In the book of Acts, we are given an interesting picture of what life was like for the early church. This picture is one that both those on the left and right look to for inspiration. The left often look to it as an image of economic and political emancipation; the right look to it as an image of how the church ought to function, separate from political power centers.
The Message version of the end of Acts 2 recounts the way of the early church in this manner:
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
Recently, at First Things, Chris Arnade posted an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Arnade would, I think, label himself as agnostic as it relates to God’s existence. But his travels across America to experience life with those in lower socio-economic classes brought him to, of all places, the church:
For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches. The churches are everywhere, small churches that have come in and taken over a space and light it up on Sundays and Wednesdays. They walk inside the church, and immediately they meet people who get them. The preachers and congregants inside may preach to them, even judge their past decisions, but they don’t look down on them. They have walked the walk and know the shit they are going through, not from a book, not from a movie, not from an article, not from a study, but from their own lives or the lives of their friends. They look like them, and they get them.
Arnade used to be a Wall Street trader in the top 1% of income-earners in America. Over time, however, he became discontent with the emptiness of the life that accompanied Wall Street trading. He has plenty of pieces online, so if you’re interested in his story, I would recommend you simply search for his name. You’ll find plenty of stories, both heartbreaking and encouraging. What I find compelling about his story is that he was willing to go where others were not. He visited the so-called “dangerous” parts of society: he spent time with prostitutes, drug addicts, and homeless persons. Over time, his travels brought him to a different understanding of American politics and culture.
I found myself thinking about the above excerpt after reading a short blog post by Ranjan Roy on the social ramifications of technology in the service industry. Here’s a quote:
We are losing the spaces we share across socioeconomic strata. Slowly, but surely, we are building the means for an everyday urbanite to exist solely in their physical and digital class lanes. It used to be the rich, and then everyone else. Now in every realm of daily consumer life, we are able to efficiently separate ourselves into a publicly visible delineation of who belongs where…
One by one, we are beginning to dismantle any semblance of public shared experiences thanks to the magic of segmenting out a society of consumers by their willingness-to-pay. It's like our entire daily routine slowly becomes an airplane boarding process.
Ranjan rightly points out that economic stratification in various market sectors has led to something a little strange—we no longer brush up against people from other socio-economic strata in daily outings. But (and this is a big “but”) this is largely an urban phenomenon, or at least the experience he describes is one that he has observed in an urban setting.
He may be right that the technological progress in various markets has led to the division of social and economic classes in our daily routines. In fact, I think he is most likely right. But Ranjan’s point is supported by the underlying assumption that the market is the only place where various social and economic classes interact. The overall point of the piece is that the loss of socio-economic diversity in the food industry (and schools and transportation) leads to the complete loss of “shared public experiences.” This is an inherently urban and an inherently secular view of what humans are and what they are meant to be.
Wealthy urbanites tend to think of the social world as if it falls into a few small, public spheres: education, health, government, and the economy. On the basis of this perspective, we lose the equality of access in those areas, we lose the common, public good. Further, this loss is irreplaceable; there are no other spaces where people from different social and economic levels can interact. Arnade’s work seems to tell a different story. There is another sphere: religion. Specifically, in America, it is the Christian church.
From Arnade’s perspective, the church still functions as a space where there are no delineations. There may be some moral and spiritual judgement, but everyone is welcome. Everyone has access to the same worship experience. Everyone is part of a spiritual family. Even in urban areas, churches offer a place where there are no “pay-to-play” experiences. There is no line-jumping at the food pantry just because you can shell out more money.
It should be said that the church has been affected as much as any other institution by inequality, racism, and technophilia. Clearly there are churches who cater to the rich, or whose message is meant for wealthy white people. But that may not be the full story. In many places, the church is still doing what it did in Acts 2: sharing resources, committing itself to the teaching of the apostles, and breaking bread together. As we examine the ways in which technology and social life interact with one another, we would do well to remember that the church can still offer a space that is not divided along social and economic lines.
Chris Baca is a writer interested in the intersection of philosophy, religion, and culture. He received an MA in Bible and Theology from SAGU, and currently resides in south Dallas with his wife and two daughters.