The Land of the Living

So, how do we apply this conversation about property rights and land in the Bible to our current context. I will say again that I do not advocate the idea that its our Christian obligation to expropriate possessions, property or land that is being used unjustly. The problem we are left with as Christians is what to do when wealth and land is used unjustly. Certainly definitions are a problem, but I think both science and the Bible give us good guidelines for just use of the land. The Bible also has a lot to say about the use of wealth, but of course not everyone in the world has signed on to the Bible as the authority guiding their behavior.

So When’s the Next Jubilee?

I believe that the laws in the Hebrew Testament represent an evolution of God’s relationship with the world and the Israelites over time. Attempting to reconstruct conditions that would make the exact Sabbatical laws function today could only be accomplished on a small scale (i.e. the Amish and perhaps other intentional Christian communities like Koinonia Farm). The point of these laws is not a prescription for exactly how to order life, but instead principles that can be applied across time and geography. The most important of these principles, I believe, is making the land the foundation of our understanding of economics.

The biblical mandate for stewardship of the earth and conditional giving of the land to the Israelites should give us pause to think about how we should deal with the exploitation of natural resources by companies like BP (not to mention oil companies have spilled more oil all over Nigeria than BP did in the Gulf). These companies flout laws and regulations of their industry. So, the first thing is to have better enforcement of environmental regulations (many of the environmental requirements for deep sea drilling and exploration were waived by government regulators for BP’s Deep Water Horizon). The problem then becomes money and influence in politics that continues to push the government towards policies that favor business in ways that hurt the environment and people (I’m fine with business that doesn’t hurt people or the earth).

MLK called the church the “conscience of the state.” I still think that role is important. The church should hold the state accountable to its own principles. This doesn’t mean that the church shares all the principles of the state, but we can ask the state to be accountable to its own principles. We can also work towards laws, regulations and policies that approximate the principles and values of the kingdom (of course, the problem is that not all Christians can agree on these principles either).

The danger with taking MLK’s statement as absolute is that the church then narrows the scope of its influence to lobbying the government. We’ve certainly seen this in North American politics. The church often looks to the state to legislate its agenda. So, some conservatives hone in on abortion (or homosexuality) and veto any candidate that votes the wrong way or says the wrong thing. Liberals do the same thing in terms of environmental or social justice issues. Both groups have sold their imaginations to the government to solve the problems they see in the world.

William Cavanaugh’s most recent book The Myth of Religious Violence argues that the rise of secularism was really the process of faith moving from the church to the state. What is required is a shift from seeing the state as the entity needing to embody kingdom values to reclaiming the church, the Body, the community of believers as the place in which the world can see these principles lived out in practice.

The Price of Rice in China

One place the biblical insistence on connection to and just use of the land seems most relevant is agricultural commodity prices. T. Rowe Price had a commercial not too long ago that sort of sums up the attitude of the people trading agricultural commodities. The gist was that you could leave the business of making money off of these things to the professionals. When I posted a link to the YouTube video of the commercial on Facebook a friend of mine who’s an agriculture extension agent went off about the “yuppies in California” making money off of something they know nothing about. I recently heard about all the satellite data collected by these investment firms to predict weather patterns that help them with their investments. Instead of this information being used to help farmers improve their agriculture or deal with the inherent instability of farming, it’s used to know when to buy and sell investments and futures in these commodities and make a quick buck. The fact that the livelihood of farmers directly connected to the land is run by investors who know nothing about farming and are interested only in making money is disturbing.

Agriculture, unlike other livelihoods, for most of its existence (about 9,940 years) has been a mixture of business and care/stewardship of the land. Perhaps a better way to put it is that there was no distinction between the land and your living. The entrance of agribusiness and Earl “Get Big or Get Out” Butz in the 1970s transformed agriculture into something that could be a business without caring for the land (that’s definitely an oversimplification). Farmers continue to be directly impacted by the weather, but now they must also contend with market forces that are based more on the nervousness of Wall Street than the realities of farming. (I’m working on another post about the Low German Mennonites in Bolivia as an exceptionally interesting case study of this problem.)

Third Way or Third Rail?

The question ultimately for Christians is how to live in the world, but not be of it. Christians can certainly own and run businesses, but they should not look like every other business out there. They should practice a different standard of ethics than the status quo of the world. This is the tension that the church has struggled with since Constantine and tried every extreme, from isolation to accommodation, to find an answer. In the same way Jesus often took either/or questions posed by his friends and enemies alike and turned them on their head, opting for a third possibility beyond the dualistic thinking.

I recently heard an interesting interview on Tree Hugger Radio about Collaborative Consumption that presents an interesting third way between the ideological extremes of neoliberal free market policies and totalitarian communist centralized planning. This is not communism, because it’s not attempting to break from capitalism or overthrow it. This is not exactly capitalism either, because it shifts the priorities and values at the heart of capitalism without needing to do away with the system. This sort of sharing is practiced in my home community. My community happens to also be interested in starting small businesses to strengthen our church community as well as our neighborhood. So, are we communist or capitalism? Where the church begins to break down these dichotomies, I think the kingdom is being practiced.

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11 thoughts on “The Land of the Living

  1. Maria Kirby

    In many ways traditional farming is a disconnect from the land. If we truly want to be connected to the land we have to be connected to the local flora and fauna that inhabit the land. An economy that reflects the kingdom of God is one that enables all of God’s kingdom to thrive. Traditional agriculture destroys a portion of God’s kingdom in order to ensure man’s survival. If we take our responsibilities to steward God’s creation seriously and we follow Jesus admonition to seek first the kingdom of God, then our economy will be based on enabling the vast diversity of God’s kingdom to co-habitat in a manner where all of it thrives without diminishing another part. Our job is to harvest the surplus that nature provides such that all of nature thrives. Our needs are met when we are seeking the best for all of God’s kingdom.

    We have the skills and tools to monitor nature and know what it’s needs are and what is threatening it’s survival. We have the skills to help nature survive without enormous loss of potential. We can put up fences, make greenhouses, deliver vaccinations, and cull over populations. According to the World Conservation Union there are about 5-10 million species in the world. There are close to 7 billion people. That makes for an average of a thousand persons per specie. Some species may not require so many people to care for them, others might require more. But we have the tools of communication that would enable us to work together to see all species thrive. We just need the faith to believe that our needs will be supplied if we seek the well being of God’s kingdom first.

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  2. lucas Post author

    I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t get into the permaculture sustainability issues, because of where the conversation started, but I certainly agree with you and your interpretation.

    The question though is how to get from here to there or how to move forward given the reality of the global economy and agriculture. For example (and I’m working on a post on this) working with Low German Mennonites in Bolivia has to start where they’re at, not where I want them to be. It’s more like working with farmers in Iowa than indigenous Bolivian farmers in many ways.

    Reply
    1. Maria Kirby

      It’s nice to have someone who sees eye to eye on these things.

      You have an enormous challenge in front of you. I think back on history and how early colonists were able to capitalize on certain native species (tobacco, beavers, mink, etc). I suspect that your Mennonite farmers aren’t wedded to their cattle as much as they are wedded to making a profit. If they could be convinced that they could make a profit managing native flora and fauna (particularly if it took less work) they would be more inclined to do so. Giving them a theological justification would tip the scale.

      Your challenge is to prove that it is profitable. Profitability comes in two parts: raising your products sustainably, and marketing them effectively. I imagine that you are going to need to do some effective dialog with indigenous cultures learning from them about local species while at the same time teaching them how to be entrepreneurs. I really like what this organization is doing: http://www.dbsp.co.za/

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  3. JTapp

    I agree with much of the above, except for commodities futures trading (I’d bet you’ve never taken a class on derivatives). I live in cattle country and every farmer buys options as a way of hedging risk. Those prices also give them signals as to what crops to plant, whether to buy more cattle, etc. If the market didn’t exist, they’d be exposed to much more volatility, and history certainly attests to this. Commodities options, just like shares of stock and insurance, have been traded for centuries for good reason. The fact that you and I (who are the customers of the brokerages) can also trade in these options doesn’t harm farmers, I don’t see how you can argue that. Remember that derivatives are zero-sum, so for every “yuppie” making a “quick buck,” there is someone else losing a quick buck because they bet the other way. You can go on InTrade and buy futures on events happening, elections, sporting events, Grammy awards, etc. even though you have no personal stake in those events. Commodity options are no different.
    When an investment firm is analyzing weather data to determine what the price of wheat may do and trade on that analysis, their actions in the market signal farmers as to what prices to expect. So, their weather analysis thus helps the farmer to determine what would be most profitable to plant without the investment firm giving every farmer its weather forecast. The more participants there are in the market, the more accurate the price and signal are. Better to have millions participating in it than thousands, etc. But the futures price does not affect the spot price directly. If the weather shifts and the growing season is better than previously expected, the spot price of wheat falls. The farmer has hedged his risk of this through the options contract which gives him the ability to sell at a higher price. Those that bet that the price would be higher than it is are on the other side of the deal and lose money on those options.

    “Agriculture, unlike other livelihoods, for most of its existence (about 9,940 years) has been a mixture of business and care/stewardship of the land.”

    I would point out that throughout human history, and for the entirety of U.S. history, agriculture has been more protected and subsidized by governments than non-agriculture. Much of Smith and Ricardo’s writings in the late 1700s dealt with England’s Corn Laws, for example. U.S. farmers sometimes get subsidies even just for owning land. There are price supports, tariffs, tax write-offs and government-subsidized research programs that directly support our farmers (and harm those in places like Bolivia). But every country has some form of this protection, no matter how poor. These have lessened in the U.S. over the last 60 years or so, but they are still powerful.

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  4. JTapp

    “The church often looks to the state to legislate its agenda.” I agree this is true for both left and right. What I see on Jesus Radicals is the left-hand side. (Yet another author there is purporting that “property is theft.” I am glad this is not your position).

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  5. JTapp

    I think that Hope Fellowship sounds like our lives as Christians should be. “Church as daily life.” I see this played out in other places without the overt intentionality of Hope. Small towns, for example, where church members are around each other all day. I also think of my friends at Capitol Hill Baptist in D.C. who see church members all the time in their neighborhoods around the church, often just dropping by to visit one another, doing home small groups together.
    I like how Hope makes it intentional, thinks of things like “collaborative consumption” to help foster that community. It also seems intentional in reaching out to a low-income community. I read about Reba Place in the Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Is your meeting house someone’s house or do you pay for a building?

    My understanding of Scripture and history is that in Pauline days this was the norm for Christians as a way of survival in a world where they were shunned.

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  6. JTapp

    I just read through the Collaborative Consumption interview. He points out that it’s not a new idea, it’s definitely just making a market. You still have property rights, a price mechanism, etc. Ebay is and airnb are his examples. I don’t see how that’s not capitalism, those are both for-profit firms providing a service and the guy giving the interview is an investor who provides capital for for-profit companies to get started. Having a market for used goods or to facilitate the exchange of goods in borrowing is not, in my mind, a “third way.” It’s simply just choosing not to buy new.

    Where things break down is in an area like bike sharing if all participants in the system are anonymous. The examples he lists all have ways of preventing this, of enforcing some mechanism of property rights to maintain accountability. Because the absence of those mechanisms are where you get into the “tragedy of the commons.” One textbook example of this are colleges that have introduced community bikes on campus. By the end of the year, the bikes are either all stolen or destroyed. Everyone looks out for him/her self and doesn’t have an incentive to care for the bike because it’s not his/hers.
    Now, in a Christian community, I would expect everyone to care for the bike. You don’t need strong enforcement of property rights when everyone puts others above him/her self and are always relinquishing their rights. The examples Rogers give all have mechanisms of price and enforcement of property rights that make those markets work, they don’t all rely on trust alone, they rely on aligned incentives.

    Reply
    1. Maria Kirby

      Your expectations for a Christian community might be a little high. Christians are people in process and each one starts at a different place that depends on culture, family expectations, and personal maturity. We do best if we are in environments where there is a fairly high degree of accountability and you have to work to put yourself in tempting situations.

      Reply
  7. Jtapp

    Sorry I took up so much space. Sorry for my comment about not having a derivatives class. I was trying to make a pun with it, then decided it sounded bad and meant to delete it but forgot. It sounds jerkish.

    Reply
  8. lucas Post author

    No problem. I didn’t catch the pun, but no offense taken. My class on derivatives was NPR’s Planet Money. I found a book in the MCC library yesterday that is exactly about this conversation we’re having called Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics. It’s using your language, economics, to make the same argument I’m trying to make. I’m sure you won’t be convinced, but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking the way I do. I could be wrong, but it’s nice to know I’m not crazy

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