Why are the French rioting? Many of the governments of Europe now demand that severe austerity measures be imposed on public expenditures in order to deal with mounting deficits. The French government proposes cutting back on pensions to help balance the budget. Over the past fifty years, there has been an expansion of social benefits such as pensions that multiple generations have come to rely on. These benefits are now being rescinded to compensate for the hundreds of billions that were pumped into the banking system to stave off the collapse of major financial institutions whose risky investments had failed. Since these billions were provided by the public through taxes, it would appear that there has been a vast transfer of wealth from the public to the bankers whose malfeasance created the financial crisis. Rather than make up the shortfall in public revenues through increased taxation on the wealthy and corporations, these governments have chosen to cut back on the benefits provided by social programs. While other economic factors affect the current situation, these appear to be the essential facts concerning the “austerity” measures. The widespread perception of these facts by the French public provide the motivation behind the current strike actions and oil depot occupations which have caused fuel shortages throughout the country.
When confronted with similar situations in their own time, how did the great Christian thinkers respond? John Chrysostom, considered one of the greatest Christian pastors by both eastern and western Christianity, lived most of his life in Antioch, one of the most beautiful cities of the Empire. “In the fourth century the greater part of the municipal land there was in the hands of a few rich landowners - the proprietors of the fine villas described by Chrysostom in his works. The well-preserved ruins of these villas show them to have been large and solidly built, with stables and slave quarters on the ground floor and luxurious apartments for the owners and managers above. The wealthy owners represented only about one-tenth of the population. Living in the city, they had succeeded in concentrating in their few hands most of the agricultural lands of the countryside...Exploited by the city landlords, the peasants lived in extreme poverty.” (Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teachings. Orbis Books, 1983, p. 82-3).
Chrysostom’s response to the condition of the poor was unending outrage which he distilled into sermons that made him immensely popular with the Antiochian majority. But what is most interesting for Christians today is his radical theory of property rights. This understanding of property, shared by seminal Christian thinkers such as Basil, Ambrose and Augustine, became the traditional Christian understanding of property until the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century. In a sermon he preached on Luke 16, Chrysostom defined robbery in the following terms, “This is robbery: not to share one’s possessions. Perhaps what I am saying astonishes you. Yet be not astonished. For I shall offer you the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures, which says that not only to rob others’ property, but also not to share your own with others, is robbery and greediness and theft...’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house’ (Malachi 3:10 - John reads, ‘for the robbery of the poor is in your houses,‘ for the last clause). Because you have not made the accustomed offerings, the prophet says, therefore have you robbed the things that belong to the poor. This he says by way of showing the rich that they are in possession of the property of the poor, even if it is a patrimony they have received, even if they have gathered their money elsewhere.” (Avila, p. 83-4).
Chrysostom was not speaking rhetorically. His sermons directly challenged the legal definition of ownership in the Roman Empire which enshrined the absolute disposition of property as a sacred right. The rulers of Antioch found his “socialist” ideas so offensive that they deposed him as Bishop of Antioch and sent him packing into exile. The principle implied in his definition of robbery is that God has given all a right to the goods of the earth, rich and poor alike. For one class to usurp the gifts of God for themselves alone while others starve he defined as robbery in the strict sense of the term.
In the following sermon, the spirit that animated the Acts of the Apostles flowers again: “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.” (Acts 4:32). In this sermon, Chrysostom diagnoses the loss of tranquility which possessions inflict, “But what is the meaning of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’? For, truly, the more accurately I weigh these words, the more they seem to me to be but words...And not only in silver and gold, but also in bathing places, gardens, buildings, ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ you will perceive to be but meaningless words. For use is common to all. Those who seem to be owners have only more care of these things than those who are not.” (Avila, p. 85). Later, he proposes that the very concept of private property has no place in the Church. He says, “For ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ - those chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world - should be eliminated from that holy Church...The poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.” (Avila, p. 85).
In this passage, he explicitly argues that the holiness of the Church requires that there should be no “mine” or “thine”, but that property should be a matter of social ownership. The vision of Acts 4:32 shows that the kingdom of God knows nothing of “mine” and “not mine”, but only recognizes the concept of “ours.” For Chrysostom, to be a Christian implies a deep understanding of the need for common ownership and the drive to incarnate this principle in daily life. Property was given to the wealthy so that they might grow in virtue by sharing it - that social goal alone justifies any particular ownership system. The early Christians had no illusions about rising tides lifting all boats.
The following passage from another homily might have been intended for the European bankers now enjoying unabated prosperity, “We do all things ignoring the fact that we shall have to give account of everything that goes beyond our use, for we thus misuse the gifts of God. For he has not given us these things that we alone may use them, but that we may alleviate the need of our fellow human beings.” (Avila, p. 92). No doubt erudite economists will explain why the prosperity of all requires the transfer of Europe’s wealth to fewer and fewer hands, but Chrysostom would not have been so tolerant toward wealthy bankers. He addresses those who would defraud the public and justify their theft by donating to charities with these words, “I do not ask you mercifully to render from what you have plundered, but to abstain from fraud...For, unless you desist from your robbery, you are not actually giving alms. Even though you should give ever so much money to the needy, if you do not desist from your fraud and robbery you shall be numbered by God among the murderers.” (Avila, p. 93). Murder was understood quite literally in fourth century Antioch.
Chrysostom did not believe that wealth was evil in itself. Wealth is a cherished gift of God. The economic evil that Chrysostom denounced was not “greed” as we think of it today, but the exclusive ownership by individuals of what was intended for the common good of all. Economic arrangements are just when they are ordered to the right of all to the use of the goods of the earth. Property rights are justified only in so far as they enable this common right of use. The absolute right of private property in Roman law was regarded as among the worst evils of “Babylon” by the fathers of the Church.
In his homily on Acts 4, Chrysostom presents us with a magnificent vision of koinonia. Koinonia means “communion by intimate participation” and in the social sense denotes sharing the wonderful gifts of God together. This vision is an enticing expression of what the kingdom of God meant to the early Christians: “Let us imagine things as happening in this way: All give all that they have into a common fund. No one would have to concern himself about it, neither the rich nor the poor. How much money do you think would be collected? I infer - for it cannot be said with certainty - that if every individual contributed all his money, his lands, his estates, his houses (I will not speak of slaves, for the first Christians had none, probably giving them their freedom), then a million pounds of gold would be obtained, and most likely two or three times that amount...What could we not undertake with our huge treasure! Do you believe it could ever be exhausted? And will not the blessing of God pour down on us a thousand-fold richer? Will we not make a heaven on earth?” (Avila, p.101). Note well that it is not the gold that makes the kingdom, but love for the common good.
“Hundreds of riot squad officers stood by in Lyon to try to prevent a repeat of Thursday's violence that saw security forces fire water cannon and fight running battles with rampaging youths in the east-central city.” - “French Unions: We Won't Pay For 'Failures of Global Finance'”, Agence France-Presse, 10/22/10. Chrysostom’s thundering outrage echoes in the deeds and shouts of the French protesters - “Not to share the gifts God has given for all is robbery!”