What does democratic socialism have to do with a Christian understanding of the world? What’s wrong with the current economic system of capitalism? Does democratic socialism require a return to the failed authoritarian states of the 20th century century?
Christians have asked variations of these questions over the past couple of centuries with equally various answers. There are plenty of Christians who stand by the current economic order; any critique they have of it is directed at the “consumerist” culture as opposed to the intrinsic structure of the economy. While this may satisfy some Christians who think that the problems of modernity are primarily interior, others are not so convinced that we can ignore the spiritual impact the whole of the economic system has on both our understanding of labor and our social life together.
One does not have to desire a return to the 20th century collectivist regimes to consider themselves a democratic socialist; for Christian alternatives for what democratic socialism looks like, take a look at the life of Maria Skobtsova or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both pointed out the spiritually bankrupt nature of both modern industrial capitalism and 20th century state socialism. In both cases, this did not make them milquetoast supporters of the status quo, but rather advocates for a Christian politics that saw how both modern capitalism and 20th century state socialism forgot what made us intrinsically human. While we might not be able to build the kingdom of God here on Earth, what we are capable of is constructing a society in which both justice is served and the value of labor is recognized.
In his message to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, Dr. King argued, “Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.” Far from being the moderate many make him out to be today, Dr. King was a radical thinker, arguing for both racial and economic justice in America. The goal, for Dr. King, was to establish an economic order that recognized the dignity in each man and treated them as a creation of God, wonderful and worth caring for.
Maria Skobtsova was a former Russian Bolshevik turned Orthodox nun, but even after her turn to the Church, Maria’s heart was still ablaze with love for the poor and laboring classes. (She died as a martyr in a concentration camp, killed by the Nazis for offering her home as a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution.) Mother Maria reminded her fellow compatriots that salvation is a collective affair in the Orthodox tradition, not an individual one; to participate in Christ’s salvation means to do his will and care for the least amongst us. To lay down our lives for our neighbor, that is the Christian’s duty; to live the communion that was established by Christ’s salvific act is our call. Our love of our neighbor is grounded in our love of God; the love that goes beyond secular charity or secular reason, the irrational love that cares for the stranger as if he were our brother. Because we are united with God, we are united with humanity.
In her article “The Cross and the Hammer and Sickle,” Mother Maria, rather than lambasting the idea of socialism, instead pointed out the deficiencies of actual existing state socialism in the light of the cross. In the eyes of Mother Maria, the hammer and sickle had to be purified of the stain of autocratic regimes had placed on it; in her eyes, she thought the idea of self-liberation was incoherent in the face of powers of death and destruction. The church alone can show the world the way to create institutions of sharing, not taking; it alone can show us how to move beyond the relentless logic of capital.
We know the impossible ideal of Christian life will not be created before we enter the kingdom of heaven; nonetheless, we are still called to establish a world order based on what leads to a more just world in the interim. Christ is freedom and must be voluntary; any ideological system that seeks to reduce human freedom is against the Kingdom. For Mother Maria, both communist and capitalist regimes act as systems of alienation, death, and oppression. Instead, our goal is to transfigure political life in order to create a world that reflects Christ, starting with how we act towards our brothers and sisters in our day-to-day life. She remarks:
As a pianist or singer must play or sing the simplest scales every day as exercise, and otherwise will be unable to do anything complicated, as a craftsman needs certain muscular habits, as a wrestler needs training—so in the Christian deed of transfiguring the world, a small everyday life should be freely created. Why speak of the brotherhood of the people, if we do not live with our roommate in brotherly fashion? Why speak of freedom, if we are unable to freely combine our creative efforts? Why speak of a Christian attitude toward labor, if we work under the rod or do not work at all? Free laboring — that is the basis of our path in Christ. And this basis should pervade our everyday and routine life. If it is not so, then the Grand Inquisitor is right, the general party line is right, all the violators, levelers, dictators, and slave-owners are right, and people are not the images of God but a herd.
In today’s world, the threat of bureaucratic collectivist regimes of the 20th century are far behind us; instead, the threat today comes from our own economic order, an order built on the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of any common good; one that maximizes greed and minimizes love. What Dr. King and Mother Maria teach us is that Christian political witness in the 21st century needs to combat any social order that produces mass alienation, death, and oppression, no matter whether it calls itself capitalist or socialist. The task of the Church in the political realm is to fight such powers and point to a world beyond them, starting with our own political witness. As Christians following the example of Dr. King and Mother Maria, it is our task to witness to the world the ideal of Christian love and strive for a more just social and economic order.