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’.