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On the Theological Foundations of Religious Socialism

by Urs Eigenmann Monday, Jan. 02, 2006 at 12:39 PM

Under today's conditions, the option for a life in abundance for all people necessitates preserving the natural foundations of life.. God's reign has a transcendental dimension that Jesus compares with a treasure in a field.


By Urs Eigenmann

[This article from July 8, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Urs Eigenmann is a professor of theology at the University of Luzern, Switzerland.]


The following reflections on the theological foundations of religious socialism are based on the Jewish-Christian tradition attested in the biblical books of the First and Second Testament. Central aspects of a biblically established religious socialism will be outlined and explained.


Religious socialism refers to the biblically attested partisan God of history. This is not a civil religious formula of world explanation for sanctioning present conditions. Faith in this God is bound to a liberating project to change the world.

The biblical understanding of God should be remembered given church and civil religious appeals to legitimate different or even opposite economic interests, political projects and cultural claims. The paradigmatic-structuring focus and benchmark of all speech for God on a biblical foundation is God’s revelation to Moses (cf. Ex 3,14). Yahweh reveals himself personally to Moses in an economic-political context. God reveals himself as the one who sees the misery of his people in Egypt, hears their cry and knows their suffering. God intends their liberation from the slavery of Pharaoh and promises them a good land (cf. Ex 3,71).

This God of the Exodus is the partisan liberating God of history, not a God of nature, an omnipotent state God or a God of mere private introspection. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of Jesus and of the kingdom proclaimed by him, not a theistic speculatively constructed greatness comprehensible in spatial-temporal categories. This biblical God has nothing to do with the “in God we trust” on the dollar bill.

In the biblical tradition, cooperative social life protecting the weak is constitutively bound to faith in the partisan-liberating God of history. The God in whose name the instructions are issued is the God who led the people out of Egypt’s bondage (cf. Ex 20,2; Dtn 5,6). This substantiated the economic, social, legal and religious instructions. Jesus also stands in this tradition in promising God’s kingdom to the desperately poor (cf. Lk 6,20) and socially excluded (cf. Lk 14,13.21) and in proclaiming this kingdom as a reversal of conditions (cf. Mt 20,16).

Biblical traditions start from the conviction that relations to people and the world have a theological quality concerning relation to God. The biblically attested radical unity of love of the neighbor, self-love and love of God (cf. Lev 19,18; Dtn 6,5; Lk 10,27) is unsurpassable. The social and concrete interrelation of God, humankind and the world is the litmus test of authentic and inauthentic speech for God. Therefore a religious socialism on a biblical foundation must clarify what God is proclaimed. Neither the verbal appeal to God nor the religious confession to God is unequivocal. Only the personal and political praxis is unequivocal. The praxis first reveals whether the partisan-liberating God of the Bible or a civil religious creation serving different or even opposite interests is addressed. Religious socialism must hold to the partisan-liberating God of the Bible.


For a religious socialism on a biblical foundation, tolerance or worship of idols opposes faith in God, not denial of God’s existence. Therefore analysis and criticism of idolatrous practices and conditions are part of its core existence.

Idolatry is the opposite of faith in the biblical God, not denial of God’s existence. This idolatry can take two different forms. Firstly, idolatry occurs within belief in God when oppression instead of liberation happens in God’s name. The most important biblical example is the story of the golden calf (cf. Ex 32). The Israelites no longer wanted to follow the liberating God but demanded God accompany them back to Egypt’s bondage. They longed for a god who comforted them in oppression and turned away from that God who sought to liberate them from slavery. Worship of this Comforter God is idolatry. Every church or civil religious appeal to God sanctioning exploitative, oppressive or incapacitating practices and conditions represents a form of idolatry. This idolatry occurs today where special economic interests or political claims of rule are defended, wars are waged or culturally patronizing conditions are sanctioned with appeal to God. Secondly, idolatry consists in giving destructive power over people and nature to institutions, laws, mechanisms, practical necessities, ideologies made by man and so forth. The prophet Jeremiah decried this form of idolatry biblically when he mocked the works made by human hands as lifeless scarecrows in a cucumber field (cf. Jer 10,2-5; Isa 44,13-17). Every absolutizing of economic, political or cultural-religious greatnesses represents a form of idolatry. This happens today in neoliberal capitalism when the deregulated market mechanisms are totalized in the service of capital accumulation and the life of people and the natural foundations of life are distorted, damaged or destroyed with appeal to practical necessities in the interest of capital. Idolatry occurs when imperial claims of political power are absolutized or religious norms and convictions are totalized. Religious socialism must disobey and challenge all forms of idolatry.


For religious socialism in the tradition of the exodus and the kingdom, the option for the disadvantaged, dominated and belittled and engagement for preserving the conditions for the possibility of life are crucial. Religious socialism must share in the “processus confessionis” in view of conditions hostile to life.

For the Torah and the prophets, faith in God is centrally joined with concern about the poor, strangers, widows and orphans (cf. Ex 22,20-26) and with engagement for justice and righteousness (cf. Jer 22,3). Jesus wants all people to have life in abundance (cf. Joh 10,10). Therefore he promises God’s reign to the poverty-stricken (cf. Lk 6,20). Jesus announces freedom to the prisoners, eyesight to the blind and release to the captives (cf. Lk 4,16). Under today’s conditions, the option for a life in abundance for all people necessitates preserving the natural foundations of life as a prerequisite for all life. For a biblically established religious socialism, “compassion” as an elementary sympathy and sensitivity for suffering that shares foreign suffering must correspond to God’s suffering on account of the radical unity of love of the neighbor and love of God. This compassion acknowledges the “authority of the suffering” (J.B. Metz) and criticizes conditions from their perspective on account of the option for these sufferers. Religious socialism must be part of an ecumene of compassion, that is of a secular ecumene serving the whole world made habitable again for everyone beyond all confessional, religious and ideological borders.

For religious socialism, the question about the “status confessionis” or “processus confessionis” is raised on account of the biblically attested god of life on one side and the logic of neoliberal market fundamentalism destroying people and nature on the other. In 1997 the reformed World Alliance in Debrecen (Hungary) called its member churches to a “processus confessionis.” This confessional process should lead to a decision whether the economic injustices and ecological devastations are incompatible with the creed and whether the “status confessionis” must be declared. In 1998 the plenary assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare (Zimbabwe) encouraged member churches to join this process. A religious socialism that refers to political conditions and does not reduce its religious dimension to the realm of personal motivation must share in the decision about the “status confessionis.” Religious socialism must preserve the conditions of the possibility of life as a question of faith.


A religious socialism in the sense of God’s reign and God’s justice for the earth (Leonhard Ragaz) is guided by the vision of a world and society in which everyone has a place and no one is excluded. The biblical scriptures contain criteria for historical projects, not models of society. These criteria may not b identified with the utopian horizon.

In organizing global and social conditions, religious socialism can orient itself in the theme of God’s reign in Jesus’ proclamation. In one parable, Jesus compares God’s reign with a feast of an open table community or open commensality. The poor, disabled, blind, lame and all people from the street ultimately share in the banquet refused by those invited first (cf. Lk 14,15-24). Thus a table community comes together that does not reflect on a small scale the large social order with its vertical discriminations and lateral separations. The open commensality proclaimed by Jesus and practiced in his table community with tax collectors and sinners is a “symbol and example of a radical egalitarianism, an assertion of an absolute equality of all people challenging the legitimacy of all discrimination and denying the necessity of every hierarchical order of society” (J.D. Crossan).

God’s reign as a feast of open commensality can be illustrated with the vision from Mexico’s Zapatistas of a world and society where everyone has a place and no one is excluded. This vision implies that all people acknowledge each other materially, socially and culturally-religiously as equal needy subjects. The project of a world and society where everyone has a place represents a criterion for relativizing all social principles demanding universal authority. This criterion does not imply knowing what is the best form of human life. Conceptions of a good life are subject to the criterion that the good life of one may not imply the impossibility of another’s life” (F.J. Hinkelammert). The relation between God’s reign and leading social conceptions can be determined with a compatibility test. This test identifies minimum demands for a society not in contradiction to God’s reign.

For religious socialism, two things are crucial in the historical project of a world and society oriented in the open commensality of God’s reign where everyone has a place. Firstly, people and nature may not be excluded from pursuing this project because the end does not justify the means. Secondly, every historical project stands under the eschatological reserve. In other words, this project may not be identified with the perfection of history promised as God’s act, with the whole (totum) and the last (ultimum) as the utopian horizon, neither in the way of a transcendental illusion nor through transcendental mystification. The neoliberal totalizing of the deregulated market and the command-socialist totalizing of the plan represent forms of transcendental illusion. Transcendental mystification happens through anarchist liberation from institutions and through replacing social justice with private charity in the civil society. Religious socialism must insist on the difference between an historical project and the utopian horizon so the utopian horizon is not fulfilled by an historical project in an anti-utopian way.


A biblically established religious socialism should be oriented in the transcendental dimension of God’s reign. This transcendental dimension is the heavenly core of the earthly that does not understand abundance quantitatively but as conduct guided by public welfare instead of by individual calculation.

God’s reign decisive for a religious socialism on a biblical foundation contains more than substantive criteria for organizing social conditions. It also does not only mean the perfection of history or human feasibility withdrawn in principle from the utopian horizon. God’s reign has a transcendental dimension that Jesus compares with a treasure in a field and with a merchant ready to part with everything for a costly pearl. This dimension of God’s reign is transcendental because it means the condition of the possibility for acting. A story told by the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello illustrates this:

“One day a mendicant monk on his way saw a precious stone, found it beautiful and put it in his pocket. Shortly afterwards, he met a traveler who was hungry and asked him for help. To give him something, he opened his purse. Then the traveler saw the precious stone and asked him for that gemstone. Without hesitating, the mendicant monk gave him the precious stone. The traveler gave thanks and left very satisfied because he now had riches and security for his whole life. But the next day, the traveler came to the monk again, returned the precious stone and said: Give me something that is worth more than this valuable stone. The monk told him he had nothing more valuable. Then the traveler said: Give me what enables you to give me the precious stone.”

This is the treasure in the field. This is the starting-point of God’s reign that is among us (cf. Lk 17,21). Entering God’s reign means losing life in the sense of the riches of the world to gain riches in the sense of God’s reign. Jesus’ saying in the Gospel of John, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Joh 12,25) means Whoever wants to win life in the way of individual calculation by accumulating material property, political power and social esteem will lose his life. On the other hand, whoever hates the life ruled by individual calculation will gain it. A view of the abundance of life is bound with Jesus’ sending (cf. Joh 10,10). Jesus understood this abundance as a quality of social conduct, not as a quantitatively measurable state. This is clear in the feeding of the many by sharing what existed as reported several times in the Bible (cf. Mk 6,35-44). Abundance arises in everyone acting so everyone has enough, not through quantitative multiplication of bread. Gandhi referred to this abundance as social behavior when he said: India has enough riches so everyone can live. But it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the greed of a few.

Franz Hinkelammert asks about the heavenly core of the earthly by reversing the religion-critical question about the earthly core of heaven making heaven superfluous through reorganizing earthly conditions. This heavenly core of the earthly is abundance as a quality of social conduct oriented in public welfare, not in individual calculation. This heavenly core of the earthly is the transcendental dimension of God’s reign. Abundance as social behavior oriented in open commensality or public welfare runs crossways to the logic of individual calculation. Public welfare is the welfare of everyone and every individual. Religious socialism must be oriented in God’s reign as the heavenly core of the earthly.


Religious socialism in the Jewish-Christian tradition holds to the partisan-liberating God of the Exodus and the kingdom. Religious socialism refuses all service for the idols of death in direct opposition to faith in the God of life. Religious socialism decides for the victims of unjust conditions and champions preserving the conditions of the possibility of the life of people and nature. Religious socialism helps form conditions compatible with the vision of God’s reign as a feast of open commensality and understands its historical project in the utopian horizon of the perfection of history promised as God’s act. Religious socialism is oriented in God’s reign as the heavenly core of the earthly through conduct that alone makes possible life in abundance.

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