The quick dismissal of communal living

Growing up, I used to always hear communes described as ridiculous hippie experiments. Real Christians in America knew the best way to please God was to work hard and give your family a nice place to live in the suburbs. All that stuff about communal living and the book of Acts? Eh, well maybe that worked because the apostles were magic or because things were different back in the Roman empire (what exactly?) or because mumble mumble, times change. Lots of old Bible stuff isn’t for today you know, like polygamy or prophecy. Sharing all your stuff must be something like that.

The idea was always dismissed despite the fact that this kind of intense charity is one of the most explicitly recorded models in scripture we have for how to live as Christians. We don’t live in first century near the Mediterranean, it’s true, but shouldn’t the idea of communal living at least deserve some consideration? Saints’ Paul and Luke didn’t mention it for nothing. I thought some of us conservatives pride ourselves for how literally we take the Bible. Apparently we are pretty selective after all.

Why does this get shot down so quickly today? In America, private property and privacy is king. (See the first amendment of our constitution.) Theology has to be phrased in such a way as to legitimize the centrality of the free individual. This is more part of our Puritan heritage than we know, and not the good part.

The early settlers of the Plymouth colony (from the Mayflower) were very excited about living like the Christians in Acts when they first arrived in America. But they quickly threw that idea out the window. Every man for himself! And yet these people are part of our national mythology as Christian heroes and champions of human rights and democracy. They were highly praised in both the secular and Christian textbooks I was assigned to read in school. So what’s the matter?

Doug Jones explores that here in one of my favorite sections of his book Dismissing Jesus.

[Capitalist apologist] Thomas DiLorenzo gives the usual answer about the Pilgrim experiments in collective farming: “Communal land ownership certainly caused problems for the Pilgrims,but, Bradford noted, ‘God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them’ – and that course was private property… Only a capitalist system saved the suffering American settlers.” But why? what was so magical about private property? The typical answer is that it avoided the free riding problem. Private property required “each individual himself bore the full consequences of any reductions in output” and each individual had “an incentive to increase his effort because he directly benefited from his own labor.” In short, we say, self-interest trumped self-denial, and there’s no way of ever changing that. Humans must be polytheists forever. Christ can’t transform self-interest. Of course not.

Why were medieval monks able to sustain collective living for centuries but the Pilgrims only for the blink of an eye? The Pilgrims failed at collective living not because of the dictates of some unitarian, impersonal economics laws about self-interest. Their failure was much simpler than that. They lacked the habits and virtues of self-denial. Listen how William Bradford described the moral reasons for their failure. Ironically, he began by saying those involved were “good and honest men” but then said:

“For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for the men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery.” (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, p.116)

This reveals these people were spiritual basket-cases, not Christian heroes. How could Christ-followers called to foot-washing see service as “slavery”? How could people called to embrace the public shame of the cross grumble over indignity and disrespect? How could people called to care for the weak grumble over being put on the same level as the weak? These people hadn’t even passed out of Sermon on the Mount 101. They had no bodily sense of self-denial. They should never have attempted a communal project together. And yet Bradford had the gall to conclude, “Let none argue that this is due to human failing.” Seriously? Mammon was already deep in their bones. They couldn’t escape it, and they passed on that habitual idolatry to the American centuries that followed. Thanks for the legacy.

Hey, we are super Christians – see even our name should give you a clue to that – “Pilgrims”. We are very very serious about the Bible and religion. They were trying to kill us in England so we sailed all the way over to the new world and risked our lives for the freedom to practice Reformed Christianity the right way. We rock! And we tried this commune thing and it didn’t work. So that means it must be a bad idea. If God wanted us to do it, surely it would have worked out – providence and all that. But He showed us that capitalism is where it’s really at. Heyo! Next on the agenda is establishing a large lending bank. What could possibly go wrong?

Now I’m not ready to go start a commune. Why? I think it’s because I have difficulty imagining how it would work, how it could work. But that’s because I’m a child of this same system where “hands off my stuff” is the credo. (Lest you are all worried that Jones is a political liberal, he has nothing good to say about socialism in his book either, but that is another topic.) I am going to have to learn to love more and share more where I have been planted for the time being. And that means figuring out what to do with the weekly paycheck from the state for my labor and a house in the nice part of town. Having children who need surgeries seems to make some of these decisions a bit automatic. Perhaps it’s a blessing. Time to go read the Sermon on the Mount again.