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Insights on Building Justice

Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan

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Liberate Your Wealth: Basil the Great

Fling wide your doors! Give your wealth free passage everywhere! As a great river flows by a thousand channels through fertile country, so let your wealth run through many conduits to the homes of the poor. Wells that are drawn from flow the better; left unused, they go foul.…Money kept standing idle is worthless, but moving and changing hands it benefits the community and brings increase.

“I am wronging no one,” you say, “I am merely holding on to what is mine.” What is yours? Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.

When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your larder belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every person whom you could help but do not.

I ask, “Why do you have all this wealth?” For the care of the poor consumes wealth. When each one receives a little for one’s needs, and when all owners distribute their means simultaneously for the care of the needy, no one will possess more than one’s neighbor. Yet it is plain that you have much land. Where did it come from? Undoubtedly you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you want in love.

Basil the Great (ca. ad 330–379), bishop of Caesarea (now Kayseri, Turkey), gave away all he owned and urged wealthy Christians to do the same. He founded a hospital and other social services for the city’s poor.

painting of Basil the Great
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Share All Things in Common: Ambrose of Milan

Private property is not a matter of justice, for it is not according to nature, which has brought forth all good things for all in common. God has created everything in such a way that all things are to be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation the mother of private right.

It is not from your own property that you give to the poor. Rather, you make return from what is theirs. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you have appropriated to yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the rich. Therefore you are paying a debt, not bestowing a gift.

How far, O you rich, do you push your mad desires? “Shall you alone dwell upon the earth?” (Isa. 5:8) The earth was made in common for all.…Why do you arrogate to yourselves, you rich, an exclusive right to the soil? Nature, which begets all people as poor, cannot recognize the rich. For we are neither born with raiment nor begotten with gold and silver. Naked the earth brings people into the light, in need of food, clothing, and drink; naked the earth receives those whom it has brought forth; it does not know how to include the boundaries of an estate in a tomb.

“He scattered abroad and gave to the poor, his justice endures forever” (2 Cor. 9:9).…his mercy, therefore, is called justice because the giver knows that God has given all things to all in common – that the sun rises for all, his rain falls on all, and he has given the earth for all. On that account the giver shares with those who do not have the abundance of the earth.…They are just, therefore, who do not retain anything for themselves alone, knowing that everything has been given to all.

Born into a Roman Christian family, Aurelius Ambrosius (ca. ad 340–397) began a career in public service before being elected bishop of Milan. At first Ambrose fled into hiding, but then accepted service in the church as God’s calling, received baptism, and renounced his family wealth. Excerpts from Ambrose and Basil are taken from Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Orbis, 1983).

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