Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Communist Kristianoi

One of the most common complaints among Christians throughout history is that their present-day churches do not resemble the peaceable, loving and communitarian assembly of believers in the New Testament book of Acts. This is particularly true when it comes to money.

We are most of us familiar with at least the general picture painted in Acts 2:41-47 and  4:34-37 and other passages.

We are told of the 3,000 converts baptized after Peter's speech in Jerusalem. We learn that the believers held "all things in common" to the point of selling their possessions and handing over the proceeds to the apostles for the community as a whole.


Before we get too misty-eyed, let's bear in mind a few important background facts about the story. These accounts are about the very early Christian community, meaning the groups that started roughly 33-35 in Jerusalem and spread out through the Roman world by the time of Nero's burning of Rome in 64, in the aftermath of which both apostles Peter and Paul were executed.

Acts is not a first-hand eyewitness account. No one who had been at the events in Acts referenced above would have written about baptizing 3,000 people on the spot by immersion, as was the Christian practice borrowed from John the Baptizer for centuries. Jerusalem simply had no publicly available bodies of water capable of such an undertaking.

Instead, we are before a stylized and idealized account of  communities—as recalled by believers who lived at some point in the following 30 years.

Moreover, we are in the presence of accounts collected after Jerusalem was laid waste in the year 70—the current consensus for the year of composition of Acts ranges between the year 90 to 110. The test points as author to Paul's disciple Luke, one of the four accepted evangelists in the NT, although very likely the actual writers were a group of scribes associated with him.

There is one commonality between Acts and Luke's gospel that tell us the purpose of the work: the purported reader of the text, Theophilus, to whom both works are addressed at the outset. The name is made up: Theo is Greek for God, philos means love. Luke and Acts are books for a "God lover."


All analysis notwithstanding, Acts does add to our understanding of the early Christians. 

Notably, there is the startling communism—I use the word advisedly—of the group. Consider the similarity between the words of Acts in 4:47 and those of none other than Karl Marx.

Acts tells us that Christians sold what they had, gave the proceeds to the apostles, who then "divided them to all, according as every one had need." In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx proposed as a summary of his ideas the famous sentence "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."*

The description of Acts concerning this sharing of possessions is entirely plausible. The very early small Christian community in Jerusalem encompassed no more than 300 people all counted, before the conversions and missionary travels of Paul.

Some scholars argue that the communal society of Christians might have begun when the 3,000 converts—mostly out-of-town visitors—decided to stay in Jerusalem with the first Christians. First, the 300 had to sell their stuff just to feed these people who had left everything behind; then, perhaps later, among the 3,000 some sent messengers back home to dispose of their property and bring the money to the community.

There is no indication that everyone was obliged to sell all and share. Indeed, there is the incident with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), who lied to the apostles about how much they had obtained from the sale of their goods, pocketing the difference.

Acts puts in Peter's mouth the following words: "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." (Acts 5:4-5)

There is, however, the strong gospel message of self-giving to the stranger, to those who are weak and needy, as there are the blessings Jesus bestows upon the poor and the woes he heaps on the rich. They all speak of the Christian gospel's "preferential option for the poor," a phrase enunciated in 1979 by the Latin American bishops gathered at Puebla, Mexico.

As we have seen, Judaism already contained nearly everything Jesus preached, including love of neighbor and caring for the poor. Again and again, Jesus had said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, to make the rule of God—often rendered as the "kingdom" of God—a real thing.

The inescapable biblical teaching concerning property is that everything belongs to God and is only on loan to human beings. The early small communities of Jesus followers had good reasons to adopt a radical obedience to God: there was the practical survival of the community, of course.

But beyond that, is it not possible that proximity to apostles who had known Jesus like you and I know our friends may have infused Christians with greater zeal than those who came two millennia later? Certainly, at every attempt to revive that early zeal, in medieval monascticism and in latter day communalism, there was always an effort to return to that golden age of complete, propertyless sharing told of in Acts.

* Marx was familiar with the New Testament and even wrote a student paper about St. Paul, thus the similarity between Gotha and Acts may not be wholly accidental.

1 comment:

Anne Malcolm said...

This year my parish has started a tithing program. One of the good things to come out of it is it has enabled it to contribute funds to a few local needs in the city of its own initiative instead of through the bishop.


I think Christianity has evolved into a "go it alone" reality, at least for me, except for our coming together at Mass. 99% of parishioners have very little to do with each other. When I contemplated entering a convent years ago I compared the difference between what could be in a convent and how I actually lived. I already lived and worked (primarily) with women, I was already religious, and we were both lay. So I opted out.

When I was in the Renewal, there was a huge, loving support system. But that was squashed.

Today, my parish is ramping up the Secular Franciscans. No, I no longer have a dedicated prayer life... here I am, Lord, on Facebook. But I live in community with my family... a bit more congested than the average American bear's home, and already live frugally. My activism has turned to politics because I find no home for a similar energy in church.

How will we reclaim a Christian, communal zeal? I will admit, being who I am in the midst of a diverse mind-set that is not necessarily mine, makes my form of Christianity a lonely existence.