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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:43-47 and Mark 6:31-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“What you’re describing, Jeff, sure sounds an awful lot like communism.”

I can understand why this was an initial response to this Lenten sermon series.  The Sabbath economy does sound a lot like communism.  In the story of the manna in the wilderness, our introduction to God’s alternative to the Imperial economy, everyone has enough to eat every day.  Those who gather more than they needed somehow ended up with only what they needed, and those who gathered less than they needed somehow ended up with enough.  From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.

And when we read in Acts how the earliest Christian lived, it sounds like communism.  They held all property in common and distributed resources according to each person’s needs.

There is, of course, one big difference between what these stories in the Bible describe and how communism has been practiced in the 20th and 21st centuries:  Totalitarianism.

The early Christians we read about in Acts chose to be part of this economy of sharing, of sufficiency, of self-restraint, of rest.  It was not mandated from outside.  No strongman forced people into this economy.  The participants chose to live this way.

And it has been pointed out to me that there are things to be said for capitalism.  Great innovations have come within our capitalist system.  I’m very grateful for medical advances.  And I love that I can send my nephew (who always seems to be wearing shorts) a goofy meme in a text massage that he gets instantaneously even though he lives 750 miles away.  750 miles north.  Where it gets cold.

Would these innovations have happened if we lived with a different economic system?  Who’s to say?  I suspect some of them would have, at least eventually.  To say they all required capitalism to be innovated is to say that only the accumulation of capital – that is, only greed – drives innovation.  And I don’t believe that’s true.

Still, many of the amazing things in our lives came about under capitalism.  So, why knock capitalism?

It can be argued that Western capitalism was built on cotton and slavery.  And, in fact, Harvard professor Sven Beckert makes exactly that argument:  “When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite:  vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion.  And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor.  Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.”[1]

The class stratification of capitalism largely mirrors the class stratification of the Imperial economy (at least not here in the USA; it’s not so drastic in Scandinavian countries and in Japan).  The use of slavery to build capitalism mirrors the Imperial economy.  And the Imperial economy is the economy the biblical witness encourages us to reject, in favor of God’s Sabbath economy.

It’s not just the witness of the Torah to promotes the Sabbath economy.  Jesus preached the Sabbath Jubilee, the Jubilee that calls for the forgiveness of debts and the return of lands (which was wealth redistribution).  Jesus pointed out the corruption of the Imperial system and lifted up as heroes people who resisted it.  And Paul rejected the patronage system that is so integral to the Imperial economy.

And it is not just that our capitalist economy mirrors the Imperial economy.  Add to it this reality.  Since World War II, the basis of capitalism has become, increasingly, consumption beyond what is needed.  Build-in obsolescence and manipulated desire move us to consume what is not needed.[2]  In 2001, after the terrorist attacks along the east coast of the USA, we were told that the way to fight back was to go to the store and buy stuff.  Why?  Because the economy is dependent on consumption.  That wouldn’t be such a problem except that consumption destroys the environment.  When we consume more than we need, our impact on all of life on earth is detrimental.

We need a new economic system.

But what might that be?

I don’t have an answer to this question.

We could, I suppose, withdraw from the common economy and create our own enclave.  We could do what the Amish have done, separating ourselves from the world.  If that means doing without those innovations I spoke about earlier, I’m not too keen on that idea.

We could create a new monasticism, I suppose.  If we go back the fall of the Roman empire we might be able to learn something from the rise of monastic movement in European Christianity.  Benedict, who is seen as the granddaddy of monasticism, wrote a rule that called for various disciplines, including these three (that remain the basic vows of Roman Catholic religious life):  poverty, chastity, and obedience.  According to Ched Myers, those “early monks understood three key things about the dominant culture of their time:

  • It was built upon the concentration of wealth and exploitation. If their communities were to repent [of this sin,] they must become as self-sufficient as possible.
  • The root of wealth-concentration was private property. If they wanted to resist the ‘temptations of the world’ they must renounce exclusive ownership.
  • The exploitation of human labor was the root of all alienation … If their communities were to restore human dignity they must practice manual (that is, unalienated) labor.

For the first monastic communities the vow of ‘poverty’ [was] actually intended to inspire a social model that would eradicate poverty.”[3]

I think that ancient monastic evaluation of their times applies to our times.  If we can’t change the system that allows for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny portion of the population, but we don’t want to support it, we might need to withdraw from it.  But that was easier to do in an agrarian culture.  I don’t know how we could truly withdraw from the capitalist system.  Would we do without bank accounts?  It’s hard to live in a capitalist economy, even in a separate community, without some capital.  I’m not sure creating a new monasticism would really free us from participation in the contemporary version of the Imperial economy.  Besides, I’m not too keen on that chastity and obedience bit.

I caught a snippet of one part of the Humankind two-part radio program on Dorothy Day this weekend.[4]  She and family adopted a voluntary poverty as a way of living out Sabbath economics (I’d call it that; I’m not sure what she would call it).  It was an imperfect Sabbath economics, but it sure was a lot closer to the real thing than I’ve managed to do.  At some point, I’ll go back and listen to the full two-parts to learn more about her.  In the meantime, I’ll let her example of voluntary poverty – which she saw as different from destitution, so perhaps it’s more accurate to call it voluntary simplicity – continue to challenge me.

Ched Myers suggests four things churches can do to help transform how we participate in the contemporary Imperial economy.[5]

  • We can cultivate a “Jubilee literacy.” We can come to a deeper, maybe even a bones-deep, understanding of the Sabbath economy and what it means for follow the Jubilee proclaimer Jesus.  When we do that, it will give us a lens to look at all we do in life.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice of repentance and forgiveness. This needs to apply to our personal lives and become so normal to us that it starts to influence our societal lives.  This might even move us to look at who the contemporary Imperial economy has hurt and move us to work for reparations.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice around practical economic disciplines. Individually, we can look at consumption, finances, and work.  We can form support groups for this reflective and ongoing work.  And we can consider our consumption and finances as a community.
  • We can participate in political movements that address issues of economic policy. This goes back to cultivating a Jubilee literacy.  That literacy has to influence our involvement so it is theologically grounded.  This involvement can, of course, be at local, state, national, and international levels.

I would add a fifth thing that we as a church can do, though maybe this fits in as part of Myers’ third suggestion.  We can examine our practices of outreach.  The history of mainline American Protestant mission work has been modeled on the patron-client paradigm.  We need to build within our church culture a sensitivity to this so we can combat it.  Our mission work must become fully mutual and based in solidarity with, rather than service to.

The issues of economy – Sabbath verses Imperial – do not stand alone.  50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., diagnosed the connections.  “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”[6]  He saw the repercussions of embracing the Imperial economy, of serving the Imperial economy, of remaining beholden to the Imperial economy.  He cited three major consequences:  racism, poverty, and militarism.

We know there are other consequences.  I made reference just a little while ago to the consequence of environmental degradation.  Sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism could easily be added to the list.

King knew it then, and we know it now:  these are moral issues.  When people in the riches country in the world live in poverty, it is a moral issue.  When systems won’t allow people of color to move ahead economically, to exercise their right (including the right to vote), and to pursue their dreams, it is a moral issue.  When we spend over 50% of our federal discretionary budget on wars (past, present, and future) and on more and more weapons, it is a moral issue.  When we refuse to protect ourselves and our neighbors around the world from the devastation of climate change, it is a moral issue.

And it demands a moral response.

That is why I have joined the Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for Moral Revival.  I have joined tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation – the nation’s distorted morality.  This is a nation-wide, coordinated, nonviolent mobilization.  Beginning on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and voter education.

I hope you will join me as we work to move our nation – if not to a Sabbath economy, at least a little further away from the Imperial economy.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Sven Beckert, “How the West got rich and modern capitalism was born,” PBS News Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born (posted 13 February 2015; accessed 13 March 2018).

[2] See, for instance, https://storyofstuff.org for information about how this has worked.

[3] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 61-62.

[4] For more on the program, go to https://www.humanmedia.org/product/dorothy-day/.

[5] Myers, op. cit., 61.

[6] Quoted by Lindsay Koshgarian, “This Martin Luther King Day, Militarism, Racism and Poverty are Still With Us,” National Priorities Project, https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-day-militarism-racism-and-poverty-are-still-us/ (posted 15 January 2018; accessed 17 March 2018).

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On November 15, Timothy Snyder (Housum Professor of History at Yale University) posted the following on Facebook. I repost it here because I think it is good advice for lovers of democracy in this and every age.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.

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