In the 1970s, Kris Kristofferson sang that Jesus was a Capricorn.
Now, David Bentley Hart says Jesus was a communist.
Hart, a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, recently wrote a translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press.
In a Nov. 4 op-ed in the online New York Times, he lays out how similar the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic church regarding property are to the tenets of communism.
Of course, Christianity very much predated the communist movement, founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800s. And certainly, Marx and Engels weren’t devout Christians; very much the opposite.
But Hart’s point is that early Christians were, if not true communists, then “communalists” or “communitarians.”
I’ve long noticed similarities between Christian and communist teachings about material possessions.
Those similarities make it puzzling that Christianity, established by people who held all their possessions in common and considered any form of greed to be idolatry, somehow morphed into the cherished faith of 21st-century American conservative capitalists.
Ah, history. Irony is thy name.
“The New Testament’s Book of Acts tells us that in Jerusalem, the first converts to the proclamation of the risen Christ affirmed their new faith by … selling their fixed holdings, redistributing their wealth ‘as each needed’ and owning all possessions communally. This was, after all, a pattern Jesus himself had established: ‘Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple’ (Luke 14:33).”
Sounds downright revolutionary, doesn’t it?
And it’s true. Hart isn’t cherry-picking isolated biblical passages, but referring to themes that appear throughout the New Testament and in extra-biblical texts used by the early church: Sell all you own, give the proceeds to the poor, place no value in anything of this world, eagerly share whatever’s available with whoever needs or wants it, be content so long as you have enough food for today, and never store up treasures for yourselves anywhere except in heaven.
I remember reading some years ago a letter by one of the church fathers — the church fathers were the generation of leaders who immediately followed the apostles — in which the writer sadly lamented the fall of a bishop, I think it was. Apparently, this respected bishop had been excommunicated, or at least had been removed in disgrace from his post.
His sin? He’d displayed a fondness for making money and accumulating wealth.
Makes you wonder how we got from there to the contemporary prosperity gospel, in which God wants every Christian to wear a Rolex, drive a Cadillac and become a political power broker.
Hart explains that the earliest Christians weren’t part of any political movement; mainly, such movements didn’t even exist in the first century. They were exiles of a sort, who lived and worshiped in small, scattered spiritual communes.
They also expected Jesus to return at any moment and the current world to pass away. There wasn’t much reason to invest your money. No 401(k)s were needed.
Hart says that as time passed and the world around them continued to exist, they became less apocalyptic and more assimilated into the larger (and greedier) society.
I’d add that within a few hundred years, after the reign of Constantine, Christianity also was transformed from a scorned minority faith into the Roman Empire’s dominant religion, with all the trappings of power, wealth and privilege that entailed.
It became exponentially more difficult to remain humble, possession-less and intentionally meek when you were offered untold pomp, wealth and authority. Christians or not, human nature is human nature is human nature.
If nothing else, we see again how much the church — although supposedly a timeless, eternal institution — is re-created or even warped by the given society in which it exists.
The church is eternal, but it’s also organic. It constantly changes. Often it’s influenced by the larger culture far more than it influences that culture.
Occasionally, I perform this mental exercise in which I try to imagine a first-century Christian transported by a time machine into, say, a 21st-century Texas megachurch. And then I try to imagine a contemporary churchgoer space-shot backward into a primitive house church in ancient Corinth.
I imagine that either time traveler would have trouble recognizing the faith he or she had grown to love back home.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.