Is Jesus a Communist or a Capitalist? Christian Responses to Poverty

This post was written by Alan Feng, a senior and Chair of the AEI Executive Council at Azusa Pacific University.

On March 3, 2014, over 320 Azusa Pacific University (APU) students from across different disciplines as well as local community members gathered for a two-part debate entitled “Is Jesus a Communist or a Capitalist? Christian Responses to the Problem of Poverty.” The debate featured Peter Greer, the president and CEO of Hope International, and Shane Claiborne, a social activist and a founder of Red Letter Christians and The Simple Way. Dr. Bradley Hale, associate professor of history at APU, moderated the debate.

During the first part of the debate, Greer and Claiborne debated on a preselected set of questions divided into four topics: heart for the poor, mind for the poor, domestic policy implications, and poverty beyond the United States. To address the issue of wealth distribution, Dr. Hale asked, “does anyone have the right to be ‘rich’ while others lack necessities?”

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Rather than focusing on value distribution, Greer focused on value creation. He answered, “To alleviate poverty, we need to stop thinking about the economy like a fixed pie. Let’s make this pie bigger!”

Claiborne replied with an analogy of his own, “When thinking about helping the poor, we often ask ourselves, should we give the poor a fish, or teach the poor how to fish? But perhaps the more important question here is, who owns the pond?”

Other questions included: Are large gaps in wealth justifiable if the poorest in a society still has a high standard of living? What is the effect of redistributive policies, such as progressive income taxes or estate taxes, on poverty? Do these policies offer a sustainable policy solution to the problem of poverty? And can poor nations be expected to help themselves? If so, what can and should they do? Although there were several points of disagreement about how we should alleviate poverty, the atmosphere remained warm, friendly, and respectful.

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The second part of the debate drew questions from the audience. Each attendee had the opportunity to write down a question on the back of a card, and Executive Council members roved the room to collect the cards. Some questions focused on practical policy solutions to poverty, which included the responsibility of the government to help the poor with respect to healthcare. Other questions focused on the responsibilities of the individual, such as what a college student can do to help alleviate poverty.

“I enjoyed hearing about the different policy recommendations suggested by the speakers,” said Joshua, a junior business student. “I wonder if the different theological foundations underlying these recommendations could ever be reconciled.”

At the end of the night, many attendees rushed to the front of the stage to speak personally with Greer and Claiborne. Others formed small groups to continue the dialogue. Although the debate between did not conclude whether Jesus would be a communist or a capitalist, it shed light on the different Christian solutions to the problem of poverty and strengthened the culture of dialogue at APU and its neighboring communities.

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