Is the Bible Communist? A Reflection from Acts 4
Years ago, I was teaching the course on the Book of Acts at a Christian college in Kansas. When we got to the section in Acts 4, that I’ll be preaching from on Sunday, I asked the class if communism could be found in the Bible. Then I pointed them to Acts 4:32-37. In that passage, we read that this early Christian community “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Then Luke writes that “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:34). Now this word in Acts 4 is preceded by a word in Acts 2: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44).
We often hear Christian leaders in the United States suggest that communism or socialism are anti-Christian. We’ve been hearing a lot of that recently from the conservative side of the Christian community. Usually, what they mean by communism is old-fashioned liberalism of a kind that FDR and LBJ embraced (and much of the country with them). Personally, I’m more of an old-fashioned liberal than a Democratic Socialist, but I do think that the smearing of socialism from Christians is to misread and misinterpret, perhaps intentionally, much of the biblical story and the message of Jesus in particular. Now neither modern socialism nor modern capitalism is to be found in the Bible. The economic systems of the ancient world were very different from ours. Nevertheless, the experiences of these early Christians, if we’re to take the Bible seriously (and as many conservatives wish to do, literally), need to be heard.
José Miranda wrote a provocatively titled book some years back titled Communism in the Bible. Yes, I read portions of the book to my class on the Book of Acts to see how they would respond. I will admit that they weren’t sure what to make of this as it ran contrary to all they had been taught. Miranda was at the time a professor at the Universidad Metropolitana Tztapalpa in Mexico City. He was an economist, mathematician, and theologian (he earned a licentiate in Biblical Sciences from the Biblical Institute in Rome as well as degrees in economics and mathematics). He writes that “Luke’s normative intention stands out. There is no question of a special lifestyle that should be considered peculiar to some Christians in contrast with the general mass of Christians. His insistence is even a little affected—pántes hoi pisteúantes (2:44), all the believers, all who ha believed in Jesus Christ, all Christians; oudé heî not one said anything was his; hósoi ktétores (4:34), whoever possessed fields or houses, whoever had anything. If they wanted to be Christians the condition was communism” [Miranda, Communism in the Bible, p. 7].
Now it can be argued that either this vision of community was aspirational. It could be argued that it was optional. Remember Peter told Ananias and Sapphira that their property belonged to them. They could have kept it. The problem here was that they lied about what they were doing. I will admit that this story in Acts 5 is problematic. Nevertheless, it doesn’t undo the prior declarations in chapter 4 that the people were one in heart and soul and that they shared their possessions so that no one went without. We can argue about the merits of various economic systems, but that misses the point of the passage. That is, in that earliest community they attempted to create a situation where the differences between rich and poor were minimized so that everyone had what they needed. They did so because they saw this as an expression of their faith in the one who was raised from the dead.
It’s easy to skip over Acts 4:33, which sits between the statement that they held everything in common (vs. 32) and that there wasn’t anyone in the community in need (vs. 34). The middle verse, verse 33, declares: “With great power, the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” It’s this middle verse that qualifies the passage for inclusion in the lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter. Their sense of community was rooted in their confession of faith in the resurrected one! Therefore, as Mitzi Smith writes:
The statement about how the apostles declared the power of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection is connected both grammatically and causatively to the showering of God’s great grace upon the crowd. All the believers were having access to God’s grace. But the presence of God’s resurrection grace (God raised Jesus) is expressed when the community provides for the needy among them with their own resources. At a time when some Christians and politicians demonize a social justice gospel, the scriptures still call us to it. The scene may be somewhat romanticized, but it is a worthy ideal, nonetheless. [Working Preacher, April 15, 2012].
So, if we are to celebrate the resurrection, then it appears that celebration has important implications when it comes to the way in which we experience community as followers of Jesus.
Image attribution: Fichter, David. Potluck Mural, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56967 [retrieved April 6, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zenmama/5429643508 - L. Sabato.