Property rights, property wrongs

Biblical words on money that you never hear in church #1

private property
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” – Leviticus 25:23

The Bible establishes a right to private property.

The Bible limits the right to private property.

Once you see how the balance defies what Americans (on both sides) preach about property, you understand why our churches tend to avoid these passages. And it becomes possible to see how we’ve gotten into a degrading situation with our property today.

What does the Bible propose we do with the land we own?

The Ideal

The settlement of the Promised Land is described in the book of Numbers. In Numbers 35-36 the people of Israel divide the land among the tribes. Every family is given their share, like the land grants given to settlers in the American West in the 1800s.2

But the division of property came with a catch.

In Leviticus 25, Moses gives God’s degree that each family’s land is to be a permanent inheritance. It could not be sold off, it could not be taken away by debtors. Yes, you could “rent out” your land to pay off a debt.3 But at a set time every 50 years, in what was called “The Jubilee,” all the land in Israel was to revert back to its original family.4

There is compassion in this law. It establishes that every family in Israel should always have land, a chance to grow their own food and support their own people. No one person could cast away their children and grandchildren’s future, despite whatever bad luck and bad decisions might come in their own life, because the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.

Thus in the Hebrew Law, avoiding generational poverty is important enough to limit what people can do with their own land. How can we call it our “own” land anyway? As it says in Leviticus 25, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”5

The principle that the land belongs ultimately to God didn’t just apply to the question of ownership. It also meant that people had to take care of the land.

Every seven years the Israelites were to let the land lie fallow, giving it rest.6 This was to ensure that the land stayed strong and productive. Leviticus commands that the poor of the community and even wild animals could eat whatever grew naturally on the land during the fallow year. In all other years, landowners were commanded to refrain from harvesting the edges of their land, saving that for the poor to take as they passed.7 There were numerous rules to ensure that landowners cared for workers and even the domestic animals that worked their land,8 and keep regard for their neighbors’ animals…even their enemy’s animals!9 Neighbors were free to eat grapes and pick grain off of each other’s land, so long as they did not abuse the privilege.10 To own land in Israel was a community obligation, an obligation to neighbors and workers and the poor and animals and the sustainability of the land itself.

The Let-down

If you know the history of Israel, you know that it did not end well. The wealthy did not hold up their end of the bargain.

In the book of Isaiah, God tells the story of a vineyard he had planted. God planted the vineyard (Israel) for justice, but instead heard cries and bloodshed. After this vineyard parable, Isaiah states:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: ”Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”11

Isaiah is describing an injustice where certain people were accumulating too much property. Rather than each family having its own field, its own home, some people were buying up many fields and many homes, leaving others without any land at all.

The prophet Micah lamented the same issue:

Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them: houses, and take them away: they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: ”Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks, and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.12

There is injustice when a person takes control of many families’ worth of properties for their own benefit. There is something broken in society when the things that once belonged to all are accumulated into the hands of a few. This brokenness was demonstrated most dramatically in the story of Naboth and Ahab found in 1 Kings 21:

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” 

But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

Ahab and his wife Jezebel, desperate to add to their estate, plot to have Naboth killed so that they can take his vineyard via deceit. The prophet Elijah is sent by God to speak judgment on them as a result.

The prophets frequently envisioned a future where everyone would have their own land, share it with their neighbor, and no longer have it stolen by the mighty.13 Yet they made clear that the present was an evil time, a time of injustice, where the powerful stole the land from the poor and ground their faces into its soil.14

This is an injustice for which Israel was judged with exile. And according to the author of 2 Chronicles, that exile finally gave the land the rest that the disobedient of Israel had refused to give.15

The Redemption

By the time of Jesus, the now-cursed nation of Israel had been conquered and reconquered several times. Its inhabitants had been exiled, then returned, but the Romans controlled the land and made its laws. So how could Jesus’s followers apply the Jubilee principles of fair distribution?

The clue is in the book of Acts.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.16

The historic family ownership of the land has been broken, but the principles of fair distribution and concern for the poor have not. The Christian community took radical steps to ensure that all had the means they needed to live. While the apostle Peter made clear that holding private property is still legitimate,17 in their freedom the community chose to follow Jesus’s advice18 and distribute their property among the needy.

How long was the Christian community able to maintain this focus? Take a look at this letter from the 4th century Roman emperor Julian, a pagan who saw the Christians as rivals.

Why then do we…not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?…For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.19

Julian wrote in the year 361, over 300 years after the early Church first distributed their resources to all in need. The Christian community was still so committed to fair distribution that they were not only caring for their own poor, but for the pagan poor as well.

Another Let-down?

Sadly, it would not last. By the 5th century Christianity had become the official religion of empire, and the Christian bishop St. Basil the Great was lamenting what had been lost in the attitude of rich Christians:

“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all—this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.

Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you.

But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets for your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?20

Today’s dispossessed are tomorrow’s slum dwellers

While there have been bright spots, let’s just say that the next 1500 years of Christianity didn’t always jive well with God’s view of how we should utilize property. I’m gonna fast forward to today, to the packed slums of the world’s megacities.

Many of the people who live in slums once owned rural land, but had their land possessed by wealthy lenders or government/corporate projects. Others found they could no longer survive on their family’s land due to poor sustainability practices. Some formerly landed people saw their livelihood crushed due to government mismanagement of the agriculture economy. A few were forced from the villages to the cities to access services, such as hospitals or schools, that were not available in rural areas. And some simply chased the promises of city life, of quick profit or professional work or alluring entertainment that cannot be found in a village.

​Add them all up, and you have a billion once-landed peoples who now live in insecurity on tiny plots in the slum. In many cases even these tiny plots could be seized and destroyed by government or the powerful wealthy.

In “The Mystery of Capitalism”, Hernando de Soto writes that this insecurity and lack of fairly and legally distributed ownership is the primary reason that the poor don’t benefit from economic growth in much of the world.

What does that have to do with us in the West?

In the places I have lived in the Global South, many of the practices that force people to the slums are sponsored by foreign entities. It was occupying powers like the British East Indies Company that forced families to stop growing sustainable food and produce cash crops for British people instead. Now international agencies like the World Bank and the IMF loan money to nations on the stipulation that they will discourage sustenance farming and instead put their resources into cash sectors that will create goods for the West.

Where local agriculture does continue, foreign monopolies like Monsanto coerce farmers into switching to expensive seeds dependent on fertilizer and pesticides. These expensive seeds, which farmers are banned from collecting and replanting on their own, lead farmers to rack up large debts that often cause them to lose their land. Even if they do make a profit, the reliance on chemical inputs soon reduces the sustainability of the soil.

The global loss of sustainable sustenance farms, which is forcing hundreds of millions into the slums, is simply a repeat of the Western death of family farms that destroyed many rural communities and created poverty-plagued “inner cities”. Family farms begin to die out when:

* quick profits are prioritized over long-term sustainability
* cost-cutting measures are prioritized over the care of workers and animals
* giant accumulations in the hands of a select few “agribusinesses” replace the fair distribution of land

We encourage the trend when we focus on economic growth instead of sustainability, on profits instead of compassionate care. Those who add “house to house and field to field,” those condemned by Isaiah and Micah, are now celebrated in American culture and elected to high office.

The hope

In both the Global South and the West, we can reverse this tide if we stop thinking of land as the equivalent to money (and thus only meant to fulfill our greed), and begin instead to consider it a creation and possession of God that must be cared for to His specifications.

  • If we think about sustainability instead of short-term profits.
  • If we move towards a stakeholder-centered system, which prioritizes the needs of everyone involved (including workers, customers, and the broader community), rather than current stockholder-centered systems, which prioritize investors and the bottom line.
  • If we push for changes in the financial sector that will encourage as many families as possible to have what they need to care for their own family, rather than the current system which encourages the accumulation of capital goods among a few.
  • If we work to organize thriving rural communities where many people prosper, instead of passing laws and subsidies that favor only the largest agribusinesses.

And always, whether we have land or not, we can follow the example of Acts and come together as a church community to pool everything we have for the benefit of those who lack.

As the Proverbist prayed,

Two things I ask of you;
do not deny them to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,

or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God.21

We have become full of far more riches than we ever needed, and in the process forgotten the wisdom of God, removing the opportunity for land from others and leading them into poverty.

What steps can you and your church community take to honor the blessing and the responsibility of private property?

Footnotes:

[1] “In Sweden, for instance, the right of Allemansrätt allows individuals to walk, pick flowers, camp for a day or two, swim, or ski on private land (but not too close to a dwelling). I met a horse enthusiast who described how, in Ireland, all the gates to private farm lanes and pastures are unlocked. ‘Trespassing’ is not a concept; the land is open to all.” – Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics, pg. 61.

[2] Unlike the American West, however, larger plots of land in Israel were not distributed to those with more money or power, but only if necessary to support a larger family or tribe. See Numbers 26:52-56 and Numbers 33:54.

[3] Leviticus 25:14-17

[4] Leviticus 25:10-13

[5] This quote from Leviticus 25:23 is also clearly reminiscent of Psalm 24:1.

[6] Exodus 23:10-11, also Leviticus 25:1-7 and Nehemiah 10:31

[7] Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-22

[8] Exodus 23:12, Leviticus 16:29, Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, and others

[9] Exodus 23:4-5, also Deuteronomy 22:1-5

[10] Deuteronomy 23:24-25

[11] Isaiah 5:8-9

[12] Micah 2:1-3

[13] see Isaiah 65:21, Micah 4:4, Zechariah 3:10 and Ezekiel 45:8-9

[14] Isaiah 3:14-15,1 Kings 21:1-20

[15] 2 Chronicles 36:21

[16] Acts 4:32-35. See also Acts 2:43-47, 4:36-37, and 5:1-11

[17] Acts 5:4

[18] See Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 12:32-33, Luke 14:33, and Matthew 19:21-29/Mark 10:21-30/Luke 18:22-30

[19] Emperor Julian the Apostate, “Letter to Arsacius”, 361A.D.

[20] Basil the Great, Homily No. 8, “In Time of Famine and Drought”

[21] Proverbs 30:7-9

3 thoughts on “Property rights, property wrongs

  1. I love these quotes from the church Fathers (and Roman Emperor) to show the incredibly reality that for 400 years the church was able to maintain it’s generosity to all in need.

    The current system is indeed broken when a worker can toil full time and yet not be able to feed her/his family.

    A good start to redistribution in the spirit of the Jubilee would be a global minimum ‘living wage’ under which every worker in the world could in fact feed one’s family with her/his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m becoming very warm to the idea of Universal Basic Income as well, an idea I would have been skeptical of just a few years ago before I began to understand the underpinnings of our economy better. There is so much work to do that simply has no one to pay for it, and so much useless or even harmful work that is done only because it gains someone profits. If UBI can lead the specter of abject poverty to be removed AND some people can be more freed up to pursue education, environmental restoration, care for their sick/elderly/disabled relatives, ability to stay home with their children, other things that don’t have a monetary payout but are really important for society…I think that could be a really good thing. Not to mention the increased freedom to “try things” that could be good and profitable but which someone forced to work a “stable corporate job” for their daily bread usually can’t risk to try.

    The issue with both, of course, being that we’re really really far from making binding global agreements. Especially ones for which the cross-nation benefit isn’t readily apparent. But even if it happened one nation at a time, there could be a cascade of positive outcomes (and nations as economically diverse as Switzerland and India have taken serious looks at UBI recently).

    Here’s a brief story about a UBI trial in India, which I believe was undertaken by an NGO unrelated to the current government’s recently expressed interest in the idea:

    http://basicincome.org/news/2017/11/follow-india-ubi-pilot-finds-continued-improvement/

    Like

  3. This is such a perceptive post Stranger. These thoughts on ownership and rights woven right into the fibre of who we are. and how we relate. I think private property is one of the big stumbling blocks to a fully coherent relationship theology….
    great post

    Like

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