In light of the recent kerfuffle on the Right by the Pope Francis’ “radical” statements on the distribution of wealth, I thought I’d post something I wrote this past summer (without the help of the Pope, so pardon my lack of proper theological/teleological/and/or exegetical terminology).
July 19, 2013
The Acts of the Apostles
One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is what I see as the contradiction of Conservative Christians between their theology and their economics, or maybe more to the point, their absolute hatred and revulsion for any practice they see as socialistic, or even leaning slightly toward socialism, or even sounding like it might begin to lean toward it. In the minds of many Americans, it seems socialism has become the number one threat to both Christianity and the nation. Obama’s election has brought an even sharper focus to the hated S-word. I’ve pretty much let it be because 1. I figured it to be an election ploy to rile up the ignorant, and 2. I didn’t think I had much Biblical ammunition on my side of the argument.
While it’s true I haven’t been much of a Bible reader in my adult years, for the past couple of nights before bed I have been reading my King James version of the Acts of the Apostles, and have found some pretty interesting passages.
In what must have been the utterly amazing, confusing, exhilarating time after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the Disciples found themselves reaching a population first of Jews, then Gentiles, who were very open to the idea that the Jesus they (the Jews) had killed, might in fact have been The Messiah. At first in Jewish circles, the Christian Church began to grow, and grow so fast that the original 12 disciples found they could no longer manage the day-to-day operations. They asked the newly-formed congregations of Christians to nominate the equivalent of a group of middle management types so that they could continue in their roles as CEOs (Chapter 6:2-6). Upon doing so, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples (that’s small ‘d’ disciples) multiplied in Jerusalem greatly….” (verse 7)
And what does Acts tell us of how these churches organized themselves? Chapter 2: 44-47: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
Whoa! I don’t think there’s any other way to interpret this passage than to infer that the earliest Christians (living, lest we forget, in the epicenter of the, if not capitalistic by name at that time, at least materialistic world of the Roman Empire) chose – gasp! – a type of socialism as the best way to exemplify how God wanted them to live together on earth.
In Chapter 3, Peter and John enter the Temple and encounter the lame man asking for alms. Peter’s reply (verse 6), “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” Apparently Peter just wasn’t managing his mutual funds well. (What would T.D. Jakes say?)
Chapter 4 reaffirms the lifestyle (verse 32): “And the multitude of them (the early Church members) that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common…. (verses 34 and 35) Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”
Verses 36 and 37, the last two verses of Chapter 4, appear to be laying a foundation for the first verses of the next chapter: “And Joses, … Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” It seems clear that the selling of all private possessions and the pooling of the resulting collective funds is the clear expectation in the Christian community.
Now a big moment. In Chapter 5, the communistic lifestyle of the early Church seems to be confirmed from on High. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, in the manner expected, sold off “a possession” BUT (verses 2-6) “kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and bought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why has thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou has not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.”
And of course, just a few verses later, wife Sapphira gets the same treatment. Holy Crap!
Now when I was little, the story of Ananias and Sapphira was told to me as a lesson in lying, the less-than-subtle message being that you’ll be struck down just like they were if, for instance, you were to say you weren’t in fact swimming in Swatara Creek when your soaked jeans and Keds told a different story.
And that may in fact be the main message. But look what they were lying about. Would God (through His instrument Peter) have struck them down if they had lied about swimming in the creek? We’ll never know (although I can confirm that I was not struck down*), but I’ll hazard a guess that what they were lying about was something of vital importance to the early Church community in the eyes of God. And that something was the fact that they had tried to hold out some money on the side for themselves, apart from the body of believers. This was apparently a big enough no-no to deserve the death penalty.
Okay. So there seems to be Biblical evidence in support of socialism. I believe there is also Biblical evidence in support of capitalism (the parable of the ten talents? and maybe others? I’m sketchy here). My point being, not that, AHA! See? God was a Communist!! I’m just trying to blunt the Christian Right in their blind hatred of all things Socialist, as they wave the Book they themselves hold as the only source of all Truth. It doesn’t appear to me that God takes real sides on the issue, or if He/She does, if anything the scales might tip in favor of socialism.
With the evidence of early Church socialism so apparent, this leads to another problem of today’s Christian Right: they either have to 1. ignore these passages completely, 2. write them off as being representative only of their times, or 3. find some way to re-interpret them. The first two of these responses fly directly in the face of their own stated philosophy of the importance, inerrancy and unchanging nature of every word of the Scriptures, and as for Option 3, the clarity of the passage (even in the stilted language of the KJV) rules it out. Option 1, then, is their most viable… and I’m guessing you won’t hear T.D. Jakes preaching on these passages in Acts**.
Which leads me to conclude that either 1. In most cases the loudest screamers against the evils of socialism are ignorant of the very Bible they tout as God’s Word, or 2. they lie, by either omission or commission, in which case, they need to re-read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
**Google search turned up nothing