It is the sort of behavior we expect from cult leaders, the demand that followers sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the group. By today's standards, it's crazy, flies in the face of individualism and the “I got mine” attitude of Western culture.
Yet, there it is, right in the Bible. The community gathered around the apostles engaged in what today's right-wing talking heads would call communism.
To be fair, there was a problem with elitism in Corinth, but by and large, the early Christians were an egalitarian group, and while they were busy preaching the good news and making converts, they also funded a special team, called deacons, to take care of the community's most vulnerable members, widows and orphans without protection in a patriarchal culture. The Bible lays the groundwork for what we today call social services.
Then, somewhere, it all fell apart. Church leaders started acting like earthly rulers, fighting for power and creating kingdoms of their own, with one rat at the top of the pile. The opulence of the Caesars became the opulence of the church, and though local monasteries and parishes continued to provide some care, most resources were sucked up by secular rulers and church pageantry. This began to fall apart with the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, a road that lead from the Magna Carta and Luther's theses to Concord and the Bastille.
Societies once again tried to arrange themselves along the notion of a common good, in what Rousseau and others would come to call the social contract. We turn over some of our liberty and some of our resources to the state, and it in turn protects us, both our lives and our remaining liberties. This is the fundamental organizing principle of any free society.
There has always been a tension between the individual and the group, but that tension has reached a breaking point in recent decades. Corporate consumerism depends on our isolation and misery to sell us products. Speculation and criminal finance depends on manipulation, turning groups against one another, to render us powerless. And the social contract unravels.
This is especially true when it comes to funding the common good. Marching to the pied piper of Madison Avenue, we seek to buy more and more, pegging our self-worth to what we own. Paying taxes gives us less to spend, so we demand less government and less taxes. The first to suffer are the vulnerable as the safety net is dismantled, though we all suffer when infrastructure isn't repaired, snow isn't plowed, and our schools crumble.
One “solution” proposed by many in government is to turn social care into the business of the church.
After all, haven't churches always been caring for those at the margins? The answer, of course, is yes, though not always as effectively as they might. In fact, the Social Gospel movement of the last century coined the phrase 'What Would Jesus Do?” as a rallying cry for the church to step up its commitment.
(Ironically, the phrase was co-opted by a right-wing Christianity at odds with both the social gospel movement and the Gospel itself.)
The problem, of course, is that the “let the churches do it” plan cannot ever work, nor should it. The common good is exactly that. Common. And while America claims to be a religious nation, only a small minority actively participate in a religious community. This small group of religious Americans cannot, and should not, carry the whole weight of our societies failures and injustices.
The average citizen must admit that we need government then take action to support the common good, rejecting the snake-oil of consumerism and re-building a sense of community.
We must re-learn the language of care, re-learn kindness in a culture that glorifies bullies. When we do, we'll find the churches still there, maybe unable to carry the full weight of society's needs, but always willing to partner and to serve.