The first step to answer this question is to define the terms. Much disagreement exists not because those arguing fundamentally disagree, but because they’re simply defining terms differently.
If by “liberal socialist” one refers to a person who seeks to serve his fellow man with compassion and charity, and who spends his life voluntarily clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, liberating the captive, educating the ignorant, and caring for the sick and afflicted, then yes, Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist and we should all strive to be liberal socialists.
If being a liberal socialist means striving to attain just and equitable society, a society where there are no rich or poor, where all men are treated equally, then Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist.
If liberal socialism means to give of our talents and substance to serve and uplift others, then Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist.
For those readers who are choking on my words, please read on carefully to digest the full context.
Consider the following excerpts from the Bible:
Matthew 19: 16 – 21
16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
17 And he said unto him…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness.
19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself.
20 The young man saith unto him, All of these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.
35 But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.
36 Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
38 Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
In an interview with Pastor Rick Warren, Barack Obama, currently the most prominent liberal in America, said,
“America’s greatest moral failure…has been that we still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew, ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do for me.’ That basic principle applies to poverty, it applies to racism and sexism, it applies to not…providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class…This country, as wealthy and powerful as we are, we still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least among us.”
I agree with those words — in a certain context — and I think that Jesus Christ, as I understand His life and teachings, would agree as well.
Content Vs. Context
Let’s pause a moment. Understand that no truth exists without context. Needles are content; using them to insert drugs or life-saving medicine are examples of context. Water is content; watering crops and drowning a person are examples of context. Needles aren’t good or bad — it’s how they are used that determines their virtue, or destructive power.
The words “liberal” and “socialist” are nothing but content; without understanding the context in which they are used it’s impossible to determine whether or not Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist.
To counteract my claims above that Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist, now consider a different context:
If by “liberal socialist” one refers to a person who justifies using force to steal from one person or group of people to give to another, then Jesus Christ was the furthest thing from a liberal socialist.
Force Vs. Voluntarism
The crux of the argument lies in understanding the purpose and function of the government. As I have written elsewhere, government is force. No policy can ever be enacted through government without it being backed by a gun to the head of every citizen who chooses to disobey the law.
Those who claim that Jesus Christ was a liberal socialist, and who believe that liberal socialism is enacted by government force, misunderstand the voluntary nature of charity.
As I wrote in an essay entitled On Bridge-Building:
“Unprincipled social workers seem relatively harmless on the surface, yet when an entire culture embraces a false sense of government-sponsored philanthropy, the long-term consequences are an irresponsible society operating under a crippling sense of entitlement. The desire to lift and serve others is good, but the danger from the group I speak of comes from using government force to impose their sense of morality upon the populace. This degenerates into a moral cannibalism that ultimately destroys the society.
“When the true sense of public virtue is distorted and counterfeited to become forced wealth distribution, the virtue is lost and replaced with resentment and anger by those forced to give, and the loss of dignity and self-reliance on those who depend on the givers. False charity destroys those who know how to fish at the expense of those waiting for fish to be given to them. The cruel irony is that the people who are hurt the most by forced welfare schemes are the same people that misplaced charity is precisely designed to help. People who set out to ‘serve society’ and who do not operate under moral principles inevitably seek to ‘lift’ the bottom by forcefully taking from the top. The result is a miserable mediocrity for all.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is, at its core, one of voluntary virtue. Being forced at gunpoint to support others is not virtue at all — it is unabashed theft.
While Jesus Christ demonstrated the path we should follow by washing Peter’s feet, He also taught, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Interestingly, contemporary liberals and socialists break one of His laws in order to fulfill another. They justify theft in the name of charity — ironically rendering charity obsolete in the process.
I wholeheartedly agree with Barack Obama — and Jesus Christ — that the ideal society is one in which all citizens seek the interest of their neighbors and do everything in their power to serve and uplift the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the underprivileged.
And I also believe and strive to adhere to the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Using the government to take from one person or group to give to another is an act of force. Strip away all of the nice-sounding language about “social justice” and the concept of the “village” and all it is is one person putting a gun to another person’s head and saying, “You will give this money or you will be shot dead, or at the very least imprisoned.”
“…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” -Thomas Jefferson
If charity is not implemented on a voluntary basis it is thievery, it is moral cannibalism, and it fails every time, as proven throughout history.
So, was Jesus Christ a liberal socialist? It depends on the definitions and the context. Our challenge is to follow Him without resorting to force.