I’ve been seeing a lot of people, including fellow atheists, share the following tweet, as well as some memes based on this tweet, around Facebook and other social media. This notion that Jesus was a socialist is a pretty common conception among Christian liberals. However, while I fall on the more liberal side of politics, I find this claim no more believable than the claims Christian conservatives make that Jesus takes their side on various issues.
First off, though certain aspects of socialism existed in philosophical arguments as far back as ancient Greece, it was not coined as a term until the late 18th to early 19th century, so Jesus certainly wouldn’t have called himself a socialist.
Secondly, socialism is a political construct which proposes co-operative management of the economy, which sets it apart from capitalism which advocates for competition between individuals, and most socialist philosophies advocate for government regulation or ownership of the means of production to maintain said management.* Of course, most socialists do believe in things like social safety nets and care for the poor, but these are particular goals of socialism, not socialism itself.
So, while the character of Jesus in the Bible did, at times, encourage people to help care for the poor, that does not make him a Socialist. His statements in the gospels are all directed towards individuals, he makes no mention of building government institutions, or institutions of any kind for that matter, to systematize that care. There is nothing inherently contradictory about the view of Christian libertarian/conservative who believes in private charity but does not want government involvement in the process. Now, none of this should be taken as an indication that I agree with such a persons political positions any more than I agree with their religious beliefs; I’m just not going to pretend Jesus would have agreed with, or even understood, modern socialism to win some rhetorical points, particularly when, as an atheist, I couldn’t care less what Jesus taught anyway.
*While not related to the main point of my post I want to make it clear here that I’m not claiming socialism and capitalism can’t coexist in some forms. Most governments have a mix of free market economics and government regulation/ownership. For instance, the U.S. has a mostly free market but individual areas like education are regulated and even partially owned by the state.