The Eye of a Needle

I recently finished a rather interesting book on Christianity and wealth, specifically from the periods 350 to 550. This post isn’t going to be a book review or anything like that, just some things that I learned from the book that I think are important. The author, Peter Brown, travels through the Western Roman Empire during late antiquity following various characters; from the pagan nobleman Symmachus to the North African titan of theology Augustine. In following these characters; their writings, their arguments, their biographies, their communities—Brown weaves a history of wealth, the view of wealth, the position of wealth, the power of wealth, in the west during late antiquity.

One thing that really stuck out to me was shift from charitable giving being directed from the great men to their cities, where the relevant group was the polis, the citizens; to a culture where riches were to serve the poor, where renunciation of wealth was a virtue and “the poor” became an important category.

Another thing that struck me was the tension between the almost impossibly radical interpretation of Christianity, and the Christianity that wanted to be pragmatic and deal with the world as it was. The clearest example of this was the Pelagian writing “de divitiis”, a writing that said things like:

Get rid of the rich and you will not find the poor. Let no man have more than he really needs, and everyone will have as much as they need, since the few who are rich are the reason for the many who are poor.

Or Ambrose, who almost sounds like a proto-socialist when he says things like:

It is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor; rather, you are giving back something of theirs. For you alone are usurping what was given in common for the use of all. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.

In contrast to people like Augustine who wanted to make sure Christianity could work in the world it found itself in, for example:

A rich man finds it all too easy to say: Male serve! “You lousy slave!” That sounds arrogant. But if he does not say it, he may fail to control his household. Frequently, he controls it better by a harsh word than by a savage beating. He says this under the pressure of a need to keep his household in order. But let him never say it inwardly. Let him never say it deep down in his heart. Let him not say it before the eyes and ears of God.

Or Prosper who, in writing to a wealthy noblewoman said:

Those beneath love to serve and hose above them are not swollen with pride; where the poor do not hesitate to acknowledge the precedence of the rich and the rich take pleasure in treating the poor as equals. So that those at the top take no pride in the brilliance of their pedigrees, but nor do the poor rise up in the name of a shared human nature.

Peter Brown navigates those tensions brilliantly, and gives the historical reasons these tensions arose, with great care.

These tensions are something which I think are always going to be part of Christianity, when it comes to economic issues, if taken literally; the New Testament is almost unrealistically radical, it seems like it wants to completely turn the economic systems upside down. At the same time, there is a strand in the New Testament that imbeds Christianity in the world it finds itself in.

Ultimately, Augustine won out in the west, perhaps which was inevitable. The Pelagian controversy was not only a question of salvation; it also had social consequences, consequences that could have been very dangerous for late Roman society. The Augustinian strand of Christianity focused on personal matters of the heart, not so much what the social system is, but things like pride, arrogance and so on; while acknowledging that the way things are, although not perfect, simply are a given; what needs to be changed is the heart, nothing else.

Of course there was a room for the radical literal strand of Christian ethics, namely among the very holy monks, those who had the ability to live that way. Those monks served as a righteous “big other” that people could look at as a symbol of holiness, and who could be appealed to for access to God.

The Pelagian strand wanted to make the literal interpretation of Christian ethics normative, they took the “communism of the apostles” as the model, and they took the injunctions against the rich literally.

This is an inescapable tension, and frankly, although the Pelagian approach does seem to be the closest to what the New Testament is actually saying, I don’t blame the Augustinian approach for trying to make it work. For all its, what some people might call, compromises—the Augustinian approach did encourage charity, did dampen the ideology of “the great man”, and did bestow on the poor a kind of honor.

Another interesting thing I learned from the book was how the term “the poor” was not always clear-cut. Sometimes it referred to the poor as simply those who were in economic need, other times it had shifted its meaning to refer to the “righteous” poor, the monks, the Church, the holy men. With this new definition (which isn’t really new to be honest, the Ebionites; a Jewish sect of Christianity of the second century, called themselves “the poor”, which is what the term Ebionites means—likely as a title of piety) the idea of Christian sharing shifted.

In the old pagan philanthropic traditions giving was supposed to be from great men to the correct kind of poor, citizens, the polis, those who had honor to reciprocate with. With the Christian strand that had redefined “the poor” to mean the righteous, a similar thing happened—rather than its purpose being to relieve the suffering of the needy, Christian sharing became a way to buy holiness, by giving to the right kind of poor; just like how pagan giving was to buy glory.

This trend of redefinition is one that continues. By simply shifting the meaning of terms, one can change the entire message of an ethical injunction. You can change the meaning of the term “love” to mean “acceptance of sin”, and suddenly you have a completely different ethic in the maxim “love your neighbor”.

That being said, despite all its compromises; Christianity in the west in late antiquity did put into the zeitgeist a pressing moral obligation on the wealthy, and bestow a dignity on the poor that did not exist in prior times.

There is much much more than could be said about this book, but those were just a few things that stuck out to me, if you have the time I suggest you read it.

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The Eye of a Needle

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