One of the barbs easily thrown about in the political arena these days is to label another as a “socialist.” I don’t think it is meant as a compliment. When I hear it in context, my speculation is that there is an attempt to label the person as anti-capitalism and leaning strongly towards a communist/Marxist perspective. In the same arena where most days it seems too often faith/religion are used when politically convenient, the person just labeled as a socialist might respond: “Thank you! That puts me in good company with Apostles and disciples of Christ who were socialists and held all things in common.” Today’s first reading is from the passage just referenced (Acts 4:32-37).
The last few days I have found myself wondering about the meaning of words we use on a regular basis. Do we use them as they are meant? Do we understand the fuller meaning of the words. Sunday I was wondering about “mercy.” Yesterday it was “humility.” Today it is “socialism.”
Capitalism and Socialism seem to be ever connected, so what are they? Both are economic systems, both claim that they are best poised to advance human flourishing, but they make different claims over how resources should and can be rationed. Neither are political systems per se – although it is arguable. Capitalism is an economic system which largely allows markets to allocate scarce resources through prices, property rights and profit/loss signals. The government has a role in regulation and in-not-regulating for one for public safety, economic stability, and a host of other factors which “grease the wheels” of the system. Arguments abound on the role of government within a society largely capitalistic.
Socialism is a little less clear and exists across a broader spectrum of variation. But what I think is common is that the government has some level of ownership in the means of production and through taxation and resource redistribution influences decisions over property, prices and production. For the record, Communism is both a political and economic system which would abolish private property and give to individuals based on need. (Apologies to any economists or political science types…it was the best I could do in two paragraphs.)
But what about this claim that Acts 2-5 teaches socialism? First of all, what do the passages say? Acts 2:44-45 (immediately following Pentecost) offer: “44all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45and they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” In Acts 4:32-35, it says of the early congregation that
32 The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. 34 There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, 35 and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.
To rely on only these two passages it would seem as though the early believers sold all their property, that sharing of resources was expected and formed a permanent practice of the believing community. If true, that certainly does ring of some degree of socialism in however benign a form.
In the Greek NT one expects to find verbs in a historical narrative to be in the aorist tense. That indicates a once-for-all action of the community. That would be permanent relinquishing of property ownership as opposed to periodic acts of charity as the need arose. The latter would rely on imperfect tense verbs – which is the dominant mark of Acts 4. It this were written by St. Mark, we might give him a literary “pass”, but this is St. Luke, the Sacred Writer most known for his elegant Greek writing style.
Did believers sell all their property? Note the positive example of Barnabus (Acts 4:37) and the negative one of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Barnabus “sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles.” It does not say that this giving comprised all his possessions or that it was the only tract of land he owned. It provides a positive example of what was going on in Acts 2-4. When Barnabus saw that there were needs he could meet, he was generous with what he owned. Perhaps, some have speculated, he was the first person of substantial wealth to donate to the cause.
Then we have the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Ananias “sold a piece of property,” (v.1) and, with his wife’s knowledge, kept part of the proceeds for himself. The problem with this was not that they had not sold all their possessions or that they needed to give all of the proceeds of their land to the apostles, but that they lied about it. They pretended to be more generous than they were. Ananias, then later Sapphira, comes before Peter and dies (presumably as a divine judgment). Peter explicitly says that “when it was unsold it was your own” and after it was sold, it was “under your control” (vs. 4). The problem, as Peter points out, was that Ananias had “lied to the Holy Spirit” (vs. 3).
So there is good reason to believe that the early believers did not sell all they had, but were generous and, as occasion demonstrated, they sold part of their possessions and gave the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. Also among the passages there does not seem to be any evidence of forced distribution of wealth. These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily. Elsewhere in scripture we see that Christians are even instructed to give in just this manner, freely, for “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:8). There is plenty of indication that private property rights were still in effect. It is hard to make the case this was even socialism as defined as a community-owned or regulated system. But even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that it was socialism (of some sort), why is it only here (in Acts 2-4) and not seen throughout the rest of the New Testament?
As we have seen, this early sharing was voluntary, without state coercion, and did not necessitate that believers give up their rights to private property. Certainly, this early sharing was noble, indicating a generosity of spirit. It is a beautiful example of love. While this type of generous giving is a permanent norm, the particular situation in Acts 2-4 seems to have been a temporary response to a particular need. We don’t see a recurrence of this scenario throughout the rest of Acts, in Paul’s letters, or in the rest of the New Testament. So what was going on here? Rather than posit a radical change of culture and habit, might there be another explanation? Maybe.
Pentecost had just happened. People of many nations were in attendance (thus the necessity of speaking in tongues). After the initial preaching by Peter and others, there were, that first day, three thousand new believers (Acts 2:41). More and more were being added to their number each day (vs. 47). Should these new believers immediately return to their homes in other parts of Israel or elsewhere? Would they not want to continue in the apostles’ teaching, worship, fellowship, and prayers (vs. 42-46)? But then how could these visitors provide for themselves? How would they have enough to eat and a place to stay for an extended period?
It seems a less complex answer to posit that those who had, gave to those who had not. Eventually, most of these new believers returned home. There was no longer this extraordinary need for food and shelter. The attitude of “what’s mine is yours if you need it” continued. In Acts 6, the widows were being neglected in the “daily distribution of food” and seven men were appointed to oversee that process. There was a later famine relief effort by the disciples in Acts 11:27-30. There was always a concern that the needs of the poor be met (Gal. 2:10). There were often communal meals (1 Cor. 11:20). There also were many who were wealthy and gave generously but had not given everything away: Dorcas (Acts 9:36), Cornelius (Acts 10:1), Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Jason (Acts 17:5-9), Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3), Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16) and many others. The spirit of Acts 2-5 remained, but there was no push to require common ownership of all means of production and wealth. There was a concern for equitable distribution of goods to the poor (2 Cor. 8:13-15) but it is hard to make a case more than Christian charity responding to a demonstrated need..
In any case, the communal sharing and charity in Acts 2-5 was not the practice of the early church in the rest of Acts or the rest of the New Testament. There just does not seem to be a movement that this all became a mandatory prescription for all later Christians – a movement from “some early Christians did this” to “all Christians should do this.” Or did it?
You don’t have to search very hard to find the principle of a right to private property as a consistent part of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic social teaching upholds private property as one of the most important ways to promote individual security and family stability. For these important reasons, the dignity and rights of the human person necessitate access to private ownership. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes God’s plan for humankind in Genesis 1:26–27, expanding on the scripture by saying, “The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”
If this is true, then lacking access to private property is a significant social, ethical, and theological problem. Such obstacles reduce people’s abilities to secure their livelihoods and contribute to society. Personal development requires taking responsibility and care for possessions in order to live in solidarity with others. More ultimately, denying someone access to private property is unjust because no human ownership is absolute.
But just as recognizing God’s ultimate sovereignty not only supports ownership of private property, it also limits it. Catholic social thought stresses that despite the importance of private property, the goods of God’s earth are meant for the flourishing of all people. All created things belong to God, their creator. To be an owner of private property is to be “a steward of God’s providence,” according to Gregory the Great.
Just as it is unjust to deny access to the goods of the earth (physical or otherwise) that could secure a person or family’s livelihood, it is also unjust to use the goods of the earth in a way that undermines or harms the flourishing of others. When one’s possessions are beyond necessary for their own security, when one’s private ownership undermines other people’s access to comparable security, or when one’s use of private property damages the well-being of others, that owner’s moral right to private property may be mitigated or lost altogether.
The Catholic perspective reflects a commitment to the well-being of all people alongside the theological acknowledgement of God as creator of all. All people have a right to the benefits of the earth as well as a moral responsibility to use the goods in their possession in service to the will of God, who is the ultimate source of their being.
It seems to me the early church was attentive to this dynamic in a way that prefigured Catholic Social Teaching.