Monday, October 27, 2008

Just Charity: A Follow-up to some Questions

I've received a few questions and some criticism regarding my previous post on "Just Charity." Admittedly, within the 500 words of a newspaper column, it's difficult to be nuanced. So let me follow up here by responding to two sorts of questions.

Objection 1: Your reading of Acts 5 seems to miss two crucial points: (a) Ananias and Sapphira's sin was lying, not refusal to share their possessions; and (b) the text seems to clearly say that the property "belonged" to them both before and after the sale, and hence it was sort of "voluntary" on their part.

I might say a few things in reply:

First, our artificial chapter divisions are unhelpful here. What we now have as "chapter 4" ends by emphasizing that there "wasn't a needy person among them" because the owners among them were selling what they had in order to share (re-distribute) the resources. So coming off chapter 4, Ananias and Sapphira stand in contrast to Barnabas, who laid everything at the apostles' feet (4:37).

Second, Acts 5:3 seems to indicate that there sin was two-fold: (1) lying AND (2) "keeping back" some for themselves. The deed they "conceived" (5:4) seems to have been their shared plan to hold some back. The act itself was the lie: what they laid at the apostles' feet was not what they were de facto claiming--it also wasn't what was expected (given the patterns established in chapter 4).

Regarding "ownership," it is an interesting claim. After it was sold, it was still "under their control." I don't think this works well with Lockean models of property and ownership. But it does bring to mind the compassionate father's response to the elder brother in Luke 15: "All that is mine is yours" (Luke 15:31). I think it's very easy to be anachronistic and read our post-Lockean conceptions of "private" property and ownership back into a world that pretty much couldn't imagine what "private" means. As part of a community, who share "all things in common," of course they also remains 'owners,' in a sense--stakeholders in the common purse.

Finally, we'd have to again nuance just what "voluntary" means. Did Peter put a gun to their head to get them to give all that they had? No (guns not yet being invented ;-). Were they "coerced" by threats of torture? No. But was it expected of them as an act of gratitude? Yes. Was giving all considered a particularly benevolent "charitable" act, above and beyond the call of duty? No.

Objection 2: Let's say you're right that the early church was committed to a practice of redistribution of wealth and resources as a spiritual discipline--an alternative economy that testifies to the economy of shalom in the coming kingdom, and thus is a foretaste of the eschatological reordering of the economic. Why should anyone think that this translates into a program for the state? Isn't there a huge difference between an ecclesial socialism and a state-based socialism? In fact, shouldn't we be libertarians with respect to the economics of the state even if we might be ecclesial socialists, so to speak?

Again, several things come to mind in reply, on the fly:

Part of me can appreciate how one might come to something like this libertarian conclusion. I'm no advocate of state-based socialism. But on that point, let's be clear about something given the context in which these discussions are happening: Barack Obama is no socialist! Believe me, I'm a Canadian, and nothing close to socialism will ever be policy in this country. (Our conservative party in Canada is still to the left of the Democrats here.) So I feel like the "socialism" talk in the current milieu is a complete red herring.

Anyway, I agree that authentic 'socialism' (to use an ill-fitting word) would have to be (and could only be) ecclesial--a "socialism by grace," since it requires not only rightly ordered systems but also rightly ordered agents who inhabit those systems (I refuse to choose between the two). However, that said, I think we should also be seeking to enact a kind of "spill-over" of redemption in our culture as much as or wherever that is possible. So, for instance, all things considered, even if we think racism can only be effectively undone within communion in Christ, I hope it's obvious that we ought to also work to end lynchings, Jim Crow laws, school segregation, unjust school funding policies that privilege the wealthy, etc. The criteria here is admittedly ad hoc but still critical: we can evaluate what policies and systems look more like the kingdom than others (I'm leaning here on Augustine's City of God and Oliver O'Donovan's Desire of the Nations). And on that ad hoc basis, some policies are much more "kingdom-looking" than others. That would be my way of considering income redistribution that happens through taxation (along with universal healthcare, etc.). We look at the Scriptural hints of what a flourishing society looks like, and that picture becomes a criterion for measuring the relative justice and injustice of policies here-and-now.

(Admittedly, if you're a dispensationalist, you won't have any reason to think that there's any continuity between the now and the not-yet. I'm not going to argue the insufficiency of dispensationalism here; I'll just say it has not been the Catholic faith.)

Finally, I'd be very curious to know whether those who offer such a "baptized" libertarianism would really be willing to sign up for an ecclesial socialism. In my experience, they are also libertarians about the church (which is why many of them are also Protestants). I'd be much more willing to hear this line of critique if I thought the "Christians" offering it were living out economic redistribution within their ecclesial communities. But I don't think that is happening. I think the supposed "theological" arguments for libertarianism are a bit of a ruse--a cover for what, at the end of the day, is a political ideology that is drastically modern, individualist, and selfish.