Why I’m not offended by so-called “socialism”

In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, Congressman Paul Ryan said that he had a basic philosophical difference with the Democrats: he believes that rights come from God while they think rights come from the government. Setting aside the question of whether this distinction is fair, I think it captures the source of the visceral rage of Teavangelicals who have made Paul Ryan their hero. They have defined their battlefield as a contest between Christianity and secular humanism, God vs. government. If government support programs for the poor are not wasteful, enabling, and unfair, then God might lose His relevance. While I understand this fear, it’s very problematic from a Biblical perspective. God cares immensely whether or not our society takes care of its most vulnerable members and whether it provides a means for kids growing up in disadvantage to have an equal opportunity to succeed. If all people are indeed “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” then any politician who fears God should seek to cultivate a society that respects what God desires for the widows and orphans He loves. I have seen a lot of over-the-top reactions by Christians online to the health care ruling and election year politics. I wanted to share several reasons I don’t see a Biblical basis for being offended by the “socialism” so many Christians express their outrage about.

1) We’re supposed to be saved from meritocracy

The most fundamental concept of evangelical Christianity is the doctrine of justification by faith. Our salvation is not something we can earn, but only receive as a gift. Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the best summary of this concept: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are supposed to be transformed by the gift of God’s grace; it’s supposed to start a chain reaction of grace in how we treat other people. God forgives our trespasses so that we will forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus’ message in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 is that receiving mercy from God and refusing to show mercy to others means rejecting God’s mercy.

When I truly experience the complete deliverance of Christ, I come to see every aspect of my life as a gift. Having a job is a gift; being able to pay my bills is a gift; having the knowledge and skills to acquire a job is a gift. If I am mistreated, that too is a gift for the sake of my spiritual refinement. Living under grace means being liberated from meritocracy in which I think in terms of what I deserve or earn. God’s grace is supposed to set me free from a slavish devotion to making sure that I’m always treated fairly and raising a fuss if I suspect anyone of receiving a benefit they didn’t earn.

People who get incensed about having to pay taxes for programs that help poor people who “don’t deserve help” reveal that they are still living under the meritocracy Jesus died to save them from. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” Everything we have is a gift from God. Nothing is our property; we are only stewards of God’s property. Note: it is reasonable to have genuine stewardship concerns about how the government spends God’s money, but any argument based on meritocracy itself has no place in Christian discourse.

2) God can use the government to accomplish His purposes

A lot of Teavangelicals make the argument that they have no problem helping the poor; they just want it to happen through their local megachurch and not the government. But according to the Bible, God doesn’t have a problem using government to take care of the people He wants to provide for. Paul explains in Romans 13:6, “The authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them.” God has always worked through people and processes who don’t acknowledge His sovereignty, even a brutal pagan government like the Roman Empire. God is not in competition with any government; God rules over all governments.

When we get bent out of shape about our taxes being involuntary unlike the church offering plate and distributing our money in ways that we cannot personally oversee, then our concern is about our individual sovereignty and not God’s. What right do we have to tell God He can’t bless a single mother who’s been crying out to Him for help through the WIC or SNAP food assistance programs because we want to be the ones who hand her a bag of groceries? It is indeed a greater blessing to participate in hands-on, relational missions than to just write a check for somebody else to do the work, but God is not beholden to our need for “the right hand to know what the left hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3) as He decides how to provide for His widows and orphans.

3) The market is no less vulnerable to idolatry and corruption than the state

Our Cold War legacy is the only explanation I can find for the way that Americans see the market as “Christian” and the state as  “atheist.” There is nothing inherently Christian about capitalism, though when capitalism works well, it’s because Christian values have restrained capitalists from abandoning themselves completely to greed. This restraint hasn’t seemed to take place recently, at least not in the financial sector. In 2008, we learned that if people can get away with calling lies “financial instruments,” then they will do so to make money. It baffles me why Teavangelicals continue to maintain that the market always knows best, but then consider any “government official” to be suspicious at best and utterly diabolical at worst.

Several members of my congregation work for government agencies. Some really enjoy their jobs and seem to have an opportunity to be effective; others are getting crushed by the pressure to produce results that fit into political “talking points” rather than dealing honestly with whatever is in front of them. I can understand the rationale for believing that a for-profit corporation will be more attentive to troubleshooting its productivity. But this is different than trusting the free market itself to behave like “nature” and provide the basis for a nation’s social equilibrium on its own.

Since Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Western culture has been caught in a fierce debate over what counts as “natural.” Christians affirm that nature is God’s creation and that its equilibrium and order exist because God made nature that way. According to the Christian perspective,the created order was shattered when the primordial humanity represented by Adam and Eve deviated from God’s perfect equilibrium to act according to their self-interest for the first time. In contrast, the Darwinian perspective affirms not merely that life developed over the course of billions of years but that there has been no creator overseeing the development of life. Self-interest, rather than being a rebellion against God’s equilibrium, is the basis for natural equilibrium in the doctrine of survival of the fittest.

The free market is the space created in the human community by billions of acts of self-interest. Every time a person is restrained from acting in self-interest whether by government regulations or their own internal moral reservations, they are “corrupting” the purity of the market. It makes sense to embrace the market as “natural” if we have accepted the Darwinian vision for life and understand rational self-interest as the highest moral virtue, in accordance with the teachings of Paul Ryan’s favorite atheist philosopher Ayn Rand. Trusting the self-interest of millions of investors to “naturally” come up with a just solution for people without health insurance, for example, means subscribing to Darwin’s understanding of nature instead of Genesis. To say that the market needs no regulation is no less bold a claim than saying that the world doesn’t need God.

Conclusion

Please recognize what I have said and haven’t said. There are legitimate arguments to be made against Obamacare and any number of other political issues. But we misrepresent Christ when our arguments are based on meritocracy or the assumption that the free market is “Christian” while government-based solutions are “secular humanist.” I would much rather see solutions for poverty emerge on a local grassroots level through authentic community-building relationships. As a Christian pastor, I would much rather see people provided for both materially and spiritually as one package in the kingdom of God. But if there are aspects of human need like health care and housing that require greater resources than even large megachurches can muster, I don’t see why Christians should fight tooth and nail to prevent God from using our secular government to provide for these needs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cynthia.astle Cynthia Astle

    Brilliant, Morgan, simply brilliant. It’s going up on UM Insight post-haste!

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks Cynthia!

  • http://twitter.com/johnleek John Leek (@johnleek)

    Both choices, as Ryan frames it, are wrong.

    Does our God grant “rights?” Where do we find basis for that?

    • Morgan Guyton

      You’re right. He doesn’t grant “rights,” per se. Thomas Jefferson was wrong. Shhh! Don’t tell anybody I said that. But God certainly expressed through His Old Testament prophets pretty unequivocally that He judged Israel’s government according to how it provided for the widows and the orphans. My own opinion is that we’ve already gone down the wrong road when we think in terms of rights because then we’re presuming secular, individualist existence that is mediated through lawsuits and protests rather than the hesed (kinship/mercy) of being in the same family as children of God that is mediated through Christ. But when you’ve got to appeal to the founding documents of our nation, you do the best you can with their flawed Enlightenment thinking.

      • http://twitter.com/johnleek John Leek (@johnleek)

        I fall in with many of the writers from the Reformation.

        Thank God we don’t get what we deserve. If we got our “right” we’d be in hell tonight.

        His Mercy AND Sacrifice have mediated that for those he calls children of God.

        • Morgan Guyton

          Or to say it differently, His sacrifice that defies meritocracy utterly is the basis for our mercy which is His mercy made sovereign over us.

      • http://twitter.com/johnleek John Leek (@johnleek)

        Your “say it differently” is far more confusing. ;)

        • Morgan Guyton

          OK here’s another try. If we say we’ve received grace we don’t deserve from God, but get offended when other people receive grace they don’t deserve, then we haven’t really accepted God’s undeserved grace.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mojohnson11 Mo Johnson

    Very nice article. I’ve written somewhat similar things here http://www.gospelpolitics.com/gospel-and-government.html

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  • AmyS

    “God cares immensely whether or not our society takes care of its most vulnerable members…”

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs here (btw, I very much appreciate the article and agree with most of what you said), but I think your introduction assumes (perhaps inadvertently) that “society” equals “national governments.” I would say that God cares immensely whether or not the most vulnerable members of society are cared for, and both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament mandates that the people of God ensure that care directly.

    I’m guessing here, but I’ll bet that most Christians agree on the matter of caring for “the poor” and that the Church should be involved in relieving human suffering (I’ll bake a cake for anyone who successfully disputes, on sound biblical grounds, that both Israel and the Christian Church have a mandate to care for widows, orphans, foreigners–without regard for immigration status–and the poor). We just differ on how we see 1) the role of political states, and 2) what kind of help is actually helpful.

    But, if we who call ourselves God’s people shirk our duty so that earthly political states are forced to solve the social ills that both cause and result from the problem of poverty, then we are liars and take the name of the Lord in vain. There is enough discretionary money stockpiled and wasted by the Church residing within the borders of the U.S. that, if it was shared fairly and wisely, no one in the U.S. or any other nation would need to go hungry, thirsty, or without basic medical care.

    We can argue about whether or not the government should do the church’s job, and we can argue about whether or not free markets create jobs/foster personal responsibility and thereby relieve poverty, or we could just start behaving like the people we claim to be: A nation ruled only by Christ, without regard for earthly state borders, who exist for the sake of worshiping God, extending radical hospitality to everyone in need, and inviting others to join in with our mission to save the whole world through total commitment to the self-sacrificing way of Jesus Christ.

    [Lest anyone misunderstand my perspective, I am unaffiliated with any political party and I tend (strongly) to vote with "the left" as a sad admission that the church is not living into its mission (and because I don't buy the idea that a darwinian economic system can ever be consistent with biblical theology). But, I don't think that "hand outs" are a good solution. Such approaches are demoralizing and dehumanizing. Community organizing and cooperative efforts that truly value the lives of every person. Neither the government nor the church does a good job at actually respecting people. Instead, we objectify the poor and throw money at "them". We sweep in and "do good" but how often to we ask the recipients of our do-gooding about what they need before we decide for them? In other words, the church doesn't do any better at "helping" than the government does.]

    • AmyS

      Overkill? ;)

    • Morgan Guyton

      Not overkill. I’m with you 100%. I’m not advocating any kind of centralized state response to poverty. I’m more interested in investing my time in figuring out local grassroots solutions. What I’m saying is that Christians are wasting a lot of emotional energy flipping out over Obamacare and it sends the wrong message, especially when we make arguments according to the terms of meritocracy and social Darwinism, which are both totally un-Biblical. Instead of obsessing over political power, we should be doing the work of the kingdom. Totally with you on that.

      • AmyS

        Yes!!! Thank you! You are not alone. There are dozens of us! ;)

  • http://chythasresonance.blogspot.com/ bob

    thank you for your very well written post. I think many Christians are practical evolutionist as much as they are practical atheists…that is, they say they believe n God and creation but in practice they deny it…their actions don’t match their words.
    They don’t even realize that even in the OT law there were provisions – like gleaning, for example- where government was commanded to provide for those less fortunate . And the environment was of special concern to God as well…hence the ocaptivity in Babylon was that 70 years specifically so that the land of Israel could enjoy the Sabbath rest that it had been denied….amazing what you can find when you really look to see what God cares about….

    • Morgan Guyton

      Wow I had never thought about the Sabbath rest for Israel’s land before. Most Americans live as practical atheists. Capitalism makes us that way. I’m not saying socialism is any better, just that we have to be very conscious and intentional to avoid being sucked into the default pursuit of self-interest that our economy teaches people.

    • Gromit

      Helping those who cannot help themselves is what we are commanded to do. He said for us to go the extra mile, to take care of the orphans and widows – Jesus never told us to take from our rich neighbor to give to our poor neighbor.

      Gleaning was not for the government – it was for the land owners to leave for the poor. And, it required work from its beneficiaries – they had to go and glean from the harvest.

      As to the broader point, Jesus criticised the servant who was given a talent and did nothing with it other than bury it – in fact, Jesus strongly condemned this servant as lazy, good-for-nothing, and bainshed him to the lake of fire. Paul says that if a man will not work, neither shall he eat.

      Socialism turns the safety net into a hammock.

      Additionally, as far as Obamacare is concerned, think how much of health care is political – abortion, embryonic stem-cells, and contraception are obvious items. If you put health care in the full control of the government (which is undoubtedly the end goal), coverage for these things will change with the whims of each administration.

      • Morgan Guyton

        You’re talking in abstract ideological terms that don’t correspond to the actual reality. HeadStart and Medicaid are not a “hammock”; they just mean that poor kids can get preschool and braces if their teeth are crooked. That has nothing to do with whether their parents have the incentive to work hard which many of them do in minimum wage jobs without benefits.

        Obamacare is not government health care. It is government regulations ON health care to reign in the costs and allow people with preexisting conditions not to be denied. What’s really frustrating is that Obama thought he was safe lifting his ideas from a Republican governor and it’s the Republican aspect of those ideas (the individual mandate) that got people bent out of shape. It doesn’t matter that he’s bent over backwards to be a centrist because the spin-doctors decided to call him a socialist. It’s the lack of integrity in calling something what it isn’t that is a huge turn-off to me. I don’t even know what I believe politically anymore but I can’t trust people who have publicly stated their political purpose to be sabotage.

  • marshall.adam.a@gmail.com

    “People who get incensed about having to pay taxes for programs that help poor people who “don’t deserve help” reveal that they are still slaves to the meritocracy Jesus died to save them from.”

    We live in a pluralistic society, so making laws from the standpoint of biblical justice sounds like overreaching just like opposing gay marriage through the legislative and judicial process is overreaching, according to more liberal Christians. You sort of lost me at that point in the article.

    • Morgan Guyton

      It’s not about what laws our government makes or doesn’t make. It’s about what our attitude in response demonstrates about whether or not we live under God’s mercy. People who live under meritocracy and think according to its terms do not live under God’s mercy. They have not yet been saved.