“If anyone was ever a socialist, it was Jesus,” at least if you ask Kelley Rose. Rose, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is not alone. The relationship between socialism and Christianity has been strained, to say the least, ever since Engels called Christianity the “opium of the people;” and socialist regimes throughout history have attacked the Church. But our Marxist brothers have also upheld Jesus as a model of socialism when it has been convenient, and many others find their arguments convincing. The socialists in Germany have run with the motto that the Messiah “would have voted for us.” Even one or the other Christian conservative has come out arguing that socialism would be worth a try.
In Was Jesus a Socialist?, Lawrence Reed disputes these claims head-on, arguing that Jesus was perhaps not a political figurehead at all. He was not a socialist or a “capitalist. Neither was he a Republican or a Democrat. . . . Jesus offered no blueprint for earthly government and the laws of politicians.” As Daniel Hannan argues in the foreword to the book, Christ was “primarily interested,” not “in the social or political structures around him,” but in ways that humans could live holy lives on earth and obtain eternal life hereafter. “Although he was in our world, he wanted us to think about a different world.”
Reed’s entertaining and easily digestible analysis of supposedly socialist parables and teaching—such as the workers in the vineyard, the cleansing of the temple, and the rendering to Caesar—makes a convincing case that socialism, a political system based on force, envy, and conceit, is not what Jesus promoted. Rather, Jesus preaches charity, generosity, gratitude, humility, and voluntary material poverty as means of drawing closer to God. Indeed, Reed’s takeaway from the Good Samaritan is that we must show charity to others instead of relying on political elites, a key point also in Pope Francis’s Fratelli tutti.
At times, Reed almost commits the errors he criticizes. He frequently implies that, in contrast to the coercive methods of socialism, the voluntary means of free-market capitalism are much more conducive to Christ’s teachings. The reader feels as though a Christian would have to be a small-government libertarian. This may not be Reed’s intention, considering he wants to depict Jesus as non-political, but it is a shortcoming.
Nonetheless, the book is both a great introduction to why socialism fails and an engaging challenge to Christians to let go of utopian myths. A Christian should rather seek, on the basis of self-government, “to be of generous spirit, to care for one’s family, to help the poor, to assist widows and orphans, to exhibit kindness, and to maintain the highest character.” For Reed, “there’s nothing of greater earthly importance than that.” Joining the Marxist ranks or attempting to erect the Civitas Dei in this world will always fail. Only through love, detachment from this world, and humility can we walk the Way of Perfection.