April 14 | Mutual Aid and the Struggle for Life



Mutual Aid and the Struggle for Life 
Text: Acts 6
Speaker: Joel Miller


Locusts, beetles, land crabs, termites, ants, and bees.  This could be the beginning of a list of things you hope not to find in your house during a round of spring-cleaning.  These are also some of the creatures that show up in the first chapter of an old book by the Russian Peter Kropotkin called Mutual Aid: An Illuminated Factor of Evolution.  I came across the book a couple summers ago in the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.  When you’re in a cool bookstore in a cool city it’s pretty self-evident that buying a book there will make you at least a somewhat cooler person.  This one caught my attention because of the artwork bordering the text of each page, a 21st century enhancement of a 19th century book.  The author was new to me, but the topic was one I think a lot about, mutual aid. 

Peter Kropotkin was writing a generation after Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection.  At the time, many of Darwin’s ideas were being interpreted as confirmation that life, at all levels, was essentially a battle of gladiators, with the strongest and fastest dominating the weak, winning the war of survival, living to fight another day (paraphrasing Thomas Huxley, p. 32 of Mutual Aid).  If that was how it’s always been, this had big implications on how successful human societies should function, and which people and peoples might be considered superior to others. 

Peter Kropotkin was one who thought this was not only bad politics, but bad science, a poor misreading of Darwin’s theories.  So he wrote a series of essays about mutual aid, which became a book.  His goal was to show how mutual aid, rather than each-against-all, was the basis for the flourishing of life.  Before getting to the human world of clans and guilds and cooperatives, he starts with the social insects.

An example: He notes that every aspect of the life of ants is based on the principles of mutual aid, including food sharing.  He writes:

“Two ants belonging to the same nest or to the same colony of nests will approach each other, exchange a few movements with the antennae, and ‘if one of them is hungry or thirsty, and especially if the other has its crop full…it immediately asks for food.’ The individual thus requested never refuses; it sets apart its mandibles, takes a proper position, and regurgitates a drop of transparent fluid which is licked up by the hungry ant.  Regurgitating food for other ants is so prominent a feature in the life of ants (we could consider) the digestive tube of the ants as consisting of two different parts, one of which, the posterior, is for the special use of the individual, and the other, the anterior part, is chiefly for the use of the community” (p. 37).

I can’t say I ever anticipated ant barf making it into a sermon, but there you have it. 

His point isn’t that nature is always kind and cooperative, but, as he says at the end of the chapter, “mutual aid is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle” (p. 47).

To make a transition from ant colonies and 19th century Russian anarchists, to 1st century Jerusalem, the practice of mutual aid is very much front and center in the opening chapters of the book of Acts.  It’s the beginning of chapter two where Holy Spirit floods the upper room where everyone is gathered for Pentecost.  They start speaking in many different languages.  Pilgrims from different parts of the world, visiting Jerusalem for the festival, hear them speaking in their own native language.  How could this be?  Peter preaches a sermon that this is the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, but raised up by God, now the gravitational center of this multilingual community. 

By the end of the chapter 2, 3000 people have been added to the community.  And here, according to Luke, the author, is what it meant to be part of that community:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  

This rather all-in form of mutual aid is restated in chapter 4: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostle’s feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

Luke may be giving us an idealized picture of the first believers, but it seems significant that mutual aid plays such a prominent role in the early church.  Strangers became friends.  Scattered peoples started acting like an extended kinship group.  Being a Jesus-follower had a direct impact on people’s economic lives.  They cared for each other.  Everyone gave what they were able and received what they needed.  All this happened apart from the transactional market economy. 

We could say this was counter-cultural radical behavior, or we could say it was a restoration of normal human behavior, in the Spirit of the Human One, the Son of Man, Jesus’ favorite title for himself.  Certainly it was practicing the commands of Torah.  Deuteronomy 15 instituted a redistribution of wealth every seven years so that “there will be no one in need among you” (v. 4).  Or even better, it’s the behavior of life itself, modeled by the ants and other cooperative beings much smaller and older than us.  It’s how life flourishes.  To put it in the words of Jesus.  “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Whatever we call it, it was a challenge to sustain.  Acts chapter six is the reality check. 

Within this multi-lingual community of Jesus-spirited folks there were Hellenists -Greek speaking Jews –  and Hebrews – Aramaic-speaking Jews.  Acts 6:1 says, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews, because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  Maybe there was some historic tension between the two groups.  Or maybe this is just growing pains, the community expanding faster than its structures are built for.  Twelve apostles can only do so much.  And people aren’t giving through monthly pledges or by scanning QR codes.  Their offerings are actual food, brought to the gathering, physical items to be sorted, weighed out, and distributed. 

There are some signs of tension in the apostles’ response.  Verse 2: “And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.’”  Maybe there’s a slight implication that their work of preaching and teaching is more important than administering mutual aid, waiting on tables.  Or maybe they’re practicing good boundaries, naming their gifts, staying in their lane, empowering others to do the good work that has simply become too much for them. 

They do some gifts discernment and form one of the first commissions of the church, chaired by a person of strong character and wisdom named Steven.  Six others, all with Greek names, are also selected.  The apostles offer them a blessing in a way that we imitate when we license or ordain ministers.  With a laying on of hands and prayer.  A beautiful picture of us doing just that with Sarah Werner appears in the most recent issue of Anabaptist World alongside an essay she wrote about disability and church. 

We get no more details in Acts about how this new division of labor works out, except that the disciples in Jerusalem continued to grow, and that Steven was a powerful leader.  So powerful, it turns out, he became the first recorded martyr of the church, which is to say that his life followed the pattern of Jesus in more ways than one.  Mutual aid is indeed a radical act.

Steven’s public stoning was overseen by a young man named Saul, who would later undergo a conversion and be known as Paul.  Paul would go on to travel around much of the Roman Empire starting little communities who lived in the Spirit of Jesus.  He would write letters that encouraged, among other things, the practice of mutual aid.  And so this ancient thread of abundant life through mutual aid continued to take new forms in new communities around the world.

The 16th century Anabaptists saw themselves as reviving the New Testament church.  This included the practice of mutual aid.  In the centuries that followed this has ranged from groups who really do share all things in common, like the Hutterites; to Amish barn raisings; to Mennonite mutual insurance organizations.  Undergirding these practices is the belief that everything ultimately belongs to God.  We are merely the stewards of these resources.

One of the ways we practice mutual aid at Columbus Mennonite Church is through the Compassion Fund.  This is a fund, separate from the annual budget, that anyone can give to at anytime.  Our Shepherding Commission oversees the funds and shares the aid as needs come to our attention.  Not to complicate things too much, but Compassion Fund gifts usually involve a double form of mutual aid. 

The Mennonite stewardship agency Everence has a sharing fund that matches funds given in mutual aid to our members.  This has enabled us to give out around an additional $15,000 in mutual aid over the past five years.   

The wider church also has a mutual aid fund to assist with congregations who can’t afford to pay health insurance for their pastors.  This year we’re contributing a little over $1700 to this fund, which is part of our annual budget.  So if you give an offering to the church throughout the year, a portion of that gift goes to help provide health insurance to pastors of less wealthy congregations. 

Our small groups are another way mutual aid and support is offered in less formal ways. 

These are relatively small things on the macro-economic scale, but there’s something beautiful about the smallness of mutual aid.  When the twelve apostles gave their blessing to Steven and the other six, they weren’t charged with restructuring the economy of the Roman Empire.  They were charged with seeing that those in their own community, fellow-Jesus followers, were cared for.  They were charged with collecting the gifts of God that others had released from their own stewardship to be redistributed as needed, so that there was no one in need among them.

Which is a pretty radical thing.  It is an alternative economic practice.  It does challenge a system that co-opts human cooperation to generate wealth for the few at the expense of the many, and at the expense of the earth.

Life is hard.  It is a struggle.  In our hyper-individualized culture, we can form a mini-culture of mutuality and aid.

When we do practice mutual aid, in whatever form, at whatever scale, we are joining in the spirit of Jesus, the spirit of Steven and the spirit of Torah, the spirit of earth community in creatures so small we can miss they’re even there, despite our entire evolutionary unfolding owing itself to the practices of mutuality they have honed for millions of years.  

In this Easter season, we honor mutual aid as a witness to the resurrection, life overcoming death, community persisting in the way of Jesus, the Risen One.