Christianity Was Always for the Poor

From the Sermon on the Mount through the Apostolic Age, the first Christians preached against wealth.

A detail from a mosaic of Christ's resurrection in the Rosary Basilica of Lourdes, in France. (Lawrence OP / Flickr)

In evolutionary biology, one of those mysterious thresholds of which at present we have only the vaguest conceptual grasp is that moment in the ramification of any phylogenic series at which an irrevocable taxonomic divergence occurs, and a genuinely new species emerges. Traces of the event linger on in the paleontological record and the sequences of the genome, of course, but only in a fragmentary way. Only at the end of the process can we say with some assurance that a cow is most definitely not a whale, and that neither (to its credit) is a corporate attorney. But, of course, we expect nature to be capricious, and since the time of Darwin especially we have learned to find it unsurprising that horses and snails should have arisen out of precursors that did not even dimly adumbrate what horses and snails would eventually be.

Our expectations of human history, however, tend to be somewhat more “essentialist” than that, principally because our institutions and orders of power constantly rewrite the past to establish their own pedigrees. Most of us are able to inhabit and find shelter in cultural, social, political, and religious structures precisely because we trust in their unity, stability, and constancy over time. And even those of us who are anything but Hegelians are likely to believe that there is some kind of rational consistency to history’s disclosure of human possibilities, and that we can explain how the Renaissance sprang from the late Middle Ages with something like the same precision with which we can explain the course of a river reaching the sea. The result of thinking that way, though, can be fairly fantastic, rather like working on the assumption that whales, cows, and corporate attorneys constitute a single species.

All of which is a very circuitous way of saying that there is not, and has never been, a single identifiable thing that we can call “Christianity” except with excruciating generality. From the very first, “the Way” (as it was originally known among its adherents) was like a kind of pluripotential genetic code waiting to be developed by epigenetic forces; and down the centuries, its expressions continuously evolved and diverged into countless unanticipated and ultimately incommiscible breeds. This is not to say that the original “genetic” impulse was random, incidentally; I happen to believe, for instance, that the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth truly did have real experiences of him as alive again after his crucifixion, and that that is why their movement did not dissolve upon his death (though this is not the place to argue the point). It is only to say that there are many religious phenomena out there — such as the great mainstream of American white Evangelicalism — to which we apply the word “Christianity” about as meaningfully as we might apply the word “dinosaur” to a sparrow (there have, you see, been a few developments since those days).

Most modern (and especially most American) Christians are quite accustomed, for instance, to thinking of Christianity as a fairly commonsensical creed as regards the practicalities of life. On the matter of wealth, they take it as given that, while the New Testament enjoins generosity to the poor, it otherwise allows the wealthy to enjoy the fruits of their industry or fair fortune with a clean conscience. Common sense tells them that it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it — the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained; riches in and of themselves, surely, are neither good nor bad. But in fact, one thing in startlingly short supply in the New Testament is common sense, and the commonsensical view of the early church is invariably the wrong one. In point of fact, the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. Actually, the texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import. Admittedly, many translations down the centuries have had an emollient effect on a few of the New Testament’s severer pronouncements. But this is an old story.

Take, for example, the word used in Christian scripture for one of the principal virtues of the new movement: κοινωνία, or koinōnia. The standard translations of the term are usually something along the lines of “fellowship” or even “community,” but a more accurate rendering might very well be “communism.” At least, in the texts themselves, it is quite clear what practices were entailed in cultivating koinōnia: the first converts of the apostolic age in Jerusalem, for example, as the price of becoming Christians, sold all their property and possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need, and then fed themselves by sharing their resources in common meals (Acts 2:43–46). And this was the pattern, it seems, of the greater community of the Way as it spread out into the Eastern reaches of the empire. It could scarcely have been otherwise, really, so long as there was anything like a living memory of the teachings of Jesus (at least, as they are recorded in the “logia” traditions of the gospels).

Certainly, Jesus condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious example of this, found in all three synoptic Gospels, would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing more easily through needles’ eyes than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. But one can look everywhere in the gospels for confirmation of the message. Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet Isaiah: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim: “But alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort. Alas for you who are now replete, for you will be hungry. Alas for those now laughing, for you will mourn and lament” (Luke 6:24–25).

He not only demands that his followers give freely to all who ask from them (Matthew 5:42), and to do so with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matthew 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth — not merely storing it up too obsessively — and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matthew 6:19–20). He tells all who would follow him (as he tells the rich young ruler) to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds away as alms, thereby supplying that same heavenly treasury (Luke 12:33), and explicitly states that “no one of you who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions can be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). It is truly amazing how rarely Christians down the centuries have failed to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. Certainly the texts are not in any way unclear on the matter. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the Gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

This same moral implacability on matters of social justice, moreover, positively saturates the pages of the New Testament as a whole. One sees it, for instance, in the frequent condemnations of πλεονέξια, or pleonexia (often translated as “greed,” but really meaning all acquisitive desire), and αἰσχροκερδής, or aischrokerdēs (often translated as “greed for base gain,” but really meaning “the baseness of seeking gain” for oneself). James perhaps states the matter most clearly:

Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you: your riches have spoiled and your garments have become moth-eaten; your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will serve as testimony against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have kept treasure in the last days. Look: the wages of the workers who have reaped your lands, which have been unfairly held back by you, clamor aloud, and the outcries of those who have reaped have entered the ears of the Lord Sabaoth. You lived on the earth in dainty luxury and self-indulgence. You have gorged your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned — have murdered — the upright man; he does not oppose you. (5:1–6)

And this passage is merely the climax of a moral crescendo that swells throughout the epistle, beginning with James’s assurance to his readers that God has “chosen the destitute within the cosmos, as rich in faithfulness and as heirs of the Kingdom he has promised to those who love him,” while the rich are, as an entire class, oppressors and persecutors and blasphemers of Christ’s holy name (2:5–7).

It was all much easier, of course — this nonchalance toward private possessions — for those first generations of Christians. They tended to see themselves as transient tenants within a rapidly vanishing world, refugees passing lightly through a history not their own. Their attachments to the larger society were tenuous at best, and pervaded by more than a hint of apocalyptic irony. But as the initial elations 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, the shift was not exactly abrupt. Near the end of the first century, the manual of Christian life known as the Didache instructed believers to share all things in common and to think of nothing as private property. The first Christians of the Syrian city of Edessa no sooner converted than they disposed of their belongings. Well into the second century, the pagan satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. 125–c. 181 CE) could report that Christians viewed possessions with contempt and owned all property communally. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100–165 CE) proclaimed that to be Christian was to seek wealth no longer, but instead to make a common fund of all possessions for redistribution to the needy. Even Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 CE), who was the first significant theologian to assure a new rising class of propertied Christians that they could retain something of their possessions so long as they cultivated poverty of spirit, did so only grudgingly. He still called private property the fruit of wickedness, and insisted that ideally all goods should be available for common use. Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240 CE) observed that Christians found a complete community of goods easy because they already shared a common soul and mind.

Even in the late fourth century, Basil the Great (330–379 CE) could bluntly state that there is no right to private property, that no one should have more than what is necessary, and that the rich seize what properly belongs to all equally and then claim it for their own simply because they got to it first. For him, private property was theft — bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute. Anyone, he said, possessing more than his neighbor has failed in duty to the poor and in Christian love. His brother, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c.395 CE), concurred. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–297 CE) refused even to grant that a rich man could make gifts to the poor; he could at most restore what already belonged to them. And sentiments no less uncompromising were voiced by Augustine (354–430 CE) and Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376–444 CE).

And then there was John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 CE), some of whose pronouncements on wealth and poverty make Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx sound like timid conservatives. According to him, the chief cause of poverty is the dispersion of goods in private holdings, which produces both prodigality and parsimony. The rich are thieves, even if their property comes to them legally through enterprise or inheritance, since everything belongs to all as part of the common human estate. Those who think they work honestly by acquiring money, conducting business, and guarding their belongings are actually just corrupt idlers, recreants from the true work of charity. All we possess actually belongs to everyone, and no Christian should ever utter the words “yours” and “mine.” And he said much of this in sermons while he was Archbishop of Constantinople (which won him few friends among the rich and powerful).

That such language, however, could still be heard in the heart of imperial Christendom indicates that it had by that time lost much of its force. It could be tolerated to a degree, but only as a bracing hyperbole proper to a particular 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. The original provocation of the early church would persist in isolated monastic communities and occasionally erupt in ephemeral “purist” movements — Spiritual Franciscans, Russian Non-Possessors, the Catholic Worker Movement — 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.

Mind you, we ought not so exaggerate the “apocalyptic” element in the teachings of the early apostolic church that we forget how much of it consisted in a genuinely practical social vision, as well as a very this-worldly denunciation of a political, legal, religious, and economic regime that had forsaken the “justice and mercy and faithfulness” of the Law. It certainly seems never to have occurred to the first generations of the faithful that those teachings could not be translated into a new order of civic and spiritual association. Indeed, what would have been the point? The ministry of Jesus in Galilee and Judaea appeared at a time when the spoliation and dispossession of the rural poor had become a kind of institutionally diffuse but extremely efficient corporate venture. There is no need for an especially subtle grasp of the mechanisms of social and political power to recognize that, in just about any materially “developed” society, the difference between the poor and the rich is simply the difference between debtors and creditors, and that systems of credit are for the most part designed to preserve and exploit this difference.

The logic is not difficult. Once the principle of interest — especially compound interest — is recognized as a legitimate means of encouraging lending, it requires very little ingenuity indeed to create a system in which one man’s poverty is another’s source of wealth, and in which it is very much in the interest of creditors to see that the poor remain poor. Invariably, the destitute will often find themselves in desperate need of liquid capital; and, just as invariably, they will not have anything of sufficient value to convert into cash or to use as security on a sufficiently substantial loan. Hence, they will have no alternative but to consent to whatever rates and rules of interest their creditors see fit to impose. Especially predatory creditors, moreover — as any simple survey of the practices of credit card companies today will reveal — can arrange the terms of credit in such a way that the initial debt will be quickly magnified beyond any reasonable proportion, rendering the debtor perpetually incapable of discharging the financial burden under which he or she labors, and so able to do little more than make regular payments on the principal’s interest (which, needless to say, grows more rapidly than the debtor can pay it off). Before long, the principal itself has effectively withdrawn from the visible world into a realm almost holy in its unapproachable exaltation, a mystery sealed within in an inaccessible sanctuary, in the service of an unappeasable god.

It really is an infallible formula. A few draconian penalties written into credit agreements, a few legal but unreasonably immense shifts in interest rates, a cynical liberality with regard to the amount of credit extended to persons too much in need to calculate the inevitable destructive consequences of accepting excessive credit, and all at once the penury of the unfortunate becomes an overflowing wellspring of revenues for the wealthy. Especially profitable for such creditors are the catastrophic medical emergencies that so frequently reduce the poor to virtual slavery, and that the American system especially — with a Darwinian prudence almost majestic in its stern, barbaric indifference to the appeals of pity or morality alike — refuses to alleviate. But really, the legal apparatuses of almost all developed nations are more than accommodating enough to allow the credit markets to reap the fullest possible harvests from their lavishly seeded fields. No realm of economic activity is more casually and ineffectually regulated in most countries. In capitalist societies, the poor too — like everything else — can become a commodity; they are a natural resource that can be tirelessly exploited by the rapacious without ever being exhausted. For the poor are with you always.

A recognition of the fundamental indecency of using interest to enslave the needy appears at least as early in human history as the Law of Moses. Hence its inflexible prohibitions upon all practices of usury within the community of the children of Israel (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25: 36–37; Deuteronomy 23:19–20), and hence the ancient Jewish condemnation of interest (Psalm 15:5; Ezekiel 18:17). Hence also the care extended in the Law to ensure that neither Israelites nor their neighbors be reduced to a state of absolute impoverishment (Exodus 12:49; 22:21–22; Leviticus 19:9–10; 23:22; 25:35–38; Deuteronomy 15:1–11). Moreover, the Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isaiah 3:13–15; 5:8; 10:1–2; Jeremiah 5:27–28: Amos 4:1; etc.). So it should be unsurprising to find that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising — when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts — both through translation and through habits of interpretation — that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely audible to us at all.

Even so, one does not need to be a scholar of Judaea and Galilee in late antiquity to notice how often Jesus speaks of trials, of officers dragging the insolvent to jail, of men bound by or imprisoned for undischarged debts, of unmerciful creditors, of suits brought before judges to secure a coat or cloak, of the unfortunate legally despoiled by the fortunate. In point of fact, the principal function of the courts of the world in which Christ lived and preached was to settle claims made upon debtors by their creditors (almost always in favor of the latter). And it was a world of exorbitant debt. The Galilaean peasantry to whom Christ first brought his good tidings had suffered for years under the taxes exacted by Herod the Great; many whose taxes had fallen into arrears had been reduced from freeholders to bound tenants by expropriations of their already meager estates, or because they had been forced to secure loans they could not repay with their lands and goods. The tax collectors, the creditors, and the courts had long conspired to make rural peoples and the disenfranchised of the towns and cities into captives of their debts. And at times, of course, the only way those debts could be resolved was by the sale of debtor families into slavery. Moreover, the restraint that the Sabbatical cycle had imposed on predatory lending practices had been effectively nullified by the legal convention of the “prosboul,” by which a creditor could place outstanding promissory notes in escrow with the courts, along with an authorization for the courts to collect payments (and retain fees), thus allowing that creditor to evade the requirements of the Law. It was a practice that assured that credit would continue to be available; but it was also one that made possible the sort of unrelieved exploitations of the indigent through permanent indebtedness that the Mosaic Code had sought with such extraordinary compassion to prevent.

One sees in the Epistle of James something of the resentment the poor had come to feel toward those who subjected them to the constant terror that they might at any moment be robbed of what little substance they possessed by the suborned machinery of “justice”: “Do not the rich oppress you, and haul you into law courts as well? Do they not blaspheme the good name that has been invoked upon you?” (James 2:6–7). And Christ’s words leave one in no doubt regarding his indignation at pitiless creditors: in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21–35); in his furious denunciations of the hypocrites among the scribes and pharisees who, while making a show of piety, betrayed the mercy of the Law by “devouring” the homes of widows whose husbands had died insolvent (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40); in the parable of the unrighteous steward, where the exaggerated debts falsely accounted against the poor are called the “Mammon of injustice,” and the unscrupulous steward who allows the debtors to reduce those charges to their fair amounts is praised for his wisdom, even though he acts from self-interest (Luke 16:1–13). In fact, Christ’s teachings on these matters could scarcely be more uncompromising in their hostility to the prudential concerns that had led to the creation of the prosboul, or more recklessly anarchic in their disregard of the economic consequences of ignoring those concerns. He tells his listeners not only to give freely to all who might ask — or, for that matter, might seize — anything from them (Luke 6:30), but also to lend to those in need without any desire for return (Luke 6:3–34). For those who seek the Kingdom of God, every year is the Sabbatical year, every year is the Jubilee. To the debtors of his time, on the other hand, Christ’s advice was singularly and unspectacularly pragmatic: to try to settle suits out of court, even if one must do so on the way to judgment, on the road or in the street, before a judge can remand one to the court’s officers for incarceration (Matthew 5:25–26; Luke 12:58). Do not refuse the plaintiff his plaint; in fact, give him more than he asks (Matthew 5:40).

Again, though, as I have said, we rarely notice how persistent a theme the issue of indebtedness is in Christ’s teachings. And again, as I have also said, conventions of translation and habits of thought are chiefly to blame. In the actual text of the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, at least in the original Greek, an ominously archetypal figure, identified simply as “the wicked man” (ὁ πονηρός), makes a brief appearance. He is almost certainly meant to be understood as a depiction of the sort of avaricious, disingenuous, and rapacious man who routinely abuses, deceives, defrauds, and plunders the poor. It is he who ensnares men with false promises wrapped in a haze of preposterously extravagant oaths (Matthew 5:37), and he whom Christ forbids his followers to “oppose by force” (Matthew 5:39), and he from whom one should request deliverance whenever one comes before God in prayer (Matthew 5:13).

And yet in most translations — and, more generally, in Christian consciousness — he is all but invisible. In the first instance, he is usually mistaken for the devil (quite illogically), while in the latter two he is altogether displaced by an abstraction, “evil,” which has no real connection to the original Greek at all. This is a pity. And, really, it is somewhat absurd. Christian tradition has produced few developments more bizarre, for instance, than the transformation of the petitionary phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in Christian thinking — and in Christian translations of scripture — into a series of supplications for absolution of sins, protection against spiritual temptation, and immunity from the threat of “evil.” They are nothing of the kind. They are, quite explicitly, requests for — in order — adequate nourishment, debt relief, avoidance of arraignment before the courts, and rescue from the depredations of powerful but unprincipled men. The prayer as a whole is a prayer for the poor — and for the poor only. To see this, one need only look with unprejudiced eyes at the text as it appears in the Gospel:

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·

ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·

ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·

γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς·

τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·

καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν, ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

Most Christians who recite the Lord’s Prayer in English — or what they take to be the Lord’s Prayer — could be pardoned for failing to grasp what is at stake in these lines. The standard rendering, after all, quite successfully dissolves the hard, mundane, practical substance of those petitions into vague, ethereal, painless pieties. And, admittedly, the familiar translation of the prayer’s first half is sound enough; Christ did instruct his listeners to address God as their Father in “the heavens,” to hallow his name, to entreat the Kingdom’s advent, and to wish for God’s will to be accomplished here below as there above. But the second half it reduces to something less than a shadow of the original. “Daily bread,” admittedly, is almost accurate enough, though the phrase would better be rendered “bread adequate for the day’s needs”; but I doubt most of us quite hear the note of desperation in that phrase “τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον” — the very real uncertainty, suffered every day, concerning whether today one will have enough food to survive.

The next lines, moreover, the standard rendering comes nowhere near representing correctly. Simply said, ὀφειλήματα are not “transgressions,” but “debts”; nor are they “debts” in a metaphorical sense — they are not sins that require some penance or recompense on our part — but are in fact quite literally the crushing burden of financial obligations under which the poor labor and suffer and die, to the advantage of the most merciless of their creditors. And the imperative ἄφες is a plea not for forgiveness in the moral sense, but for remission of those obligations. As for the word πειρασμός, it certainly ought not to be read as “temptation” (as though it could be applied to a roving eye, a longing for chocolate, or an inclination toward embezzlement); it properly means “trial,” and here almost certainly refers to literal trial in court under a suit brought by a creditor. And the closing petition’s final invocation of “the evil man” — not “evil” in the abstract, nor even the “evil one” in the sense of the devil — is almost certainly a reference to a creditor of an especially heartless and unscrupulous kind. Perhaps, then, a more faithful rendering of those petitions would be something along the lines of: “Give us our bread today, in a quantity sufficient for the whole of the day. And grant us relief from our debts, to the very degree that we grant relief to those who are indebted to us. And do not bring us to court for trial, but rather rescue us from the wicked man [who would sue us].”

It is easy to understand, obviously, how it is that over the centuries the Lord’s Prayer should have come to be something else in the Christian imagination — something less specific, less concrete, more comprehensive, more unrelated to any specific economic conditions or any particular station in society. It could scarcely have served as the model of Christian supplication for all the baptized if its social provocations had remained too transparent, or if it had remained too obviously an epitome of Christ’s “preferential option” for the destitute and disenfranchised. After all, the consciences of the rich require protection too. How else could the banker who has just foreclosed on a family home recite the Lord’s Prayer in church without being made to feel uncomfortable? Even so, it was originally, and remains, a prayer for the poor — a prayer, that is, for the poor alone to pray. Down the centuries, wealthy Christians have prayed it as well, of course, or at least have prayed a rough simulacrum of it. And God bless them for their faithfulness. But it was never meant for them. Quite — one has to be honest here — the opposite.