Tuesday, February 13, 2018

WHAT IS TO BE DONE NOW?
(What follows is the conclusion of the essay:  Something’s Gone Missing in the Resistance:  On Revolution, Counterrevolution and Change, by Duane Clinker)

At the cutting edge of changing time:

We lost much in the waves and layers of counterrevolution that swept over the long sixties of the last century.  Revolutionary organizations were destroyed, leaders lost, people dispersed, issues were narrowly reframed by the economic system, and even the meaning of words used in struggle were  sometimes twisted and lost.  However, history does not stop.   Cracks and ruptures have formed in this monolith system of greed and violence which the counterrevolutionaries tried to cover over with “wars against crime,” “trickle-down,” “ending welfare as we know it,” deregulation, militarization of police, deportations, new prisons, and wars and militarization around the globe.

Now, in the tearing and crumbling open those fissures, light shines which illuminates the necessity and possibilities of change.  People begin to think in new ways, and connect things together.  Despite the obstacles, protest and solidarity begins to rise.

These are some of the many signs we need to notice.

January, 1994:  The anti-NAFTA, Zapatista peasant movement suddenly announces itself in strong actions in Chiapas, Mexico and begins a nonviolent war of resistance against globalization, and in defense of ecology, feminism, farmers rights, and participatory democratic commonwealth.  

November, 1999:  Young Americans catalyze mainstream labor and environmental groups in the “Battle of Seattle” demonstrations against the World Trade Organization.   Their affinity groups reinvent flexible tactics blending free initiative and democracy.

February, 2003:  Less than two years after the blowback attacks of 9-11, in over 60 countries, and more than 600 cities, as many as eleven million people participate in the largest anti-war demonstration in history, marching under the banner of No Blood for Oil.” 

September, 2011:  About thirty years after Maggie Thatcher declared “There is no such thing as society, only individuals,” the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations begin. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests of the same year, occupations are established in over 100 cities.  “Society” emerges again in the public consciousness in its division between “the 1% and the 99% .”   Tens of thousands are join discussions and actions for fundamental change.

July, 2013:  Black Lives Matter arises to electrify the nation.  The BLM pulls the cover off abuses and cultures of white racism in police departments and in the system at large.  It catalyzes and empowers a new generation of potential revolutionaries.  

November, 2016:  The Bernie Sanders Campaign begins.  Not revolutionary as such, the Sanders Campaign still brings hundreds of thousands more into political life and reintroduces the words “working class,” and “socialist”  into public use, to the dismay of the counterrevolution. 

January, 2017:  In what is likely the largest protest in US history to date, the Women’s March marks the renewal of a broad women’s rights movement, and massive resistance to Trumpian rule.

None of these events represent the fullness of our organizational needs.  But all of these testify to deep hunger, to learning, to development of new leaders, to the testing of new ideas, and to the emergence of real power among the people.  All of these are indicators that the system has become unstable, polarized, and disunited.  

Capital has begun to feed on its own muscle.  It staggers deeper into the 21st century on its tottering Republican and Democratic legs, bloodied and grasping.  There is great fear, and the temptation of a great silence across the land.  But there is also the rising of outrage, hope, and resistance.  The times are pregnant with danger but also with the potential for the rising again of revolutionary hope.

What is to be done:

This is a time of our testing and we must now demand more than either neoliberalism or Trumpism can offer.  Deeper options must be rediscovered.  Necessity requires that we do this. . . now.

Crowds of individuals are not enough.  They can assemble and protest, and sometimes win short term concessions.  But that is generally all they can do because a crowd of individuals cannot think together.  They cannot make a plan, cannot negotiate with power, or implement the long-term big systemic changes that are so desperately needed.  For that, multitudes of organized groups that can learn, decide, and act together must be built from the bottom-up.  We must build them based on real human relationships.  Such things are possible because such things are needed.

The organizational work that we need can begin, in part, like this;

Through common connections, find six, or a dozen others who hunger for change.  Look for people who are as diverse as possible.  Look for people who are put upon, exploited, trying against all odds to hold things together, and who desperately desire a different world.   Look for people who are honest, who have open minds, caring minds, and who show a kind of quiet wisdom, courage, and resiliency in life.  Look for them in family connections, at your work, in your communities.  Against such as these, the system’s greed has no chance. 

The social glue of the kind of organizations we must build starts, not so much with the head as with the heart.  Right now we don’t need the quick fix of ideologues marching down the street, or those who are satisfied to limit their vision to only voting for “lesser evils,” tweeting, or messaging.  We need much more than that!  The revolution needed now requires a different kind of currency, and most especially a different kind of hunger.

How do we surface such things?  Around kitchen tables.  In living rooms.  In small and intimate rooms out of public hearing sometimes.  But while we start small, this is no small game.  From the beginning commit to growing.  Learn to live outside of your comfort zone.  Positive change requires that.

Remember two key words as you start out: “anger” and “desire.”  The root word for anger is “grief.”  So when you meet with friends, dare to ask things like, “What hurts you about what’s happening in the world?  What angers you?”  “Share something about an important time you saw oppression in your life.”  And, speak of “desire” too.  Desire is a word that we have to recover because it is now usually used in reference only to the surface lust for things to consume.  Explore your desires deeper things.  Speak of them aloud in community.  “What do you really need for a good life for you; for the children?”  “What do you really desire for the nation?  For the world?”  These are not easy questions.  Find the hard questions to discuss together.  

Get vulnerable.  Forget the macho.  Do not seek to dominate.  Seek to learn.  Dive beneath the surface.  Respect the stories.  Start to peel back the layers of it, in personal history and more.  “What do you think has been the hardest thing for your family to wrestle with in life?”  “So far as you know it, how has your family earned its living through the generations?”  “What is the greatest wrong your family has experienced over the generations?  What caused it?”  Listen each other into speech.  Don’t interrupt each other.   Learn to tell the stories.  Here, in your own stories connected together, the actual history of oppression, bondage, conquest, greed, and resistance in the country will often appear.  

Abandon defensiveness.  Look to uncover the white racism, and the spirit of conquest in the system and in ourselves that you may not have seen before.  Listen for the forms of bondage you have unwittingly just accepted and taken inside your own mind which have stopped you from fully seeing.  When you discover evil, don’t let it stop you.  Use it as a stepping stone.  As you listen and discuss, understanding grows.  You will feel the power will begin to rise.  Overcome divisions among those of us who are oppressed based in past history if you can.  Find pathways to mutuality with others seeking change.

Respect the stories.  The stories will expose the oppression and the desire for justice and change.  Listen to the ancient wisdom of Leslie Marmon Silko in the book Ceremony.

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren't' just entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.

You don't have anything
if you don't have stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can't stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then. . . 

This is a different method.  It is one that respects the human.  It builds deep.  It is revolutionary because it is based in a common reality.  It is revolutionary because it is open-ended.  It does not limit understandings to capitalist definitions and pre-conceptions of good and bad.  It surfaces the desire and then the reality of community and changes what is possible.  It is not the kind of organizing that has been confused with sales.  

It is an antidote to counterrevolution.

As the discoveries are made, as the fire begins to burn, discuss holding a larger house party to share your process and discoveries with a larger circle of people.  Invite them join or start their own discussion to sample the fearless rooted conversations.  Grow. 

Next, use the solidarity you are finding, and the understanding you are gaining, to go into action.  Identify an issue, a common thing, around which to go into action together.  Perhaps it is an evil to be exposed, or a demand to be made to a local person in power, or just something you can do to inspire others to join in with you.  Street clean-up?  Mini-flash mob at a public hearing?  Calling a rally together?  Pick it.  Do it!  Decide and strategize and plan together.  Commit and go into action.  When you do this you are creating a kind of “body public.”  You have ceased to be only a group of individuals.  You have become something very powerful, a community of interest that dares to stand up, and which supports each other in the standing up, against oppression.  

When that first action is over, celebrate.  Throw a little party.  But even then, don’t just move on, take time to discuss things fully.  Go over every detail.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What have you learned?  What’s required next?  Discuss what happened.  Squeeze that experience like a lemon.  Get every drop of learning out of it.  

Learn this basic rhythm of a consciously revolutionary life.  Learn together, reflect together, act together, and repeat.   Invite new people or start new groups at regular intervals if you can.

About now is the time for reading.  If you have not already started doing this together, do it now.   Start reading the history you don’t know, but is relevant to what you are doing.  Read theory.  Read current events.  Read everything, including the other side of things.  Watch documentaries and notice what they miss.  Dive into things you haven’t been taught in school.  Find radical reading lists.  Aways ask what’s here about oppression and liberation that I need to know?  Throw away the garbage that is just a defense for oppression.  

See.  Listen.  It will hurt sometimes.  Do it anyway.  You are not alone.

And if you can, - I speak now from experience and use this term broadly - pray.  But don’t violate your integrity.  If you do pray, don’t ask for things, ask instead to be able to serve.  If you do pray, ask for wisdom.  Ask to be able to listen, and to see.  In any case, learn humility.  A true revolution cannot be made without humility.  

Bathe in the awe and wonder of life.  Learn the joy of the natural world.  Respect creation.

Root yourself in militant love.  Sometimes love is warm; sometimes it is cold.  Both are necessary in this work. 

The time will come to connect groups.  We will learn how in time.  The fruit does not appear overnight from the seed.  A dozen such groups of a dozen have ten times more power in their hands than a thousand strangers in a group.   And when a thousand and 10,000 and more arrive in time, they will be in a body that is organized and capable of flexibility and strategy, having much more power than before.

This way of organizing needs to be done at the base of society.  The center of gravity and the decision making power of these new body publics must be rooted among common, ordinary, oppressed and diverse working class people.

Recently, I was at a demonstration at the RI State House with perhaps 700 others to defend the DACA Dreamers that the American “nationalists” want deported.  Almost all the attenders were young.  Many speakers were speaking for the first time in a crowd.  

One young person, identified as “they or them” had been chosen by their group to speak.  They were a student and a member of an organization of high school students.  They were vulnerable and possessed great presence and courage.  And they were on fire.  After the short witness to justice was made and they stepped back from the mic, screams went up, as the speaker’s friends from their relationship-based community crowded around, hugging and embracing in the excitement of that first powerful public statement of truth.  

That is what I am trying to describe.  New first steps.  Organizing that builds relationships into participatory decision-making organized groups, rooted among those who are outside the “normal” political channels of power, that can think and act for themselves, and discover joy in acting.  

This is what I mean by organizing that is rooted in the practice of radical love.  It is based in mutual respect.  It is the kind that both protests and celebrates; that both hugs and fights fiercely; that dares to look at both history and the present, and then that dares to imagine a different future. 

We must organize new “body publics” for the common good, and the commonwealth for all on a shared and balanced earth.  This is must become the universal task of many tribes.

At the end of that young student’s speech on the State House steps, we were taught the words of the revolutionary Assata Shakur:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Then, we shouted those stanzas back to the young speaker in unison, like a statement of faith; as if they were a creed, which I guess they are.

And here, if you wish, is another such expression, that expresses the spirit of liberation; one you can sing:  .Click on it or copy and past it into your address bar on the internet.

writing copyright 2016 by Duane Clinker
You may comment to Duane regarding these ideas at duaneclinkerdirect@gmail.com







Saturday, December 2, 2017

7 AM
first day
in the new factory
Rhode Island 1974


                                                                                                                                                            photo by Clinker

The first time I approached the shop, my excitement at a new job - blinded me to certain facts I should have noticed.  

The building was new and modern and painted a cheerful yellow.  Well, that should have warned me right there.  Exactly why was it necessary to paint a factory cheerful yellow?  What was that hiding?  

I should have also noticed the fact that, except for the small guard window looking out to surveil what people were doing in the parking lot, there were absolutely no windows in its huge four acre expanse of a steel frame building.  Oh, there were windows in the front brick section where the white collars worked.  But, in the back, in gigantic box on a concrete slab where things were made - was nary a window to be found.

I should have noticed when I walked into the building from the sunlight into  to the huge, dark expanse.  I felt blind.  I should have taken that as a hint.  I should have noticed the smell in the darkness as my eyes adjusted; the grayness of smoke with whiffs of things inorganic and unnatural hanging chemicals in the lost transparency of the air.  

But I didn’t .

I walked down aisles lit by by glaring but insufficient mercury vapor lamps to find my workstation near the back of the building.  There I found the time clock surrounded by the rack of time cards which would measure us.  I searched among them for one with my name on it.  I think your stomach feels this no matter who you are on the first day.  You know that a week ago or so you answered the add, filled out the application, and you told your little lies in the interview.  You know someone in a white shirt shook your hand and told you you were hired and that you should report on this day before 7 am with your tools and ready to work.  But, there is still a question.  Are you really hired?   Did they really buy it?  Do you really work here?  Do you really have a card with your name on it among all these others?  Can you depend now on taking that first magical step toward a pay check?

I scan the cards sticking their head out of the gray rack, feeling like a youth reading a list of names who made the team.  I feel the eyes of workers who are still strangers to me on my back.  Is it there?  Am I in?   Finally, at the bottom I find it.  Panic eases.  My name is handwritten unlike the others, obviously not yet completely affirmed by the fuller investment of computer payroll integration.  “Clinker - 573.”  So that’s it.  “Clinker - 573.”  I am 573.  I punch the clock.  It is 6:53 and the time clock’s thud and vibration for once feels good at the start of a day and not its end.

The grey machines stand there in a row.  Other workers huddle in small groups talking here and there or are already at their stations puttering with tools to get ready for the beginning.  Here I stand, among them but apart; unassigned to a machine.  I notice the machinist tool chests many have opened and I try not to stand out as I hold my pitifully small fishing tackle box with a few wrenches and screwdrives I have brought from home.  I am as green as new grass, trying to look like I have some possible clue as to what the fuck I am doing. 

But I must learn, and these men, and these grey monster machines are my teachers.

Then comes the hideous noise.  It has become 7 AM.  It is not the romantic steam whistle of yesteryear, but the glaring blaring nasal electric horn.  Switches are thown and the noise begins in earnest as the new shift takes over.  It builds to a whining growl, as tool bits bite into spinning metal, punctuated by the clanging of hammers and crackle and flashing of electric welding arcs in work areas near our own.  

I should have known when I heard the noise.  


An old man walks over in a white open collar shirt.  He is the front line in management’s defense.  “You Clinker?,” he says.  I nod.  “You ran a lathe before before, right?”  I stupidly say “Yes.”   It begins. 

                                                            CLINKER COPYRIGHT 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017



building participatory organizations


THE THREE-LEGGED STOOL MODEL
OF REVOLUTIONARY ORGANIZING



- the basics -

This model is adapted from decades of work in community, labor, and faith based organizing.  It is revolutionary, when it is open ended and dedicated to making change from the position of radical love.  But it can be used for any more limited thing from knitting circles to book groups to a soccer league to whatever. . . 

A two legged stool is useless.  Three legs, are the basic requirement and they must be in balance, working together as a kind of DNA deep in the ‘body public’ of the group as a whole.

Communal Relationships are critical.  They can feed patience, humility, and sustain a group and its leaders over time and trial.  These relationships must be consciously built because the world we emerge is hyper-individualized, commercialized, egotistic, and saturated with racism and prejudicesTime must be taken to build and restore deeper human relationships in meetings through facilitating small group conversations that create the space for sharing reflections, experiences, and desires for a different world.  In these we learn to tell our stories, and experience the deepening of cross cultural insights, and histories.   These conversations do not waste time on trivia, but push and deepen experience.  They find and build common ground.  In them we deepen commitment and experience joy.  In them, our foundation hopes surface and our vision and purpose together deepens.

Collective Actions are essential to the work.  In them the group selects and learns to frame an issue, risk, and act together.  The group steps up and out and a living thing acting in its own behalf.  It does things right and it also makes mistakes.  It learns.  Action takes people into action and weeds out those who only want to talk.  In action we learn to brake big problems down in to bit-size issue pieces, analyze power, how to struggle together from our own experience, develop strategy and tactics, and to win.  We build our power and strength as we go along.

Constant Learning  as a thing in itself is often overlooked.  But, since we are out to change things, it too is a primary component.  Action and the Reflection on Action brings us to a bigger world.  Our hyper-individualized, commercialized worlds begin to crack open on a global scale.  We learn things together.  We learn to reflect on the growing relationships and the direct actions we take, by other forms of learning that may include a movie or a lecture or a book group or even a road trip.  We discover a wider world and pull those constant learnings back into our group process.  and the essential experience in America of cultural diversity that stretch the horizon and push and pull.  The person or group that experiences the constant thrill of learning something new, in diversity of cultures, across time and space, expands their world, and experiences something worth having that expands their personal insights and their collective power. 

In good organizing, these three for a unity of one emerging group culture and practice, that unites around a vision and a common purpose.  In the revolutionary form that purpose opens up to struggle against oppression in all its forms and for an environment in balance.  The three connected legs, create the solid for the achievement of the greater good in the vision and purpose of the group.

- going deeper -

In our society we are rarely trained to work like this as a group.  At most we may experience the thrill of a temporary crowd at a sporting event.  In our day to day life we experience hierarchal, authoritarian workplaces and/or the deadening, oppressive bureaucracies agencies, courts, and often (sadly) schools, churches, and more.  Even our so-called democratic political process are laced with pettiness, egoism, and greed that often obstructs the search for the common good.

We have to unlearn to learn.  At first using the three-legged stool model for a group may seem a bit clumsy, or slow, perhaps like a toddler learning to walk.  But soon enough it becomes the way we grow, because it works much better for a living, breathing community than those authoritarian, bureaucratic, systems used by those whose goals are individualized wealth and power.  

It is a “revolutionary model” if it is open-ended.  If it is only about say, “elections,” or “charity,” or only about a limited community, say a soccer league, this model will still work.  It is a human model.  But our human societies are in crisis and under a growing heel of oppression, and organizations are also needed to achieve the revolutionary things we need that are open-ended.  If the group limits itself to one constituency, or one tactic, it may result in good and be good.  But it will not then be able to journey on in action, or learning and its relationship-building will necessarily narrow.

In my experience, and in its most revolutionary aspect the three legged stool model has the greatest power when it rests on the solid, level ground of what is often called the “spiritual.”  This foundation is a place and experience of radical Love that goes to the roots of creation and beyond.  It is open and inclusive.  Its conscious practice and experience strengthens. 

clinker
copyright 2017


from the New York Times, SundayReview | OPINION
Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?
By DAVID BENTLEY HART - NOV. 4, 2017

Here reproduced with comments by Duane Clinker

NOTE:  Here is a short article WELL WORTH the read about an important part of the original Christian Way of Jesus.  It points to a startlingly different and profoundly radical interpretation of the Jesus movement, than that of “America First Christians” whose faith has been ripped from its roots and imprisoned inside loyalties of nationalism, capitalism, and hyper-individualism instead of the actual teachings and practice of Jesus.
    I add my notes to the reading in yellow.  My studies have found Hart’s writing essentially accurate, with one major flaw tending to undercut his major point, which I will note in its place.  Duane Clinker
The original here reproduced is available without comment at:  


It was in 1983 that I heard the distinguished Greek Orthodox historian Aristeides Papadakis casually remark in a lecture at the University of Maryland that the earliest Christians were “communists.” In those days, the Cold War was still casting its great glacial shadow across the cultural landscape, and so enough of a murmur of consternation rippled through the room that Professor Papadakis — who always spoke with severe precision — felt obliged to explain that he meant this in the barest technical sense: They lived a common life and voluntarily enjoyed a community of possessions. The murmur subsided, though not necessarily the disquiet.

Not that anyone should have been surprised. If the communism of the apostolic church is a secret, it is a startlingly open one. Vaguer terms like “communalist” or “communitarian” might make the facts sound more palatable but cannot change them. The New Testament’s Book of Acts tells us that in Jerusalem the first converts to the proclamation of the risen Christ affirmed their new faith by living in a single dwelling, selling their fixed holdings, redistributing their wealth “as each needed” and owning all possessions communally. This was, after all, a pattern Jesus himself had established: “Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

This was always something of a scandal for the Christians of later ages, at least those who bothered to notice it. And today in America, with its bizarre piety of free enterprise and private wealth, it is almost unimaginable that anyone would adopt so seditious an attitude. Down the centuries, Christian culture has largely ignored the more provocative features of the early church or siphoned off their lingering residues in small special communities (such as monasteries and convents). Even when those features have been acknowledged, they have typically been treated as somehow incidental to the Gospel’s message — a prudent marshaling of resources against a hostile world for a brief season, but nothing essential to the faith, and certainly nothing amounting to a political philosophy.

It’s true, of course, that the early church was not a political movement in the modern sense. The very idea would have been meaningless. There were no political ideologies in the ancient world, no abstract programs for the reconstitution of society. But if not a political movement, the church was a kind of polity, and the form of life it assumed was not merely a practical strategy for survival, but rather the embodiment of its highest spiritual ideals. Its “communism” was hardly incidental to the faith.

The early church’s radicalism, if that is the right word, was impressed upon me repeatedly over the past few years, as I worked on my own translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press. When my longtime editor initially proposed the project, I foolishly imagined it would be an easy task: not because the text is a simple one, but because I had often “corrected” what I considered inadequate renderings of many of its passages, either for students or for myself. I assumed that long familiarity had prepared me to turn the Greek into English almost effortlessly.

Soon, though, I realized that while I may have known many things about the text, I had not always grasped them properly. I knew that much of the conventional language of scriptural translation has the effect of reducing complex and difficult words and concepts to vacuously simple or deceptively anachronistic terms (“eternal,” “hell,” “justification,” to give a few examples). But I had not appreciated how violently those conventions impoverish the text or obscure crucial dimensions of its conceptual world. The books of the New Testament, I came to see, constitute a historical conundrum — not because they come from the remote world of late antiquity, but rather because they often appear to make no sense even in the context of antiquity.

I found myself constantly in doubt, in particular, regarding various constructions concerning words dealing with that which is “koinon,” or “common,” and most especially the texts’ distinctive emphasis on “koinonia.” This is a word usually rendered blandly as “fellowship” or “sharing” or (slightly better) “communion.” But is that all it implies?

After all, the New Testament’s condemnations of personal wealth are fairly unremitting and remarkably stark: Matthew 6:19-20, for instance (“Do not store up treasures for yourself on the earth”), or Luke 6:24-25 (“But alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort”) or James 5:1-6 (“Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you”). While there are always clergy members and theologians swift to assure us that the New Testament condemns not wealth but its abuse, not a single verse (unless subjected to absurdly forced readings) confirms the claim.

NOTE:  Here, in the discussion of the real meaning of the Greek word koinonia, Dr. Hart comes to the edge of an important issue in reading the Bible.  The Bible has been translated and especially interpreted by the powerful, eager to accommodate its words to the dominant systems of nations and economies of capitalism.  Words like koinonia are translated “partnership,” or “fellowship,” which obscures a more basic and real meaning.  Hence, there is always a real struggle for those actually seeking to understand the original meaning.
     What Hart is coming close to here is that western scholars have translated koinonia explicitly in ways that do not challenge the core beliefs of our system as would words such as “communal” or “communist” - even though those words may carry an important aspect of the original meaning. 
    Such moments of “seeing” the implications of the gospel this provokes, can be frightening and revealing, for another world of possibility suddenly clicks into view.  
    In my reading of the Bible, these moments happen consistently.  Alternative and often more literal translations than those given by the purveyors of the nationalist doctrine, show the Biblical text and story as profoundly radical, and communitarian. -DC

I came to the conclusion that koinonia often refers to a precise set of practices within the early Christian communities, a special social arrangement — the very one described in Acts — that was integral to the new life in Christ. When, for instance, the Letter to the Hebrews instructs believers not to neglect koinonia, or the First Letter to Timothy exhorts them to become koinonikoi, this is no mere recommendation of personal generosity, but an invocation of a very specific form of communal life.

As best we can tell, local churches in the Roman world of the apostolic age were essentially small communes, self-sustaining but also able to share resources with one another when need dictated. This delicate web of communes constituted a kind of counter-empire within the empire, one founded upon charity rather than force — or, better, a kingdom not of this world but present within the world nonetheless, encompassing a radically different understanding of society and property.

It was all much easier, no doubt — this nonchalance toward private possessions — for those first generations of Christians. They tended to see themselves as transient tenants of a rapidly vanishing world, refugees passing lightly through a history not their own. But as the initial elation and expectations of the Gospel faded and the settled habits of life in this depressingly durable world emerged anew, the distinctive practices of the earliest Christians gave way to the common practices of the established order.

Even then, however, the transition was not quite as abrupt as one might imagine. Well into the second century, the pagan satirist Lucian of Samosata reported that Christians viewed possessions with contempt and owned all property communally. And the Christian writers of Lucian’s day largely confirm that picture: Justin Martyr, Tertullian and the anonymous treatise known as the Didache all claim that Christians must own everything in common, renounce private property and give their wealth to the poor. Even Clement of Alexandria, the first significant theologian to argue that the wealthy could be saved if they cultivated “spiritual poverty,” still insisted that ideally all goods should be held in common.

As late as the fourth and fifth centuries, bishops and theologians as eminent as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria felt free to denounce private wealth as a form of theft and stored riches as plunder seized from the poor. The great John Chrysostom frequently issued pronouncements on wealth and poverty that make Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin sound like timid conservatives. According to him, there is but one human estate, belonging to all, and those who keep any more of it for themselves than barest necessity dictates are brigands and apostates from the true Christian enterprise of charity. And he said much of this while installed as Archbishop of Constantinople.

That such language could still be heard at the heart of imperial Christendom, however, suggests that it had by then lost much of its force. It could be tolerated to a degree, but only as a bracing hyperbole, appropriate to an accepted religious grammar — an idiom, that is, rather than an imperative. Christianity was ceasing to be the apocalyptic annunciation of something unprecedented and becoming just the established devotional system of its culture, offering all the consolations and reassurances that one demands of religious institutions. As time went on, the original provocation of the early church would occasionally erupt in ephemeral “purist” movements — Spiritual Franciscans, Russian non-possessors, Catholic Worker houses — but in general, Christian adherence had become chiefly just a religion, a support for life in this world rather than a radically different model of how to live.

That was unavoidable. No society as a whole will ever found itself upon the rejection of society’s chief mechanism: property. And all great religions achieve historical success by gradually moderating their most extreme demands. So it is not possible to extract a simple moral from the early church’s radicalism.

NOTE:  Here, Dr. Hart seems to slip into assumptions about society that perhaps seem so true to him, that he proclaims them as obvious truth, saying “No society as a whole will ever found itself upon the rejection of society’s chief mechanism: property.”  But this is demonstrably untrue if we think of property as defined under capitalism as essentially private, not collective; for individualized ownership, to save, waste or destroy as one wills, instead of use for the common good.  Property rights in this sense, are not the foundation of all societies, at all.  Multitudes of human societies for tens thousands of years have been based communally, on property with shared ownership systems; property based on use for the common good, and distribution among all - exactly the opposite of property as a thing in itself, for private ownership to do with as the individual owner desires.  The story of the last century was also largely about attempts to found socialized societies.  At the core level, human families themselves are founded on communal, not private, action.  The desire for alternative and more communitarian society today rises again.  Such societies have never been and will not be limited to the brief experience of the followers of Jesus 2000 years ago. -DC

But for those of us for whom the New Testament is not merely a record of the past but a challenge to the present, it is occasionally worth asking ourselves whether the distance separating the Christianity of the apostolic age from the far more comfortable Christianities of later centuries — and especially those of the developed world today — is more than one merely of time and circumstance.


David Bentley Hart is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study and the author of “The New Testament: A Translation.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 5, 2017, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?   

NOTE:  I have reproduced, and sourced it from the New York Times, it as part of scholarly review based on its free availability on-line.

(Rev. Dr. Duane Clinker is retired United Methodist clergy.)