Posted by: Dan | April 27, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part IV: Sharing as Nonsensical Charity

The conviction that siblings are to make use in common of their inherited goods undergirds the exhortation to benefit and share with one another within the community… As siblings in Christ, the believers are to pool their resources in every way so that each member of the family knows the love of this family at his or her point of need…

What we witness in the early church is not an attempt to create a system of government and economics enforced through terror but rather an attitude that each believer has toward fellow believers—“love for brothers and sisters”—and lives without reservation.
~ David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 215-16.

I was first personally introduced to a more radical form of sharing through my interactions with another community of “beggars” — the homeless addicts that I first encountered in Toronto, and continue to encounter in the neighbourhood in which I live. Within this community, sharing looks rather different than the form of sharing that is encouraged in the churches I know (you know, tithe 10%, donate tax write-offs to charity, and give your old clothes to the Salvation Army, that sort of thing). Indeed, the sharing demonstrated in this community of beggars shames most Christian expressions of sharing.

I think, for example, of “Johnny.” Johnny is a gifted young man who lives for music… but one day he pawned his guitar so that he had enough money to support his heroin addiction. “I put my soul in the pawn shop today,” he said to me. Heroin meant so much to Johnny that he was willing to risk losing the thing he loved above all else in order to get high. But here's the catch: when it came time to shoot up, Johnny didn't think twice about sharing what he had with his friends. Indeed, one sees this all the time with addicts — they will surrender everything they have to score one point of heroin, or one rock, or whatever, yet they will, time after time, share that point, or that rock, or whatever, with their friends. The only thing that they have, the thing that they have sacrificed everything to get, this is what they share.

I believe that those of us who are eager to be anything but beggars would argue that applying this standard to our approach to sharing would be completely nonsensical. Capitalism does not teach us to share all that we have, and it certainly does not teach us to share that which we surrender everything else to get. Far from it. Capitalism teaches me to hold desperately to the core of what mine, just as it teaches me that, if I work hard to get something, then I don't have to share it with anybody. In fact, I'll work just as hard to ensure that such a precious thing stays mine.

Thus, capitalism conditions us to think that there is, in fact, little that is virtuous in the form of sharing that I have just described — it would tell us that I simply provided an example of beggars preying on other beggars in order to move deeply into self-destructive addictions. Therefore, my argument that such a destructive act as sharing drugs should be considered virtuous would be discarded as a nonsensical argument. However, although this objection is cloaked in the language of moral/charitable concern (i.e. “drugs are bad, and giving highly addictive drugs to your friends is very bad”), I suspect that, at its root, it is motivated by the fear of being genuinely confronted with a form of sharing that goes far beyond anything we have ever offered.

Thus, I persist in believing that this “nonsensical” form of sharing should challenge the form of sharing embodied in our community of beggars — the Church (not so say that there isn't a great deal of overlap in the two communities of beggars that I am talking about here). Furthermore, that our sharing does not appear to be just as nonsensical leads me to suspect that what is genuinely Christian about our sharing might have been lost.

That Christian sharing should appear nonsensical to those whose ways of living are dictated by capitalism becomes evident when we realise that the sharing (or “charity”) that is praised by capitalism (i.e. the charity that “makes sense” within capitalism) is actually a mode of charity that perpetuates the foundational structures of capitalism. The ways in which Western nations have used “foreign aid” to drive other nations into debt is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but other examples abound: the ways in which Christian social agencies and churches perpetuate the structures of capitalism by accepting charitable donations from major corporations should be considered, as we should also consider the ways in which popular approaches to tithing allow me to give 10% of my earnings to a church/charity and then feel fine about spending the remaining 90% on me. Christian sharing, however, must move beyond such superficial forms of charity in order to offer a genuine alternative to capitalism. And I suspect that such sharing will be labeled “nonsensical” because it will appear to be “impractical,” “wasteful,” or “foolish.”

So what are some of the concrete forms of sharing that should take place within the Christian community if we are to live as an alternative to capitalism? I'll get to that soon (I hope).

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