, and showed Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them. Without exception, they all read the parable as an attack on the rich man. By this reading the servant who refuses to co-operate is the hero of the story.

Some of my first-time readers saw the famous ‘Render unto Caesar’ passage as an encouragement to pay tax, but just as many read it the opposite way. They picked up on the context: Jesus was threatened with arrest so needed to give an indirect answer. It seems to me that Jesus was inviting his listeners to think about what really belongs to Caesar, and what to God.

It should not be thought that any Christian Socialist regards socialism as sinless. Socialism is not the kingdom of God. It is a step on the way. Yet I suggest it is a vital step, because common ownership of the world’s resources is unavoidable if we are to give the answer that nothing can truly belong to Caesar. It can only belong to God. f

Symon Hill is a Christian activist and author. His latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence (DLT, 2015).