A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who happens to be a Franciscan friar pointed out during his homily that it is mentioned in the Bible that the early Christian community shared everything in common. This was connected with socialism, an economic perspective that ( as I’ve noted previously) could have many different variations. And while I do think that Christianity can and should challenge our economic decision-making where our decisions act against justice, I also want to start from a base of fact when looking at models we could potentially use to work toward a more just society.
Keeping in mind the distinctions proposed in my previous analysis of socialism, I would like to think through what sort of socialism the early Christian community might exemplify if it can indeed be described as socialist. And if it cannot be properly described as socialist, then I would like to attempt to provide an alternative classification of it in terms of political economy. (As a disclaimer, I think it is a serious mistake to reduce Christianity to a political philosophy, an economic perspective, or an ideology. This is not an attempt at creating yet another reductive form of Christianity.)
To begin, let’s consider traditional forms of socialism. Could the early Christian community be legitimately described as an example of state socialism? Well, no. At the time it did not have the backing of the state. Nor did the early Christian community own the means of production, which makes it difficult to characterize it as an example of any kind of socialism, not even of the stateless variety. Any variant of anarcho-socialism doesn’t fit because the early Christian community was not seeking to abolish the state for economic reasons. Participism might be the closest fit in economic terms, but any good adherent of participism would have serious objections to the early Christian community because it was not sufficiently libertarian or tolerant. I can’t find any socialist perspective that agrees with or maps onto the early Christian community.
Now that socialism is ruled out, let’s consider what else we might find to use in classifying the early Christian community in terms of political economy. Can we perhaps use communism to describe the early Christian community? After all, it was an example of communal living in which folks shared everything in common and looked after each person’s needs, albeit imperfectly if we take the epistles seriously. If it is communism, it is not contemporary communism which seeks to abolish class structures through force. Nor did the early Christian community seek to eliminate money and the state. The communist perspective doesn’t quite fit either. At best, we might describe it as a sort of proto-communism or inchoate communism without the emphasis on the cessation of the state and the elimination of all currency and the collective ownership of the means of production. Though at this point, it’s missing so many of the elements of communism that it’s hard to justify using the term.
Now that both socialism and communism have been ruled out, let’s consider another alternative: distributism. While distributism stems from a rejection of the ills of both capitalism and socialism and might seem to offer a distinctly Christian approach to political economy, its advocacy of widespread property ownership is probably somewhat at odds with the outlook of the early Christian community, which was not overly concerned with making sure folks owned property. They had more pressing concerns, like staying alive and spreading the Gospel before Jesus came back.
While I am strongly sympathetic to the idea the contemporary Western culture needs to understand the value of the kind of communal living exemplified by the early Christian community and that we need to work toward greater economic justice, I don’t think we need to play fast and loose with the facts to do so. And the facts simply don’t support the idea that the early Christian community was an example of socialism, or communism, or distributism. And the facts certainly don’t support the idea that it was an example of capitalism, mercantilism, progressivism, or even various flavors of Peronism.
Imposing contemporary ideas about political economy onto the early Christian community just doesn’t work no matter how many people who consider themselves very smart try to do it. We would be better off trying to learn from the early Christian community rather than trying to read our existing ideologies into it as an awkward attempt at an ad hoc justification for our current views.