Saturday, November 3, 2012

Communism in the New Testament (Part I)

Christians usually look back to the early Church of New Testament times as an example that the Church should emulate in succeeding ages, even in the modern world of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the best examples given us in Scripture should be drawn into rules for the Christian life. The community of goods described in Acts chapters 2:44–45; 4:32–37 and 5:1–11 has often been held up as an example that the Church should follow. It has also been claimed, often with alarming social and political consequences, that this example should be taken as indicating how society should be organised politically; i.e. it is sometimes taken not merely as an example of voluntary communism, which is in fact all that it was, but also as an example of how States should organise the economic life of society, by force if necessary.

Perhaps the most notorious example of the outworking of this “Christian” communist ideology is the Anabaptist revolution that overtook Münster, the capital city of Westphalia, Germany, in 1534. “Taking advantage of the struggle going on between Catholics and Lutherans, the Anabaptists gained control in the municipal council and then completely subjugated the town. All who refused to accept a second baptism were expelled after being stripped of all their possessions. Thereafter all property in the city was appropriated for the common lot, everyone being obliged to deliver his possessions under the supervision of special deacons. Next polygamy was introduced, and women of a certain age were forbidden to stay unmarried.” [1] This was not an isolated example however. There is a long tradition of violent revolutionary “Christian” communism stretching from the heresies of the Free Spirit and the Apostolic Brethren in the thirteenth century through to the Taborites of the Hussite Wars in the fifteenth century, the heretical teachings of the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptist revolution itself in Münster in the sixteenth century,[2] and on to the Marxist communist ideology of the modern Liberation Theology movements.

According to the Mexican Liberation Theologian José Porfirio Miranda,

“Jesus himself was a communist . . . communism is obligatory for all Christians . . . The Ananias episode . . . means: pain of death for whoever betrays communism, Christianity’s indispensable condition . . . No one can take the Bible seriously without concluding that according to it, the rich, for being rich, should be punished. Not to let them into the kingdom when the whole point is to establish the kingdom is clearly punishment. To commit them to torment, as the parable teaches, is punishment. To deprive them of all their goods and send them off with nothing is also punishment—for the simple crime of being rich.” [3]

In the last few pages of his book Communism in the Bible Miranda provides a defence of mob violence against private property based on John 2:15 in which Jesus is represented as the leader of a pogrom against the Temple.[4] Not surprisingly, therefore, Miranda describes Jesus as “a hardened revolutionary.” [5] According to Miranda “The sacred authors know that all differentiating wealth is ill-gotten, that it has necessarily been obtained by despoiling and oppressing the rest of the population, and that therefore to be rich is to be unjust. They sigh for Yahweh to intervene and re-establish justice by despoiling the despoilers. For the sacred authors, the problem of evil is a social problem.” [6] The bizarre conclusion that Miranda comes to is that even God himself is obliged to support the communist revolution because it is his creative act that is responsible for the existence of the poor in the first place and the denial of their strict rights:

“To the extent that one does not participate in this [communist—SCP] revolutionary struggle, one participates in the benefits of a society which lives essentially by exploiting and oppressing the poor. Merely abstaining from the struggle constitutes complicity. The situation of the poor is injustice in the most strict, and commutative, sense of the word . . . in the sense that obliges restitution. Even God is under obligation in this matter, for it is God who set in motion the machinery of creation which has resulted in tearing to bits the strict rights of the poor, who did not ask to come into the world in the first place.” [7]

Although Miranda’s views are on the very extreme of the socialist ideological continuum, the basic principles that underpin his perspective and revolutionary conclusions are not essentially dissimilar to those espoused by more moderate “Christian” socialists. That is to say, many Christians have extrapolated from the practice of the Jerusalem Church in the early chapters of the book of Acts to the idea that the State should enforce communism, or at least to the idea that Scripture supports the organisation of society on a socialistic model. Of course this begs the question of how we determine what the best examples in Scripture are. There are plenty of bad examples in Scripture that we are to learn from. They teach us to do the opposite. But there are also examples in Scripture of good people doing very bad things, and we are to learn from these also. King David’s example of adultery and murder is hardly to be imitated, though in other respects he is held up as a model of faith, and rightly so. We must be careful, therefore, about how we determine what examples in Scripture we are to follow. It may be argued, of course, that Scripture elsewhere condemns adultery and murder. Before following the example of those whose lives are described in Scripture, therefore, we must look carefully at what else the Bible has to say about these people and their actions. Likewise, we must look carefully at what else the Bible has to say about wealth, ownership of property, the family, and social order, all of which have an important bearing on the issues surrounding the community of goods in the Jerusalem Church of Acts chapters 2 to 5, before we draw the conclusion that the latter is an example that we should follow.

But there is one practice of the early Church of the New Testament that the Church throughout subsequent history has not followed; nor has it ever been argued, to my knowledge, that the modern Church should follow this practice. And yet it is no more directly condemned in Scripture than the community of goods in the Jerusalem Church is directly condemned in Scripture. Nevertheless, the Church has not considered this to be a good practice to follow, and with good reason. The issue here is the funding of missions. The primitive Church of the New Testament, the Church in Jerusalem, became, within a few years of the inauguration of the Great Commission, financially dependent on her mission Churches, i.e. the Churches of the Gentile world (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26–27; 1 Cor. 16:1–3). This was the reality of the New Testament situation.[8]

Are we right not to follow this example? Is the practice of the Jerusalem Church a good example? Yes, we are right not to follow this example, because no, the practice of the Jerusalem Church was not a good example. Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 12:14, “I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children,” may well be an indirect criticism of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with the community of goods because of its consequences for the Gentile missions. And here lies a cautionary tale for those who would use the Church of Jerusalem as their model for the modern Church and society at large, and indeed for all primitivist thinking about ecclesial and social theory.

The Jerusalem Church could not provide for herself economically. At the very least the community of believers at Jerusalem was too poor to be able to provide relief for the poorest members of the Church. And yet this was the Church that practised community of goods. Why was the Church in Jerusalem so poor that Paul had to provide financial aid from the Gentile Churches of Macedonia and Achaia?

 . . . to be continued

   1. Igor Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 40.
   2. See further ibid., pp. 24–79; see also Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957, p. 139ff. et passim.
   3. Communism in the Bible (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1982 [1981]), pp. 7, 8, 11, 24.
   4. Ibid., p. 77–78.
   5. Ibid., p. 22.
   6. Ibid., p. 32. Miranda’s claim that all differentiating wealth is condemned in Scripture takes no account of the fact that some of the greatest saints of the Old Testament, e.g. the Patriarchs, were fabulously wealthy men by comparison with the greater part of the people among whom they lived. Even in the New Testament differentiating wealth is nowhere seen as in itself being inconsistent or incompatible with Christian discipleship, as the case of Joseph of Arimathaea demonstrates (Mt. 27:57). The acceptance of Joseph of Arimathaea as a disciple by Christ also demonstrates that in the case of the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17–27; Lk. 18:18–27) what is being considered is not wealth or even differentiating wealth per se, but rather the idolatry of wealth. The command to sell everything and give it to the poor is not a universal command to all the disciples, therefore, but Jesus’ calling to this particular young ruler, whose sin, i.e. his idolatry of riches, was manifested by his disobedience to Christ’s command. This fact is further confirmed by the case of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1–9), who gave away only half his riches to the poor (v. 8), an act that brought forth no criticism or rebuke from Christ, and which was accepted as just, the Lord Jesus declaring that salvation had that day come to the house of Zacchaeus (v. 9).
   7. Ibid., p. 69.
   8. It has been suggested by Hans von Campenhausen that the primitive Church at Jerusalem may have seen this contribution from the Gentile Churches as implying a formal payment of dues (cf. Rom. 15:26–27), but von Campenhausen emphatically denies that this was how Paul himself saw it (Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries [London: Adam and Charles Black, (1953) 1969], p. 34).

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