In an age when Christianity is comfortably entwined with consumer capitalism, the early Christians’ passion for social and economic justice can come as a shock. From the first days of Christianity, the duty to care for the poor and marginalized was at the center of the gospel. Jesus preached a way of life free of possessions, the first church in Jerusalem abolished private property, and the early apostles warned of privilege and wealth. Remarkably, three centuries later – when Christianity was well on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire – the church’s version of economics remained as communitarian as ever. Church fathers such as Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo preached in a way that makes today’s peace and justice talk sound tame. In their own words:
Saint Basil the Great (330–379 AD):
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.
Did you not come naked out of the womb? Will you not go naked back into the earth? (Job 1) So where did the wealth you now enjoy come from? If you say “from nowhere,” you deny God, ignore the Creator, are ungrateful to the Giver. If you say “from God,” then explain why it was given to you.
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 man whom you could help but do not.
If you are rich, how can you remain so? If you cared for the poor, it would consume your 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 his neighbor.
Yet it is plain that you have very many lands. Why? Because you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you are deficient in love.
Saint John Chrysostom (347–407 AD):
If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness; you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him. You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts.
Now don’t tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals, and caring for your possessions “work”, I say, “No, that is not work. But alms, prayers, the protection of the injured and the like – these are genuine work.” You charge the poor with idleness; I charge you with corrupt behavior.
Don’t you realize that, as the poor man withdraws silently, sighing and in tears, you actually thrust a sword into yourself, that it is you who received the more serious wound?
Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property; it belongs to all.
God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air, water, fire, the sun – all such things. All these things are to be distributed equally to all.
“Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD):
The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluity, you possess what belongs to others. God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich.
Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. Why? Do we fight over the things we possess in common? We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common.
Blessed therefore are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possessions of private property – or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession – and let us make room for the Lord.
Quotes taken from: Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Orbis 1983).
Does the early Christians’ teaching on justice apply to us today? How do we – and our churches – need to change? Share your thoughts.
Read more from the early Christians in Eberhard Arnold’s The Early Christians in Their Own Words.