Christ and Possessions

I recently heard that the foundational principle of some libertarian or anarchist political theories is the right to own private property. It is precisely this principle that leads these thinkers to reject all forms government coercion, because they violate this most basic human right to autonomy and self-sufficiency. As far as I’m concerned, this position could not be more starkly delineated from the Christian one. This position seems to be but the radicalization liberalism’s insistence on individual autonomy, individual rights and freedom of self expression. It is essentially an a-moral position, with the implicit assumption that true freedom and genuine life is to be found in isolation, accumulation of resources, and maximal options. You will sometimes hear this kind of logic underneath the statements of some Christians against government welfare, taxes etc. The logic is that Christian charity should be unforced and that it is wrong for the government to “take my stuff”. Whether or not one agrees with this position, the key thing to note is that it is being made on an anti-Christian logic. The deep logic of such a position is that one has a ‘right’ to ones own private property, and that one must hold on to, cling to and defend ones own rights with a passion. Yet this is not the Christian view. Take for example these words from the early Church Father, Saint Basel the Great:

Fling wide your doors; give your wealth free passage everywhere! As a great river flows by a thousand channels through fertile country, so let your wealth run through many conduits to the homes of the poor…

“I am wronging no one,” you say, “I am merely holding on to what is mine.” What is yours! Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theatre at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.

Did you not come naked out of the womb? Will you not go naked back into the earth? (Job 1) So where did the wealth you now enjoy come from? If you say “from nowhere,” you deny God, ignore the Creator, are ungrateful to the Giver. If you say “from God,” then explain why it was given to you.

When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your larder belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not.

If you are rich, how can you remain so? If you cared for the poor, it would consume your wealth. When each one receives a little for one’s needs, and when all owners distribute their means simultaneously for the care of the needy, no one will possess more than his neighbour.

Yet it is plain that you have very many lands. Why? Because you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you are deficient in love.

You can find similar statements all throughout the New Testament. James telling the rich to “howl, weep and wail” because of the misery that is coming. Christ telling his followers to sell all they have and follow him and to give and to lend freely expecting nothing in return. What Christ and the New Testament Church is embodying and proclaiming is that the eschatological kingdom of God has arrived within the present evil age. While the ‘world’ around them still exists in an “economy of scarcity” in which there is never enough and life is a battle for meagre resources; the community of Christ exists in an “economy of abundance” in which all give up their own rights and self-concern to devote themselves to the service of the other. While for the ‘world’, the basic building block of community life is the right to accumulate and defend (perhaps with violence) one’s own property; the most basic building block of the New Testament community is its antithesis. While the community of the ‘world’ is built on the impulse to grasp resources for oneself, the community of Christ is built on the emptying of the self. As Christ says: “you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve God and Mammon.” The service of Mammon is a life lived “for me and mine”, carving out an autonomous existence, closed off from others. The life of Mammon is necessarily connected to violence because the accumulation of resources and the clinging to ones own ‘rights’, necessitates force to defend against those who would encroach against what is ‘mine’. By contrast, the service of God is a life of being drawn out of one’s own self-absorption into communion with others. It is a life of true communion, where the self-emptying is filled by the reciprocal self-emptying of the other, so that all possess nothing and everything at the same time. Thus, those who loose their life will find it and those who seek to keep their life will loose it. Life in the service of God is necessarily connected to peace because its primary impulse is the giving up of ones own rights, service and letting be. The New Testement imagry of the church as the “household of God” and the fellow believers as “brothers and sisters” and members of the same “family”, reinforces this picture. The Family is the one sphere of ordinary life where property is communally owned and the border between mine and thine (in the ideal case) is blurry. The Family members exist in a shared space of mutual love, where the individual members make up a new body, a new whole. This does not sound to us at all “realistic”: we know that this doesn’t “work in the real world”. But thats precisely the point: Christ does not come to confirm the status quo, but to call us beyond sociology and anthropology. The Holy Spirit is always calling us into a form of community that our ordinary, biological, “survival of the fittest” way of being wants to resist. In short: Christ calls us to be what we are not and the Holy Spirit empowers us to become what we cannot be in and of ourselves.

There is another key point to be made here. In the above quote, Basel asks the rich where they they got their possessions from: “If you say “from nowhere,” you deny God, ignore the Creator, are ungrateful to the Giver. If you say “from God,” then explain why it was given to you.” It’s fascinating to see that Basel ties a selfish clinging to possessions—a claimed ‘right’ to private property—with unbelief. Indeed, if I wanted to be provocative, I might say that the idea of private property rights is basically an atheistic position. If we live in a world that was created by God: how can anything legitimately be “ours”, how can we have a right to anything while others starve? Ultimately, if this world is the creation of God, the right to private property is nothing more than a legal fiction, and all of creation ultimately belongs to all of humanity equally. The ‘right’ to private property on the other hand, makes perfect sense if, in an ultimate sense, the world is but the result of chance. If we all emerge from the primordial slime, merely biological with no Spirit, the impulse to advance the cause of “me and mine” is basic and undeniable.

Of course, the Christian position does not deny this biological reality: we live in a world of great inequality, in which some rise to the top and others sink to the bottom. However, into this world, ruled by the power of Mammon, comes Jesus with his proclamation of the eschatological kingdom of God. This biological reality need not be determinative and the Holy Spirit beckons us always into the new world. Private Property, like the sword of the state, only makes sense as a concession to fallen reality. In a world where self-love rules, private property is a nessesary defence against theft. But in the kingdom of God, where love of neighbour rules, the impulse to private property is a vice. In the world that is now breaking in and is to come in its fullness, there will be no possessions, no rich or poor, male nor female, slave nor free but all are one in Christ. Just as in the triune life of God, the Father the Son and the Spirit exist in a self-emptying, mutually-fulfilling, communion of Love; Just so, the Spirit calls us all into this same abundance of life. Holding on to ‘what is rightfully mine’ is the opposite spirit, which pulls one into the nihilistic void of the self. This other Spirit instead calls us ever more out of ourselves, into communion, towards self-emptying and service and into that fruitful abundance of life.

Does all of what I have just said make me some kind of a revolutionary Marxist? Hardly. In the first place, if David Bentley Hart is to believed, the position I am putting forward is nothing more than a restatement of what is explicitly stated in the New Testement:

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: They lived a common life and voluntarily enjoyed a community of possessions. The murmur subsided, though not necessarily the disquiet.

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).

This was always something of a scandal for the Christians of later ages, at least those who bothered to notice it. And 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 church or siphoned off their lingering residues in small special communities (such as monasteries and convents). Even when those features have been acknowledged, they have typically been treated as somehow incidental to the Gospel’s message — a prudent marshalling of resources against a hostile world for a brief season, but nothing essential to the faith, and certainly nothing amounting to a political philosophy.

It’s true, of course, that the early church was not a political movement in the modern sense. The very idea would have been meaningless. There were no political ideologies in the ancient world, no abstract programs for the reconstitution of society. But if not a political movement, the church was a kind of polity, and the form of life it assumed 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.

Traditionally, Marxism has been an explicitly materialist position, and has often supported violent revolution to advance its aims. By contrast, the Christian position I am putting forward is necessarily Spiritual, pacifist and non-coercive. The problem of private property is not a problem that can be solved by forcing people into some new communist system: it is at the end of the day, a Spiritual problem. The fundamental battle is not between Capitalism and Communism, but between God and Mammon, Self-will and self-emptying, the Holy Spirit and the spirit of this world. As someone who lives in a Christian community which ostensibly “holds all things in common”, it is quite clear to me that even here it is very easy to live for oneself, to carve out a private existence, to wall oneself off from others, to “quench the Spirit” with love of self. You cannot force the communist revolution, and there is no materialist solution to the problem. Only the peaceful work of the Holy Spirit can draw us out of the clutches of Mammon and into the abundant life of the Triune God.

For this reason, the early Hutterites made the distinction between Spiritual and Physical community of goods. For them, physical community of goods, that is, the sharing of all property in common, could only arise from the more primordial Spiritual community. The Love that takes us beyond self-love to love our fellow man, is what then culminates in physical community. 17th century Hutterite writer, Andreas Ehrenpreis is one of the most articulate defenders of this vision:

“It was through love that Jesus became poor and one of the lowliest on earth. So he commands us as our Lord to love one another in the same way he loved us. That means that we make our fellow citizens in His Kingdom fellow heirs of all our goods, that we accept one another as members of the Household of God, that we close neither our hearts nor our purses to any need of a brother, Then, and then only, will God’s love remain in us. That is alone is genuine love. Genuine love prompts us to give all our goods—and even our bodies—with an undivided heart. That is the way to the light. That is community.”

As you can see in the quote, there is the attitude here that to be a true Christian, one must live in community of Goods. It was this position that enemies and critics of the Hutterites often attacked as self-righteousness. I think if we recognize the distinction between Spiritual and Physical community, we can come to a slightly more generous position. All who are called by the Spirit into the new life of the Kingdom, will find themselves, in their own contexts fighting against Mammon, self-will and possessiveness. They will be pulled into deeper relationalality, service, communion and self-emptying. This basic tension between God and Mammon is a spiritual battle that all of us, no matter our context, must continuously wage. While, at the end of the day, I still agree with Ehrenpreis that community of Goods is still the truest embodiment of the kingdom of God to come; there is no room for self-righteousness. There is no real correlation between living in “physical community” and experiencing “spiritual community”. (If this were the case, Communist Russia would have been a bastian of love and peace rather than a pit of untruth, hatred and resentment) As Kierkegaard might say, spiritual community is a matter of ‘inwardness’ which must be cultivated and pursued by each person, no matter their context. For that reason, we should not be surprised to see people in places most hostile to true community—white picket suburbs for example—experiencing more genuine relationalality, service and self-emptying than many Hutterite communities. While the early Hutterites were right to argue for community of goods, they were wrong to assume they had the monopoly on the Holy Spirit.

So where does that leave us with regards to our question of Christians and private property? The claim to the right to private property is not a Christian argument: it might be a good natural law argument or a good argument for the flourishing of the nation state, but it has little to do with the life Christ calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, Christ calls us to renounce what is rightfully ours, to devote ourselves to service and to find true life by loosing it. The sermon on the mount is not an individualistic call for self-improvement, neither is it some impossible ideal, but rather it is intended as a communal way of life. The point is not for the individual to “give up his private property” for its own sake, but rather out of love for his fellow man. As we see in the Acts 2 community, “all the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to everyone who had need.” In this place of mutual self-emptying, the distinction between mine and thine evaporates into a communion of Love. Is this possible? “To doubt that it could be, would be to doubt whether the kingdom of heaven is a chimera or a
divine idea.”

All of what I have been trying to say in this piece, is expressed with much greater clarity and beauty in the following excerpt from George Macdonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. In the excerpt, a young girl named Rachel convinces her uncle to read a story he once wrote about “the shops in heaven” to his visitor, Mr. Wingford. In the story, a man is given a tour of heaven by his guide and is astonished at how selling and buying is done. When he expresses his astonishment to his guide, he is given an explanation. Its worth pausing and reading what follows slowly and thoughtfuly:

“I went out last with my guide, and we seated ourselves under a tree of the willow-kind on the bank of one of the quieter streams, and straightway I began to question him. “Tell me, sir,” I said, “the purport of what I have seen, for not yet have I understood how these happy people do their business and pass from hand to hand not a single coin.”
And he answered, “Where greed and ambition and self-love rule, money must be; where there is neither greed nor ambition nor self-love, money is needless.”
And I asked, “Is it then by the same ancient mode of barter that they go about their affairs? Truly I saw no exchange of any sort.”
“Bethink thee,” said my guide, “if thou hadst gone into any other shop throughout the whole city, thou wouldst have seen the same thing.”
“I see not how that should make the matter plainer to me,”I answered.
“Where neither greed nor ambition nor selfishness reigneth,” said my guide, “there need and desire have free scope, for they work no evil.”
“But even now I understand you not, sir,” I said.
“Hear me then,” answered my guide “for I will speak to thee more plainly. Wherefore do men take money in their hands when they go where things are?”

“Because they may not have the things without giving the money.”
“And where they may have things without giving money, there they take no money in their hands?”
“Truly no, sir, if there be such a place.”
“Then such a place is this, and so is it here.”
“But how can men give of their goods and receive nought
in return?”
“By receiving everything in return. Tell me,” said my guide, “why do men take money for their goods?”
“That they may have wherewithal to go and buy other things which they need for themselves.”
“But if they also may go to this place or that place where the things are which they need, and receive of those things without money and without price, is there then good cause why they should take money in their hands?”
“Truly no,” I answered, “and I begin, methinks, to see how the affair goeth. Yet are there some things still whereupon I would gladly be resolved. And first of all, how cometh it that men are moved to provide these and those goods for the supply of the wants of their neighbours, when they are drawn thereto by no want in themselves”

“Thou reasonest,” said my guide, “as one of thine own degree, who to the eyes of the full-born ever look like chrysalids, closed round in a web of their own weaving; and who shall blame thee until thou thyself shinest within thyself? Understand that it is never advantage to himself that moveth a man in this kingdom to undertake this or that. The thing that alone advantageth a man here is the thing which he doth without thought unto that advantage. To your world, this world goeth by contraries. The man here that doeth most service, that aideth others the most to the obtaining of their honest desires, is the man who standeth highest with the Lord of the place, and his reward and honour is to be enabled to the spending of himself yet more for the good of his fellows. There goeth a rumour amongst us even now that one shall ere long be ripe for the carrying of a message from the King to the spirits that are in prison.
“Thinkest thou it is a less potent stirring up of thought and energy to desire and seek and find the things that will please the eye, and cheer the brain, and gladden the heart of the people of this great city, so that when one prayeth, ‘Give me, friend, of thy loaves,’ a man may answer, ‘Take of them, friend, as many as thou needest’ – is that, I say, an incentive to diligence less potent than the desire to hoard or to excel? Is it not to share the bliss of God who hoardeth nothing, but ever giveth liberally? The joy of a man here is to enable another to lay hold upon that which is of his own kind and be glad and grow thereby – doctrine strange and unbelievable to the man in whom the well of life is yet sealed.
“Never have they been many at a time in the old world who could thus enter into the joy of their Lord. And yet, if thou bethink thee, thou wilt perceive that such bliss is not unknown amongst thy fellows. Knowest thou no musician who would find it joy enough for a care-tortured city? Would everyone even of thy half-created race reason with himself and say: ‘Truly it is in the night, and no one can see who it is that ministereth; the sounds alone will go forth nor bear my image; I shall reap no honor; I will not rise and go?’ Thou knowest, I say, some in thy world who would not speak thus in their hearts, but would willingly consent to be as nothing, so to give life to their fellows. In this city so is it with all – in shop or workshop, in study or theater, all seek to spend and be spent for the love of all.”
And I said, “One thing tell me, sir – how much a man may have for the asking.”
“What he will – that is, what he can well use.”
“Who then shall be the judge thereof?”
“Who but the man himself?”
“What if he should turn to greed, and begin to hoard and spare?”
“Sawest thou not the man this day because of whom all business ceased for a time? To that man had come a thought of accumulation instead of growth, and he dropped upon his knees in all business ceased, and straightway that of the shop was made what below they call a church; for everyone hastened to the poor man’s help, the air was filled with praying breath, and the atmosphere of God-loving souls was around him; the foul thought fled, and the man went forth glad and humble, and tomorrow he will return for that which he needeth. If thou shouldst be present then, thou wilt see him more tenderly ministered unto than all the rest.”…

“I think that could be!” said the curate, breaking the silence that followed when Rachel ceased.
“Not in this world,” said the draper.
“To doubt that it could be,” said the gatekeeper, “would be to doubt whether the kingdom of heaven is a chimera or a divine idea.”

The featured image is called “Come ye blessed…” by Nathaniel Mokgosi 

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