Christian Millennials and the Lure of Socialism, Part Two: How Biblical Concern for the Poor Can Turn to an Unbiblical Understanding of People
In Part 1 we examined how a biblical concern for the poor can be syncretistically mixed with socialist economic ideology in a way that undermines a biblical view of people and thereby hurts image-bearers of God. In Part 2 I clarify three specific bad ideas about people that have had very bad effects on people in hopes of breaking the spell that socialist ideologies increasingly hold on younger evangelicals.
1. Without God, humans are reduced to homo economicus and government is elevated to God-status. According to historic socialism, humans are not the creative workmanship of God whose image we bear and who offers us salvation in Christ. In the absence of God, humanity is reduced to homo economicus. As humans are reduced to material-economic categories, socialism diagnoses our deepest problem not as sin/a broken relationship with our Creator, but a material economic problem, i.e., economic inequalities. This leads to an inflated soteriological emphasis on external socio-political-economic remedies (e.g., government coerced wealth redistribution) while the internal human propensity to evil and selfishness goes undiagnosed and untreated.
Who then, in this new economic/material gospel, does the “saving”? As G.K. Chesterton observed, “Once we abolish God, the government becomes God.”[i] For example, before Soviet communism went wrong with economic policies that drastically exacerbated the problems of poverty, it had already gone wrong on the deeper questions of human nature. Moreover, it went wrong on human nature because it denied the existence of the God who defines us, paving the way for a God-sized government and the false gospel of economic equality that mistakes symptoms for the disease.
Historically, such a false gospel carries a zero tolerance policy for the actual gospel. Under Joseph Stalin, as a case in point, “The Society of the Godless (also known as the “League of Militant Atheists”) took form in the Soviet Union. Russian churches and synagogues were bulldozed. Atheism became a state-enforced dogma. Did this produce the godless utopia of peace and economic equality that the Soviet leaders dreamed of? On the contrary, worship was redirected to a new deity—Lord Stalin—while tens of millions of heretics who refused to bow were starved or executed. As Roger Trigg notes, “Religion is always a target of totalitarian regimes… [D]angerous for would-be dictators, is the appeal to transcendent norms, and a supernatural authority beyond this life.”[ii]
2. Without God, we lose the transcendent moral reference point we need to make an accurate and humble assessment of our own moral powers or lack thereof. According to Harry Schaffer, “Socialists and Communists of all shades and leanings believe in the perfectibility of all mankind. Man is basically good and capable of being master of his own destiny.”[iii] From this sin-less anthropology it follows that human effort combined with the right economic policies can usher in heaven on earth. But as Darrell Cosden points out in his work The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work,
… rationalized labor and advancing technology were meant to free us from the need for religion by bringing a new kind of paradise to earth now. Yet this modern salvation has more often than not ended up creating hell instead for many people around the world …[iv]
Socialism then may become a case-in-point of what Cosden calls “Babel revisited,” what Paul might call a “counterfeit gospel,” a parody of God’s kingdom powered not by Jesus working through his Spirit in regenerated human hearts but powered by human corruption that allows no room for God’s grace and heart-transforming work in the alleviation of poverty.
3. In their book When Helping Hurts (Moody Publishers, 2012), Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert helpfully expose another false anthropological assumption behind bad economic ideologies. In short, such ideologies teach, often implicitly, that we are most fundamentally material beings, and that poverty, therefore, must be defined only in terms of material lack/inequity. Socialist solutions make sense in such a plausibility structure. People are material beings, poverty is a matter of material lack, therefore, we must redistribute wealth so that material beings no longer suffer from material lack/inequity. Corbett and Fikkert argue that this represents a seriously impoverished view of poverty itself. In a biblical worldview we are more than material/economic beings. We are created for relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and the rest of creation, and poverty can stretch to all of these relational domains. “Poverty,” Corbett and Fikkert note, “is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”[v]
In other words, a more robust and biblical view of human nature leads us to a more robust definition of poverty, which, in turn, leads to a more holistic approach to poverty alleviation. As we seek to help the poor as scripture commands (not suggests) we will not focus narrowly on material poverty as socialism has done historically, often meeting material needs in ways that only serve to increase people’s spiritual and relational poverty (what Corbett and Fikkert call our “poverty of being”). We will be able to work toward true human flourishing as we allow our view of humans, and therefore, our view of poverty and poverty alleviation to break free from the straightjacket of modern worldviews (from which socialism comes). We are then able to truly love our neighbors more truly as the Gospel requires. Taking the Bible’s view of human nature more seriously, we will not be swept unknowingly into a false gospel of economic equality and parody of Christ’s kingdom that promises shalom but only brings further oppression.
For further insight on how to love the poor well from a Christian worldview perspective I highly recommend the following:
- Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012.
- Brian Fikkert and Russell Mask, From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance (Zondervan, 2015).
- Poverty Cure: A Six Part DVD Series hosted by Michael Matheson Miller, produced by Acton media, 2012.
[i] G.K. Chesterton, Christendom in Dublin in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works, Vol. 20, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2001) 57.
[ii] Equality, Freedom, and Religion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 29.
[iii] The Soviet System on Theory and Practice [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965], 30). For theological analysis on this point see Thaddeus Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 77-81.
[iv] Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 108.
[v] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012) 59.