Friday, October 21, 2011

On Jesus and Property: Do Christians Own Anything?

Admin note: the first time I wrote this, it was so ridiculously long, I decided to split it into two pieces (both of which are only slightly less ridiculously long).  This one addresses the philosophical issues surrounding Christians and property, and the next post will address the pragmatics.  Just promise me that if you read one you'll read them both.  Deal?  Deal.  (edit - the second part is complete, and can be found here)

So, one of the discussions I've found myself in quite a bit over the last few weeks is one of property, with my brother, my dad, my wife, random people on twitter and facebook, and I even found myself in a twitter/radio back-and-forth with Dave Ramsey over the issue revolving around the Occupy Wall Street protests.  (That was interesting, to say the least.)  Disclaimer: I am a fan of Dave Ramsey's work in extricating people from the deadly cycle of consumerism and debt, I just disagree with his version of "living like no one else."  To me, there is no distinction between living like no one else and giving like no one else, but we'll save that for later.

I've written in the past of the conflict between the values our culture holds and the values espoused by Christ, and I think this issue of property/ownership/rights is one area where that conflict tends to manifest itself at the most fundamental level.  At issue is one simple question, as a follower of Christ:

How do I justify the notion of ownership? 

One problem I run into in my own processing of all of this (and in discussing it with others) is that it is difficult to imagine property as being anything aside from a fundamental part of our existence.  Specifically in the context of our hyper-propertarian, individualist American culture, it is difficult for us to separate the ideas of property and ownership from our identity as American Christians.  By hyper-propertarian, I refer to our tendency to elevate an individual right to accumulate and protect property above all, and by individualist I mean our tendency to perpetuate the myth of the self-made man (or woman!), exalting the individual above the community in such a way as to exaggerate the impact of the individual and dismiss the very real impact of community.  In light of this difficulty, I found that I had to begin my exploration of the ideas of property and ownership with a determination of the locus of my moral obligations, that is where they come from, and the priority of those obligations, that is where those obligations stand in relation to one another.

As a Christian, my moral code is derived from the nature of God, as evidenced through The Word in the life and teaching of Christ.  We can quibble about the meta-ethical foundations of such a derivation another time, but for now, suffice it that, in my estimation, either God-in-Christ is the locus of my morality or it is not.  It's a fairly simple choice, but one with profound implications.  If God's nature is the locus of my morality, then it carries with it an absolute obligation to act accordingly. If Christ's teaching and actions are the only physical examples of how such a moral code manifests itself in our world in the context of our interactions with people and things, then my emulation of Christ is a moral obligation in itself.

To be clear, what I am saying is the if God-in-Christ is the locus of my morality, then not emulating God-in-Christ is immoral by definition.

So how in the world did I get from this thought to property and ownership?  Working my thought process backwards, it goes something like this:
  1. Our notions of property and ownership are not necessary truths (meaning it is possible that they are not true), so they must be justified. 
  2. Since property is a theory that deals with how people interact with other people and with other things in the context of a community (more than one person), then that justification must have a moral component.
  3. As a Christ-follower, the moral component of such a justification must be wholly consistent with the example set by Christ.

So, first, we have to look at how we justify our notions of ownership.  There are probably a million different ways we can do this, but in the strongest and most consistent sense, ultimately I think all private property theories boil down fundamentally to the idea of self-ownership, which says simply, "I am my own."  Self-ownership, in its strongest sense, says that I am the master of my own fate, and I am in control of my person, my talents, and my time, and as such, anything that I come into possession of as the result of my work, I own, and I own it absolutely, and my ownership of said thing is wholly independent of any perceived need, inequality, or demand from another. 

The moral implications of such a claim are clear to me, and how such implications might run counter to the teachings of Christ are equally clear.   

I can formulate this idea in a number of different ways, some more charitable and some less so, but all of those formulations will, at some point, have to make the claim that, in some way, "I am my own," so that is the claim I will address directly.  Try as I might, I cannot reconcile this concept with what I read in scripture. 

As Paul clearly tells us in 1 Cor 6:19-20,
"...Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies,"
 and again in 1 Cor 7:23,
"You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings."  
The author of 1 Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:18-19,
"For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect."
  In Titus 2:13-14 we read,
"...Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good."

All of these verses serve to construct an ideological framework that seems explicit in its opposition to the idea of self-ownership.  I am not my own, but rather, I am His, bought with the most precious price. 

Rather than being owed anything, I owe a great debt, indeed an unpayable one.  The implication then seems clear that I can claim self-ownership, but at a great price: the denial of the ransom that was paid for me.

So if the justification for self-ownership fails, then it follows that any pragmatic framework I build based on such a notion (such as that of private property and ownership of material things) fails as well.  However, even in the event that an adequate justification could be presented for self-ownership, it does not follow that private property is the morally appropriate conclusion.  In making such an assertion, one would have to argue that private property and individual ownership of things external to one's self are somehow both morally superior to and more intellectually consistent with Christ's teaching than Kingdom ownership and individual stewardship.  In the face of such an argument, I tend to remember things like this:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Matthew 6:19-21
or this:
"Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." John 6:27
or perhaps:
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples." Luke 14:33
and maybe:
"And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:40-42

 These are Christ's words.  I forget them.  Often.  I get wrapped up in earning, in getting, in consuming, in keeping, in protecting, in hoarding.  Giving is an afterthought, the leftovers after I keep what is "mine."  But what is mine anyway?
God help me. 
Help me not to give, but to be giving, and to be a giver. 
Help me never forget the price that was paid that I might not suffer under the crushing weight of being "my own man."
Help me to remember that love demonstrated is a gift in in spite of what is deserved.
Help me to  remember that all I have is yours.
Help me.


  1. i agree with you. we do a pretty good job emphasizing this with our kids--all things belong to God not us, we share collectively--but it's a lot harder to practice as adults.

    dave ramsey's ideas of wealth make me wary, too.

    good words, even if you are a commie;)

  2. @suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}Ha! I knew the commie reference would come out eventually. :)

    Ramsey's excuse making for excess certainly makes me uncomfortable, but I can definitely get behind the idea of being a good steward with what we've been given.

    My wife and I are trying to figure out how to live this out ourselves, but It is tough, that's for sure. The individualist notions of possession are instilled in us so young, going against them is like denying who we are.

    But hey, isn't that the point? Denying who we are, I mean? :)

  3. I agree with you. My husband and I have (for lack of a better word) been FORCED into not worrying about savings, retirement, property,'s circumstances. BUT, it is something that we have talked about through our 20 years of marriage: if we're going to profess Faith that God provides and He is all sufficient, then why don't we live that way? AND furthermore, we are COMMANDED on so many occasions to give , to be generous and to walk away from our worldly wealth....tough to do in today's society though.


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