Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common. and sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all, as anyone had need. … Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the thins he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. … Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of the things that wer sold, and laid them at the apostles feet: and they distributed to each as anyone had need. Acts 2:44, 45, 4:32-35
Let us zealously imitate the early Christian community, where everything was held in common – life, soul, concord, a common table, indivisible kinship – while unfeigned love constituted many bodies being as one and joined many souls into a single, harmonious whole. St. Basil, In Time of Famine and Drought 8 (1)
The Roman Empire was a pretty brutal place for the poor and marginalized. Although the blackest Nilotic African and the most pale Nordic European could obtain full citizenship and the freedoms that go with it; women, slaves, those who didn’t know Greek or Latin, those who fell on hard times or would not conform to Rome’s religious pluralism lived in a society that had no compassion for them. Unwanted children were frequently killed. Poor women were used up in brothels. Impoverished men were sent to fight with slaves, prisoners, and each other in gladiatorial games, often to the death. There was no state supported social safety net.
When Constantine became a Christian and ended the persecution of the faith, he did introduce laws to end the ability of men to take on concubines and gladiatorial games (2). Julian the Apostate instituted pagan charitable foundations as he was frustrated that the Galileans were aiding poor citizens whether or not they were Christians (3). Throughout the Byzantine Empire, it was the responsibility of all citizens to aid the poor (4). Church leaders, such as the Egyptian Patriarch John the Almsgiver, set the example by living humbly and freely sharing their earnings rather than spending money on themselves (5). The empire’s most powerful ruler, Basil II, laid heavy taxes on the wealthy for the sake of poor and made public appearances with little more than a few jewels in his hand to show his status (6).
With or without support for the Roman government, the early church was devoted to building a society within a society where the poor and marginalized were welcomed as people made in the image of God. Of course, this was necessary in the period before the Edict of Milan as anyone who admitted to being or found to be a Christian would be persecuted or killed. It was practical to provide for fellow believers who were kicked out of families and lost homes and jobs for the sake of the faith. Such care was an attraction for the oppressed to seek to become a part of the church (7).
More importantly, followers of Jesus Christ took the words of the Lord seriously concerning the Final Judgement where those who aided the poor would receive eternal reward and those who didn’t eternal damnation (8). Their compassion was not to be limited to only themselves, but also extended to their enemies that God may change their hearts and minds (9). This love and compassion born in the midst of brutality and indifference carried into the more favorable conditions of Byzantium. In either extreme in government, it was the Christian Church which provided unparalleled compassion to those who suffered in society and created a counter-culture of mercy and love.
So, why haven’t American Christianity formed such a society within a society? Why is it that our churches seem more like socio-ethnic-economic social clubs rather than places where the poor and marginalized are welcomed, loved, and invited to become a part of the body of Christ? Why is it that we attach the name Jesus to the pursuit of succeeding in life rather than pursuing Him by giving our lives to aid the least of my brothers (10)? There are many people smarter than myself who can write and have written on these questions. We should urge our nation to do better by those who are poor and marginalized. But as citizens of the kingdom of God, we are to imitate Christ and the holy men and women who set the example of compassion with their lives. No matter who is governing the country, it is our responsibility to create a society of compassion within the larger society.
First, as individual believers; it is good to pursue a career based on interest and talent. This pursuit must not be based on enriching ourselves and that whatever we have been blessed to earn, we are merely stewards that are responsible for sharing what we have with those who have not. As congregations, of course we should have a designated house of worship. But, adding house to house and not bringing in the homeless does not add to the body of Christ. John Chrysostom wisely taught that if we don’t see Christ in the eyes of the beggar, neither will we see him in the chalice. We must bring in and love the less fortunate counting them as brothers and friends.
The work of reconciliation has to be more than marches, memes, and protest. If we are waiting for our politicians to build a society of compassion, we will be waiting for a very long time. Christians must take the initiative by becoming a part of ministries that are devoted to loving and aiding others, volunteering time to reach out to others as they have much to teach us rather than to try to get some sort of good feeling. Our churches must receive welfare recipients as well as Mercedees owners with both having a home in our walls and hearts. Not every church will grow out of a feeding ministry (I know a couple that have). Not everyone will leave a lucerative and legal career to devote themselves to such a calling (I know some who have). But, just as one builds a rule of prayer or a discipline of reading scripture and holy writings, start off with something small. With guidance from the Holy Spirit and a knowledgable spiritual guide, add a little more. In His wisdom, God will bring us to the place of service where He (not WE) wants us to be.
- St. Basil, On Social Justice, SVS Press, pg. 38
- Fr. John Strickland, Paradise and Utopia, Ancient Faith Radio Podcast, episode 8
- Strickland, episode 10
- J M Hussey, The Byzantine World, Harper Torchbooks, pg. 139
- Hussey, pg. 138
- Hussey, pg. 44, 49
- Strickland, episodes 5-7
- Matthew 25:31-46
- Matthew 9:43-48, Romans 12:9-21
- Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 6:20-26