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And the eye of the needle widened

Oikonomia/ 3 - Rich and poor: so Christianity has made possible Roman ethics its own

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/01/2020

«They believe they possess while in fact they are possessed, not really the masters of money but rather sold to it»

Cipriano, De lapsis

How much of the gospels entered European economic ethics? Not much. And St. Augustine played a decisive role.

Capitalism is doing with Christianity something analogous to what Christianity did with the Roman Empire, when, starting from the fourth century, it slowly replaced its culture and religion while simultaneously feeding on them. So if we, while willingly following Walter Benjamin, say that capitalism grew as a "parasite" feeding of Christianity, we also have to say that many centuries earlier Christianity had done the same, growing off the Roman world, in the sense that we will now see, by effectively laying its eggs in another nest.

Let's start with a question: what aspects of the economic vision of the Gospels and the New Testament entered and became part of medieval christianitas and therefore of the ethos of the West? Economic ethics in the New Testament are not simple. Because it has never been easy to combine the parable of the talents with that of the workers of the eleventh hour (the workers in the vineyard), placing the ethics of the «good samaritan» next to those of the «shrewd manager» – story in which the word oikonomia makes its only appearance in the Gospels. Jesus called the poor "happy", but he himself wasn’t "technically" a poor man, and did not exclude the rich from his circle (Matthew, Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea ...). A few of his words on goods and wealth immediately take up a special place. The first is the story of the «rich man» (also known as the "rich young man"), where Jesus, in response to the man’s request to "obtain eternal life", points out the "only thing" still missing: «Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me». And then, faced with his refusal, he formulates one of his most famous phrases on "economic" matters - the one about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle (Mark 10,18-22). A critical vision of wealth, which reconnects to the great biblical prophetic tradition (Amos, Isaiah), to Job and Qohelet. At the same time, we must keep in mind that this criticism of wealth is in contrast with the other school of thought also well present in the Bible, the one that interprets goods as a blessing from God and a sign of justice for people (for example Abraham and the patriarchs).

The other great "economic" passage in the New Testament is the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles which describes the communion of goods of the Christians of Jerusalem: « All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had» (Acts 4,32). Communion here provides us with a distinction between the use and the ownership of goods, which centuries later would become central in the Franciscan movement.

However, an important difference must be noted between the vision of poverty/wealth that emerges from the episode of the young rich man of the Gospel and that which is presented in the Acts. There, the convert donated his goods to the poor and entered the Christian community as a poor man (by choice). In the community of Jerusalem, however, «There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need» (Acts 4,34-35). Here, the goods are not donated to the poor, instead the emphasis is placed on the internal redistribution of wealth within the community. More than poverty itself, it is the intra-community communion that is at the heart of the Church, because the ideal here was: "no needy" among the faithful. Finally, we have Paul's letters, where an important part is dedicated to the "collection" to help "the saints" (beautiful expression) of the Church of Jerusalem. His line of thinking is centred around the concept of equality: «Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality» (2 Corinthians 8,13-14). It is the same line if thought as in the Acts: the central theme is not poverty but the communion of goods. So, with the exception of the (fundamental) pages on the Beatitudes, what is really of interest in the New Testament is the attitude, not so much towards poverty, but towards wealth. Then, if we also look at the literature of the founding Fathers of the Church, we will often find this double-sided teaching towards wealth as well: freeing oneself from goods is a personal pre-condition to start a new life where the real goods are others (it is necessary to clear the barns to accommodate the new harvested wheat), but the same wealth is also necessary to be able to reduce poverty in the community. Clemente Alessandrino wrote: "The Lord approves the use of wealth, so much as to command the communion of goods" (Quis dives salvetur).

With the end of the first, primitive and charismatic phase of the Church, the spreading and propagation of Christianity naturally led to a growing arrival of wealthy people into communities. An episode which took place in Rome between 404 and 405 (Vita S. Melaniae Iunioris/The life of Melania, the younger, Gerontius) was especially significant. Two young Christian spouses, Valerius Pinianus and Melania the Younger, had a great heritage. Attracted by an ascetic way of life, they began to get rid of their enormous wealth to live a life in poverty, first in Sicily, then in Jerusalem, to imitate the humble life of the first Christians. The spouses freed 8,000 slaves, and sold off their properties. The slaves, however, protested and revolted over this choice because suddenly they found themselves without any protection, and many of the lands ended up abandoned. This episode contributed to a great debate on poverty and wealth, which involved many theologians between the 4th and 5th centuries. This was after the Edict of Milan, and Christianity was gradually taking the place of Roman religion among the masses. Something new was needed. And Augustine was the one to offer it.

Back in Africa, Augustine was very interested in the unity of the Christian people and was therefore forced to keep «a certain reticence in his relations with the rich» (Peter Brown), certainly greater than that of Paulinus of Nola, Jerome or Ambrose. With Augustine the moral reading of the parables and of the "economic" episodes of Jesus, already present in the texts of the first Fathers, was accentuated and the riches to be disposed of became sinful passions. Wealth in itself is good, but like all goods it is easily the subject to corruption. Augustine was above all interested in concord, philanthropy, almsgiving, order and Roman Amor civicus for the eternal city. And so he almost completely resumed classical Roman economic ethics, including the idea that the rich were necessary for the management of power and good governance. To complicate things further, there was also the role of Pelagius, a "heretic" against whom Augustine engaged in a very tough theological battle. Although the centre of that great controversy were the subjects of grace and salvation, Pelagius and his followers developed, partly through the influence of Stoic philosophy, a radical negative vision towards wealth, which took root particularly in the Roman elites. As a consequence of the Pelagian theology of salvation linked to one’s acts, the rich had to give up all their possessions (like Pinianus and Melania) to be able to save themselves, and then try to pass through the eye of the needle: «A rich man who remains in possession of his wealth cannot enter the Kingdom "(De divitiis, anonymous/”The Sicilian Briton”). Voluntary renunciation of wealth is the act that will save us. And then, clearly in contrast with Augustine, he adds: «And it cannot help him anything, in assuring him of salvation, using his wealth for alms». The Pelagians also attempted an analysis of the morphology and origin of wealth, arriving at some very strong conclusions: «Wealth can scarcely be purchased without some injustice» (De divitiis, anonymous/”The Sicilian Briton”).

In the end, the theological battle was won by Augustine, and Pelagius’s theology together with his vision of wealth were defeated: « If the rich are virtuous, they can remain calm: when the last day arrives they will find themselves on the Ark» (Dolbeau Sermons, Augustine). And so, the Pelagian motto of - «Get rid the rich and you will find no poor» - was overtaken by the Augustinian one: «Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm» (Dolbeau Sermons, 39,4). The camel managed to cross to the other side because the eye of the needle was greatly enlarged. Augustine's victory was decisive for the orientation of Europe's economic morality and therefore the history of the West. At this point we must return to the "parasitism" with which we started. What we call the Christian vision of wealth and poverty was largely a legacy that Christianity picked up from the Roman world. Regarding the use of wealth, medieval Christianity left the shape and form of Roman civilization (almost) unchanged. The lack of a real popular doctrine on wealth in the Gospels, (what was there was considered too demanding to become universal), meant that theologians and fathers adopted the pre-existing Roman civic ethics that lent itself well to becoming possible ethics for everyone, both rich and poor. While Christianity brought great news to other dimensions of life and religion, Christian economic ethics arose from a graft on the Roman (and Greek) tree and its private and public ethics. Cicero and Seneca certainly had a much greater influence than the "rich young man" and the "communion of goods". The assistance to the poor, the annona/ yearly state annuities, the donations and the magnanimity of the rich, on which the culture of wealth and poverty was built in the Middle Ages, were in fact already present and operating in the late Roman Empire; the Christians resumed the same practices by changing them only marginally without going into their decisive aspects (for example, the reward for charity was no longer a statue in the forum but in paradise). In order to become possible and accessible to everyone, Christian economic ethics were forced to pay the price of becoming very Roman, and "grow parasitically" on the ethics of the empire that was dissolving.

Finally, there is an additional relevant aspect, which we will return to. Parallel to the affirmation of a possible, conciliatory and moderate ethics of wealth, the great movement of monasticism also had its beginning in those same centuries. During that time, the idea began to take hold that the radicalism required by the Gospels and the Acts regarding the renunciation of wealth and the communion of goods could finally become applicable and concrete practice for monks and monasteries. The laity was offered a possible ethics for everyone; while in the monasteries, on the other hand, the charismatic communities of the early days could be seen again, that ancient communion of the poor, that "one thing" missing to pass through the eye of the needle. And every time that we wish to return to the radicalism of the early days of Christianity, we retrace these same steps and dynamics, and then the "solution" of the double track reappears once again. We cannot understand medieval western economy, the Reformation and then modern capitalist economy without this "double track" followed by economic ethics, which on one hand gave birth to the immense movement of monasticism and its great fruits and rewards reaped by civilization (and economics), but on the other, also meant that the economic ethics - public and private - of Christian Europe were very much, too similar to that which preceded Christianity. How much of Roman ethics and how much of Christian ethics is present then in the modern spirit of capitalism? What kind of Europe would have been born if it had not been Roman ethics but that of the communion of goods that had affirmed itself? How would Western economy have turned out if the camel had not been able to pass through that large needle eye?

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