Commentary for the July 27, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:44-47, NIV
As I sat on the patio behind our house this afternoon, enjoying the beauty of the many flowers in our garden, I noticed a lot of activity in the Buddleia that began blooming this week. Several Rufous Humming Birds were whizzing about its branches. Some were enjoying the nectar produced by the abundant blossoms, but most seemed engaged in driving the others away to claim this precious resource for themselves. There were plenty of blossoms for all, and fairness should dictate that they share the bounty. However, nature does not seem to work this way.
Even when the resources are plentiful, nature seems to constantly be in “survival of the fittest” mode. The puppy or kitten that cannot battle past its siblings to mother’s milk weakens and may even die though the milk may be more than enough to ensure the survival of all. Like the hummingbirds, the stronger siblings may claim all of the resource for themselves even though it is more than enough for each. This struggle is not limited to the animal kingdom.
If we look at figures for the United States, we discover that with a combined wealth of fifty-five trillion[i] and a population of 313.9 million[ii], there would be enough wealth to put over $175,000 in each person’s pocket, man woman and child. A household of 3 persons would have over half a million dollars. It seems therefore possible that every citizen could live comfortably on the resources available, but instead the economic system of the United States appears based on the Darwinian model with eighty-five percent of the wealth owned by only twenty percent of the population. Those who have benefited from this economic struggle for survival praise its benefits, and rightly so, for it has given them a lifestyle that is the envy of many around the world.
However, it remains to be seen what will come of the remaining eighty percent who have been pushed aside from the resource pool. Will they somehow find the strength to displace their stronger siblings at the trough, or will they also weaken and perhaps die as nature teaches? This system seems so pervasive in the world we live in that there seems to be little hope for those who fail to win the struggle.
This social Darwinism was first championed by some among the literati and nobility of Victorian Europe and then exported to the United States. While most European countries have long since developed a more socialist economic model, the United States continues to have a strongly vocal lobby in favor of social Darwinism, both in the media and in the halls of government.
Even in the American church and perhaps elsewhere, a Darwinian struggle goes on for power and control over the resources generously provided by congregations, and when those congregations dwindle, as they sometimes do, the struggle can get very keen. As can be best understood by those who support such struggle, organizations often work to place individuals in power who will continue to fund existing programs and infrastructure without regard to equity or need. This can occur on every level of the organization from local church plant to international administrative group. But does the struggle we witness in nature give us the correct model for living life, both secular and spiritual?
We sometimes hear calls for a return to an earlier understanding of the basics of our faith: a revival of primitive religion. These can mean a call for stronger controls over the faith through various statements of belief and a restriction of access to organizational resources for those deemed “weak in the faith” or dissenters to the struggle. Like Delphic oracles, some see themselves as alone able to effectively serve as God’s mouthpiece to set everyone else on the straight and narrow path. But possibly these, too, are less magnanimous than they wish to appear and are simply edging for power over the resource pool, perhaps to their exclusive benefit.
Is this the heavenward path the Bible puts us on, or is there an alternative that is getting lost in the shuffle? There is One who offers an answer. Jesus tells us to give excessively to others who ask.[iii] This seems like a radical shift from social Darwinism. Instead of being strong enough to take from others, we are told to be strong enough to give to them. It is of interest that Jesus does not tell us to give according to need or worthiness, but simply because it was asked.
Organizations have abused this simple text profusely over the years by constantly asking for funds without clearly demonstrating need or worthiness. Perhaps it was the same in Jesus’ day. Nonetheless, He urged all to give. Maybe this would include organizations needing to give as well as individuals. This might agree with a recent United States Supreme Court decision which continued a long tradition that corporations are simply persons in a collective sense.[iv] That tradition holds that persons do not cease to be persons simply by joining together to create organizations and therefore those organizations might be perceived to act and speak as Kollectivmenschen in the same way that individuals speak and act. Thus we might rightly ask whether individuals and organizations are speaking and acting as Christ intended.
When we consider the early body of believers that we encounter in Acts, chapter 2, we find what some might consider an early endorsement of socialism. Significantly, we are not told that everyone put everything into the common pot, but that people gave, apparently munificently, and needs were met. It is hard to imagine how very many needs could have been met had niggardliness been the general attitude. In any event, the text falls short of endorsing the universal participation required by socialism. Instead the text calls for willing service to others.
While not truly socialism, a willingness to place oneself and one’s resources at the disposal of the community in accordance with need is a radical idea to a social Darwinist. These Darwinists seem to have taken the concept of “from each according to his ability,”[v] and effectively rendered it as “to each according to his ability.” This can readily be seen in the gutting of programs to meet the needs of the disadvantaged for no other reason than to enrich themselves, either as, persons or organizations. When it is a secular government, organization or even individuals forcing the poor to live without vital healthcare, food, or shelter, or when it is a church or representative of that church using guilt to manipulate an elderly woman who cannot afford her daily medications to contribute to a multi-million dollar church treasury, the principle may be the same. It may be nothing more than the stronger puppies pushing the weaker ones away from the nourishing teat.
Paradoxically, even socialists have discovered a problem intrinsic to the second half of Karl Marx’s statement, “to each according to his need.”[vi] Needs tend to be subjective and grow over time. The same person who has no shoes and says, “I need a pair of shoes,” may one day have dozens of shoes and yet still say, “I need a pair of shoes.” A young man who spent years walking or riding a bicycle who said “I need to buy a car,” might one day say while driving an automobile a few years out of date, “I need to buy a car.”
We may feel we deserve these things and feel threatened by those who have yet to obtain any shoes or any cars as somehow subverting our ability to have more or better things. Like the hummingbirds on the Buddleia, we may feel that what we have obtained is ours by right. These fluffy little warriors have no understanding that the bush is there because I shared my resources to plant it a few years ago. They have reaped a bounty that they could not provide for themselves. They do not understand that I intended that they share the good nectar with one another.
What we have is only there because of the work of others who have gone before. The best way to honor those who shared to make their vie luxueuse possible is to share with others so their needs might be met as well. If the result of sharing meant that a family of three could have over half a million in wealth as mentioned above, those needs would probably be very few.
[i] “Wealth in the United States,” www.wikipedia.org
[ii] Population for 2012, United States Census Bureau
[iii] Matthew 5:40-42
[iv] “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,” United States Supreme Court, January 21, 2010
[v] “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Karl Marx