|Home||St. Patrick's Episcopal Church||Back|
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, May 15, 2011
"I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five [people] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."
This, from the venerable Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy circa 1952. McCarthy made a name for himself by whipping up public paranoia, and all of it televised nationwide. He also ruined a lot of lives. It was like that scene in A Tale of Two Cities, where Madame DeFarge, sitting there, calmly knitting, would point at someone in the aristocracy and say, “J’accuse!” The mere accusation was a death sentence.
We were living in Wisconsin at the time and so intensely did my mother dislike McCarthy that when the state declared a day of mourning at McCarthy’s death, she dressed the three of us anyway and sent us to school. We spent about 15 minutes sitting on the steps of the empty building trying to figure out why we were there. It was my mother’s civil protest and it forever remains in family lore. (She did come back to pick us up, though.)
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the United States was all about protecting itself from communist enemies, foreign and domestic. It led to the post-World War II strategy called “Containment,” a word coined by George Kennan, then stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. It also led to some large-scale paranoia about the far-reaching tentacles of international communism.
So what was so bad about communism? Seems like it’s a good thing to share stuff. Well, Karl Marx laid his atheistic system with exquisite theological style. Marx stated that the only way to solve the unequal distribution of wealth is for the working class exploited proletariat, to replace the capitalist class bourgeoisie. Then you’d have a free society, without class or racial divisions.
Then, once the society had an abundance of goods and services, pure communism would evolve. It would be a world where decisions on what to produce and what policies to pursue are made in the best interests of the collective society. And the political and economic interests of every member of society would be given equal weight. Just, as they say, like uptown.
Now let me get this right: this would be a society that is free, without class or racial divisions, giving every member equal weight in decision-making. Right. Like the sterling examples of the now-defunct Soviet Union, the nearly-defunct North Korea and eminently defunctable Peoples Republic of China (since it’s no fair for capitalist countries to pretend they’re communist).
Well, here’s the thing: Luke, the much ballyhooed and learned physician and writer of Luke and Acts, was…well…a communist.
Say it ain’t so! I would, except here’s what Acts, Chapter 2 says: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Sounds suspiciously like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” doesn’t it?
Well, we know that this system doesn’t work for societies over about 12. Lord knows, in the history of the Christian Church, we’ve tried about everything.
* In the 1800’s John Humphrey Noyes formed the Oneida Community in upstate New York. He believed that the saints, being equally yoked in faith, were to hold everything in common. Even marriage. They called it, “complex marriage.” As if normal marriage weren’t complex enough….
* Then came transcendentalism’s “Wild Oats” group. It was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s book, The Transcendental Wild Oats, a fictional account of Bronson Alcott’s adventure in communal living at a place called “Fruitlands.” Yeah, I know.
* One variant of Wild Oats was located at Hopedale in Massachusetts in 1841. They sought to actualize the New Testament teachings to initiate a world movement towards the perfect life. They closed 15 years later when it was found that private enterprise was more lucrative.
* And don’t forget Brook Farm, the “morning star” of the new day in which the thinker and the manual laborer would be united in a noncompetitive society. They put on plays and dances, picnics and boating parties. Nathaniel Hawthorne looked back with nostalgia: “How fair in that first summer appeared the prospect that it might endure for generations, and be perfected as the ages rolled up into the system of a people and a world.” He was close. It lasted three years….
Too bad we don’t have a sequel to the book of Acts. I just wonder how long they held everything in common…. The problem with communism, of course, is that it’s wildly optimistic. They didn’t do their homework on the power and adaptiveness of human self-interest. That’s why, with all its flaws, capitalism seems to work better. Good old Adam Smith. I’m not a softy, but selling a pair of shoes for $5 less than my competitor is in my best interests.
Nevertheless, there will come a day when we will realize that serving others is in our self-interests. That we are, physically, culturally, genetically, economically and environmentally connected not only to all the rest of humanity, but to nature as well.
That we’re all in the same boat and what diminishes one of us diminishes all of us. But we’re a ways from that comprehension at this stage of our evolution. In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with the uncomfortable blend of self-interest and Christian forgiveness.
Noah ben Shea tells a story about Jacob the Baker. It seems that an older man who was both wealthy and suspicious, invited Jacob to dinner. He was invited because Jacob was known far and wide as a man of great wisdom and compassion and that association could only enhance the wealthy man’s stature. But when dinner was served, Jacob was given an empty plate and cup, while his host’s plate and cup overflowed. Jacob said nothing, but sat there and watched the rich man devour his sumptuous meal.
When the man had finished, Jacob stood, said thank you for his invitation, and prepared to leave. Unable to resist Jacob’s silence, the host asked, “Weren’t you angry because I gave you nothing?”
“No,” Jacob said, passing through the door. “You gave me what you had.”