Acts 2:42-47 – Godly Communism

You Cannot Serve Both God & Mammon

Image by Mike_tn via Flickr

[Reflections on the Lectionary Reading for May 15, 2011]

Jesus did not advocate for political causes.  Jesus did not ordain one form of government as the Christian form of government. Jesus didn’t embrace any economic theory. The Protestant work ethic has led many in our culture to embrace free enterprise as Christian. The combination of Russia’s embrace of communism and atheism leads many to view communism as godless.

Inconveniently for our tendency to mix culture and religion, Scripture tells us that the earliest Christian church functioned like a commune. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45, NRSV). In America today, those disciples of Christ would be accused of being disciples of Karl Marx. For American Christians it is uncomfortable to see this illustration of godly communism in our Scriptures.

Although Jesus did not advocate for or against any political or economic systems, he did talk about money.  In fact he talked a lot about money. He told us that we cannot love both God and money, for then we are serving two masters. He told us that we should not spend our time and energy storing up material treasures on earth. He told at least one rich and powerful man that he must give away all his riches in order to become a disciple.

I am a Christian, and I believe that capitalism is superior to communism. I think it works better for a society. I find that capitalism is based on the recognition that people are basically selfish and greedy. It is designed to try to leverage that selfish drive for the benefit of society. I find that communism has an idealistic view of humanity. It assumes that people’s nature is good and generous. It does not yield the same benefit to society as capitalism because greed mucks up the works of communism.

My point is not to extol the virtues of capitalism. My point is to note the danger in my view. By embracing a system that acknowledges and uses greed; we run the risk of society embracing greed as a virtue. The danger for Christians would be to become disciples of capitalism.  As Jesus said, we cannot serve two masters.

For those of us who are Christians, we must never fully become capitalists or communists. Both systems have their flaws. We must stand against each when it violates Christian ethics. I embrace capitalism, but I am quick to say that it must not be allowed free reign in society.  We must strive to keep it in check, and we must strive to stand outside its thrall. We must never allow ourselves to fall in love with capitalism or its god: money.

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Comments

  • Helen  On May 6, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    i found this post concise and poignant; and i also agree that these two economic systems assume very different human natures. no effective resolution in sight.

  • Jim Wheeler  On May 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    JH,

    Your argument in this post is, IMO, too simplistic, mainly because it ignores several details about “Communism”.

    True communism of course is similar to what you describe for the earliest Christian church, a mutual sharing of resources. That of course has never been successful for any extended time in history except for limited spans of time and for small groups, and the Bible is full of stories of how this is incompatible with human nature. But I do not dispute its use as a utopian goal, albeit an unreachable one.

    The experiments in large-scale Communism have been failures by most standards of course. I refer to those in the now-defunct USSR and China. Those are not of course real communism but oligarchies. I suppose the one paradigm that comes closest to an enduring example is that of Cuba. You might consider that a success on some levels – they have universal health care, a very high literacy rate, and very attentive government services. Their mortality rate from frequent hurricanes there is virtually nil because the Cuban government has firm plans and dictates strict adherence by everyone. But of course they have political prisoners, lack basic freedoms such as that of speech, and live at a basic subsistence level with frequent shortages of consumer goods and even food.

    Your opinion about the love of money as a bad thing is appropriate as moral instruction, but I think it is simplistic. In a modern society money is necessary to economic function, whether for good or bad. To simply condemn love of money is to ignore the complexity of the human mind.

    I came across some interesting research recently about human motivations with respect to morality. I would be interested in your take on it, relative to this post:

    http://yourlife.usatoday.com/mind-soul/story/2011/05/What-propels-us-to-do-bad-things/46732362/1

    Jim

    • jwhester  On May 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm

      Jim, I agree largely with many of your points. My post is quite simplistic about the whole communism vs capitalism thoughts. My main point was to speculate why Christians get caught up in becoming such avid supporters of capitalism. I think it is a dangerous flirtation for followers of Christ. And I have seen the public face of Christianity seem to lose perspective (IMHO).

      I read your link with interest. I think one of the interesting things going on in that article is tension between deontology and consequentialism. Clearly Christianity promotes the idea of dynamic ethics embraced by the article, and I agree with that. I think everyone does, but we also like to gossip about strangers and that’s where simplistic thinking comes into play.

    • jwhester  On May 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

      I think I disagree with you about love of money. Just because I find money useful and necessary doesn’t mean I have to love it. Perhaps I am not fully understanding your point about the complexity of the mind.

  • Jim Wheeler  On May 6, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    I will try to explain what I meant about money. When humans lived as hunter-gatherers there was little need for specialization. It is likely that most members of a tribe could do most things, such as hunting, skinning animals, making clay pots or ornaments, fishing and so on. But when man discovered agriculture, things began to change and it would be natural to specialize. Some would be better at making shoes, raising different animals, raising different crops, making cloth, fermenting beer or wine, making weapons more complex than mere spears or clubs, etc.

    You get the idea I’m sure. With complexity and specialization there comes the need for a medium of exchange, i.e., money, which is more efficient than mere barter. I have discovered and posted the interesting fact that the earliest human writings ever discovered had to do with accounting for commodities.

    Unfortunately, with the invention money there ensues the inventions of debt and interest. I find it interesting (pun intended) that Islam considers the charging of interest sinful, don’t you?

    Jim

    • jwhester  On May 6, 2011 at 10:51 pm

      Not sure we’re connecting here. Do you understand that I think money is a useful and wonderful invention? But the “love” of money is something beyond just appreciating its utility. That means money becomes a goal. You long to acquire as much as you can.

  • Jim Wheeler  On May 7, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Absolutely.

    Money, as I said, is an essential in any non-simple society. Love of money, as Islam and the Bible officially recognize, is inherently sinful. Money provides great leverage, but it can be used throughout the continuum between great evil and great good. The possibilities are endless. But I think the cautions of the Bible recognize that the potential for evil outweighs that for good. If you accept that, and I for one do, what do you do about it. I suppose it might be useful to sermonize about the danger in the love of money, but how persuasive is it? Seems like stating the obvious to me.

    Jim

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