Readings for the 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 2:42-47; PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-29; I PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31
Recently, Mother Jones reported that self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, is the most popular politician in America. Almost 60 percent of Americans view the Vermont senator favorably.
Bernie’s even more popular among Democratic voters, blacks, and Hispanics. Eighty percent of Democrats, 73 percent of registered black voters, and 68 percent of registered Hispanic voters have favorable opinions of the 75 year old politician.
All of this signals an unbelievable achievement for an economic system we’ve been taught to hate. Long before the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45), and especially since then, Americans have been subjected to unrelenting anti-socialist propaganda from every side – school, church, media, politicians . . . And following the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union no one wanted to be even remotely associated with socialism, much less with communism.
But things have changed. Fifty-three percent of millennials now have a favorable view of socialism. Sixty-nine percent would cast their ballot for a socialist in a presidential election.
Again: in the light of all that negative indoctrination, that’s incredible. Even if poll-respondents are fuzzy about their understanding of socialism, the phenomena indicate that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with socialism’s opposite, the reigning capitalist order.
All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, where the first reading reminds us that (as Mexico’s Jose Miranda says directly) socialism and even communism originated in Christianity. It doesn’t come from Marx and Engels.
In fact, Miranda goes further. He says Christianity is communism. And I think he’s right. Just look at today’s description of life among Jesus’ first followers after the experience they called his “resurrection”:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”
Luke the evangelist repeats that refrain later in his “Acts of the Apostles” when he writes:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).
There you have it. The early Christians:
* Lived communally
* Rejected private property
* Including land and houses
* Instead held everything in common
* Pooling all their resources
* And distributing them “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
* As a result, they eliminated poverty from their midst.
Did you catch the operative words: they divided their property “among all according to each one’s needs?” To repeat, those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. They have nothing to do with atheism. On the contrary, they have everything to do with faith.
They have everything to do with following Jesus who himself was a communist. He’s the one who said, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:3).
Jesus, not Marx, is the one who set concern for those in need as the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life. He said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me” (MT 25: 35-36). Everything, Jesus insists, depends on recognizing his presence in the poor and oppressed and responding accordingly.
Of course it’s often pointed out that the Christian experiment in communism was short-lived. Jesus’ followers soon backed off from their early idealism. That observation is supposed to invalidate their communistic lifestyle as impossibly utopian and therefore no longer applicable as Christians’ guiding North Star. In fact, this objection is taken as justifying the persecution of the communism the text idealizes and recommends!
But the same argument, of course, would apply to the Ten Commandments in general or to the Sermon on the Mount – or to the U.S. Constitution for that matter. In our day (and in the course of their histories) all of those statements of ideals have only sporadically been lived out in practice. Should we throw them out then? Should we persecute those espousing the Sermon on the Mount ideals or observance, for instance, of the Fourth Amendment? Few in the Christian community or in the U.S. political world would make that argument.
Others anxious to distance themselves from the communistic ideals of early Christianity would point out that the communal life adopted by Jesus’ first followers was voluntary not imposed from above. In doing so, they point to another passage in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. That’s the one involving Ananias and Saphira – a couple whose life is exacted for claiming to have sold their property while actually keeping some of it back for themselves.
Referring to their property, Peter says to Ananias, “Was it not still yours if you kept it, and once you sold it was it not yours to dispose of?” (Acts 5:4) But (again as Miranda points out) what was optional was not selling their property – Christianity’s indispensable condition. What was optional was the choice to become a disciple of Christ. Choosing the latter option required practicing communism – and that under pain of death!
As for economic systems imposed from above. . . Can you name one that isn’t?
How many of us have really chosen to live under capitalism? “None of us” is the answer. That’s because to make an informed choice, one must know the alternative. However, our families, schools, churches and civic organizations, our films and novels and news programs mostly conspire together to vilify alternatives and keep them hidden.
Besides that, our government and military have made sure that experiments in alternatives [like the one implemented in Cuba (1959) or Nicaragua (1979)] fail or are portrayed as failures – lest their “bad example” undermine capitalist claims to be the only viable system.
Even worse, our church leaders (who should know better) jump on the anti-communist band wagon and present Jesus as a champion of a system he would despise. Church people speak and act as if Luke’s passage from Acts had read:
“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others however raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”
When are we going to stop this bastardization of Christianity?
First of all, we must face it: Jesus was a communist; so were his earliest followers after his death!
What then should are would-be followers of Yeshua the Christ to do? At least this:
* Read Jose Miranda’s manifesto, Communism in the Bible.
* If we can’t bring ourselves to sell what we have, give it to the poor, and live communally, at least conspire with like-minded people to share tools, automobiles, gardens – and perhaps even jobs and homes in an effort to reduce poverty and our planetary footprints.
* “Out” the “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan and other congressional “Christians” whose budgets attempt to balance federal accounts by increasing the ranks of the poor whose poverty the communism of the early Christian community successfully eliminated.
* Pressure our government to get off Cuba’s back and allow it to experiment in prophetic ways of living that can save our planet.
I’m sure you can add to this list. Please do so below.