Friday, December 5, 2008

Advent Conspiracy and Clement

So I joined the "Advent Conspiracy" group on Facebook and was really surprised when I saw a discussion thread entitled, "Nope. I like presents." The first comment under this discussion was "i like getting presents to much to join this cause." And the second was like unto it: "agreed!!! presents are what christmas is all about!!!!" (And these were not kids either.) Then it descended into a discussion of how this group is communist and/or socialist and how Jesus was or was not communist and/or socialist -- I kid you not!

Today is the feast day of Clement of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers, born in 150 or so. Among other things, he wrote a treatise entitled "Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?" -- really, a wonderful piece (natch) that I had read before, but seemed particularly apt as I think about what to do about Christmas. As Clement writes, regarding Jesus' command to the rich young ruler, "He does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life."

Clement then goes on to give hypothetical examples of how one could give up one's possessions and still have the morbid feelings that keep one from life: "For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret."

Likewise, he posits a person who keeps the wealth and isn't bothered by it: "And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do!"

The point in either case is not the money but the mind.

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.

I love this! Thank you, Clement. I have more to ponder, but I hope a way to think about what I do.

1 comment:

qoe said...

I like Clement, and what he has to say here. As always, it isn't what you have and how much, but how much you do with what you have. Do you hoard it? Does it pour like liquid through your life, moving on to touch others? Does it grow like plaque and gather dust in the garage? Does it get sold at rummage sales to fundraise for outreach, or is it donated to shelters?

I always love lurking in discussions where people bandy about those bad words "communism" and "socialism". The funniest thing about it is that communism and socialism are two theoretical institutional frameworks that have never had live-action models. Truly, I say.

Those goverments that have been labeled "communist" and "socialist" were/are top-down authoritarian models, some being little more than fascist dictatorships, of government. Mao forced his people to worship him in the same way that the Roman Caesars did. Likewise Stalin. Castro? pfffft. A petty dictator who, like all dictators, forces his people to conform or starve in the name of a so-called "the people's liberating revolution".

Everyone beats up on Marx and Engels, but they did not invent the horror of those working political models that have been erroneously called "communist" or "socialist".

That is what makes language so fascinating (as Orwell and Kafka knew only too well). We can make a word mean something good, or we can make it an instrument of evil. However, it is not what we label something that defines it, it is what we do in/under/around/through the name of the label.

Would Jesus have been a socialist, in the purest sense of the word? Interesting to ponder, but the historical context does not closely enough align itself to the argument.

Was Jesus a radical manure disturber of Roman Empire policy in Galilee and Judea and Hasmonean Pharisaic policy in Jerusalem? You bet your bippy.