How is it possible to be a Christian and a Socialist? The answer may surprise you.

 
I have been thinking about writing this article for some time, as I get asked this question a lot. I get it asked both ways round, with scepticism on the part of Christians and Socialists in equal number. For that reason I am going to answer the question twice.
 

You are a Christian. How can you possibly be a Socialist?

This question gets asked by my evangelical Christian friends because evangelical Christianity in Britain is generally to the right of centre politically. There has been a gradual move over the past thirty years towards making right wing political thinking synonymous with evangelical Christianity. The change in the gospel to a more individualist, self help, one sits easier with the extrinsic values of political Conservatism.

We used to keep moral and political agendas separate, but the influence of American thinking has led us to believe that we can alter the nations morals by political action. You see this with both evangelical and liberal Christian groups trying to influence government policy. There is a general belief that faith on its own is insufficient. It needs the power and influence of the state to bring it into the physical realm.

But it has not always been this way.  There was a time when evangelical Christians thought of faith as a personal matter, not something to be delivered by state education or enforced by theocracy. Christianity was about loving and helping our neighbour and building a society based on intrinsic values of community, peace and justice for all. This is why the early trade union and cooperative movements were full of Christians, especially Methodists. 

It is those basic values that we find in Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) not in Margaret Thatcher's Sermon on the Mound. We also find it in the Baptist tradition of the complete separation of Church and State; the approach to God being as an individual, but being re-born into a family (the church fellowship) as symbolised by baptism.

Where I differ from Liberal Christian Socialists is that I don't think Jesus was a socialist. I do not see anything of what we understand as modern socialism in the life or teachings of Jesus Christ. His earthly ministry was in a world far removed from ours in time and complexity. When he talks about sharing goods or doing things in common he is reflecting how life already was in that pre industrial society, but which was under threat from Roman and other influence. What I see in the teachings of Jesus are principals about love, peace, justice and community that are best reflected in socialist thought and are compatible with left wing politics. Christians who are more individualistic may disagree. They are entitled to, but this is why I am a Socialist.
 

You are a Socialist. How can you possibly be a Christian?

This is the other side of that question and usually centres on two issues.

Firstly, Marxism sets itself up as a scientifically reasoned explanation of economics and how society can develop. Religion of any kind has no scientific basis and is superstition which will prevent development towards socialism.

Secondly, Lenin argued that Christianity was an agent of imperialism designed, and used, to keep the proletariat from taking power over their own means of production.

The first of these views the world as being entirely material. A purely physical world that we can see and that we can investigate with science. Marxism, and consequently most modern Socialism relies on some version of dialectical materialism. I don't have time here to go into this complex area of philosophy, but I will make one point. For some Christians there is little difference between this materialistic world view and their dualistic view of a  physical world that we can see and investigate and a spiritual world which we can not. This type of Christian are practical materialists. I would argue that the division between spiritual and physical is unnatural and that there is only one world which we live in, are stewards of and are responsible for each other in. For this reason I do not find any personal contradiction between dialectical materialism and the Christian faith, except that it is  normally restricted to a narrow range of subjects where Christianity is all encompassing.

The second of these issues is more easily addressed. Lenin was arguing against the church, not against Christianity. The church of his day, in Russia, was strongly linked to the imperial state and was part of the oppression. This reflects badly on the church, but not on Christianity. I think that Christianity must be separate from the state, be about the individual approaching God in repentance and following the teachings of Jesus as much as is possible. I find this to be quite compatible with Socialism.

 

Conclusion

I am not sure that this answers my original question as well as I had hoped, but it might help others to understand my puzzling dual philosophies. I don't see any incompatibility, but I am sure American readers will!
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