In the last presentation of the year in the School of Christian Thought Faculty Forum, Dr. Hittinger abstracted his paper, “Private ownership, common use,” a paper that examined Thomas Aquinas’ and Jacques Maritain’s use of Aristotle’s Politics in their cases for private property. Absent, of course, was the voice of Scripture, for this was a philosophical discussion, not a biblical discussion. However, I am a textually oriented scholar and pastor, so my mind immediately goes beyond Aristotle and look at biblical text, and in doing so my mind goes back to some of my very first publications.
Now, it is common to argue for private property from the Scripture on the basis of texts such as Acts 5:4, the voluntariness of 2 Cor 8:3, and similar phrases in the whole 2 Cor 8 – 9 passage, which is Paul’s longest discussion of giving. Or the passage in 1 Tim 6:10 is cited with the expositor’s emphasis being that the “love of money” is a “root of all kinds of evil,” versus money itself. Such arguments would seem to indicate that we as followers of Jesus have full control over our finances and, while it might be good to be generous and share with the poor, no one has the right to take our money or goods from us. (Emphasis on the “our”) Any sharing is totally voluntary. I suggest that this is a serious misreading of Scripture.
The Christian teaching about property goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures in which God says very clearly that the means of production (i.e. the land in an agricultural society) “is mine” (Lev 25:23). The “owners” of the land are but “immigrants and foreign guests” (CEB). This meant that the land could not be sold, but only “rented” for a generation, after which it reverted to the family to whom God had assigned it. This divine ownership was also symbolized in the tithe (even if one consumed the tithe in the central sanctuary and even if every third year one distributed it to the poor in one’s city). God also indicated that even the crop of a given year does not really belong to one, for in harvesting one may not glean the field or vines, but must leave what one drops or misses for he poor. Likewise one must not harvest the corners of the field. The list of regulations goes on, but the point is clear. The land and its produce is not one’s property to do with as one sees fit, but it is God’s property that he deals with as he sees fit, even if in the end most of the produce goes to feed the farmer’s family. There were also rules about the firstborn of human beings and animals, and those rules symbolized God’s ownership of all fertility, not just that of the land.
The irony in the Hebrew Scriptures is that the ruler is not instructed to enforce these regulations. In fact, the ruler was subject to God’s regulations. Thus in Deut 17 we learn that the ruler is not to become rich nor is the ruler to develop a powerful army nor is he to become polygamous. When Solomon is criticized in 1 Kings 10:14-11:8 he is critiqued for violating all three of these prohibitions, not just the last. The idolatry of money and the idolatry of arms culminate in the idolatry of power (the many wives were part of marriage alliances and so symbols of power; they also ideally produced many descendants, as Ps 45 indicates, which large family was also a basis of power). Whether it is because the rulers themselves fail in this regard (David starts the failures that Solomon carries to extremes) or for some other reason, they are never instructed to enforce the Jubilee or other economic laws, although the Psalms show that their generosity to and defense of the poor is a sign of their rightness before God. In other words, no one had a right to property, for it all belongs to God, but God does not normally use human coerciveness to enforce his regulations. He speaks through prophets, for sure, and he threatens divine intervention, which may in turn use human agents (i.e. the invasion of a foreign army that takes it all away), but he does not normally have the Israelites coercively defending his property rights.
In the New Testament Jesus is the model and the teacher. One will find no emphasis on private property in Jesus. He follows John the Baptist who said (in Luke) that if one had two chitons (the basic garment that was worn next to the skin) one should share with those who had none and likewise food (Luke 3:11). These are not optional actions, but rather the “fruit of repentance” that is necessary if one is to avoid divine judgment. Jesus himself does not appear to have maintained property, his followers left theirs behind, his delegates are sent out without any provisions or means of supports, he calls people to sell what they have and give to the poor (and I realize that the “rich young ruler,” to give him the composite title he is often given, is often viewed as an exception, but that interpretation wrongly abstracts him from the large teaching of Jesus), and, most importantly, he teaches on property and money in the second half of Matt 6 and in Luke 12, 14, and 18. The fact is that for Jesus we renounce all title to all goods and to ourselves as well. We become slaves of God. In other words, we return to the Eden-like relationship in which the world belongs to God, human beings are managers who care for it under God’s direction, and God provides for the needs of the human beings. This state is called “the rule of God.”
Acts carries this out in Acts 2 and 4, where people actually live out what Jesus taught, with no one considering what he or she had being their own, but rather with their sharing freely and repeatedly (the verbs are imperfects). This is not idealism, but Luke’s consistent theology. Likewise in 2 Cor 8 Paul argues for economic equality, with goods flowing from those who have to those who do not have so that “there may be an equality.” But this is based in Paul’s whole idea that we are slaves of Jesus. All that we are and all that we have belong to him. Furthermore, it is part of his eschatological vision, for “we brought nothing into this world and we will take nothing out of it,” which means all we have is a gift and it is our investment in furthering the rule of God that will bring reward in the coming age.
However, having said that it is also clear that, as in the Hebrew Scripture, so in the New Testament there is no enforcement of divine economics by human beings. True, Ananias and Sapphira die, but they die for trying to deceive the Holy Spirit, not for not sharing. That is not so say that they ought not to have shared. That is also not to say that they would not have had to answer for what they failed to do at the last judgment. That is just to say that that is not what the immediate judgment is about. Furthermore, Peter does not use his own authority in the event, but acts prophetically, announcing God’s actions. Likewise in 2 Cor 8 or in 1 Tim 6 Paul does not give a “commandment,” but his rhetoric is very powerful. He is trying to persuade people to give and is suggesting that they are violating a divine principle if they fail to give. There is no “law,” but there is an example, Jesus, who gave his all. There is no external pressure (other than the rhetoric, which is very strong), but the mark of the Holy Spirit is internal pressure. It is all voluntary, just as commitment to Jesus is voluntary, but the consequences of such voluntary moves are eternal, and greed (defined by Jesus’ standards rather than those of this age) is a mark that one is not in the kingdom at all (if one looks at Paul’s vice lists).
Of course the New Testament does not expect the world outside of “God’s rule” to follow this standard. It is under the influence of the “principalities and powers,” according to Paul. It is “Babylon the Great,” according to John. The world follows the principle of private property (whether in the sense of individual private property as in capitalism or in the sense of collective private property as in socialism) because it does not recognize the rights and provision of God and does not have the power of the Holy Spirit. It is still in Genesis 3, trying to act like God (and providing for themselves), and not realizing that it is controlled by the snake. It proclaims liberty, but lives in slavery/addiction. The world-system is not so much something that God wants to reform as it is something that God wants to destroy, again like Babylon the Great, the epitome of wealth. And it does not matter whether the demon of capitalism or his twin brother of socialism is the form that the demonic rejection of God as the sole owner takes: they are both demonic. But what does that mean for me? On the other hand, I do not need to work to destroy either capitalism or socialism, individual private property or collective human ownership, for why try to destroy that which is already doomed? The Boston Tea Party, for example, was anti-God, since God clearly says to pay taxes – period – and he will take care of “ordering” the government; besides, it is just money (about which Jesus does not have a high regard). My job is to express the rule of God, which includes the sharing of what I have with those who are in need. I do this because it is not really mine. It is the Lord’s, who is also my master. And I do this because I do not need to be concerned about my needs, for my master provides for me. My concern is to do his will.
I do not believe in private property. I believe in a God who owns all and controls all. Thus if someone were to ask me for something, my response as a child of God should be to enter into listening prayer and ask whether God wishes that other person to use that particular piece of “property,” or whether he still wishes me to use it. I am reminded of a story I read of a member of the Reba Place community in Illinois coming home and finding a thief walking out of his house with his stereo system. The brother said something like, “Friend, let’s talk and pray and see if the Lord is saying that you need that more than I.” The thief apparently was not into prayer, for he just dropped the stereo and ran. The attitude of the community member, however, was classic: the property belongs to God, I am its manager, I need to discover if God is reassigning it, and I know that God can take care of his property by himself, so I do not need to defend it (just as I know that God can take care of me). I would add to that summary of the incident the prayer that God would allow me to transfer as much as possible to others so that I can participate in his generosity and the prayer that I not get caught up in the care and management of what property he entrusts to me so that I start to think of it as “mine” in any other than a temporary sense.
Private property or state/community (in the sense of a societal community such as a town or village) owned property are characteristic of this age, as is the defense of such property. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live as a representative of the real, of the present reign and coming rule of my Master and Lord, Jesus the Anointed One. Let this age argue about this age, then, for it is one demon arguing with another. I will live in and for the coming age. I do not believe in private property other than as a legal fiction of this present corrupt age.