6.23.2004

poverty and property

I sent these passages from an old journal to a friend yesterday, to help prepare for our discussion on poverty (and property) at the upcoming Ekklesia Project conference.

I decided not to be an official presenter there, but just a participant in the discussion instead. One of the things that contributed to that decision is the rather high registration fee ($120). I couldn't afford that myself, and certainly wouldn't feel right about preaching "give freely" in front of a group of people that had to pay $120 admission. But the conference organizers assured me that anyone who just "walks in" (unregistered) would not be turned away, so that's what I'm going to do.

I thought the quotes in this journal entry might be good conversation starters:

I found a book by a Mennonite (modern ancestors of the Anabaptists) that offered many excerpts from Anabaptist works. It's Peter Hoover's The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation?

The Anabaptists were a diverse group. They had no centralized doctrine or hierarchy. So what I found was not so much the official beliefs of a denomination, but the witness of Christians that shared a similar faith (also similar to mine). They also shared great sufferings for that faith. Anabaptists were tortured, beheaded, drowned, and burned--by Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Zwinglians alike. And they accepted these persecutions as part of the Christian life. But I'm most interested in their beliefs and practices concerning business and politics.

From Hoover:
The joint council of Z├╝rich, Sankt Gallen, and Bern condemned the Anabaptists in 1527. One thing they held against them was their teaching on economics: "They say that no Christian, if he is really sincere, may either give or receive interest on money. They say that all temporal goods are free and common and everyone has full rights to use them."
Again, after a mass arrest of a community of Anabaptists:
The authorities questioned the heads of the homes: "May a Christian own property?" Answers received varied in detail but they were consistent: "A Christian may have property but in such a way that he has it not, and no one should call property his own.... Holders of property yet owning nothing, Christians use property only as long as it pleases God. Then, when a neighbour or when God needs it, they let it go..."
Berndt Rothmann, a south German Anabaptist, wrote:
We hope that the spirit of community among us is so strong and glorious that community of goods will be practiced with a pure heart through the grace of God as it has never been practiced before. ...All that have served their own materialism and the owning of property, such as buying, selling, and working for personal gain, interest, or speculation, even with unbelievers, and drinking and eating the sweat of the poor through whose labour we fatten ourselves--all this has disappeared completely among us through the power of love and community.
But the common use of goods was not compulsory. Leupold Scharnschlager wrote:
The example of the first Christians is often misunderstood, and because of it some try to make laws, put on pressure, and get people into a corner with what appears to be a human or carnal way of becoming "righteous." We should remember that the community of the first Christians in Jerusalem was totally voluntary. ...Some say that since the Lord Jesus expects everyone to live in community of goods, we should boldly require it of everyone. But the Holy Spirit does not want it that way. It is not man's work to force others into community, just as community itself is not a work of the flesh. We should not go about it in a fleshly way but in a spiritual way, being careful not to violate the free will of the Lord's people.
Not using force was very important to many Anabaptists. This is seen most clearly in their beliefs about politics and violence, but it was also closely connected to their beliefs on economics. An Anabaptist booklet that came out in Augsburg connected violence to private property:
Those who think they possess their goods want the government to protect them. They think it necessary to use force to keep peace, to protect their own possessions and the possessions of others. In fact, all use of force comes from the possession of property. From the holding of property comes all government and force in the world. But the communities of Christ are not based on the holding of property, but on Christ. They are subject to Christ before all else.


Also, I found this interesting passage from De Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them.

All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property: but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property--not only are they possessed of property, but they live in the condition of men who set the greatest store upon their property.

If we attentively consider each of the classes of which society is composed, it is easy to see that the passions engendered by property are keenest and most tenacious amongst the middle classes. The poor often care but little for what they possess, because they suffer much more from the want of what they have not, than they enjoy the little they have. The rich have many other passions besides that of riches to satisfy; and, besides, the long and arduous enjoyment of a great fortune sometimes makes them in the end insensible to its charms. But the men who have a competency, alike removed from opulence and from penury, attach an enormous value to their possessions. As they are still almost within the reach of poverty, they see its privations near at hand, and dread them; between poverty and themselves there is nothing but a scanty fortune, upon which they immediately fix their apprehensions and their hopes. Every day increases the interest they take in it, by the constant cares which it occasions; and they are the more attached to it by their continual exertions to increase the amount. The notion of surrendering the smallest part of it is insupportable to them, and they consider its total loss as the worst of misfortunes.

Now these eager and apprehensive men of small property constitute the class which is constantly increased by the equality of conditions. Hence, in democratic communities, the majority of the people do not clearly see what they have to gain by a revolution, but they continually and in a thousand ways feel that they might lose by one.
And I believe this also applies to the "revolution" of the kingdom of God.