The Acts of the Apostles took me a long time to read, but it was a good read because it contained a variety of concepts that have changed the conversation that came after it. The Book of Acts separates Christianity from Judaism in concrete ways and also introduces concepts that have affected the Great Conversation of the Humanities as a whole up through the present day.
One of these concepts was the idea of ‘from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.’ In the January issue of GQ magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan talks about this idea in his article about how the debate over health care has divided the United States.
“A man you couldn’t see from where I was standing got up and said to Perriello—he didn’t so much say as intone—”From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” He paused. “Karl Marx said that was the credo of Communism. Now, I want you to tell me the difference between that…and what we’re headed for.”
It was the one time all day the place actually shook.
“But that’s from the Bible,” I muttered. “From the New Testament.” (I couldn’t help it, I used to be a hard-core Christian. Acts 2 and 4: The believers “had all things common…as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”)
The lady next to me reeled and looked at me like she’d just caught me sniffing my finger.”
The full article is here:
The relevant quotes are:
“And they sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
“Neither was there any of them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the prices of the things of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man as he had need.”
Once again, it is easy to see the Christianity is a hard religion, or ethos, to adhere to strictly. Still, I think that this idea should be considered. At what point are humans responsible for one another and what should we give? In the wake of the disaster in Haiti, this idea seems an urgent one to consider, even from the safety of my computer.
Along with, it is also worth noting that we ought to be careful what we cite when we want to debate an issue. There is a value in doing a comprehensive reading program like the Great Books because it gives us a chance to put things in perspective, connect ideas, and avoid being duped by those who would use guilt by association or ad hominem attacks.
This idea of distribution according to ability and needs is also important in less heated circumstances as well. For instance, we as a society give much more to children and the elderly than they can give back. We may give more to the handicapped than they can return. Most reasonable people would not argue that parking lots should be a free-for-all competition for the best spaces. We can give the closest spots to those who need them the most. The same thing on the Chicago buses: if a person in a wheel chair needs some extra time getting on and off, and their chair takes up three seats of room, no argues they are getting more than they deserve.
While we could go on about this concept at length, and whether there is any wiggle room, I think there are some other important concepts in Acts that I want to put forth for your consideration.
There is a great statement on faith in chapter 5, when the apostles are brought in front of a religious council. A doctor named Gamaliel says to leave the apostles alone and let them teach for
“if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannnot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”
It is an interesting statement of fatalism, or maybe tolerance, or faith. Take your pick. But it certainly seems to be a statement that there should be freedom of ideas at least.
In chapter 6, there is an argument in a synagogue where the members say that the apostles speak blasphemy against Moses. I hadn’t realized before that there would be a grudge match between Jesus and Moses, but this passage and other later in chapter 10, show how Christianity breaks away from Judaism. In Chapter 10, Peter is starving but won’t eat anything around him because he thinks that it is unclean. God tells Peter to eat, and Peter thinks God is testing him, but in 10:15 God says “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”
Peter extends this command to the way he treats people as well.
Acts 10:28 “And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
Again, here we see a statement of tolerance and openness being a Christian value. While there are strictures placed on behavior, this passage shows that salvation is not a birthright. It also says to me that regardless of what path people choose, we should not call them common or unclean, which means treat people as humans regardless of creed.
In the same way that we can’t be born to salvation, we also cannot buy it.
Acts 8:18-20 “And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”
So much for being judged on the size of a tithe.
Acts overall provides me with a fresh perspective on a number of aspects of Christianity. As someone who has not spent a lot of time studying the Bible, these readings have opened my eyes to how perceptions of religion in the public sphere differ from what the scripture actually says. I certainly will view any claims of piety or Biblical authority much more skeptically now.
Next Time: Getting Dirty with Augustine – The Confessions