November 17, 2019

David Bentley Hart on Capitalism

David Bentley Hart on Capitalism

Whatever else capitalism may be, it is first and foremost a system for producing as much private wealth as possible by squandering as much as possible of humanity’s common inheritance of the goods of creation. But Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such.

What Lies Beyond Capitalism?

• • •

At Plough, David Bentley Hart writes as direct and scathing article as you’ll read about his conviction that capitalism is thoroughly incompatible with the way of Christ. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but I think we should take his strong words seriously and have a conversation.

Here, in sum, are the points he makes:

  • Definition: “Capitalism, as many historians define it, is the set of financial conventions that took shape in the age of industrialization and that gradually supplanted the mercantilism of the previous era. As Proudhon defined it in 1861, it is a system in which as a general rule those whose work creates profits neither own the means of production nor enjoy the fruits of their labor.
  • Development:
    • This form of commerce largely destroyed the contractual power of free skilled labor, killed off the artisanal guilds, and introduced instead a mass wage system that reduced labor to a negotiable commodity.
    • “All of this, moreover, necessarily entailed a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class  – purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent labor, subsidiary estates, or small local markets – to capitalist investors who both produce and sell their goods.”
    • And this, in the fullness of time, evolved into a fully realized corporate system…a purely financial market where wealth is created for and enjoyed by those who toil not, neither do they spin, but who instead engage in an incessant circulation of investment and divestment, as a kind of game of chance.”
    • “…capitalism might be said to have achieved its most perfect expression in the rise of the commercial corporation with limited liability, an institution that allows the game to be played in abstraction even from whether the businesses invested in ultimately succeed or fail. (One can profit just as much from the destruction of livelihoods as from their creation.)
  • Description:
    • The corporation is thus morally bound to amorality.”
    • “And this whole system, obviously, not only allows for, but positively depends upon, immense concentrations of private capital and dispositive discretion over its use as unencumbered by regulations as possible.”
    • “It also allows for the exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale.”
    • And, inevitably, it eventuates in a culture of consumerism, because it must cultivate a social habit of consumption extravagantly in excess of mere natural need or even (arguably) natural want. It is not enough to satisfy natural desires; a capitalist culture must ceaselessly seek to fabricate new desires, through appeals to what 1 John calls “the lust of the eyes.”

David Bentley Hart believes that capitalism in this form is unsustainable in the long run. Why? My conviction is based, rather, on a very simple calculus of the disproportion between infinite appetite and finite resources,” he writes. Its material advantages come at the expense of its own material basis. The only answer to its unfeasible appetites must come from beyond, and Bentley Hart finds it in the eschatological Christian hope brought by Christ. This hope is not only a beacon pointing to a new creation, but also a radical judgment on present world-systems.

Christians are…obliged to affirm that this eschatological judgment has indeed already appeared within history, and in a very particular material, social, and political form.

DBH finds confirmation for a radically different perspective on economics and social matters related to material possessions all throughout the Gospels, and I will not list the representative passages he cites. They are numerous and clear. In short, he finds that the early Christians, taking this seriously, were “communists” (not, of course, in the modern sense of state-mandated egalitarianism), but in the sense spoken of in Acts 4:32 — “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

The history of the Christian Church with regard to these matters shows, at best, a spotty grasp of Jesus’ teachings, seeking to practice a different way of life primarily in isolated, monastic, or “purist” movements. DBH says this is all good and fine as far as it goes, but the critique such movements offer to the world around them is easily brushed off. These good people are seen as having a special vocation, a prophetic role, but they do not provide any kind of a template for “ordinary” people or societies to follow.

Therein lies the gravest danger, because the full koinonia of the Body of Christ is not an option to be set alongside other equally plausible alternatives. It is not a private ethos or an elective affinity. It is a call not to withdrawal, but to revolution. It truly enters history as a final judgment that has nevertheless already been passed; it is inseparable from the extra-ordinary claim that Jesus is Lord over all things, that in the form of life he bequeathed to his followers the light of the kingdom has truly broken in upon this world, not as something that emerges over the course of a long historical development, but as an invasion. The verdict has already been handed down. The final word has already been spoken. In Christ, the judgment has come. Christians are those, then, who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.

That, of course, raises a host of pragmatic questions about how Christians are to actually live in the world and how they are to plant seeds that will bring about organic, systematic change in world systems that are by nature amoral and focused fully on the bottom line.

Before all else, we must pursue a vision of the common good (by whatever charitable means we can) that presumes that the basis of law and justice is not the inviolable right to private property, but rather the more original truth taught by men such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom: that the goods of creation belong equally to all, and that immense private wealth is theft – bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute.

With this as the Christian, the eschatological bottom line, perhaps we can begin to develop more Jesus-shaped economic and material lives and communities.

Comments

  1. We can agree that God is more interested in the poor than we (even Christians) are most of the time.

    But there are far less poor people now – and in the ‘capitalist’ countries – than there has ever been in the whole of history. And world poverty has diminished dramatically since 2000, mostly thanks to rich people (us) buying stuff from poor people, not through charity.

    The finite resources argument is based on ‘old world’ thinking – that any value created is necessarily made of ‘stuff’. If you’ve ever bought an App, or sent an e-card, you have participated in non-resource-using value creation.

    Of course there are corrupt and greedy people in the ‘pure financial markets’, but even seemingly abstract things like crop futures have real-life utility – a farmer knows in advance they will be able to get a guaranteed price for their harvest, and someone else takes the risk (or reward) of any price fluctuations.

    I don’t see any way of working *theoretically* from a community of people who know and love each other and decide to live with everything in common (e.g. the Bruderhof) to a country-sized political and economical system which is not imposed through force. I don’t think there’s anything *but* example – and transformed hearts – that can work to bring about change.

    So am I saying we should *do* nothing? No. But talking about what everyone else should be doing is as easy as it is ineffectual.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > And world poverty has diminished dramatically since 2000

      Agree. However:

      – There is no guarantee the current system will continue that trendline, and ample evidence to doubt that it will.
      – One’s “zoom” matters. From a 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, and 500 foot view this statistics can look very different than it sounds.

      > The finite resources argument is based on ‘old world’ thinking

      And this I believe is crazy talk. The reality is, as seem expressed through Capitalism’s various bubbles and crashes, is that the App has no actual value.

      > I don’t see any way of working *theoretically* from a community of people

      Yet different societies with similar Gross Domestic Product achieve very different outcomes in terms of economic mobility, life span, health, and equity. Hmmmm…

      > I don’t think there’s anything *but* example – and transformed hearts –
      > that can work to bring about change.

      So, those other societies have better heart’s than Americans?

  2. Iain Lovejoy says

    I’ve read the whole article, and it seems to me that it makes the same error that the US in particular and a lot of people elsewhere in the world do to in taking “capitalism” as being a social or ideological system rather than what it actually is in essence, which is an economic tool. Its only point is to convert available resources (whether physical resources, land or people) into saleable commodities – it does this spectacularly well, but alone does nothing else at all. It will use up all the resources it is permitted to operate on because that’s its job.
    The question for societies is what resources capitalism will be allowed to consume, what protections will be put in place to protect those resources (including environmental protections and protection for human “resources” with labour laws, minimum wages, health and safety protection etc) and what price will be extracted from capitalism (in the form of taxation etc) to fund other social goods.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > The question for societies is what resources capitalism will be allowed to consume,
      > what protections will be put in place to protect those resources

      This.

      The essence of Capitalism is Capital.

      Capitalism is that I have state recognized documentation that I own my house. Financial institutions, recognizing those documents due to the state’s police power, recognize my Capital (EQUITY!), and I am allowed to use that equity to do things like build another building – which I just did. That is the beginning and end of Capitalism.

      And I say that as a card carrying Socialist.

      The critique here is not of Capitalism but of lassie-fair government and Corporatism. Supporting either ideology is immoral.

      • “The critique here is not of Capitalism but of lassie-fair government and Corporatism. Supporting either ideology is immoral.”

        Yes, THIS

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “the same error that the US in particular and a lot of people elsewhere in the world do to in taking “capitalism” as being a social or ideological system rather than what it actually is in essence, which is an economic tool. ”

      I so disagree with this! Yes, capitalism is an economic took, but it is one that implies the system containing it, especially pertaining to control of the means of production.

      • It’s certainly an ideological system to many of its defenders.

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        “capitalism is an economic tool, but it is one that implies the system containing it, especially pertaining to control of the means of production.”
        I think this is where the worst excesses of capitalism come from. Free market ideologues insist that the system containing a capitalist is obliged to conform itself to the market that is supposed to be serving it. Capitalists own factories because a society chooses to permit them to do so. Capitalist “ideology” seeks to turn the law and society within which capitalism operates into a commodity for the market to consume. This is not only not an inherent feature of a society in which the free market is permitted to operate (only the US and a few partial mimics like us in the UK tend to do this). This is unnecessary for a functioning free market (European style social democracy is mentioned elsethread) highly destructive of people and the planet when restricting their use is branded “anticapitalist” (a meaningless phrase) and ultimately self-defeating because capitalism relies on the existence of laws, government, a civic society, a functioning environment and a healthy, educated and cooperative workforce to function, all of which cease to function if commidified by capitalism and consumed.
        (The ownership of the means of production by their than the individual workers is a requirement for and a necessary consequence of factories and mass production, not specifically capitalism, because one factory houses many workers and must be run as a unitary enterprise independently of the wishes of any individual worket: state owned businesses, for example are owned and run by the state, and run by government appointees, not controlled by workers. The issue is how they are run and for whose benefit, and who decides and how how the available means of production are to be applied, and how workers participation in the economy is to be organised, controlled and protected. If we tried to revert to individual self employed craftsmen manufacturing with personally owned hand tools in their own homes, and subsistence peasant farmers each growing their own small plot of land, we’d all starve to death.)

  3. Christians are those, then, who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.

    I will hazard a reply to this idea for Christians and non-Christians who are not in agreement with Hart (though I would say I myself am largely in agreement with him): Very well then, if that’s what you believe, imitate that koinonia community and order as it is found in the Book of Acts, or other models, if you like. You are free to establish your own communities on such models, even more free to do so than those early Christians were, if you can find enough like-minded people to do so. But you have no right to force your vision on others or on us, for instance by using the power of the state and taxation to so, if they or we as Christians and non-Christians do not agree with it, anymore than the early Christian communities you refer to had. And in fact, those early communities you refer to did not try to force their vision on others by use of the power of the state to do so, but to the degree that you are trying to do exactly that you are not imitating them but using their model as pretext to force others to follow your vision.

    • Which is why the discussion needs to take place outside the context of theology per se. The problems of capitalism are becoming obvious to everyone, not just the church, and the solutions are a matter of public good and must be debated and implemented as such. Such would be my reply to a secular capitalist.

      To the evangelical capitalists, I would reply that they have, for generations, been betrayed and misled from the pulpits and the Christian media, that they have been sold a bill of goods (pun intended), and it is long past time for a more biblical perspective to be heard.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > You are free to establish your own communities on such models

      How is one so free?

      If you try you will discover that it is illegal, or more accurately “impermissible”, most everywhere. Principally because you, as a physical being, have to exist somewhere physically, and are thus subject to Zoning and other land-use regulations. Regulations, not laws; the PTBs will be be eager to point out the meaningless distinction.

      How much money does your new collective have for legal fees?

      Depending on where you live either 6 or 8 unrelated names on an address will drop you promptly into the land-use swamp.

      And don’t kid yourself for a second that this is not intentionally established to prevent just such communities.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Actually, these are solved problems. Look at the Hutterites. But this only works in large part because they purposely place themselves in the far end of beyond, where zoning and the like aren’t really issues. They also have put careful thought into the legal aspects. I assume this involved significant legal costs, but it too is a solved problem rather than an ongoing expense.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Actually, these are solved problems.

          Nope.

          > place themselves in the far end of beyond

          Yes, and where access to economic opportunity is essentially nil unless you have the network to make it yourself. This is an extreme limitation.

          They’ve often also been in place for a l-o-n-g time, and got their land – relatively speaking – very inexpensively.

          PTB’s will often cite existing communities as ‘proof’ that there aren’t insurmountable barriers to communities of alternative economic models. It doesn’t hold water as an argument. Communities which predate modern regulations, or formed elsewhere and migrated en masse, aren’t equivalent even to the median size of a modern protestant church attempting to do so in-place.

          I’ve watched repeated attempts at communal housing or other organizing get beaten down with the regulation stick.

          Telling people to get a time machine and to organize prior to the 1971 Enabling Act, or whatever, isn’t a solve.

          • I see. So such a community was indeed more feasible in Caesar’s Roman Empire than in modern America.

  4. That, of course, raises a host of pragmatic questions about how Christians are to actually live in the world and how they are to plant seeds that will bring about organic, systematic change in world systems that are by nature amoral and focused fully on the bottom line.

    Yes, it’s hard to see how to do this without engaging in culture war, not the one that is being waged by “conservative” Christian in the U.S right now, but culture war nonetheless. This is a religious vision, born out of a specific and even sectarian religious analysis and orientation, and there will be many Christians and non-Christians who will disagree with the religiously centered critique that the systems in question “are by nature amoral and focused fully on the bottom line.”

    • Which is why we need both a more Jesus-centered way of thinking, and more discussion of the rotten fruits of late-stage capitalism. If 9 people are suffering, the system is bad, even if you are the one doing well by it.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > If 9 people are suffering, the system is bad, even if you are the one doing well by it.

        +1,000

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        If 9 people are suffering, the system is bad, even if you are the one doing well by it.

        But “the one doing well by it” is usually the one in the position of Power, the only one with enough clout to change the system. (This was one of the tropes of Eighties SF Cyberpunk Dystopia.)

        “I Got Mine,
        I Got Mine,
        I DON”T WANT A THING TO CHANGE
        NOW THAT I GOT MINE!”
        — Glenn Frey

  5. Iain Lovejoy says

    I seem to have a comment stuck in the system somewhere?

  6. I think DBH accurately diagnoses the problem, however, I see no societal solution apart from government.

    • Ditto. I see no specifically religious solution, involving intentional religious communities established on a wide scale basis, that would work. I think of the Hutterites, who own all things in common, but the result is the leaders, who control the coffers, have everyone else under their thumb. When someone decides to leave, for good or bad reasons, they don’t even own the clothes on their own backs. There have been plenty of horror stories about the abuse by leaders against those who eventually escaped from Hutterite communities.

      • Where power is concentrated, sociopaths will seek it out and exploit it. Sadly, the church is no more immune to this dilemma than the world is.

      • That same kind of abuse is perpetuated in every communist scenario. The leaders get wealthy and live free, while the regular people are kept in poverty and are controlled.

        • Which is why a mixed system (separate and competing power centers) is the least of the evils. As long as neither the government nor the corporations hold all the cards, there is some hope for small businesses and workers to have some breathing space.

          • Seems like the Scandinavian countries have best employed a “mixed system” of gov/business/economics.

            • Adam Tauno Williams says

              Agree

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              But the Scandinavian countries are smaller, with mostly-homogenous populations and cultures. Don’t know how they’d scale up to a superpower in multi-culti chaos.

            • I am very impressed with the humanity of the Scandinavian models of ‘socialism’ in that families and children are VALUED . . . . . that principle of supporting new parents with paid leave time is one sign of a nation that is SERIOUS about ‘welcoming new life’.

              In our own country, I cannot reconcile that those who are passionate about terminating Roe v. Wade are also equally against giving paid leave to new mothers as a national priority. I don’t understand this paradox. At both ends, the ‘baby’ doesn’t seem to be the focus . . . . . it seems to be more a matter of controlling women in a most mean-spirited way that doesn’t consider practical circumstances or recognize that a newborn and mother need ‘time’ together for the initial bonding and lactation.

              I think we are the ONLY country that has this mean-spirited view of not having a goal of wanting to welcome new life by offering paid leave to new parents. All other civilized countries have some program to assist a new parent. Go figure.

              Also in Scandinavian countries, the lunch school meals for children are very nutritious, real meals with balanced ingredients. And free. Paid for through taxes, that is, but people approve of this expenditure for the children. It’s their value system. Children are wanted.

              I can only imagine our country being that way, but the rhetoric that praises ‘tax cuts for the rich and the corporations’ also has elements in it of contempt for any kind of breaks for our middle class/working class people, especially single mothers . . . . and the children suffer.

              • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                I suspect a lot of this is an artifact of the Cold War and its trigger the First Russian Revolution. The USA ended up one of the Big Two Superpowers in this two-sided Zero-Sum rivalry and could not be seen to have anything to do with “Socialism”(of which the USSR’s system was the Lunatic Fringe). Instead, we put “In God We Trust” on our money and firewalled Capitalism in contrast.

                (Alternate History Hub on YouTube traces it back an additional few years to the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912.)

          • Mixed system is the best we have to avail ourselves of.

            • But I would be very fearful of a system that incorporated libertarian gov’t together with laissez-faire capitalism in business . . . .

              talk about chaos

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I see no societal solution apart from government

      There isn’t one.

  7. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it is much better than a government enforced communism. The kind of communism found in the quote from Acts was voluntary, and communism can only work if it is voluntary. No one forced those first Christians to share everything, they just did so out of love. They were free to keep their property. This is seen in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Peter says to them in 5:4″ While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:4 ESV). Their sin wasn’t keeping some of the proceeds. It was their field and they were free to do with it what they wanted. Their sin was pretending to be more generous than they really were.

    Of course problems also developed within the church with the communism. Soon various groups were being overlooked in the distribution of the goods (Acts 6:1), and later on there were evidently people willing to take advantage of the charity of the church and not work (2 Thess 3:6-12).

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it is much better than a government enforced communism.

      Capitalism is not a system of government, it is a [partial] economic model.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it is much better than a government enforced communism.”

      I don’t disagree, but I do disagree with the implication that these are the only two possibilities.

    • Think Pilgrims… communism didn’t work for them either….

      • oh my goodness, the boardrooms of the great corporations and financial institutions are loaded with those whose forebears came over on the Mayflower . . . . the names! famous scions of the Pilgrim families still sit at the tables of power in our country, yes!

        compare the names of the Mayflower passengers to the names of board members of the great national seats of business and finance . . . . the connection is there in the old family names still

        those ‘pilgrims’ were most definitely money-makers: most certainly not averse to capitalist ways, no

  8. The only way to change hearts and minds is one at a time. Live your life as best you can according to Jesus’ example, loving others as yourself and serving selflessly.
    My allegiance is to Jesus, not to the USA, the Democrats, the Republicans, PCUSA or any other group or organization. Focusing on how to change them distracts us from living in the Kindgom.

  9. America historically has never been a “pure” system of true believers welded to any one system in government, economics and even cultural issue. I believe the strength of America has been foundational western civilization/economic beliefs that was made workable by common sense application. What are the protesters in Communist China Hong Kong longing for, what flags are they holding up as symbols of what they want , the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes. Capitalism in the USA has run into a patch where individual and corporate greed is becoming a problem. T. Roosevelt trust busting and all the legislation that made capitalism workable is now being ignored . Returning to our roots based on American values that were understood by the majority of Americans is a workable goal For that to happen the apathic American public will have to become knowledgeable and involved in their politics and society as in days past I am doubtful that will happen. Mr. Hart is a intelligent person with a perspective that would work if everyone were as intellectual, moral based and let their faith influence their actions. Never has there been a better time to live in the world as today, no major conflicts, no mass starvation, no plagues etc. yet it is not enough. I know only in America would I be where I am. Tony Blair once said , that you can judge a country by the number of people who want to come to it and the number of people who want to leave it. What country is that?. Democratic Socialism might work in a commune small setting but not in a land of 330 million . America to the world is like the Yankees in baseball, it is needed to make the system work. When Rome fell the world did not evolve into the bright ages.

  10. David Cornwell says

    I read this article several days ago and have been thinking about it since. I agree with Hart’s critique of capitalism. What I have problems with is an answer. I doubt that we will do much politically to change our economic system. It is an entrenched part of our way of life.

    Therefore it will be up to us as Christian communities and individuals to somehow witness to the teachings of Jesus even as Capitalism continues to consume the resources of the planet. This will seem small and insignificant. But this is how the Kingdom of God comes into reality– small seemingly. The witness of the few, the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, hope for the hopeless, care of the refugee… Christian experiments, communities, cooperatives, sharing… All these seem tiny and without much hope for generating change. But what else can we do? Maybe something, but at this point, I’m not sure.

    • This is pretty much the raison d’etre of Damaris’ blog.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I doubt that we will do much politically to change our economic system.
      > It is an entrenched part of our way of life.

      There are many many layers to us “politically”. Too often people imagine “politically” as Washington DC.

      There is so much that can be done, and is being done, on a county, township, and municipal level. We should not neglect these.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I wish I had more hope it would be the “Christian” communities finding a path from here.

      I really can’t see than happening.

      Maybe somewhere other than North America.

  11. David Cornwell says

    I also believe that Hart is correct as to how we seek the truth. Do we look to our Founding Fathers, the Supreme Court, the Constitution or other documents of law and practice or do we look back to our ancient teachers…?

    “the basis of law and justice is not the inviolable right to private property, but rather the more original truth taught by men such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom: that the goods of creation belong equally to all, and that immense private wealth is theft – bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute.”

    • “the goods of creation belong equally to all, and that immense private wealth is theft – bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute.”

      The explosion of wealth and cheap energy provided by fossil fuels helped to mask and soothe the harshness of that truth. But now that the climate change chickens are coming home to roost, that unpleasant truth is starting to stare us all in the face – and there are many who will not be able to bear its gaze.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And they will call upon Trump to Save Them.

        Because American Christianity and Capitalism has become One and the Same; Christian Trumpism being the agent of the final merger.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          P.S. Though I think American Christianity married Capitalism back during the Cold War (around the time we put “In God We Trust” on our money to further differentiate ourselves from the USSR), the two didn’t become One and the Same until 2016.

          If so, this is another artifact of the Cold War and before that, reaction to the First Russian Revolution. Since the USA ended up one of the Big Two in the Cold War, our reaction was what stuck.

          • The bankrolling of evangelicalism by large business concerns apparently started much earlier, even back in the 30s or possibly before.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              The ’30s would mean the Great Depression, when both misery and the American Communist Party was at its peak. Maybe “large business concerns” were concerned with pushing an acceptable “Opiate of the Masses” to keep themselves from being overthrown by a revolution.

              And the rivalry of the Cold War 15-20 years later just ramped everything up further.

              I’ve heard it said that the reason the French Revolution never spread to Britain was “Cheap Gin and lots of it”.

  12. Richard Hershberger says

    Early Christianity and communism: I frequently cite Acts 2:44. I am constantly struck by the bad responses to it. “That’s not communism!” I have often been told. Actually, it is the dictionary definition of communism nearly verbatim. “Yes, it was communism, but it was voluntary.” This is a favorite. It has been cited at least once in these comments today. Sure, of course it was. So is membership in your church. I will hazard a guess that your church may from time to time have discussions of how to organize, with pastors and deacons and elders. These discussions look back to the early church as described in Acts, holding that as the ideal we should aspire to emulate. So why isn’t your church, with its completely voluntary membership, aspiring to communism?

    My serious response to Acts 2:44 is that I think the early church held to this ideal until about Thursday a week and a half after Pentecost. We are fallen humanity. Our sinful nature is such that we are too selfish to allow communism to work outside of a very limited collection of circumstances. Monastic communities sometimes, though not always, manage it. The Hutterites mostly also do, though there is an ugly underbelly to be found if you look. Just because something is found in the Bible does not mean it is a good model for the modern Godly life.

    Discernment is necessary in this, and many other passages. So why do I frequently cite Acts 2:44? In response to culture war proof texts. You proof text me: I proof text you back. Perhaps proof texts are not the best way to understand scripture?

    • As a matter of interpretation regarding the Book of Acts, this verse is part of one of several “summary statements” that the author uses throughout the narrative. As summary statements, they are likely more than mere descriptions of what the early church was doing. Beyond that, it is my opinion and that of other commentators that they serve as “snapshots” of the church in its ideal form as the first community to receive the filling of the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of the ascended Christ.

      I agree with you, Richard, that this state probably did not last long, but from the author’s perspective, this is what the church is supposed to look like.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Those statements have their meaning and intent – but they are also too vague to be instructive in any concrete way.

        • “…they are also too vague to be instructive in any concrete way.”

          Except that there is precedent in the First Testament for the kind of generous sharing in the community that is portrayed here in Acts. “No needy person among them” may not specifically identify procedures and processes, but it does set a goal. And the author is likely intending to be saying that this new community was fulfilling the intent of Israel’s laws, which give many specific examples of how the social safety net could work in the land. Not to say that we should slavishly imitate or impose such laws, but we may find wisdom in them for adapting in our own time and place. The one thing that is clear, and which DBH has right, is that the OT taught that the land belonged to God and that the entire community was to benefit from its resources. Perhaps the author of Acts is saying the early church was giving us a foretaste of that, and perhaps it also lies behind much of Jesus’ economic teaching.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            I am totally OK with this reading. It is pretty much the opposite of a literal reading of the text, which I also am totally OK with. But I hereby put on notice that anyone who uses the “literal” or “plain” meaning of any given proof text to support their hobby horse, and then uses this argument to handwave away this section of scripture, is subject to my openly mocking them.

            • Richard, I would argue that it is a literal (better, plain) reading of the text in the sense that it is reading the text in the context of the entire book and noticing the fact that Luke or the author uses summary statements as a part of his way of writing. And further, I would argue that the author of Luke-Acts is especially sensitive to economic issues and that this sensitivity grows out of an appreciation for the prophetic message of the First Testament. That is a pretty standard understanding of the vision of Luke-Acts.

              • Mary’s Magnificat is another prime example.

                • THIS, yes! . . . the most revolutionary declaration ever spoken!

                  https://youtu.be/trhxP6VAOuc

                  ‘let the fires of His justice burn!’

                  No wonder the ‘christian’; fundamentalist-trumpists put Mary down.
                  She was a prophet for all seasons.

                  for them what doesn’t know it, Mary’s Canticle in in sacred Scripture in the Holy Gospels of Our Lord . . . . take a look 🙂

  13. Judging from his theological writings DBH is a full blown Ivory Tower intellectual not much concerned with mundane applications. Any solution that requires everybody to love Jesus is a non-starter. Capitalist inequality and inefficiency (bust and boom) are features not bugs. The best solution in my opinion is that of Western Europe, what they call Social Democracy. Not Socialism; the vast majority of their economies remain in private hands (Finland and Sweden have plenty of millionaires) but well regulated Capitalism with a strong social safety net. It’s useful to remember that all our major corporations function and even thrive in that environment so all their whining about the evils of regulation over here seem rather disingenuous.

    There is nothing whatsoever wrong in enjoying the rewards of success but no healthy flourishing society counts wealth accumulation as it’s most important value.

    • “…well regulated Capitalism with a strong social safety net.”

      I too think this is more ideal. Small government conservatives will argue that this places too much power and requires too much administrative bloat in the government, with the high taxation and inevitable corruption and waste this requires.

      I also think this is a problem. But one of the weaknesses I see in this kind of conservative/libertarian thought is that they tend to only fear government power, when there are other large, powerful entities our capitalist economic system has generated that we should fear and seek to limit also. And if not government, then who will do that?

      • “conservative/libertarian thought… tend(s) to only fear government power, when there are other large, powerful entities our capitalist economic system has generated that we should fear and seek to limit also. And if not government, then who will do that?”

        Bin-go. Much of conservative/libertarian thought is still stuck in the past, when Big Government (especially Big Government made manifest in the Soviet bloc) was The Enemy. Well, that enemy imploded, and now we have other problems. Many of the same folks who freak out at the hint that the government might be collecting personal data, will explicitly hand over their data to social media and big corporations without batting an eye. The dichotomy is telling.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Yep.

    • David Cornwell says

      The problem is this: some of the most powerful corporations and economic interests resist any regulation as a burden, no matter how small or how incremental. The energy and pharmaceutical industries are two examples. They resist everything from environmental regulations, laws concerning new exploration, and fair labeling and pricing. Plus they do everything possible to maximize executive compensation through whatever possible means. And they place the “socialism” label on any attempt to regulate. This kind of power and greed is an ingrown and malignant evil inherent in the capitalist system. I’m for stringent regulation also–but good luck with it. We attempted some common-sense regulation of the financial and banking industries after 2008. Most of them have been rolled back already or circumvented within the system. It’s like cancer within the bloodstream– hard to detect until its too late; hard to cure once recognized.

  14. Stephen.CM, If we are not on the same page , at least we are in the same chapter. The Nordic Economy a lot of people reference works in a small , homogenous, same religious background and a static population. Time will tell how the Nordic economy holds up due to immigration and a change in culture.

    America can handle social programs if they are supported properly and people have faith in them, Medicare and Social Security are the two best examples. As with every aspect of society everything is tied to peoples perception, involvement and conviction that the social program is needed. Public education is losing the battle because of lack of performance and lack of support for its need. Democracy cannot succeed with out public education and due to cultural/society issues it is becoming very hard for a public school system to perform well.

    So the devil is in the details. Again, if the voting citizens really demanded solutions not political fights based on talking points we could get private sector health care affordable , coupled with a safety net for the uninsurable based on conditions beyond their control. Extremes on any side of the issue hinder the real workable comprises that are needed.
    Still , I know only in American, could I be sitting where I am, blessed by birth to be born in USA and thus given opportunities due to the work of those who came before me.

    • Well what we should desire is not perfection but workability. The states of Western Europe are far from perfect but they have achieved workability. Of course not every one of their solutions will be practical but then not all of their solutions are identical. What we’ve lost is the concept of the social contract which consists of both rights and obligations.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        What I understand is during the 1960s we came close to having a workable Universal Health Care, but everything broke down in Congress over Not Being Perfect.

    • David Cornwell says

      Some of the solutions would be possible and affordable if military spending were under control. Few of us really have any idea as to its extent and how many trillions are spent. Much of it is under wraps as to public view. Candidates for office barely ask questions about this spending. Congressional committees do very little to control it and most congresspeople like it because it probably benefits their district directly. It’s a popular kind of spending because we have developed a sacrosanct attitude toward all things military.

      As to better regulation: I think most Americans would support better controls and regulations for the financial industry and many other kinds of capitalism. Donald Trump ran partly on “draining the swamp” and railed against Wall Street. Of course, he did just the opposite when he took office.

      The problem with regulation is Congress and most of them end up being in the pocket of Capitalism in one way or the other.

      • Stephen/David—– One issue I think we all agree on is what David alludes to, Congress, both parties, lobbyist, special interest groups and big money dark money is the establishment aka the status quo. It is powerful as evident by what happened the past several years. However, the voters in this country still have the power to change everything every 2, 4 and 6 years. There are plenty of workable solutions for all of our problems, not popular solutions but workable but the establishment will get the voters to keep the eternal debate and non solution government in place. Issues are made more complex than they need to be and on it goes
        Here is how simple health care can be fixed if we really wanted it to be

        1. Those born or who acquire a serious medical condition that makes them uninsurable are covered by Medicare, just to call it something. Individuals will pay what they can based on income but all will have coverage. No one will be denied coverage for medical conditions .

        2. Cafeteria plans will be available for single adults and families similar to those in civil service now. Everyone will pay from low wage earner to the 1 percent based on a percentage that would be based on total income .

        3. It will be elective and you can opt out or not take advantage of . However if you end up needing medical care in emergency room , you will be billed like IRS payment due. Payroll can be garnished, your house and belongings impounded, there will be payment required if you decline coverage and need it . Strictly enforced.

        4. Elective care you get on your own.

        5. No governmental control of medical care just insuring all have insurance .

        Majority of voters would say yes to this.. getting rid of VA system and have VA resources go into general public market with veterans, medically disabled treated free for service related issues.

        Just a few basics but it can be done if we really , serious about it without getting into the “politics” of it.

        If u smoke , do drugs, have risky health lifestyle you will be surcharged like you are for life insurance. everyone now is receiving health care. The reality now is that one way or another everyone has access to health care, it is just inconvenient and slow for many who use emergency rooms and public health. Not about health care but just an example where it is made complex by the “establishment” .

  15. I agree with a lot of the above comments in that I agree with DBH’s points for the most part but do not see a ready solution.

    However, what I do see is ways that believers both individually and as a community could mitigate the damage of capitalism. This would include support for things that are more collective and shared in nature. Labor unions would be one of them. Not-for-profit services and shared business groups would be another. Business policies that don’t oppress and that provide living wages or share profits yet another.

    But the reality is that just about anything communal or shared in nature doesn’t get much attention, let alone traction, in church today. And the fact that most of these ideas would place one in the “liberal” box ideologically (whether true or not) makes them a nonstarter in evangelicalism. If the church took the issue seriously, it could make a decent impact, but the reality now, and the great irony, is that the culture war has turned much of the church into an obedient and unquestioning follower of the dominant economic model.

  16. There is a natural order to this world and those who try to up end it do not fare well…