Archive for November 2010
The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32–35)
This description of the early Christian community makes it pretty clear that that community was committed to redistributing wealth. Those who had property divested themselves of it and gave to those who were in need. Ownership of property was communal, not individual. “Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” This model of the early Christian community has been emulated repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. Most monastic orders within Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have required a vow of poverty of those who are called to that life and have urged the laity to give ten percent of their income to charitable institutions that provide for those in various kinds of need. A number of Protestant communities over the years have favored communal to individual ownership. Those that have not insisted on communal ownership have emphasized the importance of living a life of material simplicity so that one does not waste resources on providing luxury to oneself while others are lacking the requisites of life. The system of social welfare in the United States and European countries was founded largely on Christian principles. The institution of the hospital, a place where the sick and injured could go to be healed, regardless of their ability to pay, has Christian origins. The notion that no one in need of healing should go unhealed lies at the heart of Christian culture.
Somehow, Christian values in the United States have taken a turn from a culture of providing for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the injured and the needy to a culture of supporting plutocracy—a system of being governed by the wealthy. This change has been relatively recent. One of my grandfathers was a Congregationalist minister voted for Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as the candidate of The Socialist Party. Norman Thomas, a pacifist as well as a socialist, was the son of a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and he followed in his father’s footsteps by going to seminary and being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As a Christian, Thomas felt called to advocate for workers whose lives were often miserable because of the policies of the companies they worked for. Like Norman Thomas, my grandfather espoused socialist ideals as long as he lived. He was not, however, a registered member of the Socialist Party. Rather, he was a registered Republican, for the Republican Party was for a hundred years or so the home of political and economic progressives, idealists and visionaries. It was also the party of theologically liberal Christians—those who welcomed the methods and discoveries of science and critical thinking and reading the Bible historically and critically and mythologically rather than literally.
As the Republican Party has drifted from its historical roots of compassion for the poor and the weak to an increasingly mean-spirited culture, so has much of American Protestantism.There are, fortunately, exceptions. Among Evangelical Christians, one finds such ministers as Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement, which is in many ways a continuation of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Sojourners movement is in many ways the antithesis of a kind of Christianity that has evolved in the United States after the Second World War and which has come to be called the prosperity gospel, a theological view based on the conviction that God rewards the faithful with wealth and prosperity.
No doubt the conviction of Oral Roberts and other Protestant ministers of the 1950s that America’s post-war prosperity was a sign of God’s favor became combined with the conviction that socialism is just a step away from Communism and that Communism is anti-religious and ungodly. If Communism is ungodly, the logic went, then Christians, being godly, must be aligned with those who oppose Communism—and socialism. This has led to the paradox that American Christians following this doctrine must feel uneasy with the early Christian community, and with a great deal of traditional Christianity. It is not only the early Christian community that must bring discomfort; even Jesus Christ himself must be regarded with suspicion. Passages such as the following must be very worrying to many an American Christian:
18 A certain ruler asked him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ ‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t give false testimony,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” 21 He said, “I have observed all these things from my youth up.” 22 When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Gospel according to Luke)
If one were in a mood to pray, the contents of a prayer in these times might be that Americans would find their way back to the essentially socialist values of Christianity and of much of early America. And, not forgetting to pray for those most in need of redemption, one might pray also for the repentance of billionaires who have taken control of what used to be a democratic republic. For, as Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25)