Imagination as Resistance: Capitalism & The Commons
Hi everyone, my name is Sarah Ngu and I’m a deacon here at Forefront. I help lead a small group in BK Heights, I co-lead our LGBTQ ministry, Queer Communion, and work on other projects here at our church.
I want to give people a bit of a head’s up; the first half of this will be a lot of history, and the second half will be a lot of bible. If you’re wondering, “When is Sarah going to talk about the bible?” just wait until the second half.
Ok, so I want to start with a bit of personal history.
Here is a photo of my great-aunt, Gan Ang Kiat. Aunty Gan was born sometime in the 1940’s. She was the smartest of all 13 siblings. She was the youngest and the only one to graduate with a university degree. She was my grandpa’s younger sister on my mom’s side, and he really looked after her.
At university, she became politicized, radicalized, and became a communist; communism was a growing ideology at the time within Southeast Asia especially among the Chinese. Unlike China, the communists in Malaysia were a small minority; they were guerillas hiding in the jungles and fighting first the British, and then after the independence, the Malaysian government, along with foreign military support from the UK and Australia. In the 1970’s she was so involved she quit her job as a school-teacher and went into the jungle to fight with the guerillas, surviving on durian and wild animals. At the time she was in her late twenties, early thirties.
And in May, 1972, while fighting in the jungle, she was shot. I don’t know who shot the bullet, but she died. My family found out through reading the front page of a newspaper. The very next year, the Sarawak communist forces made a peace truce with the government which brought most of the fighting to an end.
The way my mom has always told her story was the following: What a waste of life. She was brainwashed by the communists, who used young idealistic people like her for their cause. She had such great potential. Thank God we avoided a communist takeover like what happened in China.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more curious about this great-aunt. After all, she wasn’t exactly an idiot; she was in fact the most educated of her siblings. Why did she decide to do that? To put her life on the line? She had a perfectly great stable career and immense educational advantages. What gripped her imagination?
What I’ve begun to piece together is that she was quite simply motivated by a vision of equality. Of a society in which no one had any economic need, in which property was common and shared instead of private. It was also a vision of racial equality. The Malaysian government at the time did and still does favor the Malay race over others—which is a direct result of how the British chose to govern and divide the races in Malaysia. My great-aunt and her comrades were fighting for a different society which did not exist in real form anywhere but in their faith. In their beliefs. In their collective imagination. Their imagination was an act of resistance.
I’m sure there are people here who might disagree with how my aunt chose to translate those principles into her specific political ideology, but what I want to focus on was these principles and moral convictions which enabled her to imagine an alternative to the current status quo at the time.
I find her act of resistance personally inspiring because I often think that the biggest idols we have in our lives are the ones we notice the least. The ones that we take for granted, that we just assume is always the way it is. You know, for many millennia up until 250 years ago, that might’ve been the fact of slavery. 200 years ago, it might’ve been the idea that women aren’t just property or inferior versions of men, as John Calvin once said. The question is: What is our blindspot today? The thing that we have lost our ability to criticize or imagine a different alternative, a thing has become synonymous with Reality.
I would posit to you that that “thing” today is capitalism.
There is a famous quote in leftist circles that says: It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Now, I recognize that what I just said sounds scary. After all, this is church, and it sounds like here I am trying to push an economic agenda. I get it. But we’re finishing our Imagine series and we’re imagining what life could look like, what justice could look like, what church could look like, especially in light of our tradition and scriptures. And I think once we do dig into all of that, we might be surprised by what the bible and our tradition has to say.
As Christians is that we belong to a faith and tradition that has pre-modern origins, meaning pre-capitalist origins. Thus sometimes we encounter some stuff in our tradition that really challenges our current capitalist order, and that forces us to imagine new alternatives.
There are many examples I can choose from, but a simple one found can be found ins the book of Leviticus and in the book of Deuteronomy, where God instructs the Israelites:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.”
In one interpretation, this verse is about sharing what you have. But if we dig a little deeper into the implications, it seems like God is saying, “I know it’s your land and your harvest, you planted the seed, you plowed the soil, but actually,
you don’t have complete right over it. That land is actually God’s. And God is telling you that the community has rights to it; the poor and vulnerable among us has a right to it.” Your land, in other words, is not really private.
The early church fathers, around 200 to 400CE, had some pretty harsh words to say about property and poverty:
”You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”
Bishop Ambrose of Milan, 337-397 CE
“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.”
Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, 347-407 CE
I’m just going to let these quotes sit for a bit. The ideas here may seem a bit crazy, but I’d like to point out that private property rights did not come into existence until the 1700’s in Europe. Before that, in Europe, there would be some land that was owned, but there would also be a vast area of land that was called the “commons” where you could bring your livestock to graze. This common land did not belong to anyone but was managed and regulated by the community, who would make sure people didn’t take advantage of the situation. But after awhile, wealthy landowners started to kick out peasants and build enclosures of their private property, sending landless peasants into the urban cities where they started working in industrial factories. Private property rights became codified in law.
Fast forward a century, and Europeans start coming to North America and, in addition to some other things, some of them want to buy land from Native Americans. And Native Americans were mystified by this idea of buying or selling land.
Here is an excerpt from a letter, sent by Chief Seattle of the Dwamish Tribe in Washington to President Franklin Pierce in 1855.
“How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?”
These ideas may seem a bit shocking to us, and I’d argue that this is because capitalism has deadened our imagination towards accepting our current status quo as Reality, as Just The Way It is.
Take our attitude towards gentrification. “Of course, poor people – namely people of color – are naturally going to get priced out over time, that’s just how the laws of supply and demand work; and landlords have the right to raise rents on their property.” We say or believe these things as if they are laws of nature, as if we are stating, “Oh if you drop a pen it will fall to the ground, that’s just how things are.” We can’t imagine any other alternative.
When in fact, that doesn’t have to be the case at all. In East Harlem, a homeless advocacy group has gotten government funding to start a Community Land Trust. They plan to buy a few properties in East Harlem and, with government subsidies, offer affordable housing for people who would otherwise be homeless. The properties would be owned by a nonprofit, which would be governed by a board that would consist of residents and stakeholders in the community.
In Chinatown, there is a group of 75 tenants who live in a rent-stabilized building called 85 Bowery. Their landlord had refused to make some serious repairs needed to fix the building – we’re talking water leaking between floors, unstable staircases, that kind of stuff – as he wanted the tenants to leave so he could renovate the building and charge a much higher price. This, by the way, happens to tons of people every day in NYC and even to people here in our congregation. This past January, the landlord managed to get the Department of Buildings to issue a vacate order due to the building’s instability, and the tenants have been displaced for their homes for over 5 months.
Now these tenants, are not wealthy or educated; none of them really speak English, mostly Mandarin or Fujianese; some of them are elderly grandparents, some middle-aged parents, and some are young children. But they are not going quietly into the night—they are working with a broad alliance of people and organizations to hold public demonstrations, protests outside of city housing agencies, boycotts of their landlord’s commercial stores.
They even held a five-day hunger strike last January and they’re planning on holding another one this Wednesday at 11am in front of City Hall. This is one of the women who was on the hunger strike in January; she is over 70-years-old.
The tenants are fighting not just to return back to their apartments, but also for Mayor DeBlasio to pass laws to rezone Chinatown and the Lower East Side and strictly regulate real estate development in their communities. They are imagining a different way, a different society in which who has the most money doesn’t just always get their way, and in which property and land is accountable to the public. They are disrupting the status quo and are refusing to accept that this is just “the way things are.” Their resistance inspires my imagination.
One of the most disruptive acts in the Bible occurred on Pentecost Day, which is a day we celebrated last Sunday. It was the day in which, according to the book of Acts, the Spirit of God descends upon the disciples of Jesus and they start speaking in multiple languages.
This day coincides with the holiday of Shavuot in the Jewish tradition, where Jews celebrate God’s giving of the Torah to them through the mediator of Moses. The celebration is particularly meaningful because these laws provide a new way for how Israel, as a community, is going to govern and define itself.
And on the day of Pentecost, God did not give Torah 2.0, instead gave Her Spirit, mediated through Jesus, and poured her out onto the disciples and all new believers.
So the question is: How did the Spirit impact this community? How were they shaped and defined by it? Right after the event of the Pentecost, Luke takes a moment to describe this emerging community.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
Whenever I read this, I’m in disbelief. I can’t quite imagine it even. People had all things in common? People were selling their possessions and belongings and giving the proceeds to anyone who had need? Did this actually happen? People were willingly and voluntarily doing this? I’m not even getting into the symbolic meaning of the text, there’s no fancy sophisticated exegesis stuff here, I’m talking about how literally what’s going on here in this text, very basic reading comprehension.
And Luke repeats this description again two chapters later, when the apostles are praying and he describes how the whole room was shaken because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. And how does the Spirit manifest itself now in this community?
“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. 33 And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.”
I want to highlight two points.
1. No one had any need. Because people were selling land and houses and giving them to the apostles to distribute to people who had need. Property was shared. There wasn’t a merit-based criteria of “well we’re only giving to people who are in need and who are trying to find a job”; it was just literally who has need, and how do we fill their need.
2. No one said anything belonged to them, but they had everything in common. Property was public.
The miracle here is not that there is a sharing of possessions and meeting of needs. Because that happens a lot in certain settings, like within our families.
When my dad got his first job, at the time, his mother was basically raising five children more or less by herself, he gave 30%, after taxes, of his income to her. My grandma, my dad’s mom, did the same for her younger sister; she could’ve gone on to college and had a bachelor’s degree and gone up the professional ranks, but she chose after high school to enter a vocational trade and learn to be a teacher so she could start earning money and pay for her younger sister to go to university, which she did. And when my sister and brother and I lived at home while working, we gave our parents a monthly amount to pay for our younger siblings’ college education. And although my sister and I have moved out, we still contribute every year.
We do that because we’re family. I would do the same for my partner, Abby, if she was ever in need. And I can think of a few close friends whom I would do the same for. That’s what it means to be joined together with another in love.
The miracle in the book of Acts is that this care and concern and love is being expanded outside of one’s family, outside of one’s circle of loved ones, and is including whoever chooses to join this community, regardless of your family, tribe, clan, language, etc.
This not just a revolution of money, of possessions, although it is that. It’s a revolution of our consciousness.
Willie James Jennings, a black theologian, in his commentary on Acts points out that the Israelites are used to giving sacrifices every year of their possessions and lands, but to a temple, to make sacrifices to God. And in this case, this new community is making a different kind of sacrifice, a new kind of giving, not towards a temple or altar but towards one another.
“So like an ancient altar but now made of human bodies, the apostles’ feet became the place of sacrifice and giving.”
Jennings argues that in some way the giving of possessions is really an afterthought. What’s really happening is that people are giving themselves to one another—people are using money, something that is traditionally used to create distance between people, to actually draw people closer together. Note the sequence in this sentence:
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
There was an internal change that was happening thanks to the Spirit. People were becoming united in one heart and one soul—they had given themselves over to one another together. And as a result, an external, collective change started to happen; a new economy was created, one based on grace and not merit.
There is a quote by a queer black Buddhist teacher, Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, that I love which applies perfectly here:
“Without inner change there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”
Let’s imagine what this kind of internal and collective change might look like for our church. Maybe it would be like people in this church saying, “All right I’m going to sell some furniture on Ebay and I’m going to give the cash to the church” so we can have a church fund for people who maybe just lost their job and they need to pay for health insurance or they had a big accident and they can’t pay their bills, for freelancers who are in a dry spell and haven’t cashed a check in a month or two, for students who are working over 20 hours a week to put themselves through college and still have a mountain of debt. Our church actually already helps meet the needs of families, new parents and those who are financially struggling. One of my dreams for this church would to be to raise enough funds in our fundraising campaign and in general to expand that and formalize that. Or perhaps instead of selling property, as the church in Acts did, we as a church thought about *sharing* property.
We had a baby dedication in this service. I’m sure many parents are thinking about how should they raise their children, what environments or contexts or communities should they immerses their children in?
What would it be like to raise children in a community that dares to imagine collective answers to problems that many have lost the ability to even question? A community that calls upon us to expand our circle of love beyond the people we like, we agree with, or we are related to? A community that calls us to expand our consciousness?
This is the call of the Gospel.