Edited from a published article by David Bentley Hart
It was in 1983 that I heard the distinguished Greek Orthodox historian Aristeides Papadakis casually remark in a lecture at the University of Maryland that the earliest Christians were “communists.” In those days, the Cold War was still casting its great glacial shadow across the cultural landscape, and so enough of a murmur of consternation rippled through the room that Professor Papadakis — who always spoke with severe precision — felt obliged to explain that he meant this in the barest technical sense: New Testament Christians lived a common life and voluntarily enjoyed a community of possessions. The murmur subsided, but his comments triggered a lively debate and caused great discomfort.
Not that anyone should have been surprised. If the communism of the apostolic church is a secret, it is a startlingly open one. Vaguer terms like “communalist” or “communitarian” might make the facts sound more palatable but cannot change them. The New Testament’s Book of Acts tells us that in Jerusalem the first converts to the proclamation of the risen Christ affirmed their new faith by living in a single dwelling, selling their fixed holdings, redistributing their wealth “as each needed” and owning all possessions communally. This was, after all, a pattern Jesus himself had established: “Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Today in America, with its bizarre piety of free enterprise and private wealth, it is almost unimaginable that anyone would adopt so seditious an attitude. Down the centuries, Christian culture has largely ignored the more provocative features of the early.
It’s true, of course, that the early church was not a political movement in the modern sense. So they were not communists as we know it today. The very idea would have been an anathema to Jesus who made it abundantly clear that his kingdom was not of his world. But if not a political movement, the church was a kind of polity, and a way of life that was not merely a practical strategy for survival, but rather the embodiment of its highest spiritual ideals. Its “communism” was hardly incidental to the faith.
The New Testament’s condemnations of personal wealth are fairly unremitting and remarkably stark: Matthew 6:19-20, for instance (“Do not store up treasures for yourself on the earth”), or Luke 6:24-25 (“But alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort”) or James 5:1-6 (“Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you”). While there are always clergy members and theologians swift to assure us that the New Testament condemns not wealth but its abuse, not a single verse (unless subjected to absurdly forced readings) actually confirms the claim.
As best we can tell, local churches in the Roman world of the apostolic age were essentially small communes, self-sustaining but also able to share resources with one another when need dictated. This delicate web of communes constituted a kind of counter-empire within the empire, one founded upon charity rather than force — or, better, a kingdom not of this world but present within the world nonetheless, encompassing a radically different understanding of society and property.
It was all much easier, no doubt — this nonchalance toward private possessions — for those first generations of Christians. They tended to see themselves as transient tenants of a rapidly vanishing world, refugees and “aliens” passing lightly through a history not their own. But as the initial elation and expectations of the Gospel faded and the settled habits of life in this depressingly durable world emerged anew, the distinctive practices of the earliest Christians gave way to the common practices of the established order.
Well into the second century, the pagan satirist Lucian of Samosata reported that Christians viewed possessions with contempt and owned all property communally. And the Christian writers of Lucian’s day largely confirm that picture: Justin Martyr, Tertullian and the anonymous treatise known as the Didache all claim that Christians must own everything in common, renounce private property and give their wealth to the poor. Even Clement of Alexandria, the first significant theologian to argue that the wealthy could be saved if they cultivated “spiritual poverty,” still insisted that ideally all goods should be held in common.
How then shall we live? (the balance of this blog is mine)
Western Christianity is so intertwined with democracy and capitalism, it’s almost “un-American” to think otherwise. Our churches are run by the elections of representatives (elders and deacons) and use Robert’s rules of order to conduct meetings, and most Christians feel no strong obligation to seriously “deny themselves” to make sure everyone in their church has at least “enough.”
This Thanksgiving, each of us should not just give thanks for all God has provided. We should re-read again, the teachings of Jesus and do some self-examination. I’m not advocating a return to communal living. However, I do have to ask myself, “Do I have way more than I need to live comfortably, while other Christians have zero financial security and are scared to death this Thanksgiving?” If both are true, what does Jesus require of me (you)?
Please don’t reduce this to a “count your blessings” exercise. Don’t just count your blessings, give some of them up for others! As God puts the names or faces of Christians you know who are probably struggling financially, stretch yourself and reach out to them, or send them a very generous, and anonymous cashiers check. You don’t know anyone who is struggling? Ask your pastor or a deacon at your church. Go the second mile. That’s not communism. It’s following Jesus.
How following Jesus works in real life.
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