Acts 4:32: Christian Commonality Ends Where Compulsion Begins UPDATED

I love today’s reading from Acts, which gives us a beautiful snapshot of the early church:

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.
With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
— Acts 4:32-35

This is one of those verses, though, that some people love, and some hate, for precisely the same reason: they think it is an example of socialism and its effects. Both are mistaken, though, if they miss the important factor of free will, which is exemplified in these lines.

Historically, those who live the simplified and shared life and invite others to do so, for love of God, bring about the Kingdom; they create heaven on earth and humanity is enlarged. Within that same history, those who try to force the communal ideal through law and compulsion bring about the gulag; they create hell on earth and humanity is demeaned.

Voluntarily entered into, this sort of “social ideal” (which flourishes in monasticism) brings great freedom. Involuntarily, it enslaves. The thin line between both results is free will — a human movement prompted by the Holy Spirit and responded to with love, cannot fail. Absent that Spirit, and a freely-entered-into “yes”, it is something else, entirely; it belongs to the author of “no.”

Pope Francis on building a community of love, and what tears it down:

“…the early Christians. They had “new life”, which was expressed in their living with one heart and one soul. They had, he said, “that unity, that unanimity, that harmony of feeling of love, mutual love …”. A dimension that needs to be rediscovered. He noted that today, for example, the aspect of “meekness in the community,” is a somewhat ‘forgotten virtue’. Meekness is stigmatized, it has “many enemies”, the first of which is gossip.”

That’s so brilliant. Gossip and stigma is where we begin to throw people away. The rest follows.

Some wisdom from Will Duquette:

The second idol is collectivism: the notion that all social problems—poverty, addiction, violence, racism, what have you—are systemic, and the key to fixing them is to fix society. The Good of All thus becomes the thing to worship; but “All” is an abstraction. There is no “All”, concretely speaking, but only all of us individuals, and worship of the “All” leads in turn to worship of the State, which is the only entity big enough to conceivably “fix” society as a whole.

Jesus says no; the problem isn’t Society, but rather Our Sins; that’s the systemic problem.

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About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Manny

    I never considered that socialism. There’s a difference in providing for others out of your free will and forced “compassion” through the government power of violent (don’t pay taxes and resist arrest and see what happens) coercion.

  • Dan C

    The conservative marriage warriors, and Benedict the 16th in another forum directly addressing this, argue that society and law has a “didactic” function. That the “top down” nature of law and government “teaches” and forms society and its members and hence Christians should have a vested interest in how government forms and defines such institutions as marriage, and, in Benedict’s view, the welfare state. As a consequence, Christians should not cede ground on these matters without a battle.

    The religious right has however convinced itself that Jesus hates government-supported welfare, in some sense. That somehow, welfare, as the arguments go, creates dependence (an unproven, likely unture empirically-deniable assertion, but adhered to as a religious tenet), steals the wealthy of their “right” to help others (because the wealthy could never part with the extra shoes or coats in their closets), or denies resources to those deserving middle class/upper class folks who are the “job creators” (and without doubt, the Scriptures are nothing but highly supportive of the wealthy, especially Luke).

    My suggestion is that if the conservative Christian edifice wants to change the world on this, they do what was done at the end of the Roman Empire, they create a parallel system that overtakes the government-supported one (not one that needs the tax money itself). I expect to hear Christian leaders calling out its wealthy for more support. Additionally, as from wikipedia, “Gregory began by aggressively requiring his churchmen to seek out and relieve needy persons and reprimanded them if they did not.” Until this occurs, I have no respect for the whiny, “there is no government supported charity demanded in the Gospel.” No. But the Catechism is at bare minimum unfriendly, if not overtly hostile, to this uber-libertarian position. Benedict’s “Love in Truth” encyclical promotes matters further left than the leftiest leftist in Obama’s administration. Dolan and DiMarzia outed themselves in favor of government-supported charity. If conservatives are ready to lose the welfare system, they are obligated to have a replacement in place first. From education to health care to sustenance. Right now, Catholic conservatives won’t even support the Catholic school systems, leaving many schools to close, year after year.

    Readers of this blog do not come close to embracing socialism. Often, they make cases for “there is no government-supported charity in the Gospel.” I am waiting for the demonstration of the alternative.

  • Yae

    A fine piece, Elizabeth and one that had me remembering what Papa Francis said about how he wished “the Church was a Church of the poor.” Poor in vanity, pride, self-righteousness, and selfishness. Rich in spirit, love, charity, hope and faith. I still believe one day, we may live to see her, the Church, live in this way but not after much purification and conversion of heart.
    Papa Francis’s sermon today only confirms he is well aware of the gossip that continues to circulate among all in and out of the Church, he, himself, unfortunately being a subject of gossip. Let’s keep praying for our conversion and salvation in Christ Jesus. Amen.

  • Victor

    (((they create hell on earth and humanity is demeaned.)))

    There YA go again Scalia, the more “ME”, “ME” and “ME” listen to YA, the more we alien gods find that “ONE” of Victor’s “Fruit Cell Host” must be holding ‘you’ as a U>S stage, I mean hostage and that has to stop NOW!

    Listen Elizabeth if “I” may call YA that, we alien gods want YA all to get alone so tell Victor that we don’t need this so called “Jesus” cause once we gods take over this world and have ‘you’ 3rd Pope con vince, I mean convince humanity that giving the world a fishing Rod won’t cut “IT” and long story short, no body is going to rest in piece, I mean peace if YA get my drift NOW?

    Hey come on Anchoress ‘you’ know as well as “I” do that ‘you’ can’t and “IT” is just a mat her, I mean matter of time be four, I mean before Victor’s so called 2% stub born cells will give in to U>S alien gods cause “I” don’t care what YA say cause soon her, “I” mean sooner or later he’ll have to come across to OZ’s spiritual reality sisters. “I” know, “I” know that he keeps saying stuff like butt that won’t last forever cause some day those spiritual reality cells will have to stop and….

    End YA say sinner vic for all of U>S (usual sinners) NOW?

    Come on Victor! CAN’T YA TAKE A JOKE NOW!

    You mean that “IT” not the end yet sinner vic?

    Go Figure folks!? :)


  • Rhinestone Suderman

    The government would never permit it, Dan C. They don’t want a replacement. They don’t like the competition.

    They’re already trying to put the church out of business, with the whole HHC thing. Which isn’t to say that many Christians don’t give, and give quite frequently, of both time and money, to charities; but the government isn’t about to let them set up an alternative system. It would put too many in the “helping” professions out of work.

    Myself, I’m waiting for a demonstration of, A. Why should we embrace socialism, once again, when all the countries who’ve adopted it have ended up so badly, and. . . B. Why our current welfare system, with its permanent underclass, and constant, and ever-increasing demands on the American taxpayer, which seems to create more poverty, not less, is so wonderful that it must be kept going, despite the fact it isn’t working?

    For the first few centuries of their existence, Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. They were considered criminals. They took care of each other, because the Roman government wasn’t about to—it was, in fact, opposed to them. They helped themselves, they didn’t demand Ceasar do it.

    By the way, are you a Christian yourself? If so, what do you do, personally, to relieve the poverty of those around you?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Off topic, but has Pope Francis done anything yet towards speaking out in favor of persecuted Christians, especially in Islamic countries, and Africa?

  • Kim

    Thanks, Dan C. I wish there were “like” buttons for comments here. I’m always puzzled how those willing to put Catholic concepts of sexuality, marriage and reproduction (by force and fiat) into the hands of government tend to get the colly-wobbles when the subject turns to economic equity (because that would be forced charity).

    Anyone thinking the apostles weren’t wholly serious about communalism miss the scorn shown to those members who lied and said they sold all their property while actually holding back a share for themselves. Ah, well. St. Paul might be the last person we could say was not a cafeteria Catholic on one issue or another.

  • ahem


    The Catholic church already has a long-established network of social services that are designed for catholics and non-catholics alike—and have been very successful—which the government is even now in the process of trying to dismantle. Haven’t you been paying any attention? Much of the free healthcare in Chicago, for example, has been, up to now, supplied under the auspices of Catholic Chariites, but the government is trying to put them out of business.

    Why? The left is in the process of establishing a state religion. (Hint: it isn’t catholicism; it’s marxism. Catholicism in essentially illegal in America right now and this fact will become ever more obvious as time passes. Most catholics have their heads in the sand.)

    In forcing the church out of the healthcare business at the peril of its soul, the state is eliminating its competition and making Americans, rich and poor alike, more dependent on the state. Read “The Road to Serfdom” by Frederick Hayek to see where that leads. The short answer: tyranny.

    Since the last Great Depression, most Americans have accepted a little socialism in the free-market mix as a mechanism for contributing to the common weal. But it has now gotten out of hand and become predominantly legalized theft and property confiscation, with the social repression and loss of personal freedom that usally follows. We are becoming Hayek’s nation of serfs. Serfs don’t have the means to help the poor; they’re poor themselves. You have to be able to gather resources in order to have some to give away. Fortunately or unfortunately, the amount of your resources in a free society depends in part on your free will.

    The problem with socialism is precisely compulsion; it nullifies man’s free will, which is the gift God gave us to supply our lives with existential meaning. If God had wanted everyone to be identical, to be automatons that thought and acted identically, in a marxist-utopian world, He would have made us so already—but He didn’t. The fact that we have free will should be a big clue that it’s a quality God values. We are unique, and that is a good, if often challenging, thing. Hell would be to live in a world of enforced conformity, which is why the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba have long been regarded as hells on earth.

    Read Bastiat’s The Law. It’s online.

  • ahem

    The sharing of resources in the new Testament was not in any sense a system of communism; it was a voluntary endeavor in which its participants contributed willingly and gladly. Ananias and his wife were struck down for lying. You’ll notice that many items in the epistles of Paul are requests for financial aid. By the wy, greed, covetousness and theft are discouraged by the commandments.

    ‘Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.’

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Kim, St. Paul once said, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

    A communist, he wasn’t.

    Again, I’m going to ask: considering communism’s/socialism’s abysmal record, why should we adopt it? And, considering the many failures of the American welfare system, why should we unquestioningly support it?

  • LisaB

    Government is the religion of the Left.

    *Often, they make cases for “there is no government-supported charity in the Gospel.” I am waiting for the demonstration of the alternative.*

    Nice try Dan C, but redistributing other people’s money is not charity. Rather then judging the catch-all conservative Christian try donating some of your own treasures (time, money & resources) and you won’t have to wait so long to see a real demonstration of charity. God wants to save the souls of all people, from poor to rich. Government redistribution takes away from works of mercy, did you ever stop to think you’re getting in God’s way by taking that salvation act away from people? Every tax dollar the government takes from me to fund Planned Parenthood, an Obamaphone or Food Stamps for college students, is one less dollar I have to put in the donation box, hand a homeless person, or help out the single mom in my neighborhood.

    Quoted from the Acton Institute: ” One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.”

    @Kim, I still don’t know how someone’s reproductive system can simultaneously be 0% of my business and 100% my financial responsibility. For some reason I just can’t get an answer…hmmm. Personally, I’d like to the government/secularlst extremists to stay out of sex education(schools) AND my wallet, but certain people keep pushing their immorality into government laws and hence into our culture. So much for the teachings of the apostles, eh.

  • JDC

    Duquette’s methodological individualism is precisely the sort of “greedy reductionism” that has led the field of economics into dead end after dead end over the last fifty years. I wouldn’t entrust any other social science to it, let alone theology. “Downward causality” has concrete ramifications, and the role of emergent phenomena in shaping our reality is as far beyond dispute as anything can possibly be.

    Denying the existence (or, perhaps more precisely the broader importance and meaning) of social relations and institutions above and beyond the individual is a poisonous path that largely excludes our very humanity from consideration. Leaving aside the contradictions it inevitably entails (to say nothing of its empirical failures in other domains), the most obvious and immediate consequence of doing so is that, in Duquette’s eagerness to caution about “idols,” he has effectively denied a place in his worldview for the (or even “a”) church.