Exorcising Material Possession

I realize my last post did not directly address some questions asked about the notion of “absolute ownership” and “fraudulent autonomy.” I think the answers are inherent in the biblical idea of economics based on right relationship to the land and each other. However, I will try to spell out clearly to what I think the terms in this article are referring, or at least my own interpretation in light of my own beliefs.

Absolute Ownership

The BIble clearly recognizes that stealing is not healthy for communities and that some system of ownership is necessary where there is scarcity or maybe the temptation to accumulate (I’m still not convinced about the assumption of scarcity though). I would suggest that these commands are relational admonitions and not inherent or inalienable rights. For example, Paul and Peter both cautioned early Christians to try to live at peace with the governing authorities as much as possible. This did not mean that they condoned the Roman system of oppression or any other doctrine of that government. (I generally follow Yoder’s interpretation of Romans 13 for what it’s worth) So, if we agree that the general biblical stance toward possessions is to hold them loosely and give generously, then this is not the same as the notion that property rights are an absolute ownership of that object or plot of land. It seems to me that our economic system relies heavily on the idea of absolute ownership, that I have certain rights and claims to anything that I “own.” I don’t expect the government or anyone else to make this distinction, but I do expect Christians to make the distinction and not claim that the commands in Scripture are equivalent to (and/or the basis for) our modern system of property rights.

I understand commandments about property ownership, theft, etc. to concern how we are to live in the reality of a broken world, not a prescription for how things should be.

For Christians the question is clearly whether I own my possessions or my possessions own me. This is a relational question, not a question of absolute rights. According to the government and our economic system I have absolute right to my possessions. I can break all of my plates and throw them in the garbage for no good reason if I want, because I am the absolute owner of those objects. As a Christian I recognize that I am not the absolute owner of these objects. 1) They are to be understood as gifts from God, not as something deserved or earned. 2) They represent a connection to the land that I am called to uphold and maintain justly and 3) I am cautioned that my relationship to the objects can easily become a dangerous and corrupting force.

Fraudulent Autonomy

This phrase represents the disconnection from the land that I previously described. When we come to believe, and base our economics, on the idea that we are able to exist apart from the land we have created a monster that could ultimately destroy us and are in direct defiance of Scripture. Those with wealth in our global economy have the possibility of believing that they exist independently of the earth. There lives do not encounter the realities of the resources they consume and extract from the earth through the products and food they consume on a daily basis. In my experience, the poor of the world live with the reality on a daily basis that their survival is closely linked to the land. The possibility of believing that you exist (or perhaps it’s more like ignorance) independently of the land and soil is a fraudulent concept and a lie.

I hope to explore connections to our current context more in my final post, but wanted to clarify what I believe about these phrases that others had questions about.

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7 thoughts on “Exorcising Material Possession

  1. JTapp

    I don’t think I have a difference with anything you wrote under “Absolute Ownership.” I ask this question in the comments of my blog: What word should we use for Jesus’ and the apostles’ stance? Jesus paid taxes and neither condemns nor praises the Roman tax system (which was expropriation). I want to call it “agnosticism,” they were agnostic about the system, simply exhorting Christians to live a different way from it and be their own community.

    Under “Fraudulent Autonomy” I have to think about some things. Looking at the more advanced countries, agriculture has become a very small percentage of GDP. Meaning the dollar amount of agriculture produced/consumed domestically and the incomes derived from income have progressively become a much smaller part of our overall economic pie. (roughly about 4% for OECD countries, I think). I’m reminded of this quote from 1992:
    “In 1900, for example, it took nearly 40 of every 100 Americans to feed the country. Today, it requires just three. But the decline in farm jobs hasn’t left the country hungry. Quite the contrary, the United States has enjoyed agricultural plenty and the creation of millions of industry and service jobs. The 37 of every 100 workers no longer needed on the farm moved on to provide new homes, computers, pharmaceuticals, appliances, movies, stock trades, video games, gourmet meals and an array of other goods and services. The result is a material abundance that wouldn’t have been possible without labor released from farming.”

    The poor of this world, in my experience, don’t aspire to continue to be agrarian, or to be so close to the land. You can see this in China where millions of people illegally flee the countryside to live and work in the cities where incomes are higher (the Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy book details this pretty well). I think this process has some implications for thinking about our relationship to the land. (Maybe that’s not exactly what you’re talking about, though? )

    Reply
    1. lucas Post author

      More to respond to than I have time. So, a couple hasty thoughts. 1) USA does not grow all the food we eat. We export a large percentage of our commodities and import a ton of food. 2) The poor don´t aspire to continue to be poor or oppressed whether it´s agrarian or any other livelihood. I don´t think it´s fair or accurate to say that they shun an agrarian life for any reason other than economics.

      Reply
      1. Maria Kirby

        1.) We actually export a lot more than we import.
        http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FATUS/

        2.) My grandfather lived through the Great Depression and said that people in the city would rather get handouts than work in the country for low wages. There are plenty of people who don’t mind being poor if it means they don’t have to work so hard. An agrarian lifestyle requires discipline and hard work.

  2. JTapp

    I agree that they’re shunning agrarian life for economic reasons. You made the point that “the poor are closer to the land,” and this is true– the poorest people on the earth are subsistence farmers. As our societies become wealthier, we do move away from the land and become less connected to it. Chinese, Indians, Americans, Romans, Europeans, it’s the same story throughout history. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I will wait for your next post to see where you’re going with your thoughts.

    While you’re correct that we import a lot of our food, most of the world has seen the same decrease in the percentage of its workforce working in agriculture–meaning that the decrease must come from an increase in output per worker (which is another measure of wealth). So, the fact our labor force in agriculture has gone from 40% to 3% doesn’t mean that someone else has gone from 3% to 40%, the whole world has seen a reduction in the number of people working the land– that same disconnect. To become wealthy appears to mean becoming less connected to the land.

    Looking again at the post below this one, I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying there is a limit to how much we can apply economic concepts and rules found in the bible because our economy is much different than theirs. I agree, context matters, that’s a good reminder.

    Reply
    1. lucas Post author

      “To become wealthy appears to mean becoming less connected to the land.” Maybe I just don’t want to be wealthy that bad!

      I’m arguing that this is part of the reason we have caused such destruction of our environment, because we see ourselves as disconnected and autonomous from the land. I think you may have missed my overall point because you had your economic sunglasses on. No matter what we do we are in reality tied to the land. An economic system that does not take this into account will eventually self-destruct. It is impossible to exist apart from the land (even a twinkie can be traced back to plots of dirt somewhere).

      Reply
  3. Keith Walters

    Lucas,
    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Like you I am no economist and I appreciate your explanation of “absolute ownership;” however, while I think you are in tune with what the author at Jesus Radicals intended by the use of “fraudulent autonomy” I think that such a definition, regardless of how valid or invalid it may be (I will let you and Justin debate that), I am convinced that the land should not be our primary concern. Our primary concern should be autonomy from God. That is indeed a fraudulent autonomy and I think provides the umbrella under which your definition of “absolute ownership” exists. We are not absolute owners because, as you said, our possessions “are to be understood as gifts from God, not as something deserved or earned.” Therefore, when we act as absolute owners we are acting as though we are autonomous, which we are not. At the same time the misuse of the land is not ultimately an act of autonomy seeking rebellion against the land which sustains us but against the God who ultimately sustains us and provides us with guidelines by which we are to keep the land.

    Reply
    1. lucas Post author

      I don’t make the distinctions you do between autonomy from God and autonomy from the land. I see them as two sides of the same coin. Attempting to extract ourselves from the created order sounds a lot like autonomy from God to me.

      Reply

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