May 28, 2007

Christianity and Poverty: The Early Church

In around the year 400, Christian belief was established on both sides of the meditereanean- thriving throughout the known world, its adherents were influential players both in the Roman Empire, in the Barbarian lands to the north and even influenced some Persian thinkers. Great Christian intellectuals- St Jerome, Eusebius, St Augustine and St Ambrose had codified and were codifying the Christian experience, translating the Bible, creating histories of the church and creating philosophical instruments to decide between heresy and belief.

As Neitsche perceived the revolution in religion within the ancient world brought with it a revolution in the mores of that world- the aristocratic creeds of Greece which various philosophers today following Neitsche like Harvey Mansfield and Leo Strauss have sought to revive and the stoic pride of the philosopher were jettisoned in favour of the humble assurance of the martyr as objects worthy of praise. Christianity switched the focus of the ancient world away from the aristocrat dying for the cause of the Republic or enduring for the world of ideas towards the humble, poor and often female whose mute testimony rendered up to heaven words of prayer rather than to earth words of note. Blessed are the meek Christ proclaimed in the sermon on the mount and his words shattered the ancient world.

Such a change brought about a change in the very nature of charity and charitable impulse. Before the coming of Christianity, as Peter Brown in a recent study demonstrated the citizen of the Roman Empire focused on endowing his own city with goods. In building amphitheatres and fora, in constructing monuments- those sarcophogi of stone which still bear proudly in the desert the names of some ancient Ozymandius raised in his praise and gratitude to the city which gave him birth. The ancient world was a world of local loyalties, where each man was bound within the circle of his city, his loyalty was to Athens or Sparta, Massilia or Syracuse, Alexandria or Rome itself and forces from outside the city were seen as threats unless like the emperor they were divine forces that might also endow the city with fortune. Augustus and his successors followed exactly this creed, endowing the city of Rome with a continual grain supply from Egypt at the public expense- this supply went not to the needy or the poor but to the citizens of Rome. It was a gift to a native town from a son that had outgrown her to seize the reigns of the world.

The coming of Christianity redirected this effort. Christian philosophers and saints argued that there was no city, that the loyalties to the particular place and time might be broken up in favour of loyalty to God. St Augustine in the City of God argued that human loves for a particular state were but as dross and dung compared to the things of Christ. Rather than the city, the native country of the Roman citizen, being important it was the universal condition of mankind that Christians agitated about. Petition after petition to the imperial authorities or to wealthy citizens abjured them to take action because of the suffering of the poor. Christian churches organised vast charitable giving- even organised through the bishops a kind of civil service to administer it- and gifts were given by the Church to the poor. Great houses were set up outside towns to house lepers and wanderers- many endured right into the medieval era and Brown establishes that Christianity laid the groundwork for a new ethos of concern with the poor.

The Church made political claims upon this basis. St Ambrose told emperors to kneel before him in sack cloth and ashes when they attacked the rights of poor citizens. Christian monks rebuked the Byzantine senators who attended the games with stories about the way that anyone seen performing in those games was analogous to Christ. To turn down charity, was citing Matthew, to turn down Christ- any beggar must be yielded to, any supplient acknowledged. The Church's vast system of bureacracy took money from the rich and distributed it to widows and orphans of those who had died- widows were often maintained in something approximating to their former state. We also see the development of a new class of poor- those dependent on the community's charity because of their status within the bureacracy of faith- bishops, ministers and the like whose job was to administer the church on behalf of the poor were now provided for by the charity of ordinary Christian. By 400 bishops had become leading ministers of government within their region- their bureacracy was supplemented with a court and their activities proceeded in tandem with the expanding Roman state.

Always at the back of this system lurked the insight of the Protestant twentieth century theologian Karl Barth that in both their invisibility and their suffering and the hopelessness of aid for that suffering the poor closely ressemble Christ- much more closely than their rich neighbours. The Christian Churchmen of early antiquity fit uneasily into modern categories though despite my analogy with Barthes. They were not socialist- they would not have understood the term though they attempted to organise bureacratic endeavours to aid the poor. But they did not exalt in wealth- they were not the Protestants of Max Weber beleiving that wealth was a sign of Godliness. Rather for these men, wealth was a signifier of sin, a signifier that one's soul was in danger and that to take Christ's words again it would be harder to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven.

Understanding this means understanding the very different world in which the Christians of the late antique world lived. For them there was no state, no King but Jesus to paraphrase the Cromwellian battle cry. Given that all the obligations ran through society straight from God- his vengeance would reign down on those that failed to aid their poor fellow Christians whether countrymen or not. His hatred would exterminate them. Power and wealth could only be held so long as it was given away and followed a Godly manifesto- as in Augustine otherwise the powerful and wealthy risked becoming part of the city of the World and thus eternally damned.

Such threats were needed because another threat hung over the ordinary Christian. Research into the sociological status of Christians in the Roman empire reveals that Christians were normally the middling sort- those who might through a bad winter or a bad year be flung back into the realm of poverty and starvation but who in good years survived well. Such men and women were haunted by disaster- for women the death of a husband- no accident therefore that the Church made a particular care to care for widows. For all the viccissitudes of fortune were incomprehensible and terrifying- the Church now created over this a structure of divine justice and divine care for the poor which explained and threatened the ordinary beleiver.

As Christians began to become more powerful within the Empire, they began to see the state as analogous to heaven- disputes about the nature of the Christian Emperor could be easily confused with disputes about the nature of the divine power. The distance of the Emperor and the familiarity of his humanity were similar to the distance of God and the familiarity of Christ- Brown posits that Christians made analogies between the distance and closeness of Christ and the Emperor. They expanded their sense of the poor- early documents from the third century refer to only the Christian poor, from the fifth its clear that the Church saw itself having a universal message according to Brown. Ultimately the Emperor demonstrated his closeness and legitimacy by being like Christ- by taking upon himself the mantle of the poor and saying that he was one of them, that he might wash their feet as Christ had and that a harm against a poor person was treason both against the divine lord and against the more secular power.

Its hard to reconcile what I have just written with what goes on today in politics. Christian involvement in politics today lacks some of the radical hard edge of what these men fought for- yet all Christians would see themselves as standing in the tradition of Augustine and Ambrose- to some extent that reflects my previous sense of religions as languages- religion like socialism is the language of priorities to miscite Nye Bevan and priorities change with the ways that believers interpret their scriptures. There is something of this indignation on behalf of the weak though in the abortion argument and in the Christian conservative support for aid to Darfur. A Catholic friend of mine recently said that nothing so shocked her like abortion- the murder in her eyes of the weakest citizens of society simply because they were inconvenient- like the Bishops with the late antique poor my Catholic friend and her colleagues want us to see the suffering of the foetus which they deem to be ignored and perpetrated by us.

However one of the interesting things reading these men, most of whom were much closer to the world of Christ, than we are is to recover something that most modern Christian political movements seem to have lost. A sheer indignation against wealth and money- a sense that anyone who holds either sins unless like Carnegie they resolve to die destitute from contributions to charity. The way that the Christian sense of the Lord has changed is fascinating- the fact that many Christians happily oppose socialism is not a surprise but the fact that many identify so much with capitalism and wealth creation shows how far Christianity has come since the days of the early Church.

Returning to Neitsche for a moment, his main line of attack against Christianity was that it was a religion for the weak, for the meek, for those who depended on charity and who were imperfect not for the aristocratic, strong and self sufficient. Neitsche reversed the old Weberian idea and argued that the Protestant worker was better off an atheist than a Christian. Modern movements like the late lamented Jerry Fallwell's seem to me to annex some of that sense of manliness to Christianity in a way that would be very unfamiliar to the religion's founders- the stresses they lay in their language of Christology are upon that manly component and not upon the early Church's moral sense of the outrage committed against the poor.

We often suffer in looking at the past through the eyes of the present- as I've suggested the attitudes of the early Church to poverty were fundamentally difficult to those of the modern conservative Christian movements across the world today. Whilst not being socialist, the early Church directed its fire against those who did not acknowledge the poor as a category, against those who thought in terms of nationality as opposed to in terms of humanity, against those who refused to give to Charity. It set up huge bureacratic machinery- not as vast as our states' but vast enough for the world that the Church was born into- to manage the largesse of Christians.

For the early Christians the monarchy of God was inseperable from that of the world- to attempt to have a secular life and behave secularly was to risk eternal damnation. The idea that every approach by a beggar for change was the approach of Christ and a chance to attain redemption may well have been an ideal more lived up to in the breach than the observance but it was still held and repeated in innumerable sermons and uncountable treatises. Repeated and repeated it can scarcely have failed to gain entrance to the late antique mind- in a world where political structures were collapsing and armageddon seemed nye- the ordinary Christian was faced with the terrifying reality that every time he stepped out of his front door he was tested as to his salvation, tested by a living and resurrected God.


Vino S said...

A very detailed article, but I can't help thinking that _as it became the official religion of the (declining) Empire_ the Catholic Church started to take on some of the characteristics of the old religion. For example, you say that the old religion was concerned more about the city and the empire and that private philathropy was directed towards the glory of the city rather than the alleviation of poverty. You point out that Brown shows how Christianity was different and how the church directed its charity towards the poor rather than external aggrandisement. However, I would suspect that, as Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Church started to become more concerned about building great cathederals and about the glory of the Empire. After all, once it was the official religion of the empire, Christians would be likely to see the Roman Empire as a bulwark against pagan hordes. This would arguably lead to it promoting a similar kind of civil pride that the old Roman religion did. In addition, to overshadow the old pagan temples, the Church - once freed from persecutions - would be keen to build its own churches to show that it was just as good at openly advertising itself and making a bold impression as the old religion was. So, what i am asking is, as it got stronger, whether Christianity took on some of the aspects of the old religion that it supplanted?

james higham said...

...shows how far Christianity has come since the days of the early Church...

...or regressed.

edmund said...

Vilno i think some of your supostions are right (th0ough of course all things are relative) though i thik the obession with monument buidling really gets going latter after the fall of what we popularly call the western empire.

edmund said...

as for the article-good article and Brown's book sounds well worht reading. I think also you can see in that kind of sentiment the roots of western individualism- looking at the individal rather than the polis alone. #

Secondly I think there's an assumption in this essay that per se 4th century chrisniaty is likely to somehow be more authentic than today- this I'm not convinced by (particularly on something fairly subtle like this) -after all this is about a period some 350 years after the foundation of the church-it would strike me that the best source to look at for that would be the documents of the church at the beginning-aka the new testament.

Obviously the Rev Fawell as a baptist would emphatically hold that late antiquity is a bad guide to the foudnations of the Church- but I don't think you have to be a Baptist to accep this!

I assume this is really about attitudes- i doubt we have the demogpraphic data to do more than wildly generalize about actual grassroots policy? it'd be inteing what the effects were, certialy there' sevidnce the "alms industry" of 18th century Spain hurt their economic performance relative to say the UK.

I think to say that these chrinas attitude was "no king but jesus" woudl be very wrong surely? Isn't this the same time as the sacarzlining of the empire happens in christendom-paricularly but not exclusively in the east?

on what your say on the more recent era "Power and wealth could only be held so long as it was given away and followed a Godly manifesto- as in Augustine otherwise the powerful and wealthy risked becoming part of the city of the World and thus eternally damned" - sounds to me like an excellent summary of Jerry Fawell's atittude and indeed orthodox protesantism in general.

How does Fawell "annex that sense of maninless" dont' forget he was stornlgy anti gambing and illegaity p0artly becuae of the damage done to the poor (the for3m mostly) not to mentio nthe aboriton example your rightly daraw attention to.

Fawell ( fawell was not typial of chiaity in some ways but i'm using him because his your concer example) also empahsie giving to charity ect and critied the welfare state for its attack on the concept of charity and free giving.

i think there's a potential confusion in this piece. On the one hand there is the belief in a system and the belif say that it's wrong to take propety from somenone or restict it's use wihtout good ethical reason ( the root of the likes of Fawel''s commitmen to what he somewhat misleadingly calls capitalism). On the other hand is the idea that soeh being rich per se means your are morally superior or better than someone else-Fawell and most of hte "chrisstian right" do not belive this and have not. What ther eis a "prosperity gospel" strong in some parts of the US (where it has historically been quite liberal theologicaly) and africa (where it has liks wiht Pentecosatlism-this is also growing inthe west) which is a worry8ing development- but that is not the same as a bible based oppostino to socialism and government intervention.

Gracchi said...

Vino like Edmund I would say that you are right but some of the ideas you develop were a millennia later than the ideas I'm discusisng.

James perhaps.

Edmund- right here goes. I think there are a couple of seperate points here which I'm going to deal with one by one.

i individualism v the polis I think is the wrong description of what is happening rather I think its a universal commitment to mankind versus a particular commitment to a particular group.

ii yes I agree about 4th Century Christianity being an unreliable guide to 1st Century Christianity but that's largely in my view because the evidence suggests that 1st Century Christianity was even harsher on the rich.

iii as to the King Jesus comment yup I take your point- I was trying to get at the idea of a sacralised political landscape whereby the emperor and his court are images of the divine court and everything is legitimate insofar as it springs from divine principles of order.

iv on Fallwell- you seem to think that what I think the ancient Christians were doing was analogous to saying that you couldn't infer from being wealthy that you were superior. Actually I think its going further than that- that wealth is a sin. That wealth is a sin more greivous than almost any other sin and that it can only be sorted out through charity. That's a stronger point of view. Fallwell said after 9/11 that it was the fact that America was gay had abortions etc that explained 9/11- but these Christians would have left it at the idea that AMerica was wealthy and that God was punishing American wealth.

edmund said...

on individualims vs the polis i said roots- i was thinking that in carring about the plight of people wihtin the community rather than just the community as a whole the more individualsitic mode of looking at of modern civilisation came be seen. I agree totally on the universalitic aspect- but i think that's very closely connected to individualism-this is a very radical idea in both cases and hugely importnat for understanding the devlopment of western civilisation.

i thik we agree on the king jesus point- it sounded to me much more like Filmer though and certian royalist insticts dont' you think so? The emaphis on the monarch being christian and the represenative of god ect ect

incien it sounds to me like it may have had stoic infouences - that is insofar as wealth and sex came to be seen as inherently bad that they seem to me to represent the influences of a certian type of plantic, stoic ect acetisim- which see's the world as an evil in a different kind of way than biblical christianity. Do you think this aspect represents part of it?

anway i'll comme on the more normative stuff latter- don't have time now.

Viking Sal said...

There were plenty of rich early Christians, even before the Emperor Constantine, and in fact I'm not sure that the early church ever quite managed to reconcile itself to Jesus' comments about the eyes of needles. See for example St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, which is largely a response to complaints that the rich members of the community are eating all their own food at the communual meal and leaving none for the poor. Peter Brown recently published a fascinating article in Early Medieval Europe on the somewhat borgeouis nature of the patronage of early saints cult, in which he argues that Christian giving quickly became a new means of conspcious consumption and self-promotion. Admittedly this is probably after the official tolerance of Christianity, but it developed very quickly once persecution and the need to hide had ended.

The monumental tradition reached its height in western latin christeddom, but took over Roman monumental habits much earlier - see for example Hagia Sophia and numerous other examples of the late antique basilica tradition.

Gracchi said...

Viking Sal you are of course right- but I'm talking about a tradition of thought less a tradition of action which is important to highlight- people do tend to be hypocrits for instance!

I also agree that I've provided a far too unnuanced position to thanks to you and Edmund for forcing nuance upon me- my last comment was a bit exaggerated largely because I'm suffering from flu at the moemnt so my reasoning ain't at its best pitch.

I think this is an interesting tradition of thought though.

edmund said...

this is about your last set of replies to me (not to Viking Sal's interesting point)

on II) what's the basis that "first cent chria;t was even harsher on the rich"?

In terms of being weath being a sin for 4th century christians really? did they belive in elimaining it altogether? Or did they belive in giving wealth to toher people? ie did they regard it like say forinciaon or sodomy as something to be minimized or as something to be shared and which gave responsabilities? that certianly wasn't the impression I got from your review her's what i talk to be the key quote

"Power and wealth could only be held so long as it was given away and followed a Godly manifesto- as in Augustine otherwise the powerful and wealthy risked becoming part of the city of the World and thus eternally damned. " jerry fawell would undoubatly agree with all of this -it don imply to me that welath is per say an evil though it can obviously lead to it (what can not?)

I'd also be interested in how even were it the case that wealth was this particualry fawell in any case- he set up two charity foudnations for drug adicits and single mothers incidentally

obvious there would have been difences between fawell and thesae people. ASide from baptism another obvious difference would be that Fallwell as a baptist belives in religous freedom-and this of course is the period of Christiant history where "actualy existing christianity" began turning against it.

Viking Sal which letter? It sounds to me like a bit of an exaggeration at the least to say "mainly" ther'es a lot else in them!

Viking Sal said...

It's I Corninthians 11, 17-34, though it's less about wealth per se and more about the importance of eating the Lord's Supper as one community. This raises another interesting point in early Christianity, namely the divisive nature of wealth in a community that had an ideal of equality before God.

2 Corinthians 9 has some more of Paul's views on wealth, in which Paul assures his readers that 'it is in God's power to provide you richly with every good gift; thus you will have ample means in yourselves to meet each and every situation, with enough and to spare for every good cause'.

So I don't think we see 1st century Christianity as necessarily hard on the rich, but rather concerned that they help the needy and avoid pride in their wealth. Unless one considers that this is being hard on the rich, of course.

Gracchi, many thanks for maintaining such an interesting blog!

edmund said...

Viking Sal- I think I agree entirely with your new post. I just thought there a lot else in those letters!

I think your point is balanced and correct.

Indeed Gracchi well done intersting post.

Mohamed Taher said...

This is excellent post and a creative blog. Congrats.
Would have been better if you had highlighted (your thesis statement and conclusion) in the opening lines.
Best, MT