Are Christians really supposed to be communists? A response to David Bentley Hart
The Christian scholar David Bentley Hart has earned a cult following for his combination of deep erudition, pavonine prose and penchant for provocation. The formula worked well when Professor Hart, a classicist, gave a preview of his now-published translation of the New Testament by writing in Commonweal of his discovery that the New Testament condemns wealth as such—as opposed to, as we are sometimes told, greed or overdue attachment to wealth—a fact which, he says, is brutally laid bare in the literal Greek text and but is all too often bowdlerized by pusillanimous translations. Now Hart has laid out his argument again in the New York Times.
The assertion was bound to generate controversy. Professor Hart’s rhetorical style is combative and designed to goad the counterpunch. And it is intuitively obvious why Christian, and Catholic, supporters of the free enterprise system (of whom I count myself) would react to this idea as to nails on a chalkboard.
Still, lost in the shouting, I wish someone had bothered to note that Hart’s position is merely a restatement of well-established Roman Catholic doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church approvingly quotes the Gospel of Luke (“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise”) and St. John Chrysostom (“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs”) on the topic of what Christians should do with their money.
I wish someone had bothered to note that Hart’s position is merely a restatement of well-established Roman Catholic doctrine.
Citing Scripture and St. Thomas Aquinas, Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” the bedrock of modern Catholic social doctrine, unambiguously states: “when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over” (No. 22). In “Quod Apostolici Muneris,” the same pope writes “By most urgent precept [the Church] commands the rich to distribute their superfluous possessions among the poor, and terrifies them by the divine judgment, whereby, unless they go to the aid of the needy poor, they are to be tormented by everlasting punishments.” Pius XI’s “Quadragesimo Anno” concurs: “a person's superfluous income [...] is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence” (No. 50).
In other words, the very fact of superfluous wealth, apart from greed or lack of detachment, is condemnable. In the technical language of Catholic moral theology, the explicit threat of eternal damnation makes it one of those “grave matters” where the objective fact alone is condemnable and, if engaged in freely and in full knowledge of its sinfulness, is a mortal sin, like theft or murder or adultery. This is not some new revelation. It is Catholic dogma.
I would add that Catholic supporters of free enterprise do themselves no favor by trying to sweep that fact under the carpet. There is no opposition between believing in divine condemnation upon wealth as such and believing that a system that happens to create great wealth for a few also creates the most prosperity for all and especially the poor—indeed, these views are complementary. To whom much has been given, much will be required.
Now, to be fair, Hart goes much further than this basic point. It is nonetheless important to be reminded of Catholic doctrine’s condemnation of wealth, since so many would-be orthodox Catholics seem so unaware of it. Still, Hart doesn’t just assert this point; he further argues that the New Testament condemns not only wealth but virtually all private possession.
It is important to be reminded of Catholic doctrine’s condemnation of wealth, since so many would-be orthodox Catholics seem so unaware of it.
His arguments here are much less convincing. They range from merely bad to disturbingly powerful—and it is because of that power that we should understand precisely why he is wrong.
First, the bad: Hart correctly notes that the early Jerusalem church practiced a kind of proto-communism, holding all property in common. That the New Testament’s divine author intends this as a blueprint for all Christian living, however, is belied by the fact that Paul’s epistles show that the other churches did not practice this, and that he does not regard it as a violation of the Gospel.
Hart also charges that Paul’s use of the word koinonos and its cognates, to refer to what Christians ought to do with their money, does not refer to some generic concept of “sharing” or almsgiving, but rather more specifically to common ownership of property. I dare not cross linguistic swords with Hart, but one still wonders why, if Paul’s import is as clear as Hart says it is, virtually all church fathers missed it. (Hart alleges that Clement of Alexandria purposefully diluted the text’s import to make it more palatable to Greco-Roman sensibilities.)
But Hart’s most powerful argument relates less to any specific scriptural passage or linguistic point than to a sort of argument by accumulation. The New Testament’s calls for Christians to renounce worldly goods and to embrace poverty are so numerous, so emphatic, so insistent, that however we might be able to lawyer ourselves out of any particular one, we would always be missing the forest for the trees. One hears the echo of St. Francis’s call for poverty sine glosa, “without gloss”—that is, without vaguely dubious theological arguments that try to define poverty as anything but its common-sense meaning. Or the echo of Kierkegaard, who famously wrote:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
Contra their critics who would reassure me that I can go on with my petit bourgeois lifestyle undisturbed, Hart and Kierkegaard are quite right that the New Testament says what they think it says. But it is important to understand why they are wrong about the implications.
Jesus, we are told, did not just speak in parables, he spoke in hyperbole. Quite right: Nobody thinks that Jesus actually wants you to pluck your eye out if it drives you to lust. (Wouldn’t you be just as able to lust after a beautiful person with just one eye?) What is wrong is to stop once we have said this.
Professor Hart is wrong and the church is right. There are vocations, and some Christians are called to total poverty; others are called to live in the world, and therefore to engage in market transactions, to earn wages and to accumulate savings to provide economic security for their families. No church father, catechism, encyclical or council has ever preached the opposite. What is wrong is to stop once we have said this, as his critics would have us.
Some Christians are called to total poverty; others are called to live in the world, and therefore to engage in market transactions.
Here’s the rub: The fact that I can know that God does not want me to give up all worldly goods because I support a child is precisely why I cannot rest easy. The fact that my vocation is perfectly acceptable to God is why Jesus’ thunderous words still apply to me. Jesus’ dramatic, hyperbolic words are a reminder that even while maintaining my vocation as a petit bourgeois, I can always be more radical in how I love and how I give to my fellow man. “Fearful it is to fall in the hands of the living God,” Kierkegaard reminds us in the same passage I quoted above. And how reassuring it would be for petit bourgeois Christians like myself to tell ourselves that the way Jesus preaches is for the others, for those who go into the desert.
To put it simply: poverty sine glosa is not the only way for the Christian. But that reminder should always be followed up by the always urgent reminder that we could still do with a lot less glosa and a lot more poverty.
Jesus’ hyperbole is there to remind us that we can always do more. “Let the dead bury their dead,” Christ commands us! We cannot take that to mean that all Christians everywhere should fail to pay respect to deceased loved ones. But neither can we—and this attitude is much more common, much more destructive—simply wave a magic wand of “Well, that’s hyperbole” and turn this fiery admonition into some bland platitude about detachment from worldliness. How much of my attachment to my family is a genuine expression of Christian charity, and how much is rote habit, social pressure, mere convenience that draws me away from Christ? The hyperbole is too strong for me to rest easy. How many “good Catholic” parents bemoan the decline in priests until Junior announces that he is going to the seminary and they won’t have grandchildren? Let the dead bury their dead.
How reassuring it would be for Christians like myself to tell ourselves that the way Jesus preaches is for the others, for those who go into the desert.
Hart, a tireless basher of Protestant theology (not one of his least virtues), has produced a crypto-Protestant theology out of his exegesis. It paints the same picture of the New Testament’s moral commands as Luther’s: as a kind of reductio ad absurdum, a rhetorical device meant to convict us of their impossibility and to cause us to seek refuge from divine wrath through faith alone, apart from works, and he defends this picture by impatiently swatting away millennia of tradition and scholarship through appeals to the plain literal meaning of Scripture alone. In contrast, the Catholic Church (as well as Hart’s own Eastern Orthodox Church) has always maintained that these commands are calls for actual moral heroism—difficult, to be sure, but achievable through the supernatural aid of the Spirit and the sacraments. This ersatz sola fide doctrine, it should be stressed, is not what Hart means—but it is what his thesis would have meant, in practice, for the vast majority of believers if the church had adopted it, doing incomparably much more to hasten Christianity’s appeasement of materialism, consumerism and the petite bourgeoisie that he correctly blames on the Reformation.
“The Jansenist Saint-Cyran once made the thought-provoking remark that faith consists of a series of contradictions held together by grace,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his magisterial Introduction to Christianity. The whole business of orthodoxy—of right belief—is the holding together of those contradictions, while error comes from often well-intentioned attempts to resolve them by emphasizing one side at the expense of the other. Is Jesus God, or is he a man? Yes, orthodoxy answers. Is there one God, or is there God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit? Yes, orthodoxy answers. Is salvation by sheer grace through faith, or through works? Yes, orthodoxy answers. And finally, are Christians called to a total renunciation of the world, or are there vocations that rightly involve property ownership and all that that entails? Yes, orthodoxy must answer.
And in turn, this is why orthodoxy matters. Not as a sort of logical game, or as a sort of checklist whose every entry the church must tick, but because in the end, the opposite of orthodoxy is not heresy—it is idolatry. We scheming swindlers spend our entire days building up idols, a God in our own image. The image of the Golden Calf does not just symbolize money, power and sex, it symbolizes those things because if any of us were a god, we would be a god of money, power and sex. The scheming and the swindling is the drive to drop one side of the contradictions set forth by orthodoxy so that we can worship a God in our own image, a God who, like the Golden Calf, seems more reassuring at first because it is easier to grasp, but always becomes a pitiless tyrant. How much more fearful it is, instead, to face up to the apparent contradictions and to try to live them through the Spirit.
In his laudable attempt to stir us out of our complacency and unleash the radicality of the Gospel’s commands, Professor Hart’s oversimplification actually ends up domesticating them.