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Our Christian nation

In church last week we got to a story in the book of Acts that starts at the end of chapter 4:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Then it goes on to tell the story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, believers who sold all they had but didn't give quite all of it to the church, they lied about the price and held a little back. So God killed them.

It's not a story I'm terribly familiar with or one that gets quoted too often... about how members of the early church held all their possessions in common. But in our circles it was immediately brought up as a WTF because you basically have to totally ignore this fact if you want to think America is a "Christian Nation", especially if you're of a certain political persuasion who believes that 1) "I worked hard for what I have and I'd better not have it taken by some authority" and 2) we shouldn't really have separation of church and state, the Bible tells us JUST how to live our lives.

I'm no communist, trust me, I don't think there's any possible implementation that would make that system run smoothly. Even in this Bible story, things didn't work out, two believers couldn't resist the temptation to lie, and see what happened. But at least I advocate for a little more of a social safety net than the average fundamentalist Christian. They would look at this story and say it's purely a lesson about how you're not supposed to lie, ignoring the part about "no needy among them".

Likewise, when I read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I don't see it as a condemnation of homosexuality since there are no simple consensual homosexual acts mentioned in the story, and there's even a part that spells out "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." It seems very clear to me what that story is about.

But others somehow find another interpretation.

Which is why in general I get sick of people wanting to make America a Christian nation, because there is no way we will ever be able to agree with what that means. Anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-war, pro-death penalty... how can anyone say that's the image that the Bible paints for us, in 100% of the pages?


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2013 08:06 pm (UTC)
Sodom and Gomorrah
"Which one of the two cities has the most whores?"
Jun. 26th, 2013 12:27 am (UTC)
In some of the early days of the Mormon Church they also held property in common. So many members were arriving from Europe with virtually nothing that it was necessary, without this many would have been unable to house themselves or have the supplies needed to trek west.
Jun. 26th, 2013 04:45 am (UTC)
There you go, readin' and thinkin' again.
Jun. 27th, 2013 08:17 am (UTC)
Placing Acts in context
The thing to appreciate here is that the first century Christians really believed that Jesus would return in their life time.

Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. He preached that God would overthrow the occupying forces of ancient Israel. There would be grand reversal of roles. The rich and powerful would be destroyed and the meek and weak would be victorious. God would wipe away the sinful and set-up a kingdom on Earth with Jesus as its leader and his disciples as the rulers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Early Christians expected that this would happen within their life time. The evidence of this is abundant in the letters of Paul and the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark:

"Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God." - Luke 9:27

"Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
And he will send out his angels with a trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, know that he is near, at the gates. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Matthew 24:29-35)

"Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mark 13:30-31)

etc etc.

The Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by the same person sometime in the first century. We don't know by who or where they were written but we know they must have been written before 70 AD. In 70AD the Jewish template cult was destroyed. This event would have fulfilled prophecies theologically important to early Christians. The fact it isn't mentioned gives us a good indication that they predate that event.

The communist underpinnings of text come from this expectation that Jesus would return soon. A time measured not in centuries but in a handful of years at most.

It's kind of like the hippie movement in the 60s. Everyone was living for tomorrow because they might be obliterated by nuclear war. No-one knew when or where it would start but the possibility was very likely.

It was the same in ancient Israel. The time of reckoning was soon to be at hand so sell all your possessions, repent and live in communes with fellow believers!

The text of the earlier Gospels like Mark and Luke has to be viewed through this prism. They expected Jesus to be here soon and suddenly. When he arrived they expected the world as they knew it to be over.

It is that world-view colours many of the texts in the New Testament.

Edited at 2013-06-27 08:31 am (UTC)
Jun. 27th, 2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
Having been raised as a Christian, although I no longer subscribe to any religious institution, I'm pretty sure there's nothing in the Bible about Jesus advocating charity at the tip of the Roman spear. Biblical giving to the needy is always done willingly, not forced. So when people use the fact that we purport to be a "Christian nation" to justify government imposed welfare programs, I scoff. That's not what Christian giving is about. It's about giving to your local church and needy without the force of a government. I'm all for a social safety net, but through private charities and local organizations, not the federal government confiscating and redistributing wealth as they see fit. From a practical standpoint, the corruption and waste in government programs is a secondary reason for Christians to oppose federal welfare programs. If I'm giving money, I want most of it to go to people who need it, not bureaucrats in Washington. It's bad stewardship to support government welfare programs. They increase dependency by abstracting the personal element of willful giving and grateful receiving out of our society, and thus are ultimately a detriment to the people they are trying to help. Before you argue that people won't give willingly, that's simply not true. We are the one of the most generous nation on the planet, both at home and internationally.
Jun. 28th, 2013 03:23 pm (UTC)
The trouble with this idea is that it means people who need help don't have any kind of right to it - we would be entirely dependent on charity, and have no security whatsoever. This would be even more of a problem for people who the more traditional churches would not want to help (ie. gay people living in a conservative area).
Jun. 28th, 2013 11:03 pm (UTC)
See it's not actually a problem because it turns out that no one has a right to my personal property or income just because they can fog a mirror, whether it comes directly from me or via a confiscatory government. Security comes from making good financial decisions, learning from mistakes when that fails, and having compassion on people when they are unable (as opposed to unwilling) to do those things. There are plenty of private charities that have nothing to do with religion, so your argument is invalid from all sides. The one exception I could make is if a government program were LOCAL, not federal, since city and state governments know better what their citizens need than a big federal bureaucracy, which makes them much more efficient and subject to accountability. Also I could move away from it if I didn't like it.

Bottom line is there is nothing in our founding docs or rational thought that says I have to be slave to someone less fortunate than myself, any more than someone more fortunate than me owe me money. Mutually beneficial trade and private charities have made our country great and compassionate. Government programs have done nothing but make an entire generation of people dependent on its subjective whims of generosity with other people's money.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 12:48 pm (UTC)
Clearly that is a matter of opinion. There is nothing in your founding documents about it, but we're not all in the same country. As for rational, one can find philosophers to support almost any position.

Security comes from making good financial decisions, learning from mistakes when that fails, and having compassion on people when they are unable (as opposed to unwilling) to do those things.

Large numbers of people are unable to do those things, however. And in spite of government welfare programs, private charities, and religious groups, there are still crowds of homeless schizophrenics living rough by the beach in a city as wealthy as Los Angeles (which I use as an example as I used to live there), with no help at all.

Obviously this is something you feel as strongly about as I do, on the other side, so I don't expect we're going to agree! But in the UK benefits for the disabled are being severely cut, and I can see the devastation it is causing all around me, and to the families of those people and the carers, the mental health services, and indeed the charities that exist to help. People who can work, and earn enough to live on, often don't seem to realize that they have a massive privilege, or that society functions in their favour. Unless you believe that people don't have an inherent value as human beings, perhaps you do have a moral duty to those who are less fortunate than yourself?

I can completely see the argument that the government is crap (I think all governments are largely corrupt), but I think the answer of disbanding welfare and leaving it all to charity is just as unrealistic in the current world as disbanding the government entirely in the hope we'd live together in a happy, non-hierarchical anarchist utopia (which I'd love, but don't imagine is really going to happen). Quite apart from anything else, to go back to schizophrenics, people don't generally treat them with much understanding or compassion in daily life so I don't see why that would suddenly change when every charity is begging for more money to help all the needy people out there.
Jul. 3rd, 2013 05:12 pm (UTC)
My statement is not a matter of opinion because there's nothing in the founding docs of the US that says that citizens have rights to each other's property. Legally and morally speaking, a *right* to someone else's property does not exist in the United States. Morally, we SHOULD take care of those less fortunate, but there is no intrinsic RIGHT of the impoverished to the property of the wealthy. spacefem was talking about the US as a "Christian Nation," so your distinction that we're not all in the same country is irrelevant to this discussion.

So are you telling me that will the multitude of social programs in the US, some having been in effect for 100 years, and spending TRILLIONS of dollars that poverty has been eradicated or even reduced? Are the poor of yesteryear, by and large, independent and thriving now because of government programs? I think not: in fact there are more people dependent on government than ever before, despite our poor having a relatively high quality of life. I also don't appreciate your insinuation that I don't value the poor as human beings. that statement just makes you sound ridiculous, emotional, and petty, and lends nothing to your argument. Human beings are of course valuable regardless of their financial well-being. You've implied that because they have worth, they intrinsically have a claim to the fruits of someone else's labor. This is a logical fallacy.

It's interesting that you bring up the doctrine of privilege. I find this new buzz word amusing, as if by giving a name to the fact that we have no control over the circumstances into which we are born that the fundamentally unfair nature of life will magically correct itself. It also implies that because we have no control over our initial circumstances, we have no control over the outcomes of our lives. This is patently false, especially in the US where we have enormous opportunities available to anyone with enough motivation to seize them. Government programs sap motivation and personal responsibility by promising that they will take care of you. As you're finding out in the UK, the government is very often unable to deliver on its promises (whether through inefficiency, corruption, or just plain ineptitude) and when citizens rely on its provision, they abdicate their personal responsibility to provide for themselves, waiting on government to fix their lives. This has incredibly detrimental effects on individual and societal mental and physical well-being, as you're seeing now all over the world including the US. And yet the facts remain: 80% of millionaires in the US are first generation wealthy. Principles of sound money management work as well for the poor as they do for the wealthy, but they require work ethic, short term sacrifice for long term gains, and a little bit of planning. Government programs undermine these principles by teaching people they don't have to work to get money, they should take what they can get now instead of saving for the future, and there's no need to plan because the government is going to take care of me cradle to grave.

I did not say that government is crap. It does some things very well (national infrastructure, military, foreign relations, etc). The things it was never designed (by the founders) to do, we have allowed it to attempt at great cost and minuscule gain. I'd argue that there was no gain to these programs since it's created the entitlement culture to which you subscribe which is now robbing all of us of our prosperity and sense of community. It has pitted us against each other in a way that private charity does not. You present only two choices: choices government control or nihilism. I propose that those are not our only options.

Edited at 2013-07-03 05:13 pm (UTC)
Jun. 28th, 2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, the whole notion of a "Christian nation" falls apart when you consider how many vastly different types of Christianity there are! Where I live is a Quaker town, and the Quakers started off around the time of the English Civil War as a dissident group who rejected all kinds of hierarchy (and consequently got beaten up quite a bit for refusing to doff their hats etc), and have always had a strong social activist conscience. A "Christian nation" made in their image would be a very different place to what a fundamentalist would be wanting, heh.
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