I was about ten years old when I first tried to understand what the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” meant. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Borgerud, and she very patiently tried to explain to the class the core beliefs of each political/economic system. Back in the ‘50s, we all knew that the United States was right and Russia was wrong with regard to all our differences. Therefore, it was clear that capitalism was good and socialism was bad. We knew that. What we were trying to learn that day was what those big words really meant.
I learned that “socialism” was based on the belief that everyone is equally entitled to all our resources and everyone should be treated fairly. Our resources should be owned communally, and everyone should work together so that the basic needs of all of us would be met. My initial reaction was quite positive. That sounded like what Christ modeled in the New Testament – that we should help each other and take care of the poor and the sick. I was surprised. That couldn’t really be what “socialism” was all about… Or, was it?
Then I learned that “capitalism” was based on the belief that the harder we worked, the greater would be our rewards. Those who were poor, deserved to be poor because they didn’t work hard enough. That sounded to me more like selfishness and greed and disrespect for the poor. That didn’t seem to be the type of behavior the Bible encouraged.
I was puzzled. I looked around at the other kids in the class to see if they were as confused as I was by what we were hearing from our teacher. I couldn’t tell. No one expressed any of the shock that I was feeling. I guess I must not be understanding what Mrs. Borgerud was really saying. I didn’t speak up. I just listened some more.
Mrs. Borgerud explained that one reason capitalism was better than socialism was that it provided an incentive for people to work hard. If you want to be rich, you can be rich. You just need to work hard enough. In contrast, the weakness in socialism is that there is no incentive to work hard. You will get all your needs met whether you work or not. Socialism provides an incentive to be lazy.
I guess that made sense. But I was still troubled. I didn’t know anyone who worked harder than my mom and dad, yet we considered ourselves poor, not rich. I never went hungry, and I always had enough clothes – although they all came from Penneys or Sears, not from Manchesters where some of my classmates from wealthier families bought their clothes. I’m sure their parents didn’t work harder than mine. There didn’t seem to be much of a correlation between hard work and wealth.
And what about the special offerings we sometimes had in church to provide food and clothing for the poor in our inner cities and in Africa and India? What did capitalism have to say about meeting the needs of the poor? Was being poor really their own problem because they were too lazy to work?
It’s been almost 60 years since I first wondered about these things. Ever since that day in fifth grade, I’ve been suspicious that there may be serious inconsistencies between capitalism and what the Bible says about how God intends for us to share our resources with our neighbors.
At times I’ve wondered if socialism follows the teachings of the Bible more closely. That sounds more like how the early church lived.
Now the group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. [Acts 4:32-35 NRSV]
A few years ago Mim and I had a long conversation with Ellen, a friend of ours in Chicago. Her family immigrated from Norway to the United States when she was a little girl. Ellen still keeps in close touch with many of her relatives in Norway. Our conversation with Ellen was after one of her recent trips to Norway. She talked about how socialism has changed the way people think about caring for their less fortunate neighbors. “It’s the government’s job to see that their needs are met – not mine.” Her cousins rarely go to church, and they certainly don’t tithe. There’s no personal sense of responsibility to care for the poor. It seems that the advice given in Proverbs no longer applies to individuals in Norway.
Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse. [Proverbs 28:27 NRSV]
Why am I thinking about socialism and capitalism today? I can’t help but think about what is the appropriate role of government, as our country is jolted from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. It seems we are changing in lightning speed from trying to be a “kind, gentle nation” to becoming a “tough, aggressive, me-first nation.” Selfishness is expressed in the new administration’s slogan of “America First!”
As I read the lectionary readings for January 29, 2017 in preparation for planning the music for Sunday’s church service, I read Micah 6:1-8, the Old Testament reading for the day. In the reading, God has a complaint against Israel. After all God has done for Israel, why aren’t they following after the righteousness they have been shown. The passage ends with these words:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 NRSV]
I think it’s obvious from experience around the world that no political/economic system is perfect. But God’s standard of how we should act as a nation has been set – To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. With all the political squabbling that’s going on now, this is what we need to remember. This needs to be our guiding principal – personally and as a nation.