While I truly tremble at the mere mention of the name "Jesus" in the same sentence with the word, "socialism," this question is one of the central issues of this presidential election. And I believe it deserves consideration.
Of course, who am I to even attempt to answer such a question? I've spent two days now trying to figure out where to begin.
After all, Jesus preceded Marx historically by nearly 19 whole centuries. In addition, Marx built his entire socialist philosophy on the initial premise that God was merely a human delusion, and the second that religion was nothing more than an "opiate of the masses."
Therefore, any attempt to make Jesus a socialist begins with many contradictions.
As Pope Benedict XVI has written:
"Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory...Moreover, to attempt to integrate into theology an analysis whose criterion of interpretation depends on this atheistic conception is to involve oneself in terrible contradictions. What is more, this misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the person leads to a total subordination of the person to the collectivity, and thus to the denial of the principles of a social and political life which is in keeping with human dignity."
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have had to confront various forms of liberation theology and socialist interpretations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And both concluded unequivocally that all such attempts at transforming Christianity into a political creed, giving special favor to the materially poor, was like mixing oil with water. They simply do not mix.
As Pope Benedict XVI explains further:
"In its positive meaning the Church of the poor signifies the preference given to the poor, without exclusion, whatever the form of their poverty, because they are preferred by God...But the theologies of liberation...go on to a disastrous confusion between the poor of the Scripture and the proletariat of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle."
So, what is the Christian meaning of the poor? It is simply that there are a host of ways to be poor. And according to the Christian faith the worst form of poverty is not material; it is spiritual. One can be rolling in money and material goods, but be spiritually impoverished. One can be materially poor as dirt, but spiritually rich.
Jesus did make many statements about the virtues of being generous with one's own material wealth, whether it be great or small. However, the innate crux of every one of Jesus' admonitions to give to those less fortunate was freedom. Unless the deed was done freely, according to the giver's own free will, there was no blessing in the deed at all.
Today, the faith component of Barack Obama's candidacy rests upon this one particle of Jesus' ministry, that by coercively "spreading the wealth" to all by means of a state collective distribution center we will somehow achieve the kingdom of Jesus on earth. In this belief, Obama is backed by a host of religious left people professing many faiths, most predominantly by those claiming to be Christian.
Much of the theological component to the Christian left's support for Barack Obama is found in Matthew 25:31-46, which refers to the Judgment of the Nations at the prophesied Second Coming of Christ.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
The Gospel writer then goes on to define how God will separate the "good" nations from the "bad" nations, based upon how each nation has treated the "least of these" among them. These "least" are enumerated by Matthew as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and the imprisoned. In the Gospel, Jesus tells the nations, when you did good to these "least" you did it to me, and you will be deemed good and worthy of God's kingdom.
This judgment of the nations was to occur at Jesus' Second Coming. According to Catholic Biblical commentary, the definition of the "least of these" described in Matthew was not absent theological meaning. Although there is some disagreement over the authentic meaning of these verses, "a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist's sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel."
The real problem with assuming that all of these merciful works can be taken at face value and given a purely political meaning is that these words were intended to apply to Christian missionaries carrying out the Great Commandment given by Jesus immediately before his Ascension into heaven.
And what was that Great Commandment?
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
Gospel of Mark: 28:18-20
It should be noted by any reasonable person that Jesus' last commandment to his disciples was purely spiritual, not material in any way. Jesus did not leave his followers with, for instance, this political statement: "Go therefore, and overthrow the corrupt Roman regime, free all the slaves, take all the wealth and give it to the less fortunate, and set yourselves up as the indisputable arbiters of the world's material goods."
If Jesus had made this sort of statement before his ascension into heaven, then perhaps a suitable case could be made for Jesus as a socialist way ahead of his time. However, if anyone reads the entirety of the 4 Gospels, he will come away with a very clear understanding that in all matters, Jesus' words and actions point to his giving absolute supremacy to the spiritual component of human beings over and above all things material.
The material world is temporal; the spiritual eternal. And Jesus had no trouble distinguishing the worth of either.
Another thing about Jesus' priorities is abundantly clear from the Gospels. When asked whether he had come to abolish the Law (the Ten Commandments), Jesus answered unequivocally, "No."
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
Gospel of Matthew 5:17-19
To those now clamoring from the religious left about the so-called un-Christian behavior of those on the religious right, it needs to be pointed out that Jesus was very clear about his own priorities. When evangelical protestant and Catholic Christians insist that civil laws protecting the right to life of every human being and those laws protecting the integrity of heterosexual, monogamous marriage, they are following the admonition of Christ himself.
Within the Ten Commandments are very firm lines for moral behavior in society, which deem the wanton killing of innocents (as in abortion and euthanasia) to be anathema to a peaceful and just people. Also, contained within the Commandments is the prohibition of any and all sexual relations outside heterosexual, monogamous marriage, namely adultery.
Personally, I think one could write volumes about this intersection of faith and politics. Indeed, volumes have been written. And what we are left with is still the very question that Jesus posed to the Apostle Peter:
"Who do you say that I am?"