Socialism

7 11 2008

There’s been considerable discussion on Amy Courts‘s blog regarding socialism, which has become a popular buzzword as of late. My thoughts were too long for a blog comment, so I’m blogging it here instead.

A lot of the discussion seems to center around whether the model of the early church shares more similarities with socialism than with other government models, which in turn raises the question as to whether the early church’s model is applicable or desirable for modern-day government, which in turn spawns the debate over whether or not we should try to produce a government that embodies these ideals.

The real problem is that there are too many people who do not share those ideals. I’m not speaking about the Christian faith. Rather, I’m saying there are people who don’t share the ideals of seeing every person in the world thriving. Nearly everyone will SAY they share this ideal, but where the rubber meets the road, I daresay hardly anyone really does.

Why? Because in order for there to be no one who is “worse off,” that by definition requires that no one is “better off.” We generally, as humans, are not desirous enough of seeing the situations of the less fortunate improve if it means losing any of the luxuries that subconsciously comfort us with the thought that we’re better off than other people. The only way we’re willing to see this happen is if those less fortunate than we can somehow be elevated to whatever level we are personally on, and even then I would argue that we would start seeking new ways to improve our own situations at the expense of others.

That’s the problem, because it’s impossible for every last one of us to become elevated to the status of the wealthiest among us, so there is always someone worse off — that is, unless someone in the upper bracket becomes worse off.

And right there, the first misguided effort to make this happen unavoidably enters the picture. My biggest problem with “socialism” as it has existed thus far is that it always first and foremost targets the rich. This, in and of itself, is not my problem. My problem is that “the rich” is always someone else. We look to the richest people we can find, and we assert that if we could topple them off of their golden perches and spread their wealth around, we’d all be better off than we currently are.

But somehow, we seem to think that the vast majority of us are the poor. We don’t call it that; we think of ourselves instead as the “middle class” and we say that generally, we’re reasonably well off. But when the times of plenty come under fire, as has been the case with our current economic disaster, suddenly the middle class starts behaving like the poor, and we start bemoaning our pitiful existence. And I think that unless we can somehow break that mentality, nothing will ever change.

Let me say this in no uncertain terms: We aren’t the poor.

Being poor is not having to eat ground beef instead of steak. Being poor is not losing your house that’s too big and too nice and having to move into a less-desirable rental apartment instead. Being poor is not having to get a cheaper car. Being poor is not going to a doctor who’s not your favorite. Being poor is not buying less for Christmas, and being poor is not going out to eat less frequently.

We aren’t the poor. If you have no income and are destitute, the American government will literally give you money every month (on a debit card, no less) to go buy food. So even if you’re flat broke, I would argue that you’re not poor. You, and I do mean you personally, are not poor. If you are in such a position as to have a computer, internet access, and time to be reading this blog, I can say with almost absolute certainty that you are not poor.

Don’t think I’m exempting myself. I’m not poor, either. Get this: By the time 2008 ends, this will have been my lowest-earning year since I got married seven years ago. Our gross family income for the entire year will be less than $15,000. That’s for a family of five, folks. Has it been tough? Sure. Has it involved generosity on the part of relatives? Yes, and I’m extremely grateful. But guess what? We never skipped a meal. We were never homeless. We were never cold, or lacking adequate clothing. We went out to eat occasionally. We gave each of our children birthday presents. When we were sick, we were able to go to the doctor and we were able to get medicine. We’re not poor, and neither are you.

So why are we acting like it?

Our television tells us that our economy is in shambles, and we’ve started tightening our belts accordingly. But just listen to us grumble and completely overlook those who are genuinely poor as we lament our own situation and our perceived sad state of affairs! Look, I’m not blind to the reality that people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their cars. But I still don’t think any of us are poor, and I think we need to accept that reality if we’re ever expecting to see anything change.

Look at countries where there is literally no food to eat, nor clean water to drink. Look at families where not just the parents, but also the children, perform exhaustive physical labor from dawn till dusk just to be able to exist. Look at people who are suffering or dying from treatable illnesses and have no way to treat them. That’s being poor.

If you’re not willing to define a basic standard of living to which every human being should be entitled, and if you’re not willing to personally live within that same basic standard of living, I assert that you’re part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

So…

Where does this leave us, as far as government is concerned? Is the national or global rollout of socialism, or some improved version of governmental structure, the answer?

I’ve read arguments on both sides. Some say, “Yes, if it’s for the greater good than it’s worth applying to everyone equally.” Others say, “No, if it’s a governmental mandate instead of a voluntary action, then it defeats the purpose.”

Both sides miss the mark, in my estimation, but I think that perhaps there’s common ground. The real question, as I see it, must be this: “How can we alter the entire selfish mindset of America?” We are selfish people living in a selfish world (and, as Americans, in a particularly selfish nation). Implementing a legal “ban on selfishness,” as it were, accomplishes nothing because selfishness must be changed from within. But leaving government completely out of the picture doesn’t strike me as practical, either. Our government isn’t a separate entity that controls us. Our government IS us, it is a reflection of who we are and what we value. I think that perhaps it’s appropriate to encourage change from within, and also to reinforce it with legislation that reflects the change in character that we, as a nation, are collectively hoping to achieve.

Honestly, I don’t think socialism or a mass overturning of capitalism is the answer. I don’t think it means anything to say that socialism is the closest earthly government we’ve seen in our modern day to the early-church example. (It may be, but so what?)

But I don’t think our current system is the answer, either. As such, I think it’s worth starting to change it one step at a time.

I think the first step is acknowledging our wealth and committing to bringing the rest of the world out of poverty, even if it means sacrificing some of our wealth to make it happen. I think that most of us are richer than we rightly deserve. Most of us don’t work hard. Making business decisions, entering data, operating a cash register, or talking on the phone is not hard work. Going to school, getting a degree, and getting a better paycheck is not some monumentally difficult task entitling us to a lifetime of wealth. We’re rich, often because we’re lucky. So why can’t we be more generous with the wealth we’ve been given?

Cure the selfishness, and the solutions will start to present themselves more clearly.

I have more thoughts, but I’ve already written more than a sermon. I’ll let you take over now. Share your thoughts and help me shape mine.

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12 responses

7 11 2008
amycourts

Wow. Yeah, that would’ve been one long comment!

Throughout my blog’s discussion, I’ve come to a few new theories (one of which I’ve already written a new blog about). But here’s where I stand on the socialism vs. other forms of government:

1) I don’t believe Jesus was a socialist, or that He would – if He were here today – actually sanction any form of government over another. Instead, I believe all forms of government are under the Devil’s rule for now. The best we can do is figure how how we, as Christians, are to function within the system where we live.

2) As Brett stated on my blog, Christians can function and fulfill God’s will in any form of government, to one degree or another.

3) I do believe that the set up of the early Church bears a striking resemblance to what we know as socialism.

4) I don’t believe giving to the needy is a choice or even an obligation, but rather the defining factor that sets Christians apart from the rest of the world. Because we Believe, we care for the needy. We are marked by it. (Which is what my new blog is all about.)

5) Thus, the “answer” to our current crises, or to the question of how Christians “ought” to vote in America, etc. is not to overturn capitalism in favor of socialism, because both will be equal failures in different ways. Rather, we who believe should vote our values and – more importantly – live them. Because when it comes down to it, we will always be “poor” or “rich” in comparison to someone else. But when the stuff is stripped away and we’re left naked as the day we were born, we come to find we’re all equally in need and there is only One who has anything that can satisfy that need. It then becomes our job not to hoard the provision, but to simply be its conduit. As it fills me up and spills over, it fills others. Not because we want it to, not because we’re being obedient, but because when we’re being what we’re meant to be – conduits, or “Christians” – that’s what happens.

7 11 2008
darla

“If you’re not willing to define a basic standard of living to which every human being should be entitled, and if you’re not willing to personally live within that same basic standard of living, I assert that you’re part of the problem instead of part of the solution.”

You exactly (and very eloquently) stated what has ALWAYS bothered me about the pushers of socialism. Not ONE single politician who pushes for this would be willing to live with less. In 2006, the American census showed that the average median income for married couple families was just under $70,000. $70,000! I know way more people living UNDER that than above that (our family included). Barack Obama’s (picking on him since he is the current president-elect and pusher of wealth redistribution) gross family income in 2006 was just under $1,000,000 according to their tax return.

If politicians in particular, and people in general, want to help the truly POOR – and you hit on that definition very accurately as well – then they need to start living within the median income. If they actually practiced what they preached, they might actually gain a few converts.

And that’s MY opinion.

7 11 2008
Jenn

My brother and I were just talking about this exact thing last night. The fear we’ve seen in so many people, particularly Christians we’ve talked with, of Obama and his supposed “Socialist” mindframe, and that we’ll all be in a “Socialist” country soon. That all they’ve worked hard for will be taken away with taxes to benefit the people who are “lazy” and “don’t work hard.” We found it to be amazing that the very people who are supposed to be the most loving, most generous, most gracious, and most concerned with the well being of their fellow men and women… are appearing to have no other concerns but their own selves and pocketbooks right now.

8 11 2008
amycourts

Darla: “Not ONE single politician who pushes for this would be willing to live with less.”

Actually, it’s funny you bring this up – and Obama in particular – because he made clear on a number of occasions (at campaign stops and in the widely-viewed debates) that he thinks it completely fair for him and his fellow politicians who are busy making legislation to live on less so those who are working hard, getting their hands dirty and backs broken, could have more or at least some.

So while I agree that it’d be hard to get *everyone* on Capitol Hill on board – especially with the idea of everyone living with the same means – it’s totally inaccurate to say none would. 🙂

Jenn: “We found it to be amazing that the very people who are supposed to be the most loving, most generous, most gracious, and most concerned with the well being of their fellow men and women… are appearing to have no other concerns but their own selves and pocketbooks right now.”

Funny how that happens, eh? Giving and serving is all well and good until it effects us, especially if the effect is significant.

I’m reminded of the oh-so many theologians over the centuries who’ve encouraged Believers to “give until it hurts” lest it not be a true gift or sacrifice at all. Not that we should all take a vow of poverty…but I think it reflects an attitude of recognition that a) what we have will not last, and b) it has all be gifted to us by God, who is free to take it away at any moment…and has taken from some of us, and proven His provision in times of crisis time and again.

For so many, it’s simply a matter of who or what we serve. Which always comes to light when our balances are checked.

8 11 2008
darla

Amy: I’m sorry to keep hammering on this, but I have to ask, what is “less”? The average median income? Does Obama really think he would be sacrificing to, let’s say, cut his income in half ($500,000)? In one-quarter ($250,000)? Or maybe even one-tenth ($100,000)?

You may think this is splitting hairs, but I don’t, because unless he is willing to live on the SAME playing field as everyone, he really is still elevating himself above the rest of the “poorer” humanity.

And that brings up the next problem of socialism. If his income becomes the same as the average median income, then I will give him his due and gladly shut my mouth. If not – and I suspect this will be the case – then who is he and the rest of the supporters of this ridiculous philosophy to say who is worthy to receive more?

Do you see how this philosophy is impossible to regulate because there will ALWAYS be people receiving more than others?

9 11 2008
Katie

I just want to comment here that, in my opinion, most Americans (particularly the younger generation, ie, under 40) don’t really know what socialism is apart from the description they’ve read in a textbook.

My husband grew up in Poland in the midst of a communist/socialist system and it was worthless. Perhaps on paper where everyone is perfect and good and loving, there is something “ideal” about it, but in real life it is dysfunctional on so many levels it would take a book to tell it all.

Although I don’t think that what the US has right now is true capitalism, I would still far rather live in this system than in socialism. Any day.

I also have a comment on Obama living on “less”. I agree with Darla — what is “less”? Our (my husband and myself) total income for last year was not 5 digits. Would Obama be willing to go with an income of maybe $12,000 a year in order for me — and the entire community I live in, which is generally low income — to be brought up to the same yearly income as him? I doubt it. As long as nothing is defined, it all sounds good.

Generally, in socialism, “spreading the wealth” boils down to the gov’t spreading the wealth of the people while keeping their own butter thick.

9 11 2008
amycourts

Jenn: “…unless he is willing to live on the SAME playing field as everyone, he really is still elevating himself above the rest of the “poorer” humanity.”

I can’t tell if you’re arguing for or against the idea of socialism? Because on one hand, I agree: if he wants to be considered a socialist and move in that direction, nationally, Obama would have to be content living on the same means as everyone else, meaning a substantial cut for him and raise for most of us.

But Obama’s not proposing straight-up socialism, but rather, a minor step in moving toward ensuring all Americans have their most basic needs provided for (i.e. all have access to food, water, and medicine every day) by raising taxes for the top-tier of earners (HIMSELF AND MANY OF HIS PEERS INCLUDED!!!!) so that, when added together, that small percentage adds up to hundreds of thousands of saved and/or bettered lives.

Now, on the definition of “less”…I don’t see your point unless you’re calling Obama a socialist. Which he’s not. But if your point is to “keep things how they are because no one can determine who needs more and who needs less” then the end result is that we willfully ignore those who need basic things. Which is simply inexcusable in a country as wealthy as ours.

I don’t understand why Obama needs to be making a huge sacrifice in order for his desire to be valid that all Americans’ basic needs be met. What? “It only means something if he’s taking the hit”? I think I’m missing something big here…

I do see, however, the problem with who gets to decide who gets or needs more and who needs less.

But frankly, I think it’s a silly and obvious question in our current situation which has NOTHING to do with actual socialism: There are people in our own neighborhoods who are going without food, water, medicine, education, clothing, and a roof over their heads, so clearly, they are the ones in need. We may argue about which of two people who make $40k per year and $60k per year respectively needs more….but not about the 45 Million Americans (including children) who are currently without health care. Where is the debate here?

See, we’re not talking about who gets a flat screen TV and who’s stuck with their grandma’s old beast. We’re not talking about some rich guy writing a $200,000 check to some poor guy. We’re talking about food, water, education, a roof, and health care. Come on!

To both Jenn and Darla, I ask that you take a little closer look at a few countries whose socialist economies have flourished, namely Norway and Sweden. I keep going back to this, but only because the two countries’ people are arguably (and statistically) the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest, and most productive among the world. These countries have two of the lowest tax AND crime rates in the world. And everyone lives on equal means.

IF America were to take that step – and we’re no where NEAR that, for the record – the issue would not be one of bringing CEO’s and mega-millionaires (or even those who make 6-figure salaries) DOWN to a less-than $10,000 annual income, but bringing everyone up to a reasonable income (say, $40k annually) where almost everyone (except the money-hungry hoarders), in the end, actually pays less in taxes and takes home more!! Of course, it’d be a big drop for the richest of the rich (and frankly, that’s why it’ll never work in America – it won’t fly with them, and they’re padding the politicians’ pockets). But in the end, the majority of people would be MUCH richer than the “average” American lives now. Ironic, eh? You and I would be looking at a significant INCREASE in income…as would most everyone else.

Either way, it’s a moot point because Obama’s plan isn’t remotely close to actual socialism. And such claims are ridiculous and prove only utter misunderstanding of the basic plan and its operation.

So let’s take a look at what his plan *could* look like, in numbers:

Say those who make $500,000 see a 5% increase in taxes (from 35% to 40%, according to the current income tax brackets). The amount they pay in taxes will rise from $175,000 per year to $200,000. They’re still bringing home $300,000 per year, while the people who are benefiting from the programs created with said taxes (i.e. those that provide health care, education, low-income housing, food, etc. to low-income families) see a SIGNIFICANT increase in effectiveness. (See, the effectiveness of ANY government program is directly linked to how well it’s funded…if education were funded better in inner cities, we’d see a significant rise in graduation, etc. Simply facts here…)

Now, say only those making over $1M annually – (let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, only 500 of our country’s absolute richest people fit this bill) – were to contribute to these programs through a 5% increase in taxes, we would have at least $200,000,000 extra to put into these programs. $200 MILLION DOLLARS!!!

…All while these richest-of-rich folks would STILL be living on hundreds of thousands more per year than the average American who makes $40k annually.

Do you see how significant a small percentage is in the grand scheme? Do you see how their supposed “living on less” really isn’t living on less in a sacrificial way, but simply contributing to humanity as responsible citizens should?

And more importantly, who – and what – is the priority here? Are we, as Believers, more concerned with defending the absurdly wealthy and ensuring/protecting their “right” to hoard wealth with no responsibility to other human beings (which is, by Biblical standards, the worship of money)? Or are we most concerned with ensuring that every human being’s basic needs are provided for, even if that means those of us who have more give more?

And if we, as Believers, live in a Democratic society where we are the government (!!!!) (where what we say goes!), shouldn’t we be demanding action be taken on behalf of those without, rather than protecting the rich at the expense of the poor?

I willingly challenge anyone who stands for the former to find anything in Scripture to support their defense.

9 11 2008
darla

Amy: Jesus embodied that, walking, eating, sleeping as a poor man, so I can’t argue what He expects us to do. I also understand that you say “we are the government”. However, the government and the church are two separate entities. I am not a huge supporter of government programs (by-in-large) helping the needy simply because all governments have some corruption. If that sounds negative, then I guess it is. The men and women who make up the government are, GENERALLY, not Christ-focused. The church, however, is an entirely different story. If we were having this discussion about what the CHURCH should do to help the poor, my opinion would be entirely different. It is imperative as Christians that we follow Jesus’ example in this regard. But I do not expect, or have faith for that matter, that the government can or will.

Here is what I believe that I am called to do: Be a servant of Jesus by obeying His commands, and be a servant of mankind. That means that within whatever means I am able to do that, I should do. That is ALL Jesus expects me to do. He does not expect me to conquer and save all the poor in the world. He just expects me to do my part where I live. And Jesus, and Jesus alone will be the judge if I am doing my part.

I am not totally against all social programs, I just don’t believe that they can be properly regulated. Because I live in a country with universal health care (CANADA) and in particular a province who for many, many years was socialist, I cannot agree that the government can RESPONSIBLY put my tax dollars to where it’s really needed.

That’s why I’ve come to believe that essentially the government and the church should be separate and we each should individually do our part to help humankind. It may not be in the amount of millions of dollars, Amy, but if it’s sacrificial on my part, that is all Jesus expects.

9 11 2008
amycourts

Darla, I’m in complete agreement with you that the Church and state ought to be kept separate to ensure that the Church isn’t taken advantage of and to ensure people aren’t forced into religion. But the Church has MUCH to offer the state…it’s like what Tony Campolo said: “If you mix ice cream with cow dung, it won’t be problematic for the dung…but it’ll ruin the ice cream.”

I also agree that every form of government – especially those in which the government has more centralized power – are bound to fail because the love of power can’t accommodate true love.

I think what’s funny here is that, in America, the people who make up the government – we, the people! – ARE Christ-followers. And while not everyone in America is Christian (obviously), we do all share a common interest in the human destiny. What makes our situation unique is that we DO have the power to take Christian values and use them to empower the entire nation. We HAVE been granted a unique voice in the one thing George W did right: setting up a faith-based initiative program that aids and helps fund non-profits in doing the work we do, without much more of a government hand in the pot. It keeps things separate, but only because the government has joined teams with the faith-based groups, rather than the two straining to be mutually exclusive (and getting far less accomplished!).

Point being, we can do much for America, not by becoming a theocracy, but by acting as a democracy: when enough people cry out for change, inevitably they’ll tire of waiting for others to do it, and will do it themselves. Which is precisely what we see happening, both with the changes in government but more importantly with the action of Americans who are taking on the culture they despise and turning it around. Suffice it to say, I’m not necessarily for a more powerful group of representative governors in America (i.e. more power on Capitol Hill)…but for more power among the government (in this case, US!!) and Capitol Hill funding of it!

Bottom line: For Believers, I think it means doing what we’re called to do individually – exactly like you said – but also engaging our culture and its rulers to get MORE people involved in doing Kingdom work (whether they acknowledge it as such or not). Christ was consistent about meeting both physical and spiritual needs of people: He was a “full person” advocate. We ought to be as well. And we can be more effective if we join teams rather than staying totally separate. (I tread a fine line because, as I said, I’m for the separation of church and state, but only insofar as it protects the people from one forced religion and the church from being exploited for their votes). While I agree government isn’t great at funding and regulating its many programs and could do better, it doesn’t mean throw the baby out with the bathwater, but strive to make it better. By working together. We can stay individuals and do our parts…but we accomplish SO much more working together. With our money but more importantly, with our time and other resources.

Either way…seems we agree more than we disagree, so I’m happy about that!

9 11 2008
darla

Yes, Amy. I have truly enjoyed using my think tank during this discussion. God bless you and, who knows, maybe we’ll both have opinions again during some other discussion!

10 11 2008
Jenn

I’m pretty sure you misquoted me here, I didn’t say this:
——————————————
amycourts (14:35:17) :

Jenn: “…unless he is willing to live on the SAME playing field as everyone, he really is still elevating himself above the rest of the “poorer” humanity.”
——————————————

Look above again and see what I wrote. The reason I put “Socialist” in quotes was because that’s what everyone is saying right now, not because it’s what I believe he’ll bring. I know without a doubt that we will never be a Socialist country, and Obama’s plan is nothing even close to Socialism. 🙂

By the way, what you wrote here: “And more importantly, who – and what – is the priority here? Are we, as Believers, more concerned with defending the absurdly wealthy and ensuring/protecting their “right” to hoard wealth with no responsibility to other human beings (which is, by Biblical standards, the worship of money)? Or are we most concerned with ensuring that every human being’s basic needs are provided for, even if that means those of us who have more give more?

And if we, as Believers, live in a Democratic society where we are the government (!!!!) (where what we say goes!), shouldn’t we be demanding action be taken on behalf of those without, rather than protecting the rich at the expense of the poor?”

I COMPLETELY agree with, and it’s precisely what I’m saying. My comment was merely on the selfishness I have seen in some friends of mine who are Christians when talking about the thought of living with less, or not keeping what they’ve worked so hard for because of higher taxes. :)~

~J

12 11 2008
tigerlilysandybanks

I love the story about a man who drove to a diner and saw a ragged man sitting outside the door, begging for money. He ignores him for the time being and goes inside for his meal. When the end of his meal comes, he pays for it and, instead of giving his waitress a tip, he tells her that the man outside needs it worse.

“So let me get this straight. You’re going to give a man money for doing nothing, but jip me out of the money that I earned by serving you your hot meal?”

“Well, he obviously needs it more than you.”

This is socialism. The guy that could be inside working for the diner to earn his wages choses not to and is pitied because of it whereas the waitress inside works hard for the money that her patrons are handing out to the useless.

There’s a place called Step 13. It’s supposed to be a rehabilitation continuation program after one has completed the 12-step program. It is entirely privately owned and privately funded. They get absolutely no money and no handouts from the government whatsoever. The man that owns and runs the place (his name escapes me) has business cards that say “Come to thus-and-such place to redeem me for a free meal.” He has handed out over 100,000 of these cards. Do you know how many have actually been redeemed? Around 200. That’s less than 1%.

So when I see guys holding up signs that say they’ll work for food or they need money for food, I don’t buy it. And it’s not my selfishness that makes me hold onto my money when I pass them. It’s because I know what they really use that money for most of the time, and I’m not going to contribute to that. I don’t want to help support some junkie.

But I do agree that when somebody comes along who really needs help, it is our duty to help them to the best of our ability. And I gladly help those that need my help to improve their lives. I’m not going to give money to somebody who uses it to throw their lives into even further turmoil and chaos and misery.

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