Sunday, 11 May 2014
Glad and Generous Hearts
Joe Cassidy, Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham, writes the first of a number of comment pieces we will publish to mark this year’s Christian Aid Week in the UK.
This Sunday’s first reading, Acts 2.42—47, is perennially challenging. Are we to embrace a form of ‘primitive socialism’, holding all things in common, selling our ‘possessions and goods and [distributing] the proceeds to all, as any had need’? The text is particularly challenging during Christian Aid Week, when consciences are perhaps just that bit more sensitive.
The challenge to embrace such communitarian generosity is not uncomplicated. The practice of holding all in common seemed an almost spontaneous reaction to the ‘wonders and signs’ of those heady post-resurrection days. The communal joy experienced by these early Christians was not only thrilling but also transformative, expressed by a concrete commitment to the well-being of the whole community. With the expectation of an imminent second-coming, the need to make personal provision for the future was re-prioritised or relativised, being subordinated not just to the common good out-there-somewhere, but to a communitarian view, where those on the margins, those who had ‘any’ need, were welcomed to break bread at the same table. That said, as wonderful as it all was, the irony was that the common life model was not sustainable without the support of the newer less-communal churches — churches that subordinated their own good to the long-term good of the older community.
The communitarian impulse of Acts 2.44—45 could lead us to follow suit and so give Christian Aid and other charities a huge one-time boost. But that would be it: having sold everything, we would not have the financial wherewithal to give any more. The eschatological edge of such radical generosity sounds both reckless and wonderfully-compelling on one level, but it risks being ineffective, unsustainable and irresponsible. The need for longer-term sustainable models of mutual support points to other equally-radical models of communitarian living that include but potentially go well beyond financial sharing.
I wonder whether Christian Aid needs our one-off charity as much as it needs our ongoing commitment to a more communitarian lifestyle (which includes supporting them). This is arguably the goal of all long-term development work: so long as ‘they’ remain ‘not one of us’, they are potential ‘objects’ of our economic charity, and they are kept at arm’s length. But when barriers are broken by an awareness of being one in our shared humanity, the imperatives move from ‘giving’ to building long-term relationships, trying to shift the balance of wealth and power to make room for more sustainable ways of living together — alternative systems that do not require the economic marginalisation of a huge fraction of humanity not to mention the gradual consumption and destruction of our planet.
The eschatological witness of the early church’s common life (and of the common life still practised in some religious communities) can awaken in us exciting glimpses of new ways of being together. The exhilaration experienced by the early Church did just that. In our time, there are yet-to-be-discovered patterns of economic, ecological, cultural and religious interdependence that are within the grasp of our restless, ultimately communal, hearts. Development organisations such as Christian Aid do need our money, to be sure, but they also need our ‘glad and generous hearts’.
Posted by Joe Cassidy on
Sunday, 11 May 2014 at 7:00am BST
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Thanks for this piece by Joe Cassidy. Stimulating. Just to be a bit of a devil's advocate with regard to the theological premise, a turn of phrase caught my eye, "The challenge to embrace such communitarian generosity is not uncomplicated." An important qualification for sure, one wonders if the scriptural premises are not more complex than suggested by Cassidy. As biblical scholars have noted, the "koinonia" described in Acts is probably idealized, as much a description of the way the author of Acts thought things ought to have been, not just the way they actually were. One would also need to lay along side the bliss of sharing the consequences in Acts of fudging on the matter of disclosure of capital gains i.e. Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Death from above!
Is what is described in Acts, whether actualized or idealized, a transient arrangement, not essential in itself but derivative of a more transcendent but less specific set of values that run throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian renewed covenant? The connections linking charity to justice and the common good as outlined, for example, in Caritas In Veritate, are systematic,global,and up to date.
Perhaps the real challenge from Acts is one that would have us build on the principles of charity, justice and the common good, economic theory and institutions specific to our time and place.
It is interesting, in view of Diarmaid's excellent exposition of problems with literal interpretation of this biblical passage, to realise how far from practical application in today's world are some of the examples given of the 'ideal' Christian ethos in the time of the early Church.
This realisation is very important in all our idealistic leanings towards biblical literalism.
Don't disagree with any of that, though it does seem that the Jerusalem church did rely on other churches to keep itself going – perhaps witnessing to bad accounting rather than virtuous sharing! Theologically, I wonder whether the transience of the arrangement (you're right: it didn't last) can obscure the eschatological telos of all the virtues you describe. Each has no logical limit (how charitable? how just?) but still serves to set the direction for discernment in 'our time and place'.
My question, as much to myself as to others, is whether the ideal of community itself (as opposed to sharing things) ought to be the more compelling and challenging bit – especially when it comes to understanding what 'charity' means (or can mean).
I was also reacting (without saying so) to a particular RC tradition where 'evangelical counsels' are sometimes contrasted with ‘precepts' (this came up because I was thinking of the Jerusalem church as a model for religious communities). The Church is probably beyond such thinking these days, but such a contrast arguably had the effect of separating vowed poverty, chastity and obedience from the day-to-day lives of lay-people. Today we describe religious life in terms of a ministry of eschatological witness – such witness being effective not just for those who take up the vows, but for the whole Church. Thus celibate chastity has something to say to those who are married, obedience to those who make decisions, poverty to those who have more than they need (there are better examples). I then noticed that the prior context of the vows is again the community, and I wondered how the idealised community plays an eschatological function in terms of challenging the goal of charity. Do we give to 'others' out-there-somewhere, or is there a sense in which we are supporting and becoming a larger communal ‘we’?
That led me to wonder even more whether the motive for giving should ever simply be an ethical one, or whether Christian charity is always enabled and initiated by the Spirit, not as one virtue alongside others, but always as a dynamism towards community. You are right, though, to suggest that the challenge today is not to recreate a past community, but to build actual communities in our time and place, using the best resources and models we have.
Mea Culpa. My mistake, in my comment on Monday, was to ascribe Joe Cassidy's excellent article to Diarmaid McCulloch. However, some minds just happen to think alike!