Preaching on the second Sunday of Easter I was pulled up short by the Acts reading. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). It s not that I had not read this passage many times before, it is that it struck me how it contrasts with the widely held perception in Australian public life that Christianity is about individualism, individual rights, property ownership and family values – meaning private rather than social principles and responsibilities.
In direct repudiation of this enlightenment view, Acts, an account of the life of the post Easter community, provides a window into what might be called the primary or first resurrection value – shared life. It is easy to be dismissive. Apart from community movements such as the Franciscans, how often have we seen this value being literally carried out in the rejection of private ownership over the last 2000 years. Well, not very often if we look with the eyes of western Enlightenment, but if we look through the eyes of traditional indigenous life anywhere in the world we might have a different view. In any case, if the practical application of the principle might be somewhat elusive in Western life, the principle itself stands.
What lies behind the principle of ‘community’ or ‘shared life’ is the idea that friends or ‘communities’ have one soul. Those who have shared the journey with Christ through the cross to the resurrection and beyond share this new life. “You are my friends if you do what I command you - love one another” (Jn.5:12-17). Interestingly the idea of friends being of one soul is also found in Greek philosophy. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics: ”Our good is the good of a being that lives with others and so must in some way be bound up with the good of others”. This value is lived out weekly in the Eucharist or Mass where all present eat from the one loaf and drink from the common cup.
Much is being made these days of ‘conservative values’ for which we are to read ‘Christian values’. Indeed, at least one of the new Australian political parties is founded on what it claims are these principles. Exponents of these ‘values’, including Senator Cori Bernardi, Lyall Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby and Eric Abetz, to name a few, applaud property ownership, small government, ‘family values’, defence or security and solemnly rail against ‘creeping socialism’.
Because these values run counter to the value espoused in the post Easter account, I argue these espoused values are not especially ‘Christian values’ at all, nor do they deserve to be called conservative values. They are in fact Enlightenment values.
Christian values, conservative values are values that support the concept of ‘one soul’ or to put it another way, that support ‘common good’.
Margaret and I live in our own (modest) house. I am not suggesting that private ownership should come to an end. One of the ways of caring for others is not to be a burden on them, therefore to provide for one’s own basic needs is consistent with this principle. However, the Easter principle kicks in with considerable force when dealing with ownership that goes beyond basic needs when we are made to face the reality of equity and fairness.
Those who espouse so called ‘Christian’ or ‘conservative’ values:
Have been opponents of environmental responsibility, presumably because such responsibility crosses the rights of individuals to ‘do what they like with their own’. The Easter value is that we need a mindset that understands that ultimately, we do not own anything. Certainly, we have no right to activity, notably economic activity, which takes personal advantage at the expense of others losses. Science is unequivocal that continued exploitation and refusal to accept significant climate change mitigation goals will (not might) impact severely upon the future, indeed upon the present. This arrogant refusal is a direct rebuttal of Easter values.
Opponents of strategies that might make housing more equitable, presumably because private wealth accumulation is to be admired. It is beyond dispute that, while not the only factor, negative gearing and generous capital gains tax provisions have severely impacted the property market, leaving some with many properties from which considerable wealth accumulates and leaving others outside property ownership altogether. Those whose wealth or income is asset and not salary based enjoy generous tax provisions, while those whose income is reliant on wages struggle to make ends meet, despite the fact labour keeps the cogs of civil life turning.
Opponents of regulation that might curb spiking CEO salaries, presumably because this, like the afore mentioned, would be ‘creeping socialism’ writ large. One of my predecessors, Bishop Earnest Burgmann, once proposed that the salaries and emolument of senior management should be capped at a percentage of the basic salary prevailing in their company or organisation. Burgmann suggested the figure should be between 7 – 10 times. Taking the higher figure the maths are easy. Let us assume the basic salary is $60,000 then of course the CEO would earn $600,000. Why does anyone need to earn more than $600,000 per annum? If this principle were enacted, then at the very least there would be incentive on senior management to increase the basic salary of employees.
Even opponents of regulation to restrict poker machine operators from gauging the poor, presumably on the basis that we are all responsible for our own actions.
Cori Bernardi, Lyall Shelton and Eric Abetz have confused Christian or conservative values with Enlightenment values. At best Enlightenment value are neutral in relation to religion. They promote the entitlements of individuals, of capital and ownership, they are wary of any ethic that might be universally applicable, wary too of government acting through regulation to curb excesses, and see any role that religion may have restricted to private piety.
Whilst the Western world is and will remain indebted to Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Kant and Smith, it is also the fact that Enlightenment thinking is an insufficient foundation to assist humanity through the troubling global issues of our time. The right of individuals to do what is in their interest regardless of others, can no longer reign supreme if humanity is to survive another century. The wishes of all must be subject to the good of all. This is of course the great political struggle of our time. Nations always want to serve their own best interest when in reality their best interest is the best interest of all.
May the Easter value of shared life and it implications be better understood and become the primary focus of public discourse, and may the Church be bold enough in word and example to take the lead.