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Why I am a Christian Socialist

The immensely popular evangelical professor Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1998) was active in the underground Confessing Church and in partisanship for peace and justice.
Why I am a Christian Socialist

By Helmut Gollwitzer

[Thse theses are translated from the German on the website of the Alliance of Religious Socialists in Germany (BRSD),  http://www.brsd.de/molvies.php?name-News&file=article&sid=21. Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1998), an evangelical professor who touched thousands in Germany was active in the underground Confessing Church. These theses appeared in 1980.]

1. What does it mean to say "I am a socialist"?

1.1 A socialist regards a better society than the present as possible and necessary.

1.2 "Better society" means a society changed in its basic structures compared to the existing society, not only improvements within the existing society. That the socialist cooperates in improvements within the existing society joins him or her with all socially responsible persons of this society in active cooperation. That he or she considers fundamental structural changes as possible and necessary distinguishes him or her.

1.3 The goal of socialists is the most egalitarian society possible, that is a society with the greatest possible equal opportunities, the greatest possible self-determination (freedom) and joint determination of all members of society without privileges through birth or possessions, negatively expressed, with the greatest possible minimization of exploitation, domination and inequality in acquisition of the social product.

1.4 A socialist is serious with the original goals of civil society - "freedom, equality, fraternity" - that are always only restrictedly realized in this society on account of privileges and inequality ("fascism" in all its varieties). In 1908, Friedrich Naumann said: "socialism is the widest possible expansion of liberal methods to all modern conditions of rule and dependence." According to the Godesberg program of the SPD (Socialist party in Germany): "Socialism can only be realized through democracy and democracy can only be perfected through socialism."

1.5 A socialist has the vision to imagine alternatives to the present society and criticize orders of this society without whitewashing. He or she emphasizes that the present society is neither naturally-given, God-given nor the end and goal of all history. Rather this society is historical and historically surpassable by both socialism and barbarism.

1.6 A socialist fights for a structural change of society and is revolutionary. Whether a forceful political revolution is necessary for change or whether the transition from the old order to the new occurs gradually and peacefully depends on the circumstances, particularly on whether the powers interested in the existing system of privileges attempt to secure their privileges with force and suspension of democratic rights.

1.7 A socialist does not defend any doctrine of salvation. He or she knows that social structures do not make people good or evil and cannot guarantee the happiness of individuals. However social conditions deeply influence people in their thinking, feeling and acting and can make countless people better or worse - as we experienced most crassly in the time of Nazism. A system of privileges gives countless people great material distress and existential atrophy.

1.8 A socialist comes to the conviction through reason that a structural change dismantling past privileges and leading to real democracy is conceivable and possible on the basis of contemporary scientific-technical development and is urgently necessary considering the destructive effects of scientific-technical development serving the system of privileges (particular interests) if the future should not decay to barbarism.

2. The modern problems of the socialist

2.1 The word socialism has become ambiguous, filled with positive meaning for some and negative meaning for many.

2.2 The negative meaning of the word socialism in Germany originates

a. from the alarming pictures - reinforced by anti-socialist and anti-communist propaganda - offered citizens today by states calling themselves socialist.
b. In that the upheavals in these states occurred through bloody civil wars and
c. In that these upheavals occur in agrarian "underdeveloped" countries. Therefore a model for the transition of a developed industrial state to a new non-capitalist society does not exist.

2.3 The ambiguity of the word socialism arises in that this word means different things:

a. the goal of a new society,
b. the socialist organizations (parties and groups) that fight for that goal,
c. the structural measures that should gradually lead to the goal.

While agreement largely exists about a) and b), conflict occurs within socialist organizations on individual measures and necessary strategies.

2.4 The word socialism has become nearly useless through this double ambiguity. Whoever describes himself today as a socialist must immediately add in what sense he is a socialist.

2.5 A socialist today is in a situation similar to the Christian. Whoever describes himself as a Christian must immediately add in what sense he considers himself a Christian so the sins of other Christian groups are not charged to him. A Christian or socialist will deny and refute that such sins follow necessarily from the nature of Christianity or socialism. The alarming reality of states that call themselves socialist is a grievous problem for socialists just as the alarming reality of states that called or call themselves Christians is a serious problem for Christians.

3. Why does a person become a socialist?

3.1 A person becomes a socialist because he is either strongly affected by the damages of the present social system or identifies with these affected ones from moral motives or from rational insight in the urgency of revolutionary change.

3.2 A person becomes a socialist when he or she experiences or observes social damages not only as individual phenomena but sees through the surface phenomena to their connection: the connection with one another and the connection with the basic structures of the present society and its dominant mode of production.

3.3 Since early capitalism, such foreground phenomena were unemployment, crass inequality of chances and living conditions, disastrous effects of capitalist crises on countless existences, economic causes of international conflicts (wars), military-industrial complex (armament industry, weapons trade) and enslavement of other people (colonialism). In addition, we face today waste, inhumanity of the cities, landscape destruction, increased productivity through intensified parcelization, mechanization of labor (Taylorization) and efficiency controls, rationalization of jobs and de-qualification of labor through new technology, discrepancy between satisfaction of consumer needs and frustration in the necessities of life, commercialiszation of interpersonal relations and sexuality, disintegration of the family and subjugation of citizens under the bureaucratic-technocratic machine.

3.4 In addition, the material impoverishment of the majority of the world's population has reached an extent unparalleled in history simultaneous with the satisfaction of the material needs of the masses. The question presses whether the prosperity here and the misery there are causally connected like two sides of the same coin.

3.5 The connection of all these phenomena according to socialist conviction is visible when one asks about the basic mode of production now expanding over the whole globe, the capitalist mode, according to its laws and effects.

3.6 A socialist doesn't regard this mode of production as the only mode but the main cause of the prese3nt world misery and present future dangers. He sees how all analyses of present problems and all proposed solutions without knowledge of this main cause remain on the surface and therefore show no way out. He has reasons for the prognosis that the survival of humanity endangered today for the first time in history can not succeed without overcoming this main cause.

4. Why does a Christian become a socialist?

4.1 A negative impulse is usually named to the question why a person becomes a socialist today: the insight in the vast destructiveness of the present society caused by the nature of the capitalist mode of production. According to Jean Ziegler (professor of sociology in Geneva), the indispensable imperative for socialists in the present world situation is "preserving in one's deepest interior the sense for the horrors and making this the foundation of daily perception". For Christians, a positive impulse comes from the gospel.

4.2 The gospel shows us

a. the world as God's beloved creation where people are set to "till it and keep it" (Gen 2,15),
b. humankind as God's beloved children. Through his devotion in his son Jesus Christ, God seeks to rescue humankind from the consequences of their sinful self-destruction and to unite humankind in a family of sisters and brothers,
c. active love responsible for the bodily and spiritual life of human sisters and brothers as a fruit of the faith to which we people previously chained egoistically to our interests are liberated through the spirit of Jesus Christ.

4.3 A new attitude to all the privileges we possess:

a. What I possess in privileges in thanks to God who gives them to me should be used to serve the neighbor. "Whatever is not service is robbery" (Luther).
b. What I possess in social privileges beyond my creaturely and spiritual necessities should become rights of everyone. Thus I will not participate in the struggles of those who want to maintain their privileges but in the struggles of those who want to dismantle these privileges to favor the disadvantaged. The gospel instructs us to see and change society from its lowest place where the disadvantaged stand.

4.4 All historical societies since the agricultural age were societies of privilege. Their history, systems of law, culture and religion were defined from the interests of the privileged sectors in maintaining their privileges: class struggle from above. The Christian community is appointed to be a privilege-free, rule-free brotherhood. Thus this community stands in opposition to the surrounding society of privilege. As part of its world responsibility, this community is not only an island living differently but a group that shares in dismantling the privilege system in cooperation with likeminded efforts.

4.5 The privilege system penetrates the Christian community owing to the connections with the surrounding society. In the course of their history, the Christian churches entered diverse alliances with the privilege systems and performed ideological service. Accordingly they are partly responsible for the massive oppression and injustice ("class bond of the church"). "The crass class opposition continues today between the first world including the workers and the masses of the third world". The saying of a Latin American bishop is true for Christians in Germany: "No German can say he is innocent."

4.6 The conversion to which the Christian community is called daily through God's word also includes turning away from its bond in the dominant system of privileges and active engagement for more just social structures no longer determined by social privileges. Therefore the important primary question today is the question about the relation of Christian existence and capitalism, not the question of the relation of Christianity and socialism. Can one as a Christian affirm and defend the present social system together with its underlying economic order or must this system be intolerable for a Christian?

4.7 If a Christian is aware of the incompatibility between the gospel and the capitalist privilege system and sees himself inevitably and irresistibly constrained by the gospel to involvement in the struggle for a more just solidarian society, he must explore and decide with his reason how far a change of society is now possible and necessary, what strategy, what alliances and what compromises should be chosen and how the overdue structural changes should appear. This happens in rational discussions and political decision-making processes. There are no absolute decisions on the fields of reason and therefore no absolute oppositions. In contrast, the "direction and line" of our political activity (Karl Barth) is fixed by the gospel - to a solidarian democratic and privilege-free society. The gospel gives the Christian a motive and goal for political responsibility and criteria for choosing means and ways of struggle.

4.8 If the "direction and line" are fixed by the gospel, the decision for socialism is an emerging decision not established by the gospel. This decision depends on rational judgment of the situation and adequate information about the situation free from ideological bonds to privileges.

4.9 Socialism is not identical with Marxism. There are many non-Marxist socialists and nearly as many Marxist schools as Christian theologies. Marxism is a theoretical instrument for socialism in analyzing the situation and developing strategy. The Christian as a socialist can use this instrument irrespective whether it was invented by an atheist and allied with atheistic worldviews from historical conditions. This instrument is used according to the principle of Christian freedom: "Test everything, hold fast what is good (literally, the beautiful)!" (1 Thess 5,21) and in Christian freedom in a free test according to suitability, not as rigid doctrine.

4.10 Daily watchwords often call us to this "direction and line" and to freedom for the practical consequences including the unbiased examination of socialist ideas, for example: "I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the afflicted" (Psalm 140,12). "Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith? But you have dishonored the poor man" (James 2,5.6). "So many wait there: the blind, the aged, the cripples, the deaf. Who measures their suffering? To save our lives, we must lose time and eternity" (Paul Toaspern).

homepage: homepage: http://www.mbtranslations.com

Christianity & socialism 02.Apr.2006 21:40

bob rossi rjrossi@navicom.com

We're discussing this issue from Salem, OR. at  http://willamettereds.blogspot.com/.

Your comments appreciated!

on christian socialism 28.Dec.2006 07:22

US Christian cprousalis@hotmail.com

I'm glad that I found someone mentioning these ideals online. It is not right to dismiss people for having a "socialist" label. After all, wasn't Jesus himself abdicating a kind of christian socialism telling the rich to give their money away, and sharing the fish and bread with the masses?

Jesus a socialist who would have guessed? Sarcasim 06.Nov.2008 02:34

Marc calledofgod7@live.com

Hey, of course He was and he spoke strongly of it and made it obvious. He spoke to the rich young ruler, and told him to sell all and give to the poor. We also see His followers practicing family-love,or communal living, or socialism which ever fits you. In the acts of the apostles, Quote: "And they had all things in common". I can only see this ideology expressed in the teachings of scripture from start to finish. To justify that awful political thought philosophy of capitlism is only to concede to your own greed. God Bless You all richly in Christ Jesus! And may He keep us all from selfishness, and greed.

Working link to the German text 18.Aug.2010 14:37

Vir Cotto

The link to the German text of "Warum bin ich als Christ Sozialist?" is broken. It may be found here on the BRSD web site: