Giving it away

Small groups at my church are looking at Acts 2:43-47 over the course of four weeks: 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage, it seems to me, holds out a picture of the early church in Jerusalem as the ideal of how we should live as Christians, and indeed the themes for these four weeks are along those lines.

However, it gives me a problem; I do not hold my property or income in common with others (well, apart from my wife and, before they left home, my children). I will grant that the way the passage is being presented, it is not arguing that we should actually be forming a communist group, but that is the way it reads if you take it reasonably literally, and I do not see any reason not to take it literally.

In particular, I note that shortly after this passage is the tale of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11), in which Ananias sells a plot of land, but gives only part of the proceeds, with his wife’s knowledge, to the community; both of them are struck dead when confronted by Peter. Now, the immediate response when I raised this argument with a group member who is considerably more conservative and literalistic than I am myself was that the fault of Ananias and Saphira was lying to the community and representing that they had paid in the whole of the proceeds (which is certainly what Peter reproaches them with, but is not apparent from the account of what they actually did), and that we should not take either passage as advocating communistic living, but only considerable generosity.

I could make the same argument myself, and I have, over many years, but it doesn’t seem to me to be more than an excuse for not living fully into the Christian life. Granted, I have a great sympathy with Maya Angelou’s celebrated comment “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” This is a place where I fall down, and am likely to keep falling down.

It seems to me entirely in line with Jesus’ teaching as we know it: the story of the rich young man which appears in all the synoptic gospels ends in him going away saddened because he is not going to sell all he possesses and give the proceeds to the poor.

That said, I don’t think my church, or any other church I know of, is actually going to be doing this (and not just the person who downplayed my argument). Indeed, aside from a few notable individuals such as St. Francis, it doesn’t seem to have been the norm except in the very early church – and I strongly suspect the reason is that it isn’t actually viable. After all, we find in Romans 15:25-28 that Paul is taking a subscription to the Jerusalem church, and I can’t help thinking this might be because they ran out of money…

I’ve no taste for being the only person around doing this, quite apart from the fact that as things are, it would land me too on the list of those asking for charity (or, at least, State support as due to my health I couldn’t now expect to be able to support myself by my own labour), nor for being one of a small number who do it, landing them communally in the same position. I do wonder, however, how much that is real pragmatism and how much a frantic wiggling to avoid the consequences of really following Jesus.

Could a communitarian ethos work in a wider sense, I wonder? Just to push the pragmatic view a bit more, however, I can’t find an example of a completely communitarian society of substantial size anywhere. The countries where communism has been tried are object examples of failure (though, to be fair, none of them has actually achieved a truly communitarian society – the vast majority of them look like something between dictatorships and oligarchies). Note that when I say “failure” there, I am not talking of measures of success such as gross national product, national or individual wealth or income; the failures have been in not providing a free society and in not producing a system in which everyone is provided for “according to their needs” and is reasonably content.

I do know of a reasonably substantial number of small groups which have seemed to operate the communitarian principle with some success (not, of course, material or monetary success, but those are not only not relevant to the objective but arguably completely contrary to it), but those seem to rely partly on being small and partly on operating within a larger society which works on a market economy basis, often by accepting social payments, or by having a backer who does not operate by these rules and supports the community from excess income. I do note that the model for the slightly later church seems to have been groups supported by such rich backers, and it seems to have persisted where communitarian living has in general not.

The nearest to examples of success I can find are social democratic countries, in particular the Scandinavian ones, but there seem to me problems there: some have taken steps back from egalitarianism recently and reduced welfare spending on the basis that their welfare states were proving unsupportable (and I suspect globalisation to be the main culprit; it is difficult to maintain a welfare state when in direct competition with capitalist states operating wage slavery systems, and they worked much better before globalisation really took off), and also the populations do not actually seem to be as content as one would hope – the suicide rates, for instance, seem rather high, as do incidences of depression.

There is, however, an aspect I have not yet considered, and this is very much a feature of the story of the rich young man. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matt. 19:21-22). There is a great freedom in letting go of an attachment to worldly possessions and wealth, both of which can easily obsess the mind to the exclusion of any kind of spirituality, and even just enjoying life; I know this not because I’ve ever voluntarily given away all or even most of my possessions, but because circumstances took them away for a time, during which I had an estimated “net worth” which was substantially negative and no reasonable prospect of employment due to illness. Now that I again have a positive net worth, can actually work again to a limited extent and have a modest but adequate pension income, I am, I think, on the right side of a paradigm change with respect to money and possessions.

I grant that giving away everything you have is a draconian way of achieving that freedom, but it may, I think, be the only option for some of us, and I think the rich young man saw that, and knew himself unable to take that step.

Against all this pragmatism, however, is the bare fact that Jesus consistently spoke against money and possessions and in favour of leaving everything and following him. That at least makes it an objective to be aimed towards, even if it’s an unattainable ideal. There is within me an urge to just believe and do, and trust that the outcome will be good, but it remains balanced by a reluctance to take a step when every indication is that it would be a disaster.

With Maya Angelou, the best I can say is that I’m working at it.

One Response to “Giving it away”

  1. Chris Says:

    There’s a rather long article on topic at

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