Friday, May 9, 2008

From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need

I have often heard this quote used by conservative talk show hosts to "ambush" unsuspecting liberals. Usually it is offered something like this: Would you agree with this statement; From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need?

Of course the punch line is that if they agree with the statement, they have been unmasked as a sheep in wolf's clothing communist.

"From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need." This is a quote from Karl Marx, and yes communism did arise largely as a result of his philosophy. Yet many of us in this day and age are quite historically challenged (myself included). While most would correctly link Karl Marx with communism, how many of us realize that he lived and died before the actual rise of it. Marx lived from 1818-1883, putting him in the grave long before the communist revolution of the 20th century.

But a history lesson is not the point of this post. What I really wanted to point out is the similarity of this quote of Marx and something from the Bible. But, as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

So whether Marx knew he was restating a passage of scripture or not, the thought was not original with him. Of course if Marx took the idea from the Bible, then he used it totally out of context.

Acts 2:41-47 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Hard to deny the similarity isn't it? So.... does that mean all of the right wing conservative Christians are wrong? Does the Bible really promote communism? Hmm....

I have wondered for some time how these passages from the Bible may have affected early 20th century Christians when they were confronted with the rise of communism. When I became a Christian about 9 years ago I became immensely more interested in whether or not any of my forefathers had been Christians (and I am using the term Christian here in the strictest sense, as in born again). One of the ancestor's I considered was my great grandfather LJ Schlattman. Though he died in 1938 he was pretty much legendary in my family. Not only did he homestead land in the 1800's where I grew up , he was the first organist as well as one of the organizers of Pepperton Methodist Church. Later he was a weekly contributor to the newspaper in the nearby county seat. Some of those writings along with a book of his poetry that he had published gave me a much better glimpse into his life than of my other ancestors.

One conclusion that I came to from reading LJ's works was that he tended towards socialism. Adding 2+2 I came to the further conclusion that he may have based this at least in part on these verses from the Bible. At least I hope so. I would also like to think that he may have reconsidered later in life, when history unfolded to show how badly communism worked in practice.

So, is this to say that the Bible is wrong, or the example of the very early New Testament Church given in the book of Acts is a bad one? No, not at all. I will say this though; the only way communism can work is with a church. And I think that statement may need to be narrowed even further; to a church with mostly wheat and only a few tares. Yes, that 1st century Church successfully practiced communism, but even they needed the stipulation added from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. "

If you could find yourself a Church full of genuine Christians led by dedicated pastors and teachers that walk closely with the Lord, then a modern day commune could work. But if comes down to a secular government, led by ungodly men (not matter how well meaning), well.... not so much.


Anonymous said...

You came close to clarification in your last sentence. The members of the church are to give voluntarily, not under compulsion, but out of a devotion to Christ with a cheerful heart and love for their less fortunate brethren. Nowhere in the New Testament does it condone the civil government taking money from citizens under threat of force to "redistribute wealth."

St. Lee said...

I think it went a little deeper than giving with a cheerful heart in the case of the early church. Back to Acts 2 it says they "had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods", which decribes something quite different from what we see in Christianity today. That is not to say that I think such a system is either possible in today's society, nor am I sure it is even what God wants. Was this Christian communism even practiced anywhere but in Jerusalem, and even there, for how long? I don't know.

And while I am completely opposed to government playing Robin Hood, Some might make the arguement that Jesus command to render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's when faced with a tax question, is evidence that he did not condemn the practice.

The point is that forced charity is not charity at all, and that secular communism is a far cry from what was decribed in Acts.

Anonymous said...

It's never been the case that biblical principles should be applied to the population of non-believers. All believers should understand that their own possessions come from God and are rightly available to be used by Him. At the same time, the laws that govern Christians cannot be applied to those who are outside the faith (do not give to dogs what is sacred), just as laws governing other faiths should not bind Christians (do to others as you would have them to do you).

Makes you think twice about Proposition 8, doesn't it?

St. Lee said...

It does make me think twice about Prop 8, now that you mention it (and thanks for mentioning it).

Actually I had to think about it more than twice, but what I came up with is this: Unless you take the position that a Christian should completely isolate himself from society and politics, then it is valid to express your preferences in a democracy as a citizen, just as much as it is valid for those on the other side of the issue to express their preferences by voting the other way. As a citizen, I prefer to live in a society with as many Christian values as possible. If there was an initiative on the ballot to legalize theft, would a Christian be out of line in voting against it because that would be imposing his Christianity on others?

This may be a fairly deep and complex subject, touching on the Old Testament's moral law vs. ceremonial law. I am not sure I am up to delving into it at this point in time, but again thanks for the comment and putting my brain to work, even if just for a short time.

Anonymous said...

so many christian cults, so little time.

Anonymous said...

I beleive you are assuming a great deal of ignorance on behalf of those reading this site if you really beleive people do not know this is attributed to Karl Mark and that he died before the October Revolution.
As for your scripture quotes what you blatantly fail to realize is that scripture is based on a belief in God whereas Communism is atheist. The assumptions you draw as a result are wrong based on lack of understanding of philosophy.
I think it is time you read a couple of books sir.

St. Lee said...

I am afeared that I am a site stupider than I thot I wuz. Otherhow this here last anonymouse commentator, who obliviously has a bunch better breedin and heap more book lernin than me, wood haf bin ale to git the points I was makin in this hear post.

One ah my points was that this here Karl Marx guy didn't come up wit this here idea by his own self (lessen ya think that one ah the famousest philosofizers ever, hadn't never bothered ta read the Good Book). Furdermore, mosten all those folks who reconize the "to each accordin/ from each accordin" sayin at all, seems to think this here Karl guy is da first one what came up wit it. Ain't that wut I sayed in the post?

As fer the deal bout me assumin ignorance of my readers, I mostly try to only assume ignoramity about my own self, but sometimes ifen the shoe fits ya have to just go ahead an lead that horse to water.

Most lastly, I reckon that if'en you were to ask alls the American publik who Karl Marx was, then bout two of ten would know, and of the other seven, five wood give ya a blank like stare and the three left would say he was one of the 3 Stooges (this bein cause they have the Marx Brothers and the 3 Stooges mixed up in there brains, which is a mite understandable seein that both those acts seemed to prefer ta work only in black an white picture shows)

Bout the lack of my understanden of philosofry; yer plum rite. I reckon I do understan the Good Book a hole site better than I do philosofry.

ben freeman said...

If one reads the new testament, it appears that JEsus may have been a socialist, but he may also have been advocating a form of charity.

It is in that context that God made Christ's crucifixion into the key religious event of history.

No government has ever executed someone for advocating charity. However most elitist governments see advocacy of socialism as a criem. Hence, God allowed the most sophisticated ancient empire of all time to decide for posterity whether Jesus was advocating charity of socialism. By making the decision to crucify him, Pilate was correctly determining that the watered down version of non-communist religion that has been prmoted since Roman Emperor Constantine made deal with first pope Alexander to depoliticize christianity was only promoted while the world wasn't yet ready to "bear the truth." But now that the "close of the age" of oppression is about to end, it is time for us to realize that Christ's death as a martyr to utopian socialism was offered as the strongest possible proof that Christs crucifixion connects all divine teachings (in the Qu'ran, by Buddha and other eastern masters and in the Bible) about sharing, love and nurturing t o their implied utopian socialist implications. If you want to disagree or hear more, you can write me at

St. Lee said...

Ben, you say " appears that Jesus may have been a socialist, but he may also have been advocating a form of charity. It is in that context that God made Christ's crucifixion into the key religious event of history."

Are you serious? Christ's crucifixion is the key event of all history (not just religious history) in the context of man's sin and God's mercy in providing a payment for that sin so that each and every one of us does not have to spend eternity in hell!

In fact, I am not sure that there is a single thing you wrote here that is correct.

I might have gone along with your assertion that Alexander was the first Pope (because I do believe that the beginnings of Catholicism and the papacy more or less coincided with Constantine) but there is no one on the list of Popes in that era by the name of Alexander.

Rather than comment on every one of your statements, just let me add this; to link Christ's crucifixion to the teachings of the Koran, Buddha, etc. is a damnable heresy. You can probably weave all the others together into one religion, but to add Christianity to the mix you have to twist scripture beyond recognition! That's not what we do here.

Unknown said...

First, I have to say I'm impressed with the level of discourse. Not much name-calling at all. I have no idea how one person used the crucifiction as validation for the Quran or Budda. Christ spoke out of the old testament and the first commandment combined with John 14:6 make it pretty clear that the Christ who died on the cross had nothing to do with Buddhism or Islam.

All said, Christ was perfect, he was God incarnate. If the world was full of perfect people, then form of government would not matter. It is not, so a form that maximizes individual liberty tends to work best.

St. Lee said...

Thanks for the comment and for dropping by Michael.

Ratbuster said...

The big diffidence, of course, between Communism and the redistribution of wealth mentioned in Acts is coercion by the State vs willing, heart felt charity of individuals.

St. Lee said...

Exactly right, Ratbuster. In fact it is fairly obvious that "state coercion" is one of the great detriments to charitable giving, and puts the money into the hands of those LEAST efficient at distributing it.

Anonymous said...

This is a very fair and balanced article. Excellent job!

St. Lee said...


Anonymous said...

First off, I think communism is mostly misunderstood. The concept is so burdened with fear and ideology that we don't even see it under our nose.

Briefly, what we usually think of as communism as in communist regimes USSR etc was in practice more accurately state socialism.

The distinction matters. Communism is the basis of human relations. All other socio-economic, political structures rest on the basis of communistic relations.

Consider the idea, " from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" in the context of family or church. For the moment forget about state, economy, commerce, and wealth.

Think about it strictly in the context of family and church.

Now I haven't read Marx and I dont know exactly what context he spoke of this idea, but if we focus the idea on matters of love especially within church and family we can begin to see that the basic tenet of communism is based in fundamental human relations.

The difficulty is in trying to remove much of the political ideology associated with the word and the idea of communism.

Once we can see that communism is something we do everyday, then the argument around it takes on a different form.

Whether or not the state should force the communistic ideal onto a political economic reality is another question. In actuality, no regime has ever successfully done this.

So in my opinion, communism is utopian as a state sponsored political economic framework, but is a daily reality on smaller more intimate scale such as family and church.

St. Lee said...

Hi Anonymous (Anonymous #3 in this thread if I count correctly). Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I had to re-read your comment several times and think about it for a while, so obviously I take it seriously enough to do so. My conclusion (some results may vary) is that you might be better served by using a different term than communism. I thought it might be worthwhile to consider the word without its 20th century political context, much as you suggest. To do so I opened up my reprint of Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary. No such word as communism was to be found. The closest was the word commune, and even that only as a verb, excepting an entry for the noun "commune" defined as a small territorial district in France. Nothing that even remotely suggests the "commune" to which many of us old folks automatically assign the prefix "hippy" (fairly or not).

That suggests to me that if the word communism was not in use shortly before the writings of Karl Marx, its probably legitimate to connect his teachings to the term. In fact, it may be unavoidable without re-defining the word.

The definition that you seem to be suggesting for "communism" might be better served by the word "charity". Of course if you do go to the self proclaimed communist sources, you will find that the final end result (if their ideal of communism were possible) would be a society where all are equal in every way including economically. No one will lack anything because all will have everything they need or want. Noble as that pipe dream may be, it would also be a society in which the term charity would be meaningless because there would be no one with less than you. It would also make Jesus a liar since he said we would always have the poor with us...