To Own or Not to Own

I’ve been emailing back and forth with a good friend of mine, Justin Tapp, who studied economics at Baylor about this article from Jesus Radicals. He finally wrote a post summarizing his thoughts on our conversation about private property and the Bible. I’m not an economist and he’s no biblical scholar, but I think the exchange of perspectives is healthy.

The article uses Augustine as a lens to talk about how the Christian tradition (Augustine in particular) views economics in general and the notion of private property specifically. My friend is somewhat skeptical of this approach, preferring to stick to sola scriptura. Unfortunately, I think this remnant of Reformation theology is not so helpful, because it has never existed. We all come from a tradition. No one reads the Bible alone.

With that said here’s where we’ve found some common ground:

  • God’s intention in creation was not for private property. The original intention was a creation in which the idea of private property is not necessary, because there is not scarcity.
  • “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) According to Scripture, God is ultimately the Creator of all things and holds ultimate claim to all of creation, including material goods. Our view of possessions should keep this in mind.
  • Christians should hold possessions loosely. There are many cautions against the dangers of materialism in Scripture and our calling is to serve others with what we have been given.

First I’d like to say that I agree with the main point that Scripture does not advocate one person (or many people) taking property, because they believe it is being used unjustly. The application of that idea sounds like a nightmare. However, I think this one point causes Tapp to miss the forest for the funny-looking knot hole on that one tree.

I would like to respond to a few points that Justin makes in this post. Mostly places I think he misuses and misinterprets Scripture (probably mostly minor and obscure problems because I’m a theogeek). Then in the next post I’d like to make a case for another way of understanding the roots of property rights in the Bible.

Tapp uses Exodus 20:15,17 to talk about property rights. Among the things listed that belong to your neighbor in this passage are his wife, manservant and maidservant. In the world that this text was written in, the idea that women and slaves were property that could be stolen or coveted were assumed. Based on Scripture (Gen 1:27), we have decided that possessing human beings is not just and it is not a right. The BIble clearly justifies it based on the passage Justin mentioned (and others), but we have collectively decided as a church over time that the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God trumps the idea that women and slaves should be considered property. This verse certainly cautions against stealing and acknowledges that people “own” things in some sense, but the idea that this is the same as our modern concept of “absolute ownership” is another leap.

The author of the article at Jesus Radicals makes a distinction between “Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice” and “the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution.” The author does not really do a good job of clearly describing this distinction and then uses it later to claim “Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation.” I hope to spend some time unpacking this distinction in another post. It should not be assumed that our modern conception of property rights is exactly what we find in Scripture. That would be reading into and imposing on the text our own beliefs, eisegesis, which is a big no-no in biblical interpretation (but, I confess, sometimes difficult to catch, especially in myself).

Tapp mentions Leviticus 25, the Jubilee, as one possible place where Scripture outlines how we are to use poperty and possibly redistribute them. Tapp states,

“However nowhere does it state how big a person’s property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn’t a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people’s ability to trade and make those choices.”

Now, I certainly don’t believe God is communist the way that the term “central planner” implies, but in the context of the Jubilee the Israelites were to return “everyone… to his own property” (Lev 21:13). How is this possible if the land is bought and sold for 49 years? How do they know where to return? God divided up the land in Deuteronomy 3:12-17 among the twelve tribes of Israel. So in a very literal and real sense the Jubilee did place a restriction on the amount of land one family or tribe could own within a generation or two. I think the Jubilee both affirms “people’s ability to trade and make choices” while also placing very real limits on the amount of property and possessions (land being the only source of wealth at the time) people could accumulate.

Many scholars believe the Jubilee was likely never practiced by the Israelites. So, why not let it fade away with all the other impractical, idealist notions that have come and gone? Because Leviticus 25 is not an isolated passage. It is part of the Sabbatical Laws (Gen 2 and Deut 15) all of which concern the proper use of land and our relationship to creation and each other. It is picked up by Isaiah 61 to describe the coming perfection of God’s reign and then quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 when he gives his mission statement in Nazareth. This is not some obscure passage that we can simply write off as an anomaly. It is central to the good news proclaimed by Jesus.

Tapp also uses the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) to illustrate the way the Bible talks about use of property. No matter what you’re trying to argue, you should always be careful using parables to support your argument. They are notoriously slippery things. Parables are meant to shock us and make us uncomfortable. If we think we know what they mean, we probably are not paying enough attention. Both this parable and the oft quoted following parable are both disturbing and upsetting when read fully. The moral of the parable seems to directly contradict the Great Reversal found through the Gospels and the Hebrew Testament, the last shall be first, the rich sent away empty, the valleys lifted and mountains leveled. So, much more careful exegesis and interpretation should be done before applying it to our conversation about property. It seems to open a can of worms.

Now that I’m done nitpicking… I hope to outline another view of property based on the agrarian worldview of the biblical text.

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5 thoughts on “To Own or Not to Own

  1. Keith Walters

    Lucas,
    I am a friend of Justin. In the next post could you explain what you mean by absolute ownership? Also I am not qite sure what is implied by the phrase “fraudulent autonomy” in the quote from the Jesus Radicals blog. I read their post and I am still confused as to what they, and you, are intending to convey with this phrase. Thanks and I look forward to seeing how you handle this in your next post.

    Reply
  2. JTapp

    If you agree on the expropriation being unscriptural and problematic, then that’s pretty much all I was really contending with and I can sleep easy at night.

    I wasn’t trying to draw out a meaning to the parable in Matthew 25, I was just using it as the only example of something looking like expropriation in the NT that I could think of. My intent was to point out that it reminds me of other parts of Scripture where God takes something away from someone. I think my points about David and psalmists (and Solomon and other prophets) complaining to God and asking Him to do something about a wicked rich person’s property, when they clearly had the ability or power to physically take it if they wanted to, gives us a good recurring theme. But you already agree on the expropriation point.

    As far as sola scriptura, sure. Very crudely: I’m not what I call a “hyper sola scriptura” person who believes any believer can pick up a Bible and understand its one true interpretation without looking at context, history, etc. (I’m told by my “sola scriptura” friends that this is not what “sola scriptura” means anyway). But I also believe that where man’s interpretation differs from what is espoused over and over again in the text that the man’s interpretation is wrong. Expropriation is one example, another person’s post on Jesus Radicals about how it’s unethical to eat any animals is another that comes to mind. Most authors there seem to be on a polar opposite extreme from “sola scriptura” in that they very infrequently use Scripture to back up positions and I find that problematic.

    I have wrestled with the “sola scriptura” line over the last year, mainly because I don’t understand if there is a universally accepted definition or line.

    Reply
  3. Maria Kirby

    The parable of the talents is not the only parable which use the concept of property.

    “(land being the only source of wealth at the time) people could accumulate.” Traditional Hebrew wealth was measured in cattle or sheep not land, and yes you can accumulate lots of them -too many of them in fact.

    I like to understand your distinction between ownership and responsibility.

    Reply
  4. lucas Post author

    Thanks for all the good comments! Glad this is stirring some good conversation.

    Keith- Although the phrases “absolute ownership” and “fraudulent autonomy” are not my own phrases, but phrases from the article, I hope to explain what I think they mean and my own thinking about property.

    Maria- How can you have cattle and sheep without land? My next post will deal more with the idea that biblical economics is based on direct connection and relationship to the land.

    I’m looking forward to the next couple posts on this topic and exploring it more with all my virtual friends!

    Reply
  5. JTapp

    Yesterday’s post on Jesus Radicals seems to advocate shoplifting vis a vis Mary’s Magnificat. If I understand the Anglican bishop right, since “rich” and “poor” is an unjust dichotomy, the poor have the right to steal from the rich in order to correct the injustice. (rather than wait on God). I see Mary praying for justice, just as the psalmists and prophets did. I don’t see her stealing to correct the wrong herself, just as the psalmists and prophets didn’t. I don’t see how this can coincide with the ideal of nonviolence that the author also upholds.

    Reply

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