In November 1929, the Tolstoy Club in Vienna invited Eberhard Arnold, the German Protestant theologian and founder of the Bruderhof community, to hold a series of lectures. These talks, compiled in the essay below, respond to a precarious moment: both Germany and Austria, still reeling from losing the First World War, were increasingly riven by conflicts between rich and poor and extremists on the left and right. What does the gospel say in the face of such a social and religious crisis? Eberhard Arnold’s words continue to provoke, but with a purpose: to help us read the Old and New Testaments with more faithful eyes.
From property to community: that is the great theme that occupies us today. First of all, we will examine the poison that lies at the root of property. Property means disintegration: it fragments the world into “mine” and “thine.”
But since disintegration is decomposition, the consequence of property must be death. When our body falls apart, it decays; in the same way, when the community of humankind disintegrates into isolated individuals, each with his or her own property, it is in a state of corruption. The separation of the isolated individual is the poisonous root of property. Its curse consists in the fact that individuals no longer are connected to one another. They no longer live with each other and for each other, but only next to each other. Worst of all, individuals lose their connection to God, who is the root of all being and life. The effects are mortal.
Humankind lies in agony; it is on the brink of death. And the most obvious symptom of its deathly state is property, the outgrowth of the egoistic will to possess.
In what follows, we will explore how and why this is so. Then we will turn to search for the way out.
Property Is Demonic
Let us compare humankind to the human body, which is a God-given image of how humankind is intended to function cooperatively (1 Cor. 12:12–31). When one member of the body becomes detached from the body’s unity of consciousness and acts contrary to the functional unity of the whole, we recognize it as something demonic. Jesus says: “If your right hand causes you to sin, if it leads you to death, cut if off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30).
So long as a person has unity of consciousness, all of his body’s members and functions serve the unity of the whole; no member serves itself without regard for the others. But if one organ becomes independent and separates itself from the harmonious functioning of all the others, it is diseased. Likewise, when one function attracts attention to itself, disease has already supplanted health. Our heart is only in good condition so long as we do not notice it.
The same principle holds true for people. When an individual makes himself conspicuous, gives himself airs, and pushes himself forward, it is an indication of decline, indeed, of disease. The only way to avoid this fate is when each one is there for all and when all are there, in unity, for each one.
This has obvious relevance to the question of property. In fact, property – private possessions – is the root of murder (1 Tim. 6:9–10). From property come war, competition, and the mutual injuriousness of business life (James 4:1–4). Property nourishes the most morbid forms of sexuality, prostitution and marriage for money (which is the same thing). And property gives birth to the lie, both in commercial dealings and in social relationships.
I recall how some of my relatives lost a considerable sum of money in their tropical timber business. When they gathered for a family council, the question was: “How can we cut down our expenses? We cannot stop traveling first class or give up our carriage and horses, since that would damage our credit. So we can only impose restrictions in the daily life of our immediate family circle. To the outside world, we must lie – that is, we must feign wealth.”
Similarly, when we go through a city we see elegantly dressed people in fine boots and expensive clothes; often these same persons live in run-down apartments or attics. Further examples are unnecessary to show how such dishonesties feed off private property; without it, they would be rendered quite harmless.
Max Stirner’s book The Individual and His Property may well be intended as an ironic statement, though we cannot now explore to what extent this is so.1 Be that as it may, in this book Stirner had the audacity to present the whole of modern life as consisting of nothing more than naked egoism: “Everything that I do, I do for myself.”
For Stirner, this principle of egoism applies even to the love between husband and wife: such “love,” he contends, is nothing more than the possessive grasping of another’s body. Likewise, the friendly gestures that we offer here and there to our fellow human beings are merely the result of egoism: we are friendly to others only in order to gain possible advantages for ourselves or to extend our sphere of influence. All my acts of altruism are done only to increase my own prestige.
The logical consequence of Stirner’s claim – which he openly states – is that we must recognize property as the visible extension of egoism in the material world. Thus, according to Stirner, if we want to give our children an education that will enable them to come up in the world, the central lesson we must impress on them is respect for property. Egoism and property are so completely identical that property is nothing other than the outward manifestation of egoism.
Here some will object: “Human beings, like all other living things, have received from nature, indeed from God, the instinct of self-preservation. This has been an essential force for human existence, as far back into history as we can see. If one has reverence for creation, one must recognize the instinct of self-preservation and foster it. This instinct strives after property, and rightly seeks to acquire and hold on to it. Humanity must live; that is our moral obligation.”
This argument bears exploring. The instinct of self-preservation takes a number of forms. Biologically, it is connected to the sexual instinct: hunger and love! In politics, it comes to expression as the urge for power. In economic life, it takes form as the profit motive.
Our entire economy, in fact, is based on greed for profit: it speculates on the egoism of self-preservation and on the desire for increased power in the life of the individual. In this it has been successful. Jesus said: “If the kingdom of Satan were divided against itself, it would have long ago come to ruin” (Matt.12:25–26). That is why, because of the unspoken agreement of all who are involved (and of all those who would like to be involved, if only they could), our highly capitalistic system does not fall to pieces. The demonic forces of profit-seeking are united among themselves, pursuing the same course even when seeming to compete with each other in the marketplace.2 So then those who possess are possessed: demonically possessed. Property, money, and the economic system have become laws unto themselves just as in the case of disorders in which the sexual function has broken out of the harmony of the body’s organs and become a law unto itself. Such autonomy is demonic.
It is the curse of the present century that we bow our knees before the idol of autonomy, especially the autonomy of money and of the economic system. Western civilization is heading rapidly downhill. In the Middle Ages the church was dominant over the state and over everyday life. Later, in the age of absolutism, the state dominated the church, the economy, and daily living. Today we stand in a period of development in which the economic system dominates state, church, school, and all existence. I do not want to make a judgment here as to which is the better of these possibilities; I only want to observe that we have now arrived at a time of slavery to material things.
We have discussed the urge to self-preservation as the first counterargument to my thesis. Now we will address the second counter-argument, that of collective egoism. People make the claim: “I do not live for myself at all. I don’t want to keep my property for myself; I want it for my wife and children, or for somebody else. If I go to war, I do not want to defend my own property at all – I am only doing it for the sake of all the others.”
But this “for others” is really a delusion. Our extended ego is included in everything we do “for others.” Marriage can easily be nothing more than egoism à deux. Those who love their spouses and children, after all, love their own flesh and blood. It’s not only love to one’s own family that can be a form of collective egoism. So can the solidarity of the clan, the mutual loyalty of a tribe or of pioneers in a settlement, and the common defense of an ethnicity, of a state, or, even more, of one’s own caste or class in a civil war.
In determining whether apparently unselfish actions are really collective egoism, it is not the number of people whom I help that counts, but rather the nature of my help. In other words, it does not depend on whether I am looking after only myself or also those bound together with me; that is a merely arithmetical distinction. Instead, the question is whether I care exclusively for myself and those who belong to me, in contrast to all others.
I will say openly: I am an opponent of nationalism and patriotism. I am an opponent of the proletarian class struggle. I am an opponent of the privileges of the ownership class. I am an opponent of the political party system. What is more, I am an opponent of the right of inheritance. I maintain that egoism is to be found wherever a smaller or larger group is defending its common interests.
Our whole public life has fallen prey to the curse of property. What is the military there for? Why does the court system exist? Without a doubt, for the sake of property – something that is detached, isolated, and doomed to death.
We must burst through this atmosphere of decline and downfall. As long as what guides us is the covetous will, the fight for survival, and our personal claims and rights – as long as privileges still exist – we are lost. Then we have succumbed to a state of fragmentation and fallen away from God.
Let me give a small example: When my wife and I used to live in Berlin we learned of a woman who was badly infected with tuberculosis. She lived in a room that got no light the whole day, and she could no longer even stand up by herself. Every day one of the other occupants of the house lifted her out of bed and put her to bed again in the evening. We succeeded, after tremendous effort and by putting together all our funds, in renting a sunny room for her in a healthy district. And when we came to fetch her, she refused to leave her old room for the new one; she had become so accustomed to her appalling surroundings. Isn’t this incredible?
But let us examine ourselves. Are we any different? We have grown accustomed to the curse of property, of isolation, of a fragmented life. We must wake up and hear the gospel which will make us free from the curse of a life without the Spirit and without God.
Let us turn our gaze to nature in order to recover from these shocking pictures. From a purely natural point of view, what does life consist of? We live from the sun, the air, water, and the treasures of the soil. We live by our own working strength, utilizing these forces of nature through the exertion of our body and spirit. To whom is the sun given? It is given to all – to everyone without exception. If there is anything that people do have in common, it is the gift of the sun. (To be sure, there are people who live a shadowy existence, but they would do well to come out into the sunlight!)
The sixteenth-century Hutterites say in their writings: If the sun were not hung so high, people would long ago have claimed it as their own – to the detriment of everyone else, who would no longer be able to see it. The will to possess, to take for yourself things that do not belong to you, would not even stop at the sun. Fortunately, though, the sun is hung up too high!3
What about the air? In part, it is already bought and sold. Don’t health resorts charge for their good air? Even so, the air does not belong to them. What about water? Isn’t it already treated as a commodity? And the earth? Is there reasonable ground for dividing up the earth as personal property – is it any different from the sun? No! The earth should not be private property either. The earth belongs to the inhabitants of the earth, to those for whom God ordained it (Lev. 25:23).
But today the earth is to be found in “private” hands.What, in fact, does private mean? We speak of private affairs, private roads, private property, and so forth. Privare is Latin, and it means: to rob. Private property is stolen property.4 From whom is it robbed? It is robbed from God and from humankind. It is pilfered from God’s creation and appropriated by individuals – or inherited by them, which in principle is the same thing. Naturally, whoever inherits or acquires property also holds on to it tightly.
While these examples from the world of nature clearly illustrate the curse of property, nevertheless people need prophetic voices to lay it clearly before their eyes. God has sent such prophets again and again.
Jesus is the friend of human beings – and therefore the enemy of property. In other words, it is precisely because Jesus wants true life for humankind that he is therefore the enemy of the instinct of self-preservation, of an egotistical existence. According to one of Paul’s letters, every person is to be of like mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1–11). Jesus did not hold on to his privileges, but gave up everything and held on to nothing, taking the lowest place in society. He was not only the poorest of all – he was even classed as a criminal. He held on to nothing for himself, including money; his itinerant community had a communal purse (John 12:6). He taught: Whoever lives for the sake of preserving his own life has lost his life, and whoever wants to keep his life must lose it (John 12:25). Anyone who does not forsake all that he has is not of me (Luke 14:33).
No one is of Jesus who still holds on to his property. Jesus tells us: Sell all that you have and give it away (Luke 18:18–25). Whoever has more than one coat should give it away. You should also give your second hour of work – that part of your labor that gives rise to surplus and thus becomes the source of property (Matt. 5:40–42). Someday, when all goods, just like the sun and the earth, belong to the common weal – that is, to God and his kingdom – then your second hour of work will also belong to God and to all humankind. Gain a fortune, but not here where moth and rust can destroy it – gather it up in heaven! (Luke 12:33). Free yourselves from all rights and privileges!
Community in the Holy Spirit
Until now we have spoken only of property, of what we want to turn away from, but now we will speak of community, the goal that we want to turn toward. For giving up our property can only mean one thing: dedicating ourselves to community with all we have and are.
It was Nietzsche who said that Jesus contrasts a real life with a false one.5 What is the true life that we should lead – what does it mean to be alive? A body is alive when all the organs and functions work together in unity for one another and for the tasks of the body. Life exists where there is a cohesive, dynamic unity: unity of movement, unity in multiplicity, unity in consciousness, unity in will, in feeling, and in thought. Life is organic unity.
Likewise, an individual is only fully alive insofar as he or she is part of a united humanity. And humanity is united only insofar as it is led and determined by one collective soul, by one spirit of community in which all stand up for all and all work for all.
If we want community, we must want the spirit of community. That is why I reject the so-called communist form of community. I believe only in that community which believes in the Spirit: the community whose collective soul is the Holy Spirit. In the Spirit, the church is unanimous and united; in the Spirit, the church is rich in gifts and powers and various expressions.
But just as in the body, unity can only be maintained through sacrifice, so also in the church community, unity can only be maintained through sacrifice. As we have already seen, if this unity were to be achieved without sacrifice then it would only be the gratification of a form of collective selfishness. In the church, however, each individual must be ready to sacrifice all his strength, yes, even to surrender his life. Only one who is ready to give up his life for his brothers and sisters truly loves (John 15:13). If we want to set our hands to work in church community – if we want to enter into the church and belong to the Spirit that animates it – then our hands must first let go of all else and be open and free for service.
If we can comprehend this mystery, then we will understand that this way is life-affirming. It is not a matter of dying for the sake of dying, but of letting go for the sake of a rebirth. It means turning away from illusions in order to win reality, renouncing inessentials in order to attain essentials. What will come over this world is fire, a network of holy torches, a network of organic, living cells.
The early Christians were in the habit of speaking unphilosophically and simply. In order to illustrate the coming future of humankind, they used two pictures: the table and the wedding feast. All people shall be united in the kingdom like a gathering around one table (Matt. 22:1–14; 25:1–13); all shall be united as in one wedding party (Rev. 19:6–7). The unity between one man and one woman in marriage is to be the symbol of the unity between God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32).
This is our task in church community. It consists in making our whole life in all its aspects a symbol of the future of humankind in the coming kingdom of God. And so: away from property, onward to community!
Translated from German by Kathleen Hasenberg and Emmy Barth Maendel based on Eberhard Arnold’s lecture notes. Article edited for length and clarity.
Footnotes and scripture references have been added by the editors.
1. Max Stirner (1806–1856) published Der Einzige und sein Eigentum in 1844 (Leipzig: Wigand); it advocated an amoral anarchism.
2. Arnold’s view of the “demonic” forces active in economic life is based on his reading of Matt. 6:24 (“You cannot serve God and Mammon”). As he writes in his 1915 essay “God and Mammon”: “Mamona was the Aramaic word for wealth; and it was behind this wealth that Jesus saw the true power of Satan. The latter had said even to Jesus himself, ‘I will give you all this if you will fall down and adore me.’ We cannot devote ourselves to a life of outward ease and pleasure without the value we assign to these outward things becoming the predominating force in our lives. All service of Mammon contains within it a kind of reverence or secret worship of these things, a clinging to them and a love for them that denotes a decision against God. ... Already in the early Christian period, some scholars (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa, who died after AD 394) interpreted Mammon as a name of the devil Beelzebub. Others (including Nicholas of Lyra, ca. 1300) interpreted it as the name of a demon particularly connected with money in Satan’s realm.” Read the original here.
3. Peter Walpot, Das grosse Artikelbuch, Neumühl, Moravia, 1577, modern reprinting in Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter, vol. 2, ed. Robert Friedmann (Gütersloh: Gütersloher, 1967), 231ff.
4. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government (1840), chapter 3 §1.
5. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, vol.13, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1980), 106.