The last temptation of Christ may not have occurred in the desert when Satan confronted Jesus. In the biblical book of Matthew, Christ goes alone into the desert and fasts for 40 days. While he is starving, the Devil confronts and tempts him: “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” Christ answers, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
The Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant, has faced a similar temptation to turn stone into bread in the form of socialism. Many seem surprised by Pope Francis’s criticism of capitalism. Modern liberals trying to push for a more socialist agenda in Europe, South America, and the United States have used his statements as fodder. While it is commonly assumed that Christianity would be opposed to socialism because of its historic opposition to communism, the two are not the same.
Russian and Chinese communism did not allow for religious belief and practice, but the economic system of socialism itself has no such restrictions, and has been embraced by many Christian leaders and sects throughout the development of the modern industrial society. In an effort to create a Christian society, believers have lent support to and embraced socialism to the point of revolutionary action as a way to create heaven on Earth—bread out of stone.
In his “History of Anarchism,” Peter Marshall writes, “Alongside the libertarian trend in Christianity has been a communal one. Jesus’ voluntary poverty, his attack on riches… and his sharing of goods (particularly the bread and the fishes) all inspired many early Christians to practice a form of communism.” He cites Acts 2:44-5: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” And Acts 4:32: “…neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common.”
Marshall also cites Ambrose, who wrote, “Nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use… Nature has therefore produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few.” Economist Murray N. Rothbard noted, “For centuries the alleged ideal of communism had come to the world as a messianic and millennial creed. Various seers, notably Joachim of Fiore, had prophesied the final state of mankind as one of perfect harmony and equality, one where all things are owned in common, where there is no necessity for work or need for the division of labor.”
Thomas Aquinas, the father of the modern Catholic Church, taught that someone in great need to can take what he or she needs from others. In his assessment of Aquinas’ concept of justice, Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “The condemnation of theft presupposes the legitimacy of private property. Aquinas, however, inherited from the patristic tradition a view of the limitation of the right to property… Ownership is limited by the necessities of human need.”
Heaven on Earth
Aquinas also argued against exorbitant legal fees, usury, speech that upsets or angers others, and price gouging. “The standard commercial and financial practices of capitalism are as incompatible with Aquinas’ conception of justice as are the standard practices of the kind of adversarial system of legal justice in which lawyers often defend those whom they know to be guilty,” MacIntyre says. Sir Thomas More, whom the Catholic Church later made a saint, was the author of “Utopia,” which became the template for many attempts at refashioning society along communist and socialist principles.
Various sects of Christianity attempted to apply these principles and break off into their own communities with limited success. Sometimes, they weren’t able to survive economically or were crushed by a nervous government, as in the case of the Diggers and the Ranters in seventeenth-century England (the Ranters were an especially interesting group—a pre-hippie freak out commune). England has remained the original home of the Christian Socialist movement.
During the American Progressive push in the Wilson-FDR era, one particular priest gained national prominence with a radio program. Father Coughlin began his career fighting the Klu Klux Klan but segued into denouncing capitalism and advocating for government control of private property for the public good and nationalizing industries deemed important to the nation.
Projecting Christian Duties Onto Government
The Christian creed of caring for the poor often morphs into a call for government to take the reins from industry and private individuals to ensure proper care for the poor. In reality, this is an abdication of responsibility toward that very creed. In effect, it says, “Someone else should do this.”
Obviously, the Catholic Church and various Christian charities have done wonderful work in helping the poor, weak, and downtrodden, as they should. However, the communist and socialist tendency puts the administration of that care into the hands of an all-powerful state bureaucracy, which is not beholden to any higher set of principles or to God. It replaces the priest or the nun with a wage earner at a cubicle desk who is just trying to get through a 40-hour week so he or she can catch the game on Sunday morning rather than crying into a confessional.
Giving into this temptation marks a confusion in Christian heritage between society and the state. The two are not synonymous. Society exists wherever an aggregate of humanity interacts in commerce, culture, shared values, and social interaction. Society is created out of human want and need, and is where individuals pursue those ends in a common arena.
The state, however, is power that exerts itself over the pursuit of those ends. Thomas Paine drew the distinction as such in “Common Sense”: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is patron, the last a punisher.” By Paine’s description, Christians take the forbidden fruit the wicked offer when they empower the state.
Government and Church Are Not the Same
Creating a more Christian and charitable society comes through individual actions within society. The greatest influence the Christian church can have is through appeal to the individual’s spirit, sense of happiness, well-being, and charity. Working within society and through individuals enables charity to be positive, voluntary, and ultimately accountable. However, advocating for state control over these very same areas of human interaction breeds only distrust, resentment, anger, and waste. The massive expansion of government that socialism or communism requires does not create a fairer or equitable society, but rather a more punishing state.
It is easy to see why this is so tempting for Christians and do-gooders in general. Individuals often become frustrated in the limitations of individual or small-group action, and they see the state as having the power to affect the entire population of a country rather than just the few in their immediate area. And, of course, everyone believes he has the best intentions when embarking on his will to power.
In doing so, however, such people fail to grasp the realities and complexities of human life; namely, that not everyone may agree with you. To use the apparatus of the state to trample dissenting viewpoints cannot be seen as anything but immoral.
Preferring state action over individual action also confuses quality with quantity. Individual charitable action within a community is more qualitative than massive state action over an entire population of hundreds of millions. A friend, neighbor, parish priest, or charitable individual within a community is more adept at assessing the needs of others within their sphere of influence than a state bureaucracy ever could.
Moreover, the state only has the ability to act through money rather than actual, personal help. It is an administrative force that distributes funds to those labelled “in need,” although what those people need may not be monetary. Helping a drug addict might not entail giving him or her money—it may involve the exact opposite. Placing faith in the state as the agency through which society can become more fair, equitable, and Christian is to place faith in the almighty dollar rather than in an almighty God.
Expand Love, Not Power
Christians must recognize that acting within their own sphere of influence can result in more qualitative change for individuals, rather than seeking to change all of society through state interference. Forced charity is not charitable or Christian. Rather, it is a form of despotism that does not engender love but celebrates power.
Socialist Christians seek to punish, not change, those whom they believe are not willing enough. In seeking power in the guise of spiritual change, they violate not only a separation of church and state but place their own political goals over their spiritual calling.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan relates a fictional story to his brother. It posits that Christ refused the Devil’s temptation to create bread from stone so humanity could remain free, and that by doing so Jesus made freedom the ultimate gift from God because man would happily enslave himself for free bread.
“So, in the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Enslave us, but feed us!’ And they will finally understand that freedom and the assurance of daily bread for everyone are two incompatible notions that could never co-exist!”
Christ may have been able to turn stone into bread or feed 5,000 with three loaves and two fish, but the state is no miracle worker. Any time the state embarks on a miraculous quest, it is always an act of power, not faith or charity.