This post is the third in a series we're calling "Resurrecting the Church," which assumes the church institution we've encountered in Europe is in a time of transition as it figures out what it means to function in a post-Christendom, post-Modern society *. (Click to read POST ONE and POST TWO)
Before I became a father, I considered myself a rather patient person. Our son Asher has made it his goal to teach me how much I still need to grow in this area.
For example, he does this classic thing where I’ll ask him to do something -- get in bed, put away toys, not play drums on the window -- and it’s as though he doesn’t hear me. No acknowledgment at all. But when I ask him if he wants something I know he likes -- to go to the park or have some candy -- he will look at me beaming and, in an instant, be ready to go.
I know because I’ve experimented with this and, although this “selective hearing” drives me crazy, most parents seem to agree it’s pretty normal. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, even as adults we tend to hear what we like and ignore what we don’t.
A great example is how many folks seem to read the Bible.
I have met many Christians who can look at the Bible and in one moment say, “The story of a man building an enormous boat to save every single type of animal that exists while the entire earth is covered in water is clearly literal and historical” and in the next moment say, “Jesus’ call to radically love our enemies is an ideal that’s definitely not meant to be applied universally.”
Let’s call this “selective reading.”
Mennonites like us have a long, beautiful history of saying, “Jesus meant what he said,” and trying our best to conform our understanding of God and the Bible to Jesus’ words. But even we can be guilty of selective reading. I’m referring to the parts of the Jesus’ ministry where we also tend to say things like, “Well, Jesus didn’t actually mean we should give our wealth to the poor — he was simply using that as an example.”
The topics of money, wealth, and what Christian economy should look like are as vital to the rebirth of the Christian church as they are uncomfortable for Christians to talk about. Why? Because the economy of a faith community should be in stark contrast to the economy of empire.
As the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”) can help us understand how Jewish culture shaped Jesus’ message, it’s important to start there and gather context. And what we find is a narrative illustrating a massive contrast between the Israelites’ economy and those of the surrounding empires.
In the Exodus story — one of the first and most important stories to Jewish people — we find the Israelites living as slaves, whose role in the Egyptian economy is making bricks that are stored in Pharaoh’s warehouses. [Exodus 5:6-21 NRSV] Much like today in modern society, we see an empire where the ruling class has an excess of resources and the suffering lower class can’t access them.
After being liberated from Egyptian society, we see God establish new norms for how Israelite society should function. Instead of hoarding resources like Pharaoh, God commands them to take only what they need for each day. [Exodus 16:4-5; 17-18 NRSV] Aside from demonstrating God’s faithfulness, this prevented hoarding and ensured that everybody would always have enough food — a major contrast to the disparity of wealth the Israelites experienced in Egypt.
Laws for Societal Justice
Later, God gives the Israelites several more guidelines that would continue to set their culture apart from those of neighboring empires. A few notable guidelines include the practices of gleaning, the patterns of Sabbath, and Jubilee.
Gleaning was a practice where landowners were intentionally less thorough in harvesting their fields. This was so that the poor — orphans, widows, and immigrants — could go through and take the remaining crops to eat. [Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22 NRSV]
Historically, the ability to engage in leisure or to do nothing was reserved only for the wealthy -- the poor tend to need to labor constantly to make ends meet. However, the patterns of Sabbath gave the freedom to rest to all classes of people. Beyond a weekly sabbath as we know it, there were even years of sabbath. [Leviticus 23:3; 25:1-7 NRSV]
God demanded a recurring event called Jubilee, which was a systematic dismantling of the inequality we tend to create in society. This was done through the forgiveness of all debts, redistribution of all properties, and the release of all slaves every 50 years. Those who held power and those who were oppressed by power became the same and the class divide was erased, illustrating that it’s not God who makes rich and poor people, but the patterns of society. [Leviticus 25:8-55 NRSV]
Each of these guidelines were part of God’s criteria to prevent the Israelites from becoming like the oppressive empire that once held them in slavery. As Jesus was a rabbi and knew the scriptures perfectly, he would have known these norms very well, regardless of how faithfully they were being followed by the time of his ministry.
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
John the Baptist
The dawn of Jesus’ ministry is framed by his relative and friend, John the Baptist. As John baptized people, he demanded they prove they’ve truly repented from their sins. [Luke 3:8; 10-14]
When the crowds asked how, he said: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (v. 11)
When the tax collectors asked how, he said: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” (v. 13)
When soldiers asked how, he said: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay.” (v. 14)
John doesn’t give additional instructions. To John, our rebirth has to affect our economics and how we care for our neighbor.
Once his ministry begins, Jesus makes it very clear where he stands in terms of participating in the economics of empire.
For one thing, we know Jesus was a homeless person: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” [Matthew 8:20] And remember the Jewish practice of gleaning that was reserved for the poor? We see Jesus walking with his disciples as they did this in Luke 6.
Christ being homeless and poor is significant in part that his message can only be understood correctly when interpreted through that lens. When Jesus invites us to follow him, it inherently means living with the detachedness of someone who owns nothing.
Jesus also teaches that it’s impossible to pursue both God and money and that we should live with the same “recklessness” as him in the same sermon:
Our preoccupation with our everyday needs, such as food and clothing, are a sign of weak faith. It’s imperative that we be more like the birds and flowers, which live with abandon and for which God cares faithfully. These worries are the traits of pagans — those who don’t believe in God. Rather, the things we need will be provided when we pursue God’s justice and kingdom, which exists here and now.
[personal paraphrase of Matthew 6:24-34]
There’s so much more Jesus has to say on the issue:
He teaches us to pray for our daily bread — nothing more and nothing less. [Luke 11:2-4]
He tells the religiously-obedient rich young man he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor before joining him. [Luke 18:18-23]
He describes the rich entering God’s kingdom as being more impossible than threading a needle with a camel. [Mark 10:23-28]
He tells the tax collector who gives half his possessions to the poor and repays those from whom he swindled that his actions bring salvation to his house. [Luke 19:1-10]
He physically destroys the oppressive, capitalistic-driven system in the Temple that kept folks from encountering God in a righteous rage. [Matthew 21:12-17]
He never tells a poor person to solve their problems by working harder.
Economic sharing isn’t a one-time topic Jesus spoke about in exaggerated, metaphorical terms — these are actual, lived-out values that he repeated over and over. He and his disciples actually were possessionless. The economy Jesus describes is one in which we live imprudently and without a safety net. At the very least, it’s a message against amassing personal wealth and about how we can use our abundance to bless others.
The Early Church
There are countless other blog posts and sermons out there that would argue against my conclusion as to Jesus’ relationship with capitalism. As I don’t claim to have cornered the market on Biblical truth, I believe one way to test an interpretation of Jesus’ teachings is to take a look at how early churches interpreted them. These churches were filled with disciples and folks who actually heard Jesus teach. There’s less opportunity for time, entropy, and the eventual Constantinian marriage of Christianity to empire to distort the message.
Acts 2 Community
What we see in the early church is that economic sharing was a defining trait. In Acts 2, it says that church community “met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.” [Acts 2:42-47 NLT]
The result: God caused the community to grow and prosper. (v. 47) As with John the Baptist, they understood how rebirth and redistribution of wealth are connected.
Soon after, it says, “All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. [...] There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.” [Acts 4:32-35 NLT]
As if to prove it’s not an exaggeration, the next two verses describe a guy who sold his field and brought the money to the apostles. [v. 36-37]
In case you’re missing the significance of this type of living, the first Christians — the ones who knew Christ best — not only understood Jesus’ teachings as literal, but ended poverty among themselves through following them. They ended poverty! And they were fully aware such a radical accomplishment wasn’t always without sacrifice: the early church would go so far as to do a community-wide fast when food was running low for someone. No one would eat until everyone could eat.
More than Talk
In a letter to another church, John the Evangelist tells the people, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” [1 John 3:16-18]
Echos in Church History
Over 300 years after Christ's death, church father Ambrose of Milan was still repeating John the Baptist’s message:
“If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other to the man with no shirt.”
“There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
“It is a better thing to save souls for the Lord than to save treasures. He who sent forth his apostles without gold had not need of gold to form his Church. The Church possesses gold, not to hoard, but to scatter abroad and come to the aid of the unfortunate.”
Hundreds of years later in the 17th century Vincent de Paul, a priest renowned for his work with the poor, was saying that when we give food to the hungry, our posture should be to get on our knees and ask forgiveness, because we are only returning what is rightfully theirs.
Practical, Urban Application
So here’s the thing: I feel like I’m a good person. I love my family and spend time with them, I give loads of time to my faith community, I drink fair-trade coffee, I recycle… Many times I feel I’ve done more than the average person to show love to marginalized people. But when I am reminded how concerned the ancient Israelites, Jesus, and the early church were about making sure everyone had enough while rejecting the economic values of empire, I’m reminded of how oblivious I am to my own abundance.
I have more than enough. I have three or four pairs of shoes. I have more than a week’s worth of clothing in my closet. I like video games, new music, and pants that fit well.
None of those things are bad, either! After all, these stories of communal fasting, returning land, and giving away everything aren’t meant to focus on self-deprivation. They’re all meant to help us understand what a faith community should look like and what it means to love.
After talking about this topic in our faith community here in Barcelona, a member of the community raised the idea that “there are people who have so much more than me and people who have so much less. How do I know if I’m doing it right?” This is an easy and understandable way to look at the issue. After all, doesn’t capitalism keep us discontentedly focused on what others have/do and how we fall short?
Jesus isn’t calling us into competition with one another. Jesus wants us to understand what it means to have “enough.” Ghandi is known for famously saying, "The world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed." Aren’t many of our “needs” actually just “wants” we think we need?” Developing our concept of enough is an important journey that exposes an uncomfortable reality: “The more I need -- or think I need --the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth.”
Let’s go back to what John the Baptist said was required to show repentance from sin: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” [Luke 3:11]
Do you have more than one shirt? Do you have more than one vehicle? Do you have an empty, seldom-used [guest] bedroom in your home?
The people in our faith community are really good-hearted, kind Jesus-lovers who are doing their best to become the people God is calling them to be. That said, I know for a fact there are several folks who have empty bedrooms and I also know there are some people in our Fundación Menonita house will have no bedrooms in about a month. That the implication of these things being connected could be considered hurtful or inappropriate breaks my heart; this may be where the institutional church has fallen the farthest from what it was meant to be.
A clear tension emerges from this topic of Christian economy: a tension between how things are and how they should be. And, while it’s imperative faith communities dive into that tension and wrestle with it, we must first accept that the easiest solution — slight changes in spending habits — can’t be the only response because capitalism cannot save us.
For this reason, the solution cannot simply be giving money or donations to charity, because:
“Charity isn’t justice. Charity accepts the status quo. When we do charity, we give out of our affluence to help the poor; we don’t actually sacrifice our affluence to destroy the distinction between the rich and the poor. We mustn’t settle for charity when justice is required.”
(Mark Van Steenwyk, Anabaptist author, activist)
To truly be able to reconcile this tension, we can’t simply change systems. The Scripture says we can sell everything we have and give the money to the poor, but if we don’t have love, our actions are hollow. [1 Corinthians 13:3] Instead, we must change how we understand love, and we can do this by placing ourselves in relationship with those who can teach us what enough really looks like. Such relationships can be like a mirror to help us know when we’re consuming more than we need.
I feel very, very blessed, but I know the reason God blesses us is so that we can use those blessings to help others. Therefore, I refuse to own something that I wouldn’t be willing to share or give away.
I have a prayer book that summarizes it beautifully:
“For Christians, redistribution comes out of a love of neighbor; to love our neighbor as ourselves means we hold our possessions loosely, for the suffering of another is our suffering, and another’s burden is our burden.”
(Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)
* Many folks in the United States may not understand why this is a need, but the landscape is different in Europe. Just looking at all the cathedrals turned into museums and declining church attendance is proof enough the old model doesn't work anymore. CLICK HERE or HERE to learn more.
NOTE: This blog post touches on ideas that have been around for quite awhile. In fact, to say this post was influenced by Relational Tithe, Inc.’s “Economy of Love” would be an understatement. Also, check out “The unKingdom of God” by Mark Van Steenwyk.