Author Topic: Lutherans and Socialism  (Read 3649 times)

Svensen

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Lutherans and Socialism
« on: September 18, 2021, 10:58:45 PM »
The spring 2021 issue of LF includes a provocative article by John B. King on Lutherans and socialism. It seems that the linchpin of King's argument is that Lutheran pastors are obligated to preach against socialism because it violates the Ten Commandments, especially the seventh:
Quote
From Luther’s exposition of these commandments, we can identify the subtle operation of thievery and covetousness within a socialist system. Through the intervention of the state, person B takes person A’s money and property rather than helping person A to protect his property and income. According to Luther, this transfer is stealing. Likewise, through the intervention of the state, person B takes person A’s property by claiming to have a legal right to it rather than helping person A to keep what is his. The false idea here is that person B has a moral and legal claim on person A’s property simply because person B needs it. Socialists call this claim economic justice; Luther calls it covetousness. (p. 56)
Incidentally, this reminds me of Robert Benne's claim that when he was trying to find a dissertation topic at the University of Chicago, he wanted to write on how the Nordic welfare state was a product of Nordic Lutheran culture. When he looked into the main sources, he found that the thesis was unsupportable. I wonder what an objection to the welfare state – and socialism more specifically – might look like for Lutherans who agree with King, in the main. It might parallel some of the objections registered by Nordic Lutherans in the recent past to the expansion of the state into the church's own work on behalf of the poor.

Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2021, 03:38:51 PM »
I'll look forward to reading King's article. I suppose there may be forms of socialism where the members of the society agree to centralize decisions about property and income. In that case, such agreement would not violate the commandment. I suppose that as often as Americans vote to socialize aspects of our property and income, we move towards such a socialist society.

Luther might take issue with modern economics since he complained against usury, which is foundational to modern society. As a medieval person, he might not have anticipated modern economics just as the apostle Paul wrote for a society that perpetuated slavery, which became objectionable to modern western societies.

To be clear, I don't favor socialism. However, I do pay into social security willingly even though I may not see the benefits when I retire. The system existed before I became a worker and I grew up with it.
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James S. Rustad

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2021, 05:16:14 PM »
I'll look forward to reading King's article. I suppose there may be forms of socialism where the members of the society agree to centralize decisions about property and income. In that case, such agreement would not violate the commandment. I suppose that as often as Americans vote to socialize aspects of our property and income, we move towards such a socialist society.

As soon as one person disagrees with centralization, then it's back to violating the commandment again?

Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2021, 05:53:36 PM »
I'll look forward to reading King's article. I suppose there may be forms of socialism where the members of the society agree to centralize decisions about property and income. In that case, such agreement would not violate the commandment. I suppose that as often as Americans vote to socialize aspects of our property and income, we move towards such a socialist society.

As soon as one person disagrees with centralization, then it's back to violating the commandment again?

The Seventh Commandment
You shall not steal.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.

The "take" does not include practices like taxation (cf. Table of Duties, Romans 13). So legitimate government might take a portion of one's income for governmental purposes without violating the commandment. Just because someone objects does not make the taxation wrong. The question then becomes, Is socialism a legitimate form of government?
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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2021, 06:29:32 PM »
I'm wondering if we have any commentary on Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35 by Luther; or by Lutherans.


I'm also wondering if such commentary on these texts would differ from Lutherans in Scandinavian, Germany, America, Africa.


As I think about it, I have a commentary on Acts of the Apostles by Hans Conzelmann in the Hermaneia Series. Quotes follow:

[2:]44 The κοινωνία, "fellowship," is depicted as the sharing of property. A proverbial Greek expression says: κοινὰ τὰ φίλων, "the belongings of friends are held in common."1

45: The distinction between real estate and goods is not stressed. D2 has again attempted to tell the story in a more realistic manner; instead of "they sold their possessions and goods," it reads "as many as had possessions or goods sold them."

1 Plato Rep. 4.424a; 5.440c; Aristotle Eth. Nic. 8.9, 1159b 31; Philo Abr. 235; Cicero Off. 1.16.51; Ps.-Clem. Recog. 10.5; strongly modified, Barn. 19:8.]


2 My comment: "D" is a manuscript from the fifth century. Metzger (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) suggests that the adaptation was introduced to avoid giving the impression that all Christians were property-owners.

Excursus: The Sharing of Property
This picture of sharing property is idealized. The material was furnished by: (1) information handed on by tradition, such as 4:36-37 or 5:1-11; (2) knowledge about communistic groups, whether real (Essenes and the Qumran community: Josephus Bell. 2.122-23; ant. 18:18;22; Philo Prob. 75-87; 1QS 1.11-12 and 6:2-3) or ideal (for example the original "community of Pythagoreans"). Idealized communal portraits are associated with utopian dreams or accounts of primeval times. In Pergr. mort. 13 Lucian reports of the Christians: "Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property" (καταφρονοῦσιν οὖν ἁπάντων ἐξ ἴσης καὶ κοινὰ ἁγοῦνται). Some of the characteristic ancient catchwords are missing in Luke: ἰσότης, "equality," and the designation of the community as φίλοι, "friends." Despite the existence of communistic groups in the vicinity of Jerusalem, Luke's portrayal should not be taken as historical (some sort of organized means of support would have been necessary, as in those groups). Thus we cannot speak of a "failure of the experiment," nor can we draw conclusions for a primitive Christian communistic ideal. Furthermore, Luke does not present this way of life as a norm for the organization of the church in his own time. It is meant as an illustration of the uniqueness of the ideal earliest days of the movement. [pp.23-24]


[4:]34 Compare Deut 15:4. The earlier summary is supplemented by information about the use of alms. Votive offerings were laid "at the feet" of the divinity (Lucian Philops. 20). Philo Hypothetica (Eusebius Praep. eu. 8.11.10) reports concerning the Essenes that the administrator receives the wages which each hands over: "He takes it and at once buys what is necessary and provides food in abundance and anything else which human life requires" (λαβὼν δ᾽ ἐκεῖνος αὐτίκα τάπιτήδεια ὠνεῖται καὶ παρέχει τροφὰς ἀφθόνους καὶ τἄλλα ὧν ὁ ἀνθρώπινος βίος χρειώδυς) [p. 36]


Since he brought it up: here is Deuteronomy 15:4: "But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess – [ESV]


Comments on these verses by Will Willimon in his commentary on Acts (Interpretation Commentaries):


When you think about it, the quality of the church's life together is evidence for the truthfulness of the resurrection. The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history. The tough task of interpreting the reality of a truth like the resurrection is not so much the scientific or historical, "How could a thing like that happen?" but the ecclesiastical and communal, "Why don't you people look more resurrected?" (pp. 51-52)


Luke was not a Marxist, but he was enough of a realist to know that there is a good chance that where our possessions are our hearts will be also. … Wealth is not, for Luke, a sign of divine approval. It is a danger. [p. 52]


The power which broke the bonds of death on Easter, shattered the divisions of speech at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame now release the tight grip of private property. [p. 53]


"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

James S. Rustad

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #5 on: September 20, 2021, 01:17:32 PM »
I'll look forward to reading King's article. I suppose there may be forms of socialism where the members of the society agree to centralize decisions about property and income. In that case, such agreement would not violate the commandment. I suppose that as often as Americans vote to socialize aspects of our property and income, we move towards such a socialist society.

As soon as one person disagrees with centralization, then it's back to violating the commandment again?

The Seventh Commandment
You shall not steal.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.

The "take" does not include practices like taxation (cf. Table of Duties, Romans 13). So legitimate government might take a portion of one's income for governmental purposes without violating the commandment. Just because someone objects does not make the taxation wrong. The question then becomes, Is socialism a legitimate form of government?

That's not the question.  The question is if the centralized decision making about everything is a violation of the commandment as soon as one person disagrees with the centralized decision making agreement posited in your first post.

Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #6 on: September 20, 2021, 05:49:23 PM »
If that is your question, why not provide your answer?
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James S. Rustad

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #7 on: September 20, 2021, 10:44:11 PM »
If that is your question, why not provide your answer?

Because I'm curious about YOUR answer.

Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #8 on: September 21, 2021, 06:24:15 AM »
If that is your question, why not provide your answer?

Because I'm curious about YOUR answer.

James, I humbly suggest that you reread the post since I actually did answer your specific question. You may have missed it.
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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #9 on: September 21, 2021, 08:02:16 AM »
If that is your question, why not provide your answer?

Because I'm curious about YOUR answer.

James, I humbly suggest that you reread the post since I actually did answer your specific question. You may have missed it.

I suppose there may be forms of socialism where the members of the society agree to centralize decisions about property and income. In that case, such agreement would not violate the commandment.

I read this as describing a one-time agreement that you can't escape later - even if you were born long after the agreement was made.  That is why I was seeking clarification.  I'm used to hearing this argument from those who are claiming that everyone born in the US today has agreed to our system of government (Your parents agreed for you.  So they could get out of it?  No, their parents agreed for them.  And so on.)

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #10 on: September 21, 2021, 09:05:08 AM »
Social security taxation is an example of socializing an aspect of our economic system. We pay in and a centralized authority determines how the benefits are distributed. However, there is a possibility of exemption based on religious objection. This was offered to me when I finished seminary. I suppose it is still offered to clergy. We were advised to pay into the system rather than opt out. So I pay social security tax.

Generations had the decision made for them when that socialization was voted into law. It could be overturned at some point, which illustrates the freedom we do have as Americans. Other countries have gone much further toward socializing their economies.
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Dan Fienen

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #11 on: September 21, 2021, 10:32:21 AM »
Every form of government and every economic system is subject to exploitation and corruption. And just about any system can be made to work well if the people involved are willing do well. Over time some systems have proven more robust and able to resist or limit the worst corruption and exploitation.


Socialism is not an inherently evil system. In theory it should be ideal. In practice it has proven exceedingly difficult to balance the needs and wants of the group and the needs and wants of individuals. It has also proven quite corruptible by strong selfish leaders.


Neither is capitalism an inherently evil system. It also is subject to corruption and exploitation. Here in America we have evolved a system that has features of both systems.
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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #12 on: September 21, 2021, 12:54:35 PM »
The real issue for any proposed or actual "system" is the presuppositions regarding human nature.  Is human nature purely good or at least perfectible...or are we all predisposed to selfishness and aggrandizing our own power/position.  Any system that idealizes human nature and does not take into account our potential for evil will ultimately end in either tyranny or chaos.   If we recognize the reality of original sin, then it's a matter of checks and balances, granting enough authority to make the system work but steadfastly opposing the concentration of absolute and unaccountable authority in the hands of any individual or group. 

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #13 on: September 24, 2021, 07:29:19 PM »
Acts 4:34 uses an hapax legomena for "needy person:" ἐνδεής. According to Lowe & Nida, this word's "focus seems to be more upon a severe lack of needed resources rather than upon a state of poverty and destitution." This is its only occurrence in the Greek New Testament.


A retired minister who wintered in our town was a refugee from Latvia. His family had escaped the Russians by going to Germany, and eventually, the U.S., then Canada. He talks about experiencing real hunger; something greater than not having enough money to buy food; but living in a famine where there wasn't any food for anyone. My impression is that is more like what this word is about: the lack of resources, e.g., the thousands of people who are still without electricity after the hurricane. Having a lot of money in the bank isn't going to make the power come on at your mansion any more than having no money in the bank.


A meme on Facebook illustrated different mindsets: the person who takes five cookies because he thinks that there might not be enough to go around; and the one who takes only one because he thinks there might not be enough to go around.



This word is used in 25 verses in the LXX. Most notably in Deuteronomy 15 (4, 7, 11 (see also v. 9); 24:14) where God commands his people to make sure that there are no needy people among them.


If people are obeying God's commands to make sure that there are no needy people among them; that everyone has enough food, shelter, etc. is that socialism? In my understanding, it is. The community (society or social organization) is doing what is best for the whole community (society or social organization). The government does have to "take" from the wealthy, because the wealthy are willing to give for the good of the whole society.


"Noblesse oblige" is a French phrase used by the English to talk about the nobles' obligation to the people around them.


We are a greedy people. We will think about taking the five cookies for ourselves rather than sharing them with others. If a purpose of the Law is to curb our sinfulness; couldn't laws that require us to share be curbs against the sin of greed?
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Richard Johnson

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Re: Lutherans and Socialism
« Reply #14 on: September 25, 2021, 06:46:32 AM »

We are a greedy people. We will think about taking the five cookies for ourselves rather than sharing them with others. If a purpose of the Law is to curb our sinfulness; couldn't laws that require us to share be curbs against the sin of greed?

I was just listening to a podcast talking about an experiment done with children where they are offered one treat, or told that if they will wait 20 minutes to eat it, they can have two treats. (I'm oversimplifying, but you get the point.) The percentage of children in African agrarian countries who waited the twenty minutes was consistently much higher than in America or Europe. One theory is that people in agrarian cultures have learned to be patient, waiting for weather, crops, etc., while people in industrialized nations have lost that ability because they think everything is instantly and inevitably available.
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