Posted by: Dan | May 6, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part VII: Sharing Life Together

Far more than political agitation, class warfare, or zeal for national liberation, [Paul] had come to believe that a focused concentration on sacrifice and sharing—monetary sharing as well as spiritual selflessness—was the most potent and effective weapon that God's elect could possibly use against the forces of darkness.
~ Richard A. Horsley & Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, 182.

So long as we eat our bread together we shall have sufficient even with the least.
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 59.

In Part V of this series, I began to explore some of the practical ways in which Christians can exercise “nonsensical charity” by practicing the sharing that prevents debt, and the sharing of debt. Then, in Part VI, I briefly stepped back from from the discussion of practical forms of sharing in order to speak about the “Reformation of Desire.” Therefore, in this post, I would like to return to the theme of sharing, by exploring what might happen when we begin to think about sharing “life together.”

Of course, the expression “life together” is an allusion to Bonhoeffer's classic work on community (a work that served as something of a manifesto for the Christian community that Bonhoeffer lived in for awhile during WWII). It is worth recalling this text as we explore the practicalities of sharing within the Christian community. After all, Bonhoeffer reminds us that we must be practical when it comes to community, lest we cling too much to our “visions” of community and are thus overcome by the disillusionment that occurs when the reality of community hits us, as it inevitably will. Thus, Bonhoeffer argues that:

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight… The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.

So, with this warning in mind, what to I mean when I use the phrase “sharing life together”? Essentially, I am trying to emphasise that it is the totality of our lives that we should learn to share together. According to the model(s) established in the New Testament (NT), Christian community has less to do with Sunday worship services, coupled with a weeknight bible study and monthly volunteer service, and more to do with learning to share all areas of our lives — our living, our eating, our learning, our working, our playing — together. Having said that, I should emphasise that the call to share all areas of our lives together, does not mean we are to share absolutely everything together all the time (thus, for example, the practice of solitude is an important Christian discipline [so not all time is shared], and sex is only to be shared within the bounds of marriage [so not all things are shared]).

Therefore, if we are to properly understand the extent to which we are called to share our lives together, I think it is very important that we understand the way that “family” language is employed by Jesus, Paul, and the other NT authors. What we see in the NT is that one's family is now redefined as the community of faith. Thus, we see Jesus continually redefining one's family in this way (cf. Mk 3.31-35; Mk 10.29-30; Mt 23.8-9). In this way, sibling language comes to dominate references to others who belong to the community of faith. Thus, members of the community founded by Christ most commonly refer to one another as “brothers and sisters” (the use of this language so dominates the NT that the references are too many to cite here).

However, to understand why this shift in the identity of one's family is important for how we engage in sharing, we need to recall the significance of family and kinship within the context in which Jesus and the early Church lived (here, I will be drawing from deSilva's book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity).

Within the honor-based Greco-Roman culture, and the similarly honor-based Jewish subculture, relationships with those outside of one's kinship group was marked by competition and distrust. However, relationship within one's extended family was defined by cooperation, solidarity, trust, loyalty, harmony, unity, honor sharing, forgiveness, gentleness, and forbearance. Now, what is particularly interesting, is that the relationship that is to exist between siblings, is held by ancient authors to be the “closest, strongest and most intimate of relationships in the ancient world.” Where this starts to hit home is how this unity among brothers and sisters is to be expressed through their attitude towards their wealth. Thus, deSilva writes: “Since friends were held to 'own all things in common'… the same was all the more to be expected of close kin” (deSilva is quoting Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in this passage, and he also points to passages from Plutarch and Pseudo-Phocylides that support this position on the way in which siblings are to deal with wealth).

This, then, leads us quite naturally to the example of the early Jerusalem Church that we encounter in Acts. What we see here is neither an early expression of communism, nor is it a radical (but doomed) experiment. Rather, what we see in Acts is a Church that actually takes their new family status seriously. Thus, in Acts 4.32, 34-35, Luke writes the following:

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them… For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

What is radical about the Church in Acts is not the sharing that existed among its members — after all, this sort of sharing was the way brothers and sisters were supposed to relate to one another (cf. the deSilva quote that I used at the opening of Part V). Rather, what is radical about this Church as that one's brothers and sisters was no longer determined by ethnicity, social status, or any other factor apart from being a follower of Jesus.

Thus, if those of us who are “in Christ” today are to truly relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” (instead of simply ab/using that language as empty rhetoric in order to project a false sense of intimacy) we need to begin to explore ways in which we can share life together in a way comparable to the Church in Acts (which, by the way, was built upon the community of sharing that existed among Jesus and his disciples, and which continued to be the model for Paul's churches… but more on Paul in a minute).

This, then, leads us to contemporary practicalities, and I would like to suggest that one of the most important practical steps in sharing life together (in a way that offers a genuine alternative to the social structures of capitalism) is learning to share our space (i.e. our homes!) with one another. Christians must begin to explore ways of creating and sustaining the household as an intentional community, structured not around one's genetic family, but around the redefined family of those in Christ.

Of course, capitalism teaches us that this approach to sharing space is absolutely nonsensical. Our honor, our respect, is demonstrated by our ability to live independently of others. A sign of my adult status is the fact that I have my own place — if I am single, I buy a condo; if I am married, my wife and I have “arrived,” or at least are well on our way, when we buy our own house (of course, we'll probably begin with a “starter house” before we move on to bigger and better things).

However, this approach not only requires a form of debt-accumulation and wealth-hording that is inexcusable from a Christian perspective (i.e. given the need that exists among our Christian brothers and sisters — let alone the need that exists in all areas of our world! — there is no possible Christian justification for spending this much time and money paying for a house that will be occupied simply by myself, my wife, and our kids), this popular approach also sustains and strengthens a definition of family that is completely at odds with the Christian understanding of family — thus, when Christians choose to live in this way, they continue to support the structures of capitalism, rather than demonstrating a genuine Christian alternative. Unfortunately, this is but one of the ways in which the Christian concern to “Focus on the Family” and restore “Family Values” has completely missed the boat. That movement has adopted a false definition of “family” and, thus, it achieves exactly the opposite of its professed goal (ie. instead of sustaining the structures that can, in turn, sustain holy living within the Christian community, this movement further weakens the ways in which Christianity can genuinely resist outside corrupting influences, by adopting and employing a outside, and corrupt, model of “family”!).

Therefore, I would like to envision community-homes wherein couples, singles, children, seniors, single parents, etc., all share life together as the newly reconstituted family of those in Christ (I actually almost subtitled this post “Sharing Family” but I knew that would trigger memories of cults and “spouse-swapping” and so I thought it best to rework the title). Can we imagine what this approach to life together could do for a single mother who needs to somehow work and raise a child? Can we imagine what this approach could do for seniors who are generally pushed out of the public eye? Can we imagine what this could do singles who are looking for deeper levels of intimacy within the community of faith? The single mother receives free child care, the senior receives value and public space, and the single person receives intimate and fulfilling relationships with his or her brothers and sisters in Christ.

Furthermore, once we start sharing life together by sharing our space and our homes, it becomes possible to engage in other forms of sharing that counter the structures of capitalism. Especially, if community-homes decide to root themselves (missionally and incarnationally) within particular neighbourhoods (of course, the language of “mission” and “incarnation” means that we are simply deciding to try to learn how to love our neighbours). Thus, for example, the community-home of which I am a part, has chosen to root itself within Vancouver's downtown eastside — this means that we all live, work, volunteer, and go to church, within this neighbourhood. Everything is within walking distance — and so we have no need of a car (or a car each — which are often “needed” in houses where both partners work at commuter jobs) and thus we have learned another way to avoid debt and wealth accumulation (and we also learn how to be better stewards of the creation that has been entrusted to us). Of course, vehicles are but one example — there are all sorts of other things that we spend money on, that can be shared in a community-home (or even between a network of community-homes!), all we need is a little imagination to come up with other examples.

At this point is it worth recalling a comment posted previously on my entry about debt. A friend wrote:

I've had these conversations over and over again with people here… and its freakin the shit out of me and them, because we want to and we know, and then we added up the debt of our small little community and its almost a million dollars, and it scares the crap out of me to want to pay that off with them (emphasis added).

Now, my suspicion is that, when we begin to share life together in this way — when we're not all paying off our own mortgages, our own car payments, and so on — then suddenly the amount of debt that confronts us is much smaller and much more manageable.

Finally, it is worth remembering, at this point, that the family of those in Christ is a global family. Therefore, we must learn how to share our lives, and our resources, with our brothers in sisters who are in need in the two-thirds world. We must learn to not only share space, we must share across space. This sharing across space is something Paul never forgot. In fact, it was one of his top priorities. Paul saw one of his most important achievements to be “the collection,” that he gathered from his church-communities for the poor Christian community in Jerusalem.

This, then, leads me to a response to another comment I received on my post about debt, which is worth quoting at length:

I entirely agree if it was only the developed post-industrial world we were talking about here… I, on the other hand, live in Guatemala where this doesn't work so well. What is the responsibility of such 'First-World' intentional communities to the global poor? Also, such communities do not work very well if all their members are extremely poor (i.e., in a developing country). It seems that all alternative communities require a certain degree of cultural capital or privilege not accessible to the worst off among us.

In response to this, I would like to envision intentional community-homes in the West establishing connections with “brother” and “sister” communities in the two-thirds world. In this way, Western communities can provide the “cultural capital” and “privilege” that is “not accessible to the worst off among us.” It is one of my hopes that the community-home of which I am a part will be able to meet, and help sustain, another community-home in the two-thirds world (actually, with a little imagination, all sorts of other exciting possibilities could come from this connection).

Bonhoeffer reminds us that we will have sufficient for all, even the least, as long as we break bread together. What we need to remember is that every time we partake of the Eucharist, we are breaking bread with the global body of Christ, with Christians in the two-thirds world. Thus, after such bread breaking, how can we not also share all things with them?

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