Interview with Camille Mordelynch: « The first Christians are disciples of Christ not only in spirit, but above all in deeds »

A philosophy graduate and professor of religious culture, Camille Mordelynch worked on the structures of the first christian communities. Seeking to demonstrate the influence of the Christian legacy in values invoked by socialism and communism, she went back to the very origins of the Church in a new booklet from Editions des Livres Noirs. She is a columnist for the magazine Rébellion.

How have you discovered this forgotten aspect of the history of christianity?

By wanting to refute certain fallacious discourses! Personally, it always seemed to me evident that my christian faith and my anti-capitalist political struggle could conciliate on the ground of a common sensibilty, although from the outside, the incompatibility of the two seemed almost dogmatic. Through my universitary course, it even seemed legitimate to uphold that christianism could have been the origin of philosophical (though highly debatable, even when it comes to the birth of individual liberties) and political liberalism. Yet, the Scriptures seemed to me closer to a socialist manifesto: the virulence of many passages of the Gospel professing anathemas against the rich and the wealthy, the imperative of volontary poverty, the attention paid to the weakest and to the common interest are definitive. Not to mention the eminently subversive core of Christianity: revolutionary faith in a God that is no longer secluded holiness, a resolutely transcendent absolute, but on the contrary deliberately transparent, embodied in the imminence of the flesh as one among us, one within us. There is contained all the prodigious upheaval of hierarchies, culminating in the figure of Christ, He who « has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. » (Luke 1:51-53)

Thus I wanted to unearth all the original radicality of this message at the at the opposite of the capitalist predation, although highly perverted by the Church and some of its faithful gained by the bourgeois mindset, devoid of any sense of struggle against the world’s iniquity. The solution was therefore to go back to the origins of the Christian faith, and to approximate, not without some emotion, the communal way of life of the first faithful living alongside the Apostles.

How were the first christian communities structured?

We must first note the difficulty of studying these early christian communities; between the death of Christ and the writing of the first Gospels, about twenty years go by, without that no testimony, to my knowledge, has come down to us. So regarding their formation, we can but collect Greek scriptures, canonical or extra- canonical, who relate the journey of groups of preachers such as the eminently important one of St.Paul, gathering the faithful in the towns he travels through. Missionaries following the generation of the Apostles will perpetuate this burden of witness, sowing the Roman Empire with assemblies of believers. These communities then form a heterogeneous, diasporic, yet united network, collections being organized there in favor of the primal community of Jerusalem. This first assembly, gathered around 37 AD by the Apostles (see the Acts of the Apostles) is characterized by a strong communal structure, built on the sharing of meals, goods, and quite certainly homes, denoting awareness of the social dimension of property. Believers

did sell their goods, and the money that they drew was given to the Apostles to be redistributed among all.

Prior then to any doctrinal unification (the first Council of Jerusalem taking place in 48 AD), and even before a Christian theology is constituted (certainly comming down to a simple devotion to Christ) it is the need of a living-together, extended to every aspect of daily life, that characterizes early Christianity. The first Christians disciples of Christ not only in spirit, but above all in deeds, gathered according to a way of life that is conformal to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Christian community is one of faith, but the communion of souls in God is socially fulfilled through extensive community practices.

Where does this model of society of early christianism, based on the pooling of goods, come from?

Christianity was born at the confluence of two worlds that were already interpenetrating: the Greco-Roman world, and the Jewish world, from which it will grow apart more distinctly. So I tried to trace back the genealogy of the Christian societal model by studying the community ideals theorized or put in application in both Greek civilization and late Judaism: on one hand, in philosophy, Pythagoreanism already practiced a pooling of goods which will certainly inspire Plato’s ideal city depicted in his Republic, who went so far as to propose the common property of women and children; on the other hand, we find in Hellenized Jewish sects breaking from the Temple, the Essenes and the Therapeutae, the practice of scrupulous asceticism, through renunciation of wealth and private property. Considering both the Hellenization of Judea (the Gospels were written in greek) and Judaic proliferation (increased by the geographic proximity of the Essenes in the desert of Qumran), it is most likely that these models of society influenced the first Christians in their community organization.

You’re also pointing out the greco-latin influenceWas there a « community thinking » in the ancient world?

As previously mentioned with Pythagoras and Plato, Antiquity bears witness of many community theories or practices born from a ceaseless reflection on the means to make society as harmoniously as possible. After Plato, Aristotle imagined the political community as the most successful association, where the well- being can be accomplished: « The City is the community of the good life ». The finality of koinônia politikê is therefore the happiness of its members, only achieved if the unity of the City is ensured, or in Socrates’ words: « Do we know […] of any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?” ( Rep. V, 462b). Now, since Pythagoras, to whom we owe the maxim « Between friends, all is in common », koina ta philôn, it is accepted that unity is only guaranteed if the social bond presuppose the philia, that is to say friendship broadly understood as a feeling of mutual attachment, greatly repressing selfish interests. This community ideal, founded on friendship, is a trite word of antique wisdom. It is notably found in literature through the myth of the Golden Age, the state of grace of mankind’s beginnings. Hesiod, Ovid or Virgil depict this first generation of men living in harmony, spared from all evil, effortlessly sustaining themselves of fruits of an abundant nature offered for the use of all; but doomed to decline, the end of this state of innocence results in the irruption of private property and the corruption of greed. Men thereafter decline until the Iron Age, plagued by Evil.

It is therefore possible to detect, in the communal utopias of Antiquity, an Edenic dimension, reminiscence of a golden age depicted in Hellenism as a state of perfection in terms of the socialization of men.

How will the Church integrate this « community » dimension in the rest of its history?

The tale of the community of Jerusalem, presented in the Acts of the Apostles, will embody a model of apostolic life throughout the history of Christianity. An object of nostalgia for the Fathers of the Church, some like Basil of Caesarea will incite Christians to renew this community experience and to revive the ecclesia primitiva: « Let us zealously imitate the early Christian community, where everything was held in common–life, soul, concord, a common table, indivisible kinship–while unfeigned love constituted many bodies as one and joined many souls in a single harmonious whole » (In Times of Famine and Drought). But thereafter, the community of Jerusalem will be reduced to an ideal for the cenobitic minorities of monasticism, inspiring many rules of life for religious orders, particularly in the Middle Ages ((think for example of the Order of Friars Minor).

Subsequently, the Church will generally favor her spiritual vocation as the mystical body of Christ, in super- individual communion with God, to the detriment of the interpersonal and communal aspect of its origins. The early Church undeniably presented itself as a social phenomenon… that she eventually will forsake.

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