Jesus the Dot-Communist

One of the commonly posited notions is that the early disciples were socialists: group authority, sharing everything, trading MP3s on Nazareth's Napster.  But can we fit this contemporary political tag onto a first-century system?

I think that perhaps for the first time in history, we can.  Wired's most recent magazine has an article on the Web 2.0 and collaborative online ventures as "The New Socialism."  One of the interesting points that Kevin Kelly makes is that socialism is usually defined as a tension between individual autonomy and the authority of the state.  More authority?  Socialism.  More autonomy?  Free market.  Give and take, zero-sum trades, very little in-between.

Emerging from the web these days is "The New Socialism," which, according to Kelly, is decentralized public coordination to solve problems and create things that neither pure communism nor pure capitalism can:

The largely unarticulated but intuitively understood goal of communitarian technology is this: to maximize both individual autonomy and the power of people working together. (Wired, June 2009, 120)
This articulation of socialism resonates with the biblical notion of socialism in Acts 2, Acts 4 and even echoes back to Exodus 16.  Gone are the antiquainted notions of socialism as centralized authority and controlled information and resources channels, replaced by distributed authority and open transparency.  And wasn't that what the Apostles were doing?  Distributed authority among them all?  Open transparency that replaced the rigidly controlled temple system?

These days we call the US government socialist, and I don't think that definition fits with the Apostles.  But this new socialism, I think, finally describes accurately what the original Apostles considered to be the best way for the creative experience and expression of the Spirit to emerge.

Thoughts?

7 comments:

Matt Shafer June 3, 2009 at 11:27 PM  

This is an awesome insight. I've been arguing with a friend of mine for a while now about the compatibility of capitalism (american-style, anyway) with Christian ethics, but haven't really been able to propose much in the way of an alternative system. This emerging idea is very interesting...I'll have to look into it more.

Earl,  June 4, 2009 at 7:28 AM  

Exodus 16 is not even remotely related to social or economic communism. Acts 2 and 4 describe an experiment by the primitive church with a naive communism. Every indication is that that experimental foray was voluntary rather than requisite to entry into or participation in that early faith community. It is not indicated that such communism was central to what it meant to be a believer. The motivation for this experiment could have been the overwhelming need of widows or it could have been a response to the consequences of economic exclusion experienced by Jewish Christian converts at the hands of the overwhelmingly Jewish culture of Jerusalem. It would appear that beyond the immediate context of the Jerusalem experience, this experiment failed. There is no reason to now think that a modified form of communism or socialism would produce any better results. When it comes to maximizing personal freedom and opportunity in the context of community, no system has been found that produces any sort of result that approaches free market capitalism.

Dave June 4, 2009 at 10:11 AM  

I have often found myself reminding others that Jesus was a socialist. I have changed that opinion somewhat in the following way. Socialism is giving money to the *government* and letting them distribute services. Jesus told us to give money to the poor, and Acts 2 tells us to share everything with each other. Neither of these involve the government, and to me this is an important distinction. I'm not a gun- and food-hording anti-establishment wacko. However, I think it is important to realize that we are to directly interact with each other and the needy, and not depend on the insulation that would be provided by "filtering" money through the government.

Matt Shafer June 4, 2009 at 12:52 PM  

@Dave: Another excellent point. It's unfortunate that socialism is so often equated with government control -- there are actually several non-governmental models of socialist economics. I don't think Jesus fits any of the prevailing labels particularly well, but I do think he's definitely closer to those than to corporate capitalism.

Anonymous,  June 5, 2009 at 2:27 PM  

Jesus would not have used the coercive power of the state to take from those who are creative and productive to give to those he favors. Socialism and communism is based up the power of the state to take from A to give to B. And if A refuses, he is frequently shot, imprisoned or otherwise hurt. Voluntary associations where wealth is shared on a voluntary basis is one thing. But nowhere in Acts do we see the group stealing property from anyone. It was always shared voluntarily. Socialism is completely incompatible with Christianity. A free-market system, where the dignity of each person is respected, where force is not in play, is much closer to a model economy for Christian.

UMJeremy June 5, 2009 at 11:04 PM  

"where dignity of each person is respected" sure sounds a bit different than the "free market economy" that has existed throughout history.

No, communism and socialism are not much better, but let's not ignore the inequalities in unfettered free markets.

Earl,  June 6, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

Respect, dignity, and equality are not the functions of a economy. An economy is simply a system of exchange. Respect and dignity can not be bought and sold. These values can only be earned and lived. Economic equality of either opportunity or outcome can only be accomplished by forcing one person or group to suffer a loss that another person or group may enjoy a gain. This is true regardless of whether one is speaking of communism, socialism or capitalism. The one principle benefit of capitalism is personal freedom of individual choice. No system can guarantee an equality of outcomes. No system can provide an equality of outcomes. But in free market capitalism the individual has the greatest opportunity for personal success. That is the fairest equality that anyone can expect.

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