The first Christians were the banished, the persecuted, the oppressed, the enslaved, and the damned of Roman society. If a member of an American megachurch were somehow transported to the Roman Empire of the first century, the Christians thus encountered would have appalled him. They were not the prosperous elite whose oppression we now sanctify through magical religion, but the wretched of the earth.
Rosa Luxemburg characterized them in this way, “In this crumbling society, where there existed no way out of their tragic situation for the people, no hope of a better life, the wretched turned to Heaven to seek salvation there. The Christian religion appeared to these unhappy beings as a life-belt, a consolation and an encouragement, and became, right from the beginning, the religion of the Roman proletarians. In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.” – Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism and the Churches”, 1905
Recent studies by John Dominic Crossan and Joerg Rieger establish that early Christianity was not simply a religion as we think of the term today, but equally a social and political challenge to the empire. The proclamation of the Lordship of Christ was intended as a direct subversion of the imperial concept of Lordship. “God in Christ is a different kind of lord who is not in solidarity with the powerful but in solidarity with the lowly. To be more precise, Christ’s way of being in solidarity with the powerful is by being in solidarity with the lowly; the powerful are not outside the reach of Christ’s lordship, but their notions of what it means to be lord are radically reversed. This position – at the heart of the new world proclaimed by Paul – directly contradicts the logic of the Roman Empire. “- Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire, 2007. Here we see inextricably merged a longing for freedom from material oppression along with a lordship that has reversed the power relations of empire. In the inimitable words of Crossan, “What better deserves the title of a new creation than the abnormality of a share-world replacing the normalcy of the greed-world.” - Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 2004.
But the insight penetrates more deeply, and reverberates in the current economic crisis. “Greed may be one symptom of empire, but what we are up against are not moral failures (like greed) but a logic according to which the structures of empire are endorsed as the ones that are ontologically superior and will bring happiness and peace to the world. The fundamental problem with empires, including the Roman one, is not that they happen to endorse morally reprehensible behavior but that they pursue their own logic of top-down power and thus are built on the back of the weakest; what Crossan and Reed reject as ‘greed’ the empire would endorse as economic common sense that leads to improvements for everyone.” – Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire, 2007. This is the sense in which the lordship of Jesus Christ was proclaimed. Christ represents the joy and hope of the marginalized that empire cannot permanently repress. In this way, Rieger extends Luxemburg’s insight into the social position of the early Christians by illuminating the spiritual dimension of their longing for relief.
The spiritual dimension of Christian communism is the elevation of the community above the individual and their private possessions. While the lords of empire invest their security in financial instruments and military force, Christians no longer needed possessions to give their lives security. The Resurrection had overcome their fear of death and thus the insatiable greed for life which imperial materialism breeds. The early Christian community became a refuge from the competitive struggle which isolates and atomizes society into lonely individuals, “the social chill of the heartless world”, in the words of Jurgen Moltmann in his essay, “The Trinitarian Experience of Fellowship” in Experiences in Theology.
This portrait of Christian economics reverberates down the centuries, “A contemporary wrote, ‘these [Christians] do not believe in fortunes, but they preach collective property and no one among them possesses more than the others. He who wishes to enter their order is obliged to put his fortune into their common property. That is why there is among them neither poverty nor luxury – all possessing all in common like brothers. They do not live in a city apart, but in each they have houses for themselves. If any strangers belonging to their religion come there, they share their property with them, and they can benefit from it as if it their own. Those people, even if previously unknown to each other, welcome one another, and their relations are very friendly. When travelling they carry nothing but a weapon for defense against robbers. In each city they have their steward, who distributes clothing and food to the travelers. Trade does not exist among them. However, if one of the members offers to another some object which he needs, he receives some other objects in exchange. But each can demand what he needs even if he can give nothing in exchange." – Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism and the Churches”, 1905
Note that property relations were subordinate to the obligations of solidarity. Rather than reverencing private property as the bastion of freedom, the early Christian had no reverence for private property as such at all, but treated it as a subordinate and instrumental value. Clearly the first Christians treated community as the center of Christian life, not the isolated individual exulting in the freedom granted by his possessions. Such a creature would have been seen as one who had lost the way.
As Luxemburg expressed it, “Thus the Christians of the First and Second Centuries were fervent supporters of communism.” But what the early Christians lacked and ultimately undermined their primitive communism was the concept of productive as opposed to distributive communism. “We have been able to observe that the Roman proletarians did not live by working, but from the alms which the government doled out. So the demand of the Christians for collective property did not relate to the means of production, but the means of consumption. They did not demand that the land, the workshops and the instruments of work should become collective property, but only that everything should be divided up among them, houses, clothing, food and finished products most necessary to life. The Christian communists took good care not to enquire into the origin of these riches. The work of production always fell upon the slaves. The Christian people desired only that those who possessed the wealth should embrace the Christian religion and should make their riches common property, in order that all might enjoy these good things in equality and fraternity.” – Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism and the Churches”, 1905.
What is necessary for Christians today is to extend the building of the “share-world” into the realm of productive communism. Charity conceived of as a spiritual act which distributes the goods of this world to the needy falls short of our calling. Instead we must criticize the economic relations which underlie the production of those goods. Charity can no longer be removed from its social context and idealized as the meritorious act of an individual. The conscience of a Christian today demands that we delve into the origin of riches, that we penetrate the heart of the heartless world (Karl Marx) and thus lay the economic groundwork for the kingdom of heaven.
Today we see that the wealth generated by the laborers of the world is more and more concentrated in the hands of a few superrich. As in the Roman Empire, wealth flows continually back to those who own the means of production. This was the economic situation in which the concept of “almsgiving” – the idea that charity denotes economic superfluity granted to the poor – became dominant. The Biblical concept of compassion was far different, but I’ve already considered this in detail in other essays (see http://nonviolentjesus.blogspot.com/ ).
Rosa Luxemburg analyzes the decline of Christian communism in this way, “At the beginning, when the followers of the new Savior constituted only a small group in Roman society, the sharing of the common stock, the meals in common and the living under the same roof were practicable. But as the number of Christians spread over the territory of the Empire, this communal life of its adherents became more difficult. Soon there disappeared the custom of common meals and the division of goods took on a different aspect. The Christians no longer lived like one family; each took charge of his own property, and they no longer offered the whole of their goods to the community, but only the superfluity. The gifts of the richer of them to the general body, losing their character of participation in a common life, soon became simple almsgiving, since the rich Christians no longer made any use of the common property, and put at the service of the others only a part of what they had, while this part might be greater or smaller according to the good will of the donor. Thus in the very heart of Christian communism appeared the difference between the rich and the poor, a difference analogous to that which reigned in the Roman Empire and against which the early Christians had fought. Soon it was only the poor Christians – and the proletarian ones – who took part in the communal meals; the rich having offered a part of their plenty, held themselves apart. The poor lived from the alms tossed to them by the rich, and society again became what it had been. The Christians had changed nothing.” – Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism and the Churches”, 1905.
The same paradox endures today. Christians, along with everyone else, depend on the productive capacity of modern industry to supply the commodities necessary for life. Distributing the surplus of these capacities in the form of “charity” fails to question the mechanism by which these goods are produced, but justifies them as a means of supporting the poor. The original Christian impulse was to share the goods of the earth and is still enshrined as a fundamental Christian principle in the Catholic Catechism which states, “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. “– Catholic Catechism, 2402. The basic paradox is that once the surplus wealth is distributed to the poor, charities must return again to the wealth producers to obtain more “charity”, thus perpetuating the cycle of dependency. Since the Churches do not possess the means of production, but must depend on the compassion of the wealthy, they are obligated to justify the mechanisms by which the powerful create the wealth they depend on.
Eventually Christian communism was destroyed by the very mechanism that has so thoroughly repressed this fundamental Christian value today. The division between rich and poor became enshrined as an aspect of the cosmic order willed by God. Economically, Christianity has become the worship of the status quo. Submission to “what exists” economically has become the key virtue, while rebellion against authority is for many ecclesiastics the very definition of sin. To make charity a function of the generosity of the wealthy sanctifies both wealth and the means by which it is produced. A careful examination of the economic exploitation practiced by Christian churches must lead to a deep repentance. This repentance can be achieved by returning to the ideal and practice of the first Christians which can now be extended beyond the distributive communism of the Apostles to the productive communism of liberationist Christianity.
The Christian communist task is to question the current Christian definition of charity and the economic foundation on which it rests. We will examine this in more detail in the next article on Christian Communism.
I give the final word to St. John Chrysostom:
“And there was a great charity among them [the Apostles]: none was poor among them. None considered as being as being his what belonged to him, all their riches were in common…a great charity was in all of them. This charity consisted in that there were no poor among them, so much did those who had possessions hasten to strip themselves of them. They not divide their fortunes into two parts, giving one and keeping the other back: they gave what they had. So there was no inequality between them; they all lived in great abundance. Everything was done with the greatest reverence. What they gave was not passed from the hand of the giver to that of the recipient; their gifts were without ostentation; they brought their goods to the feet of the apostles who became the controllers and masters of them and who used them from then on as the goods of the community and no longer as the property of individuals. By that means they cut short any attempt to get vain glory. Ah! Why have these traditions been lost? Rich and poor, we should all profit from these pious usages and we should both feel the same pleasure from conforming to them. The rich would not impoverish themselves when laying down their possessions and the poor would be enriched.
Now, let us suppose – and neither rich nor poor need be alarmed, for I am just supposing – let us suppose that we sell all that belongs to us to put the proceeds into a common pool. What sums of gold would be piled up! I cannot say exactly how much that would make: but if all among us, without distinction between the sexes were to bring here their treasures, if they were to sell their fields, their properties, their houses – I do not speak of slaves for there were none in the Christian community, and those who were there became free – perhaps, I say if everyone did the same, we would reach hundreds of thousands of pounds of gold, millions, enormous values.
‘Well! How many people do you think there are living in this city? How many Christians? Would you agree that there are a hundred thousand? The rest being made up of Jews and Gentiles. How many should we not unite together? Now, if you count up the poor, what do you find? Fifty thousand needy people at the most. What would be needed to feed them each day? I estimate that the expense would not be excessive, if the supply and the eating of the food were organized in common.
You will say, perhaps, ‘But what will become of us when these goods are used up?’ So what! Would that ever happen? Would not the grace of God be a thousand times abundant? Would we not be making a heaven on earth?”- St. John Chrysostom.