Posted by: Dan | November 30, 2007

The Church and Capitalism: Part IV.2

IV.2 – A Political Economics of Nonsensical Charity: Sharing Life Together with the Poor

Recovering a Christian political economics means recovering a sense of Christian peculiarity or oddity, which is nothing other than the recovery of the Church’s holiness.[168] For, just as the Holy God of the bible is the “original counter-intuitive economist,” so also the people set apart for God must practice a “counterintuitive economics.”[169] Consequently, a society that has been disciplined by neoclassicism will likely consider the political economics of the Church to be nonsense or madness, for as Adam Smith observes, a person must be “perfectly crazy” to not employ all resources in either “present enjoyments or future profits.”[170] However, because the Church is a society that has not been disciplined by neoclassicism, she will use her resources charitably by sharing, by sharing life together, and by sharing life together with the poor.

That the Church is to be a community of sharing is premised upon its affirmation of God as a gracious giver who has blessed us with a world of abundance. Therefore, contrary to the teachings of the ‘health and wealth’ gospel, a true theology of abundance leads one to hold one’s possessions extremely loosely. Affirming abundance does not lead to extravagant living, it leads to genuine charity (giving) and voluntary poverty (sharing).

Generally, one discovers this sort of sharing and giving within the Religious Orders of the Church, but it is important to realize that this distinction between the lifestyles of the Orders, and the lifestyles of the other members of the Church, only occurred after the rise of Christendom.[171] As Justo L. Gonzalez has definitively shown, the Church Fathers, prior to Constantine, were adamant in their affirmation that Christians should (1) hold all things in common; (2) never charge interest; and (3) give everything but one’s bare necessities to the poor (thus, he shows that the practices of the Church in Acts continue for a few centuries).[172] This approach, apart from being premised on God’s grace and abundance, was supported by at least two other central views. The first view was ecclesial, and related to the Church as a Koinonia, for Koinonia was a secular term that referred to a business partnership wherein all of one’s material goods were shared.[173] The second view was creational, and based upon the argument that, in the Creation narrative, there is no private property; rather, the goods of the world exist for the good of all and not for the private use (or collection) of some.[174] Further, the focus on giving away all that is superfluous leads several Fathers to conclude that it was the poor who rightfully owned the excess of the rich – any hoarded excess was said to be stolen from the poor.[175]

This, then, is the method of sharing that the contemporary Church must rediscover: the disparagement of money, the commonality of goods, and the giving of all that is superfluous to the poor. The essential thing is not the attitude that one has towards one’s possessions, it is what one does with those possessions that matters.[176] Thus, this approach to sharing must subordinate contemporary notions of “stewardship,” for the command is not to responsibly handle what one has but to share necessities within the Church, and to give the rest away.[177]

The commonality of goods that should exist within the Church leads to a further development of what it means to share life together as Christians. In order to truly live together as Christians, one must recover the notion of the Church as an alternative family, a “fictive kinship” that overrules, and subverts, the biological family unit.[178] Within the New Testament, Christians most frequently use sibling language to refer to one another, but siblings, within that culture, were expected to hold all things in common with one another as a tangible sign of commitment, cooperation, and solidarity.[179] Hence, current efforts to centre Christian values on the biological family are actually detrimental to a Christian political economics.[180] To focus on the (biological) family is to ignore the fact that the Church is the true family of those in Christ, and is to surrender the public realm to the neoclassical powers. This, then, should have repercussions for one’s daily living situation. Rather than focusing on living together as a (biological) family unit, Christians should begin to live together based upon their kinship with one another. Consequently, they should begin to explore ways of sharing communal housing. Furthermore, such living enables the tangible sharing of life’s necessities with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.[181] This method of sharing life together then begins to counteract the consumption-accumulation of neoclassism as each (biological) family will need to consume far less by sharing with other (biological) families. Moreover, it will also begin to liberate Christians from bondage to neoclassicism through credit-debt. When Christians live together, and pool their resources, debt, rather than being a ‘necessary evil,’ can become, at the very least, quite limited and, at best, unnecessary.[182]

Finally, Christian sharing, rather than becoming a means of withdrawing from the world, must be missional, and should give preference to sharing life together with the poor. Christians are to go forth proclaiming the forgiveness of sins (i.e. the forgiveness of debts), and should, therefore, be seeking to help to liberate the poor from bondage to credit-debt and consumption-accumulation. Sharing life together with the poor requires a few things: first, it requires justice, so that the question is not how much to give to the poor, but when we will stop stealing from them.[183] Secondly, it requires solidarity which, over against popular notions of charity-as-aid, means not only giving, but self-giving.[184] Third, this then requires proximity for there can be no solidarity or genuine relationship with the poor without proximity.[185] Such a notion of solidarity-in-proximity, requires the members of the Church to invite the homeless poor into their homes.[186] Lastly, it should be noted that, within the bible, care for the poor is understood as the gauge of the state of society and of one’s relationship with God.[187] Regardless of how close one thinks one is to God, or how wonderful one thinks one’s Christian community is, if one is not sharing life together with the poor than one’s relationship with God is fundamentally fractured, and one’s community is fundamentally flawed.

Therefore, by sharing, by sharing life together, and by sharing life together with the poor, the Church offers a public social alternative to the society that neoclassicism creates. By building on the foundations of voluntary poverty (sharing) and genuine charity (giving), the Church is able to counter the neoclassical foundations of credit-debt and consumption-accumulation. Consequently, reading Bloch with Bonhoeffer, we can conclude that the Church “built on the communism of love” desires neither rich nor poor members, but lives with the knowledge that “[s]o long as we eat our bread together, we shall have sufficient even with the least.”[188]
____________
[168] Cf. Hauerwas and Willimon, 71, 93-94.
[169] Brueggemann, Mandate to Difference, 58; cf. Theology of the Old Testament, 68, 76.
[170] An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, II.i.20. The truth of this (and of Friedman’s suggestion that such “crazy” people should not be granted freedom) is well illustrated in the reaction that Saint Francis received when he proposed an alternate Christian political economics in the midst the rising monetary economy of Europe in his day; Julian of Speyer’s observes: “[Francis’] acquaintances, seeing him entirely changed from his former state, thin and dirty, did not attribute this to supernatural grace, but rather to insanity” (“The Life of Saint Francis,” in The Saint, 374; cf. Thomas of Celano’s “The Life of Saint Francis,” in The Saint, 190-92).
[171] For reflections from the religious Orders on the topic of voluntary poverty cf. the Franscisan example found in “The Early Rule,” in The Saint, 64, 69-70, wherein the brothers are allowed to receive all alms but money which they are forbidden to even carry, and the Jesuit example found in “The Deliberation on Poverty” and “The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus” in Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, The Classics of Western Spirituality, ed. by George E. Ganss, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 226-28; 305.
[172] Faith & Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). This was also the economic approach supported by Aquinas (cf. Cavanaugh, “The Unfreedom of the Free Market”).
[173] Consequently, the Church is not simply a spiritual fellowship, it must also be sustained by tangible material fellowship (cf. Gonzalez, 83).
[174] Cf. Gonzalez, 114-16. It is interesting to contrast early readings of the creation narrative with contemporary readings. Whereas contemporary Christians (who are generally writing out of a place of privilege) tend to focus on the creation narrative in order to affirm work as a part of the human vocation, the Church Fathers (who were generally writing out of a place of solidarity with the poor) focused on the creation story in order to affirm Sabbath and the commonality of all things. Christopher Wright argues that the Old Testament agrees with the Church Fathers, seeing the earth as a gift to all and so the right of any to own something is always subordinated to the right of all to use that which belongs to all (147-49).
[175] As implied above, usury was seen as one of the primary ways of engaging in that act of theft (cf. Gonzalez, 114-15, 175-78, 216). This, then, suggests that Christian appeals for ‘debt forgiveness’, although a step in the right direction, are still somewhat mistaken. Those appeals assume that it is the wealthy and powerful who need to forgive the poor of their debts. In reality it is the wealthy and the powerful who should be begging the poor for forgiveness, because it is they who drove the poor into debt in the first place. This is especially obvious in the debts held over nations in the two-thirds world, nations that had democratically elected governments overthrown by dictators supported by foreign governments and businesses. These dictators then frequently fled the scene, leaving their nations with debts they never wanted, but are now forced to pay. That we then speak of ‘forgiving’ these debts is simply an ongoing sign of our own arrogance and lack of penance (i.e. repentance requires us to refuse to acknowledge those debts as genuine, while we ask for forgiveness from those we have exploited).
[176] Jesus makes this point in Mt 6.19-24 – one’s accumulation of wealth reveals where one’s heart is, regardless of the type of “attitude” one claims to have fostered; cf. Wallis, The Call to Conversion, 61-62.
[177] This assault on contemporary notions of stewardship is implicit in Jesus’ call to those around him to give up their possessions (cf. Mt 6.19-21; Lk 12.13-34; 14.33; Mk 10.21/Mt 19.21/Lk 18.22-23). Primarily that surrender of possessions would entail the surrender of the land given to the Jews as stewards (cf. N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 1, Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], 403-404).
[178] On Jesus and the subversion of the biological family cf. Mk 3.31-35; Mt 12.46-50/Lk 8.19-20; Mt 10-29-39/Lk 14.26-27; Lk 11.27-28; Mt 8.21-22/Lk 9.59-60;Mt 19.29/Lk 18.29; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 277-78, 299, 400-402; 430-32; The New Testament and the People of God, 448-49. On the language of Christians as “brothers and sisters” cf. Ro 12.9-10; 1 Thes 4.9-10; Heb 13.1; 1 Pe 1.22; 2.17; 3.8; 5.9; 2 Pe 1.7; Mt 18.15; 28.10; Lk 22.32; Jn 10.17-18; 21.23; Acts 1.15; 9.30; 10.23; 15.1, 3, 22, 32-33, 36, 40; 21.17; 28.15). And for the way in which this New Testament understanding builds on the Old Testament law, which emphasized society-as-kinship cf. Christopher Wright, 173.
[179] Cf. DeSilva, 59-60, 167, 170, 215.
[180] Cyprian of Carthage argues that giving preferential charity to one’s family is a sin (cf. Gonzalez, 126). Furthermore, those who sought membership within the early Franciscan movement were not able to give all they had to family members, but had to give their possessions to the poor, otherwise they were not permitted to join the movement (cf. Thomas of Celano’s, “The Life of Saint Francis,” in The Saint, 203). Note that such a conception of charity contradicts the assertions made by Gary S. Becker, who limits (utilitarian) charity almost entirely to the biological family (see above, n68).
[181] For example, three (biological) families, in one home, could all share one oven and one roof.
[182] For example, three (biological) families, sharing one home, could also share one credit card or be able to live with no credit card at all. Additionally, these families would be able to significantly reduce the amount of time spent paying a mortgage.
[183] Wallis, The Call to Conversion, 46; Gonzalez, 110, 189-90, et passim.
[184] Cf. Sobrino, 18.
[185] Cf. Wallis, The Call to Conversion, 51.
[186] This is one of the Works of Mercy, but it is also a component of the famous passage in Is 58. Such an invitation may (or, rather, should) come easier when one recalls the Christ is said to be in the poor, and whatever is done for the poor is done for Christ (cf. esp. Mt 25). Maurin summarises this well: “There are guest rooms in the homes of the rich but they are not for those who need them. And they are not for those who need them because those who need them are no longer considered as the Ambassadors of God” (Maurin, 8; cf. 10-11).
[187] Cf. Christopher Wright, 77, 96-97, 174.
[188] Bloch, 185; Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 59.

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