When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of “radicals” (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture. The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social situations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions.
-David Bentley Hart
Dorothy Day (right). 1974.
Over the past several years I have begun to realize how important it is in my life to become closer to Christ. This being both in a spiritual and religious sense, but also by the way I live my life. Unfortunately, this has not been an easy undertaking for me, and I find the more I study Christ the harder it tends to be.
My problems first arose when I began to embrace Christ’s teachings on non-violence. I come from a conservative evangelical Christian background, and there is perhaps no group in America that has deemed “respect for the military” of higher importance. I want to clarify that I have the utmost sympathy for soldiers that have served in the confines of the terror that is war. But the military complex as a whole is supremely antithetical to Christ’s radical pacifist teachings (Matt. 5:38-41, 5:43-46, 10:22-23, 16:24-25, 22:40, 26:52, Mark 10:18, 11:25, Luke 6:27-28, John 8:7, 18:36).
I became frustrated. Why are Christians often at the forefront of the pro-military campaign? It didn’t make any sense.
Non-violence was a big part of my revelation of Christ, but it was not the only thing. I began to see other issues that were antithetical to Christ’s teaching. In college I went on a trip to a community in Kansas City called Argentine. Argentine was almost completely comprised of Black and Hispanic folks, and was a very poor neighborhood. Many of the people living their were undocumented. We stayed in a church, worshipped with them, and became familiar with their lives. I quickly began to understand their situations much better than I ever had before. Many of them were in horrible situations and the decisions they made were made for their family. Some had to live separated from their children for years. This opened my eyes. Quickly refugees and immigrants became very important to me. Other issues also began to be revealed to me like poverty, race, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, and consumerism. They all started to become systems I could point to and say they were against true Christianity.
And I still believe they are, and I continue to believe that they are very important and must be frequently addressed as the evils they are. Christ blatantly exposed the reality of systemic sin and the urgency to correct it.
But this left me mostly with a Christianity that could only expose the sin of large institutions. And really what this leads to is only a lot of ranting – a problem that only leads to more problems, really.
This whole journey really began to challenge my faith. To me, much of modern Christianity had only taken the image and idea of Christ, all the while being wrapped up in some sort of cross between conservatism, empire, progress, militarism, consumerism, etc.
This is a hard realization for someone who has been a Christian his whole life. It creates doubts and frustrations.
But I soon began to realize why some of this was the case and why I perhaps was being hypocritical.
The other day I read the introduction to David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. In the introduction, while he claims he always knew the “radicalism” of Christ’s teaching and the first Christians that followed those teachings, the urgent and provocative call to renounce the way of the world for the Kingdom of the heavens only became further illuminated in the process of transliterating the Ancient Greek into English.
What Hart realized was that the teachings and commandments of Jesus were so contradictory to the social, political, and religious systems in which the world functions under that to those of us that fit in so well to those systems, Christ teachings seem to be almost completely void of common sense. And as practically geared, scientifically minded, worrisome people we have ingeniously figured out how to morph scripture in such a way that Christ conveniently saves us from the burden of Christianity, rather than Christ revealing true Christianity to us.
The Gospel is just far too radical for us. Commands to love your enemies. Calls to sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Evil thoughts being equivalent to murder. Demands to hate your father and mother and let the dead bury their own dead. The call to never take up arms and to never have any possessions. That it is humanly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of the heavens.
Realizing this made me have sympathy for Christians today. How can we achieve those things? Certainly it is impossible… By no means do I do those things.
Have I too much common sense to be a Christian?
But this is when the early church comes in. Before speaking to the early church I first want to clarify this: the early church was by no means perfect and it is not my attempt to make them appear without blemish. That being said, I do believe the first Christians, those after Christ, those in Acts, those persecuted by the Roman Empire in the first, second, and third centuries, were perhaps the closest representation of what it means to truly be Christian. And largely, this is because they strictly followed the teachings of Christ.
The early Christians lived in a time when they believed that Christ would very soon be coming back to earth. And so, to them, war wasn’t worth it. Persecution only made them grow stronger. As Hart makes clear, to the first Christians, the entire idea of owning possessions meant you were deliberately taking from others who were in need.
The first Christians were in fact communists or communalists, that is if you go by the strictly literal definition that everything is publicly owned and everyone is given according to their needs. Acts 2:44-46 states: “And all those who had faith were at the same place and owned all things communally, and they sold their properties and possessions, and distributed to everyone, according as anyone had need.” Acts 4:34-35: “For neither was anyone among them in need; for as many as were proprietors of lands or households were selling them and bringing the profits of the things they sold, and laying them at the feet of the Apostles, and there was a redistribution, to each according as anyone had need.”
For the first Christians, this is what you did if you were a follower of Christ. To us it doesn’t make sense. Didn’t some of those Christians work hard for their money? Didn’t they earn what they had? What about those who didn’t put in any work? This won’t teach them any good lesson about how to live if we just give them handouts. Right?
To us the communal style of Church that Acts portrays and that Jesus commanded seems like a form of stealing from those who had earned what they had. But to them they didn’t have any possessions. Even if they did. So they had their resources redistributed to serve the needs of others.
One thing to keep in mind is that the church was not using the government as its source of redistribution. That being said, the Christian church today mostly uses its money on itself. In fact, in 2001 (a time when a much larger amount of people associated themselves with Christianity than do today) a study was done that revealed Christians on average spend about 98% of their money on themselves. And Christians that claim they give lots of their money to the church might be upset in finding out that churches spend about 95% of the money that is given to them on themselves.
I guess what that means is as a church we have some work to do. But we also need to be aware of our politics. As Christians, we are not looking to our politics as a solution. A political system, ideal, or person is not going to solve our problems. Communism might be very close to what Christ calls us to, but communism without Christ is a very scary thing, as history reveals to us.
But politics also affect the lives of many people. And therefore, we need to be happy when we see our politics embodying a Christlike identity, and we also must be quick to respond to those who are experiencing injustices brought by political forces. But as Christians it is important to recognize that we do not find our solution through politics. In fact, if we find ourselves embodying a Christlike vision, it seems to me that it will be impossible for us to find a home under any current political ideologies anyway. In this way, we likely may feel misunderstood or even alienated by our politics, as they won’t fit in with the practical, commonsensical ideologies of our day.
Individually, what does this Christlike, Kingdom vision mean for us? Well, first it means to stray from the notion that the only reason Christ was on the earth was to die for us. Christ was on the earth to show us a new way. A way that reached its crescendo on the cross where Jesus died at the hands of our sinful systems. That is, the way of love expressed in forgiveness. This is Christ’s ultimate expression that we, in our lost world should look to as a means of restoration.
That is what Christ’s death is about. The new way. This is what saves us. We are not going to be able to perfectly embody Christ’s radical teaching. Though, some have come much closer than we might like to believe. Radicals like those in the early church, St. Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Shane Claiborne and many others come extremely close to being the living embodiment of Christ’s teachings. Abandoning possessions, living in service of others, living communally, resisting the systems of injustice.
You see, what makes Christianity so powerful and so beautiful are its radical calls. Calls to love so much that you will find yourself loving even those who hate you. Calls to give all you have so that others may be helped. Calls to resist violence with such integrity that when someone strikes you on the cheek you turn your head and offer your other cheek to show there is no circumstance in which you will take revenge on someone. Calls to deeply resist the idea that you have only one mom and dad and one brother and sister but that everyone is part of your intimate family.
What I realize is that if we deliberately make an attempt to even try to get closer to the commands of Jesus, we will start finding ourselves quite lost in the world. We will start making decisions that don’t really make sense but are done because they are acts of love. Unfortunately that doesn’t fit in real well in our world and the systems that make it up.
But when we explore history we must remember it is not those who moderately go through the motions who change the world. It is not those who fit comfortably in to all the social, political, and religious commonalities of their day. It is precisely those who resist the comforts that orders the world so as to embrace a new way. A way that cannot be seen through the lenses of this world but only through the vision of Christ.
In our own lives I truly believe this means that we must live differently. That we must try as hard as we can to embrace the commands of Christ and to become more like the early church that lived eagerly awaiting the coming of Christ.
Please keep in mind: This is not a message of condemnation. For I would be the ultimate hypocrite if this was the case. It is a call. A call needed just as much for me as anyone else. But while it is an individual call, and I do believe that each of us need to make important personal decisions that will help us live more deliberately and closely to that which Christ calls us to, it is most importantly a call to the Church of Christ. That together, we must not just embrace the idea of Christ but also his teachings. Both individually, and communally, as the beautiful body of believers that makes up the church.