Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts as an Example

Here's a nice quote for today from a statement attributed to John the Baptist:

"He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise" (Luke 3:11; RSV).

John the Baptist must be a socialist, at least by John McCain's loose definition, since he wants to redistribute the wealth!

In fact, Luke-Acts (the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostle were written by the same author) shows a lot of instances of communal living. See, for example, Acts 4:32-5:5:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought hte proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus JOseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.

But a man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it waws sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.

Sapphira dies subsequently. I am sure that most Christians who promote free-market capitalism, as many evangelicals do, skim through these passages, overlook them, or ignore their message. With the passage from Luke, many people might see this as giving change to the guy on the street...which is a very little help, instead of seeing it as a lifestyle change and challenge that it is meant to be. The passage from Acts is more difficult to ignore. While some people will focus on the issue of obedience, which is clearly there, they ignore the social implications of the passage and merely spiritualize it. But that would be the miss the larger impact of a cohering community that holds all things in common. Here the communal lifestyle of redistributing wealth to those who need it is presented as the ideal and, uh, godly. Holding back property, maintaining one's private property and not giving it to the community, is portrayed as Satanic! Unfortunately, we tend to tame the radicalism of the Bible and the implications of many of its social positions...something important for those who claim to live a "biblical lifestyle." Ultimately, if redistribution of wealth is un-American, so is living a "biblical lifestyle," if a biblical lifestyle is remotely related to the social organizations illustrated by the earliest Christians, the redistribution of land in the year of Jubilee, etc.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I cannot believe that you would adhere to communal living as a "biblical lifestyle", while not adhering to the "place of a woman" or slavery! Certainly, you do not believe in the text as written, do you?

It is my understanding that what the Democrats may want to do in "redistrubuting the wealth" is something like one economics prof roposed....all 401K plans are taken over by the government and invested, giving each individual $600 annually and a 3% interest (with allowances for inflation). Anyone with any experience with beauracracy knows what happens when there is so much money to be distributed at the discretion of those in government!!! We see it now with the greed of Wall Street and its doesn't teach moral responsibility or accountability for one's life, limiting options of lifestyle. There is nothing innately immoral with being rich or poor. There is something wrong with how one responds to those "facts"...and it is not in blaming the other in the situation!!!

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks, Angie, for your comment.

Communal living is clearly a biblical lifestyle as depicted in these texts.

Do I adhere to such a lifestyle simply because it is biblical? NO. Simply because I think a text written thousands of years ago should not have any bearing on how I live my life today.

The point was exposing the hypocrisy of those who claim they are living a biblical lifestyle and ignore the lifestyle that the Bible, at least in Luke-Acts, actually promotes!

Throughout the Gospels, for example, one of the most consistent or persistent messages of Jesus is for the poor. Nothing provokes his ire more than the plight of the poor. To follow Jesus, the rich man must sell all that he owns, but, alas, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Most Christians choose to ignore the radicalism of the Bible. And its message is very socially radical for its time...and, in some ways, for our time, while in other ways, not so much for our time.

The thing is, to do the things that Barack Obama wants to do with health care, etc., there already is enough money to do it. We just need to use the money in the government wisely. For example, most other industrialized nations have a better healthcare system than we do, giving healthcare to a greater percentage of its citizens but using a lesser percentage of taxes than we are able to do. Why? They use their money wisely. The money is is just going to the monetary abyss of the war in Iraq.

Of course, this is not really the socialism that the fear-mongering that the McCain-Palin ticket portrays it. It is actually a fine-tuning of a lot of the larger principles our government already has in place. As Eric Hobsbawm has now noted: there are no longer any pure free-market capitalist systems nor any pure socialist systems. Most Democracies today are a mixture of the two. It is the proportions of that mixture that make each democracy unique, at least regarding economic policy. And it is seeking to find balance that will allow us this great experiment to endure. We went to far one way, too far in the realm of deregulating free markets, and discovered it justwas not sustainable. It is time to find a long-term sustainable balance.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree that there is much waste in government. My husband's fellowship in the State Department last year addressed this issue.

But, if we really want to balance, say, healthcare, then we must address lawyers, doctors and insurance companies. Lawsuits which are supposed to hold doctors to a standard of responsibility are "out of hand" and therefore, insurance costs skyrocket. How can doctors be accountable to the patient, and yet, not promote greed and victimhoood on the part of the patient for every little incident? And the insurance companies must limit their profits, while lawyers limit their cases to legitimate claims. Greed affects everything.

As far as the ancient text, I have envisioned tearing up the pages of Scripture in front of those who claim "righteousness". Scripture as a "standard" that beats people over the head with thier limitations, failures, problems, and weaknesses is not what I want/desire to know or follow. And certainly, it is appalling and repealling when there is not a openness to "truth claims". (Of course, I recognize my "absoluteness" of attitude).

The human condition is what any "wise person" addresses, not some super spiritualized, Gnosticism that is devoid of reality (a happily ever after). Reality is filled with the truth of suffering and pain. It is not easy to address or solve. Life brings complexities that bring most of us exasperation and no easy solutions. Jesus was concerned about those issues, too.

God is not palatable in these questions, because one can not understand or comprehend the suffering in this life. God seem to be silent, ignorant, distant, uninvolved and/or absent. Therefore, many have turned toward agnosticism or atheism rather than continue to believe in fantasy.

Jared Calaway said...

Again, thanks for your comments.

I only object to the use of term "Gnosticism" as necessarily super-spiritualized...that is the stereotype. But I think much scholarship, for the past 30 years at least now, that this is a misguided stereotype, a misrepresentation that stems back to the polemics of many opposing early Christian writers starting with Irenaeus of Lyons.

Levi said...

have fun with this topic. I posted briefly on "The fear of Socialism and the book of Amos" on my blog and have had way more responses and views than I expected.

Feel free to check my similar posts out if you get free time.

(fear of socialism and the book of amos)

(an unsatisfactory response to socialism and the book of amos)

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks Levi.

I did check out the blog and the responses.

I had forgotten about this in Amos. I actually only posted this because I am studying Luke for a different reason, but, while reading this and listening to current mudslinging in politics, was struck by how people who claim to follow this guy named Jesus actually do not follow what he says regarding money.

Jesus, at least, seems to stand as far away from free-market capitalism as one least in these passages so far.

But I am also reminded of the Levitical laws and the division of the land into equal portions and how those portions revert back to the original holders every 50 years no matter what has happened in the interim. That sort of equal allotment and measures to retain it appear close to "redistribution" as well. But I think I need to take a closer look at that. Until then, I will keep working through Luke-Acts.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you for the correction on Gnosticism. I do believe that Ireneus was short sighted.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

This morning I read where the UN is pulling out of Congo. They cannot keep peace. Are you a pacifist, or is the war in Iraq a particular "thorn in your side"?

I could not agree more that an ancient text has little to do with modern day problems. The question becomes, what then, is the Church? And what is a Christian? And who, really was Jesus? How do we understand man in the context of evolutionary biology and psychology? These are the question that have led me to impatience with those who want to quote book and verse from the Bible, as if that will 'fix the problem".

Jared Calaway said...

Funny you mention this. I am teaching Thucydides right now, and his perspective on complex interrelationships of events in times of extremity (such as war) in many ways is highly relevant--weird how an ancient text actually does occasionally find relevance, not in terms of being a guide for normative behavior, but as a platform or tool to think with...too bad not a biblical one. ;)

I just gave my students an assignment, using Thucydides as a model, to write a speech for the UN Security Council about the best way to proceed in the Congo. Does one proceed in terms of what is just? Or what is in one's own self-interest? Is the just way to proceed necessarily the most effective way to proceed?

I am not sure how to answer your question on pacificism. Do I think peace is better than war? Yes. Do I think the pre-emptive war in Iraq was foolhardy--to attack someone just because they might, possibly, but we don't really know if they will, attack us? Yes--wholly ungrounded. Do I think any war is just? No. Do I think any war is necessary? Ah...there's the rub. Some may be. But not the Iraq War. Oddly enough, the war in Iraq sounds so much like the Sicilian Expedition at the end of Thucydides' history. The Athenians went in with overwhelming force, but did not take the time to consider the very complex situation on the ground, not only in terms of terrain, but also in different groups' interrelationships with one another (both friendly and hostile), and how they might variously respond to Athenian presence. The result? The Athenians were routed even with their superior numbers and technology.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree wholeheartedly that the issues that revolve around the Middle East are complex ones and ones not solved by sheer force! But, how can the West act concillatory to an intolerant ideology? The UN has taken exception to the "Universal Human Rights" document, making allowances (exceptions) to countries who rule under Shairia Law. Tolerance of a culture that is intolerant is foolish, don't you think? (we are talking about human rights, such as woman's equality, freedom of religious expression, our Bill of Rights, etc.)
Now, I am second guessing you here, (and forgive me if I am wrong, please, but..), do you think that prejuidicial statements and judgments that I have just made are based on an insignificant "few" radicals? If so, please read "Infidel" by Hirshi Araan Ali. A NY Times bestseller. True story about a Somalian woman escaping her family and tradition to find freedom in the Netherlands. She now is in the US at the American Enterprise Institute. She is an atheist and against all reliigous tolerance in education, saying that religious freedom and tolerance will be useful for the "political ideologues" in Islam to gain power to rule and dominate under Sharia. Don't take my word for it, read the book. It is well written, but will make you indignant over what can transpire in the name of God and religion. It makes one want to be an atheist, too.

Tom Usher said...

Hello All,

It has never occurred to me that the message of Jesus is passé. To think that anyone has caught up with and surpassed Jesus is unsupportable. Point me to any such person in the past or present.

As for the post, there is voluntary socialism and then there is coercive socialism. When discussing Jesus and his original disciples, it is necessary to make the distinction. Jesus is a voluntary socialist/communist.


It has become my life's work to bring forth in accordance with Jesus's communist vision. Am I behind the times or ahead of my time or am I taking the exact position that needs to be taken right now? I say the last of the three.

I will continue reading this series.

God bless all,

Tom Usher

Jared Calaway said...

Interesting comments, Tom. Most people who take the voluntary versus coerciveness line tend to never really plan to put a voluntary system into effect. This makes you different.

I would tend to agree, but I think the text is ambivalent on this account:

I am not so sure the Annanias and Sapphira episode supports the idea of non-coercive communalism.

Once they joined the Christian community, at least, they were supposed to give up everything they owned and give it to the community. The non-coercive aspect, then, is limited to the choice to join the Christians, then called the Way, or not.

I do wonder about the story Jesus tells about th rich man and Lazarus. Sure, the rich man CHOSE not to sell everything he owned and redistribute it to the poor, but the consequence? He has no place in the kingdom of God. So, if you want a place in the kingdom of God, you follow this economic vision. Is this voluntary or coercive? Perhaps voluntary, but the consequences of not doing it are huge (a bad afterlife in Jesus' story and death in Acts).

Tom Usher said...

Hi Jared,

The most visible and vocal people in the most numbers who take the voluntary-versus-coercion line do not plan to put a voluntary system into effect. There are many people though who are not visible or vocal who have not only planned to put a voluntary system into effect but have already carried it out. I often point to the Hutterites as such. This is not to say that I agree with all things Hutterite. If I did, I'd be one of them. They are close though in many respects and many are trying to move closer right now. Perhaps you've studied them to some extent. I don't hold myself out as some expert in their history, but I have attempted to garner information by spending many hours on the Internet looking into the Hutterites and other Radical Reformationists and other communalists who are at least claiming Christianity and many who are not.

As for your impression that the text is ambivalent, it isn't. In fact, you've been given to understand exactly what it says at least pertaining to your reply immediately above.

The coercive versus non-coercive line is drawn at the straight gate. It is the threshold of the door. Crossing the line, going through the gate, entering through the door upon which we knock, is not coerced in that Jesus doesn't stand behind anyone pushing anyone in. He doesn't open the door and drag anyone in either. This is figurative language but works in literal terms as well.

What he did do though was clean the Temple. Those inside are to be there voluntarily. Once in, they are to conform themselves with righteousness, which righteousness is properly understood only by taking the whole message of Jesus (nothing without the fullest context we are able to grasp). Money-changing for personal, private gain is certainly not allowed within. It is anathema to perfection. There is not that mammon in Heaven.

You are close concerning Lazarus. Can it be reconciled? Yes, it can be. This is dangerous ground for the faint-hearted, because of traditionalists. I am casting pearls, not that I'm saying you in particular are swine and will turn and rend me. In fact, I suspect just the opposite. You don't seem to be disingenuous in your search for truth. Of course, God alone knows your heart through-and-through. I only know what God allows me to see, which is growing by the moment.

One is free within a certain narrow context to ignore consequences. It is a matter of comprehension as to whether or not one will be able to see this context and the many other contexts that pertain to the subject matter. To fully comprehend is to complete the language and the logic, arriving at perfection, which is God, by Christian definition.

The rich man who denied Lazarus was offered words (Old Testament) that called upon him to see to his brethren's needs. Now, if you apply the line of coercion someplace other than at the gate I described, you will view the consequences as coercive: Punishment to illicit a change in behavior – operant conditioning using torture to force conformity with righteousness. That's not though how Jesus approaches it. That's how the proverbial Satan approaches it. Jesus uses parables that make the connection with his profound understanding, but he was limited to the level of comprehension and willingness of the various people (hardness of heart).

Therefore, wrath features prominently, but we must understand that Satan is a lord who thinks he's right. He does punish. He does coerce. He is quick to anger. He is quick to judge. He is careless about distinguishing the innocent from the knowingly guilty. In the end though, souls are turned over to this and left there with it do to what is generally understood and meant by free-will choice (semantically understood).

How may one enter and live in Heaven when Heaven is populated with souls being iniquitous?

From Jesus's perspective, righteousness is a yoke one puts on willingly for its own sake. He does make allowances for those who respond at lower levels of calling though. He's very forgiving. He's very merciful. Souls receive different stripes according to what they knew and how they acted. God won't allow Satan a free hand indefinitely with those who turn to righteousness. Does that sound like God being coercive? If so, you're looking at it that way to the exclusion of the fuller and fullest context. There is no Satan in the New Heaven.

The spectrum from God to Satan is infinitely long and wide. However, at the same time, God is absolute and perfect. The difference between them is at once tiny and immense depending upon perspective and closeness to the root that is God.

Above all other humans I've ever heard of, I'm convinced that Jesus sees this best.

It is Satan who kills and tortures the soul. God doesn't do that. Satan will die out of humans and humanity when we each and all stop being Satanic or Satanlike.

This appears to be the single most sticking point I've come up against for people. It is so difficult for people that I have yet to have anyone even be up to discussing the matter.

The rich man was free to be a slave (to serve) selfishness. This is not oxymoronic. It's using connotations in a way that presents a riddle for those who are too hard-hearted to grasp it and to hold onto it for good.

May God bless us all with the truth,

Tom Usher

David and Barbara Yamarick, Facilitators said...

Annanias and Sapphira didn't die for lack of sharing or obedience,or communal living, but for lying to God. This is clear in the passage context and to miss it misguides almost the entire argument.

Jared Calaway said...

David--I don't think these are mutually exclusive. They were commanded to live communally; they disobeyed; they died for it. Lying is also included.

diamatfrican said...

It may be helpful in this debate of "coercive socialism" vs "voluntary socialism" to point out that there are fundamental differences between that which is merely "sociali-STICK" and that genuine form of scientific socialism that must necessarily proceed from from the peoples awareness of their distinct class interest in opposition to those of a ruling elite.There is and can not be any such thing as "forced socialism" any more than there can be a such thing as a "humanitarian serial killer".The only "force" that may very well be necessary-once the people understand their collective interest and are thus willing to act in that direction-is the removal of what will then be an ideological minority standing in the way of human progress.