The Earliest Christians Were Not Proto-Socialists

Acts 4 was not a people's republic with some holy water added

Acts 4:32-35 speaks of the spiritual and temporal unity of the early Christian Church, exemplified in the common holding of property. The text no doubt makes visions of socialist sugar plums dance in some “social justice-plus” types’ heads. I hate to wake them up from their dreams. The Church in Jerusalem was not a people’s republic. Acts 4 should not be read as a proto-socialist community.

Why? Because to reduce “socialism” to common property ownership is an extremely simplistic and impoverished way of looking at things. We grossly misread Acts 4 if we read it with certain modern assumptions in our minds — and ridding ourselves of those assumptions is a prerequisite to reading Acts 4.

First of all, what bound the Jerusalem community together in “one heart and one mind” was the primacy of the spiritual: their faith in Jesus Christ. Because they confessed Jesus as Lord and God, crucified and risen, everything else flowed from those convictions. They started with a spiritual unity that flowed downward. It was unity in a Person — Jesus Christ, with whom they claimed relationship — not an idea. They were not of “one heart and mind” in having “everything in common” but in having everything in Christ. Their unifying principle was a Person, not an abstraction.

There is nothing in socialism to match that.

Furthermore, socialism in all its contemporary forms has been wedded to a materialist worldview, a focus on the temporal and material. That was not the Weltanschauung of the early Christian community. Their “indifference” to material goods was because they saw them as tools towards a spiritual, post-temporal, i.e., eternal Personal relationship with Christ. Again, there is nothing like that in socialist theory.

In fact, the removal of the vertical axis — the relationship with the Transcendent or, as the socialists deride it, the “opium of the people” — necessarily results in overemphasizing the horizontal axis or the Immanent. But immanent goods, in contrast to transcendent ones, diminish through division: love is not reduced if shared by more people, but a pizza is. And without the horizon of the transcendent, immanent goods become even more precious. Considering their limits and the fact that one only lives once — whether with the ideological conviction that there is nothing beyond the grave or the more modern fashionable conceit of feigning agnosticism about that question — why do you expect that people will surrender their one and only chance to “get a piece of the action”?

Idealized faith in ideologies is not borne out in history; wherever such experiments have been tried, they’ve usually ended in some animals being more equal than others. To sustain faith in an ideal requires a bigger, broader horizon, one that socialism either denies or won’t take a position on.

The early Christians could do that because they were sustained by a principle inaccessible to a mere human ideology like socialism: God’s grace, i.e., His Love. Only with God’s grace can a man go out of himself, overcome the disordered, sinful, and selfish inclinations of his fallen nature, and put the good of the other always, everywhere, and consistently before his own. That benevolentia that is animated by charity is not present in socialism because socialism does not come with redemptive powers and, therefore, is incapable of loving the neighbor as one’s self.

Indeed, the practical incarnations of socialism were never built on charity or even pan-human solidarity. They and their “social democratic” Western variants always advocated — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — a class antagonism, stoking one group against another (e.g., “the workers” versus “the owners of the means of production,” “the richest one percent tax beneficiaries” versus “the rest of us,” etc.). Socialists never explain how the socio-economic class conflict that is supposed to get them into power — the pitting of man against man — should suddenly transform by mere human means into the purest of pan-human charity. The truth is: that transformation would require a divine miracle. Since socialists didn’t expect that miracle and usually in fact denied miracles, the only means available historically to effect that transformation was jailing and/or killing those who stood in its way.

Western capitalists should not go away thinking they can escape critique. The Christians of Acts 4, impelled by divine grace, forgot about themselves in order to put others’ needs first. That “forgetfulness of self” is essential to charity, but it doesn’t fit into the capitalist model, a model that either in principle ignores anything beyond the temporal economic or pronounces it beyond its possible interest. That global capitalist model wants to categorize everyone as simply potential, individualized consumers. Such a model is not conducive to self-sacrifice or long-term institutions, including natural institutions like the family, and there is no shortage of today’s woke corporations that feign agnosticism about defense of the natural family. But, again, the operative axiology of such visions is not a “forgetfulness of self for the good of the other” but, rather, a hyper-focus on self.

To imagine the Christians of Acts 4 saw themselves in those terms is ridiculous. If their common goods were distributed according to “need,” one can expect that their needs were modest and self-effacing — precisely the opposite of the modern, individualized consumer whose needs are never satiated. That this quest, even sometimes envy for tangible material goods whose appeal to us is more immediate than spiritual ones (what speaks more directly to most people, the whiff of hot pizza or burning frankincense?) was clear even in the first Christian generation; it wasn’t too long that Greek widows were complaining Jewish widows’ “needs” were being better met, leading to the institution of the diaconate.

In different historical circumstances, the “common-hold” property model of the earliest Christian Church has instead been replaced by a recognition of the human right to and need of private property. It’s not that the Church betrayed the Bible with Rerum Novarum. It’s that the underlying spiritual principles essential to the functioning of the model community found in Acts 4 are not present on the scale and in the depth necessary in the world we live in. Perhaps some religious orders, joined in “one heart and mind” as the earliest Christians were, make a go of it. But to imagine it as a model for humanity, especially a humanity that celebrates its contradictory “diversities” of values, and bereft of the redemptive principle of supernatural charity to animate it, requires rather leaving such sleepers to their fantasyland dreams.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

From The Narthex

Suffering with Christ

In the late 1940s, when I was a kid living in predominantly Irish and Italian…

Confusion or Obfuscation?

Endless print and online controversy can be a bit much. News from inside the Vatican,…

The Next Reformation?

Historical caricatures to the contrary, Martin Luther did not, at least initially, intend for the…