Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 2)

I should clarify that I think there is no single position in the Bible on economics...or anything else for that matter that I can think of off-hand. Unless ambivalence is a consistent position.

Nonetheless, I was giving a midterm today and continued reading Luke while my students wrote their essays. And, again working through Luke, we this gospel's portrayal of Jesus' economic positions. Anticipating the communal living situation in Acts that I noted in my earlier post, which was made possible by everyone selling their property and giving it to the group so that everyone's needs would be met, we find this statement from Jesus:

"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Luke 12:32-4)

Perhaps to update this passage a bit, we might say, "where no market nosedives, where no banking systems fail." This is a passage that defers enjoyment of riches until the kingdom, or reign, of God / Heaven. But until then (or, in a different reading, to create the kingdom or allow the kingdom to break through), one sells everything and gives the money to the poor. This, in fact, comes just after the famous passage that one should not worry about your life, what you eat, your clothing--you know, your most basic needs--because God knows you need these things. This statement against being anxious for your basic needs is then sandwiched between the above-quoted passage about selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor and a parable against hoarding wealth:

And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepeared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:16-21)

Indeed, the rich are not coming off very well in any of Jesus' stories. So, we move from a parable against the long-term pointlessness of hoarding, of storing up treasures here, to a passage of not worrying about anything, to a passage of selling everything you own and giving it to the poor. We might ask what exactly it means to be "rich toward God" or to have "treasure in the heavens"? One answer here is just to "trust God" with everything. But this is not the prosperity gospel message of believe it, achieve it and God will give you that car. If it is to trust in God, it is to trust that God will provide your needs when you sell all of your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

Systematically, Jesus, in this portrayal, has broken down the economic policy that encourages "growing your portfolio." Not only should one not hoard or build bigger barns, but one should not have possessions at all! Again, WHOA! Socialist? Perhaps, indeed, that is an anachronism, since these are stories and exhortations and not a systematic philosophical proposition. Nonetheless, we see the abolishment of private property and a very radical "redistribution" from selling everything and giving it to the poor.

There may be some pockets of Christians throughout history who have lived this way--at least in hagiography...and perhaps some monastic organizations--but it is rare and has never been the dominant position in Christian movements, despite it being so prominent in the accounts of the purported founder's message. Perhaps different forms of Christianity have been so concerned about who Jesus is for so long that they have forgotten what he said (or reportedly said).


Unknown said...

One of my favorite religion scholars, James K. A. Smith of Calvin College, has posted a couple times about this, including a letter he wrote to a local newspaper. You can find his blog here:

He makes the point that it might very well be true that the Bible is advocating that the mandate in early Acts to hold everything in common applies only to the church, not to society as a whole, but that those who most adamantly make this claim are usually somewhat hypocritical, since they themselves also have very little interest in having any kind of socialist, wealth-spreading tendencies within the church.

Jared Calaway said...

I wonder how he might take the earlier part in Luke, when Jesus commands the same thing, but there is no church organization.

In Luke, the money is given directly to the poor and is not mediated through the early "Christian" leaders as in Acts. Although Acts, in a way, demonstrates a communal social form that Luke does not necessarily assume.

Both texts seem to be highly critical of private property. And, if this is the "kingdom," perhaps it relates to ideal, future social structures in Luke and trying to create those ideal socio-economic bonds in Acts.

Jared Calaway said...

By the way, I found his discussion very clear and well-thought.