Thursday, December 09, 2010

Augustine and Private Property

Recently I engaged in discussion with a friend of mine who I met at Baylor while he was finishing a MDiv at Truett Seminary the same time I was finishing an MA in Economics. The discussion was over issues of capitalism, private property, and the Bible (check the comments). Lucas and his family just moved to Bolivia to work with a Low German Mennonite agricultural-based community. About the only thing Lucas and I have in common is a desire to find common ground, which is how we met. (If you only talk to people you agree with all the time, you never learn anything.)

Most of the people I encounter in my "circles" tend to accept the basic tenets of capitalism at face value. Some have worked to give a Scriptural defense of the major pillars of capitalism including the most important-- property rights.

I read an interview with Nobel laureate and erstwhile free market & globalization skeptic Dani Rodrik at Five Books yesterday in which he said about the collapse of Communism:
"I think one good thing is that pretty much everybody understands that there really is no alternative to market-based systems. "
(read the whole quote to get his meaning). Lucas, however, has introduced me to some who do not hold much love for markets and also claim Christ. He referred me to a post at Jesus Radicals about Augustine by Boyd Collins that Lucas says basically sums up his own views. The author gives an interpretation of some writings by Augustine on property. There are some interesting parts, which I will highlight. I should note I've not read any complete works by Augustine, only works about him and other citations of him.

Collins begins with the assertion:
"Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice, rather than the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution"
"True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly."
The problem here is that "justice" and "right use" can be highly normative. If you don't like how I use my property, is that unjust? Collins claims that doing ecological damage with your property is unjust and grounds for expropriation. Reading through Deuteronomy I find that the Israelites cut down a lot of trees, leveled cities, and slaughtered a large amount of people and animals-- what many would call ecological damage. Those being slaughtered (and many readers today) probably considered it unjust, but it was just and righteous because God commanded Israel to do so.

Collins projects Augustine here:
"True enjoyment is found only in God. Other realities are to be used as pathways which bring us closer to God. Earthly realities find their fulfillment only by leading us to God. All lower values point toward the highest value – our hearts are ever restless until they rest in him. Since property is an earthy reality that tends to possess its possessors, tempting them to enjoy it as if it were an absolute value, how should Christians use it?"
This could be a John Piper quote. Indeed, Jesus warns us about possessions and James blasts the rich (the rich and wicked or all rich?). Any possession we love more than God is idolatry.

But does that mean that possessions themselves are sinful? Property doesn't always "possess its possessors." Saying no one should own property because of this risk is like saying no one should eat food since sometimes the taste of food tempts us to eat too much.

Augustine seems to say that the right to property is a human--not divine--right. Augustine:
“Whence does anyone possess what he or she has? Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s (cf. Psalm 24:1); the poor and the rich God has made from one mud and the poor and the rich he sustains on one earth. Nevertheless, by human law, one says, ‘This estate is mine, this house is mine, this servant is mine.’ This is by human law therefore – by the law of the Emperors.”
I would argue that God clearly affirms a person's right to possession in various places in Scripture. While we are stewards of God's creation, God's law (which is perfect [Ps. 19:7]) clearly outlines man's property rights. Exodus 20:

v. 15- You shall not steal. v. 17- "you shall not covet your neighbor's house...or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

God clearly acknowledges possession here and commands us how to use our possessions and how to respect our neighbor's possessions. Man could say "this estate is mine" not because of "human law" but because God said "this estate is yours." Perhaps a more full quote from Augustine would shed some light on his thinking, but it's not given in the post. I find it interesting that God's design for Israelite society involves ownership of property.

I would contend that property wasn't an idea present at creation, when the world was sinless (because sin introduced scarcity into the world). Just as thorns and weeds didn't grow in gardens before sin, and clothing was never necessary, property was probably inconceivable. So, I wouldn't say that property is "God-ordained" in the sense that He originally intended it. But He clearly affirms the right to ownership throughout Scripture--nowhere does it say ownership is in and of itself sin. That's like saying struggling to accomplish a task is sin-- tasks are difficult because of sin.

So when, if ever, is ownership sin? Collins interprets Augustine:

"For Augustine, private ownership was an expression of sin when it was not used to fulfill God’s plan for the just distribution of the world’s resources. This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being. Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."
That first sentence is loaded, but let's think about it. We've already established that God affirmed individual right to ownership. Here Collins (and Augustine?) moves into the use of property and not the actual ownership-- and that's a huge difference. A read through Leviticus shows us plenty of laws about how God's people were to use their property, but in doing so God affirms the right to ownership. Just because I own something doesn't mean I am using it unjustly. What does "the just distribution of the world's resources" mean? It sounds highly subjective (and dubious) to me. I don't see any clear statements from God in Scripture that outline a plan for exactly how He wants resources distributed.

Leviticus 25 is the closest that I can think of. Here God outlines how we're to use property, including landowners giving back property to the original owner, and slaves being freed, every 50 years. 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.

He does command that a certain portion of property be sacrificed or given away. That appears to be a way of His people acknowledging that everything is ultimately God's and we are stewards (back to Ps. 24:1). If I refuse to sacrifice or do not allow my gleanings to fall to the ground for the poor to pick up (Leviticus 19) then I am ultimately saying that I love my possessions more than God--idolatry. (I'll come back to this idea later.)

"This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being." I'm not sure I understand or agree with that interpretation. Since I don't follow Collins' thought about a "plan for the just distribution of God's resources," I also don't understand his definition here.
"Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."

Collins' thought seems to be that if a person believes she owns her property it therefore means she sins by not understanding that ultimately she and her property are God's. Hence, states that uphold and enforce property rights in their laws are instruments of sin. I think the fact that God outlined His people's rights to property and established ways they could arbitrate with one another when someone violated those rights is a solid defense against this idea. God also never gave His people free reign to conquer and take property from whoever they pleased-- Gentile nations around them also are said to have property rights in several places. So, property rights aren't just for God's people and sin for everyone else.

Yet this autonomy is exactly what Milton Friedman and other neoliberals praise as “freedom” as in the famous phrase, “Free to Choose.” To be encased in “one’s own choice” is to be the slave of sin. Such “freedom” is slavery to one’s own will which has not yet been healed by God’s power.
Again, God's clearly established that people are free to own, buy, sell property. So, I think much of Collins' argument begins to break down. As I mentioned above, God didn't outline specifically how He wanted resources distributed-- he left that up to us to do with some basic guidelines and commands of usage. That reads a lot like "freedom" to me. And Gentile nations who did not "recognize God's sovereignty" were also permitted that freedom. Their ownership of property was not in and of itself sin. Non-Christians who own property aren't sinners because they own property, they're sinners because they have not experienced redemption through the blood of Christ.

If you follow Collins' logic, the idea of property ownership is sin because it is rebellion against God--something God never says and would be contradictory to the Scriptures above. Therefore any institution that upholds that idea (be it Roman or American) is sinful. (Given all the pages on anarchy on the Jesus Radicals website, perhaps his thinking begins to make sense-- government can inherently be sinful because of its enforcement of property rights. But I personally think I've debunked this notion pretty well here--since property ownership isn't sinful then simply enforcing that ownership isn't either. )

Collins quoting Augustine:
"If one therefore keeps more than what is sufficient, ethically speaking one is really keeping others’ property, because these others, by virtue of their need, have a fundamentally greater right to those material goods.”
Clearly that is Augustine speaking and not Scripture (ie: Jesus). Like it or not (and many psalms complain about it), inequality exists and sometimes by the direct hand of God. Job was a rich man before God allowed everything he had to be taken-- and then God gave him much more than he'd ever had before. You get the picture that Job had more than "sufficient," but it pleased God to give him more. Nowhere does Scripture say that someone has a "right" to your property because they need it more than you do. Nowhere does it say you are stealing from someone if you have an extra something and someone else does not. "Sufficient" and "need" are also quite normative. But this brings up Collins next quote of Augustine:

“Gold and silver therefore belong to those who know how to use gold and silver. For even among human beings themselves, each must be said to possess something [only] when he or she uses it well. For what a person does not treat justly, that person does not possess rightly. If one should call one’s own what one does not possess rightly, this will not be the voice of a just possessor.”
I've outlined above that God clearly gave commands and guidelines for use of property and in doing so he inherently affirms the right to ownership. Here, Augustine says that if a person doesn't use his property "well" or "justly," he forfeits the right to ownership. It's an interesting thought but is it backed up anywhere in Scripture? Clearly, God deposed and stripped kingdoms away from kings who did not obey or acknowledge Him. That was clearly God's doing and not man's. But in terms of actual property, the closest I can come is Matthew 25:
28'Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.' 29 For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
(By itself, verse 29 would be problematic to Collins, I think.) Here we have a slave who misused a talent given to him and it was taken from him. But it was not the slave's money to begin with. "A ha!" you say-- but wait. Money is property just like land, slaves, cattle, etc., and God clearly affirms a right to ownership. The master took it from him, not anyone else. No one else had a right to take the property but the master. Just as no one had authority to take away a kingdom from a king unless God took away that king's authority (several places in the OT, but Jesus affirms this in John 19:11) Which is problematic for Collins next assertion, which are his words and not Augustine's:

True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly. Those who abuse their property and by extension degrade the ecological integrity of God’s earth, “…have forfeited their participation in God’s true ownership”
(boldface mine) I think I've already established above that we don't have any Scriptural backing for the idea that misuse of property is theft. But remember that in Collins' logic even the idea that you own property is sin because it is rebellion against God and sets up a "fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation." Hence, since just the idea that you own property is sin, you are therefore misusing the property, and forfeit ownership rights of it (Augustine) which Collins takes a step further to say is actual theft if you still maintain ownership. Collins then says that because you have committed theft your property can be "justly expropriated" by those who will use it "rightly." (and does Collins get to define "rightly?")

I see nowhere in Scripture, including the parts of Israelite law which outlines use of their possessions, where God gives a command to confiscate someone's property if they use that property "unjustly" or to the displeasure of the community. Nowhere do I see misuse of property considered theft (even in Augustine's writings). These are clearly Collins' ideas and not God's nor Augustines.

I see David and psalmists asking God to take away property, which apparently meant that they would not do so themselves (presumably because it would violate "you shall not steal.")! I see plenty of places where God says he will judge us for how we use our possessions. Collins:

A prime example of such forfeiture can be found in BP’s abuse of its undersea property in the Gulf of Mexico, Such behavior, though sanctioned by law, involves a direct violation of Augustine’s principles of right ownership... if BP’s concern for profit prevails over the obligation to set right what has been destroyed, world citizens have the right and obligation to expropriate the property which has been so abused for the sake of profit. God’s justice demands it.
Again, Collins (not Augustine, not Jesus) goes yet another step futher by saying people have the "obligation to expropriate" property. I assume if people don't meet their "obligation" here Collins means they are sinning. And how is saying that "God's justice demands it" not blasphemy when nowhere in Scripture do we see either a right of expropriation much less an obligation? Collins presumes to speak for God here, that's extremely dangerous ground.

The only clear command I can see about how we are to treat other people's property is not to steal it, and to compensate a person when we harm or kill his property. Where property is "expropriated" in Scripture it is done so by God (see the other red paragraph above).

Now, I will move down to Collins' closing.
Capitalism is often justified as a way to redirect the unalterable facts of human selfishness into socially beneficial channels, but the early Christians were not so pessimistic about human nature. For them, every earthly reality was a path that leads to God because God’s power to save was real.
I'll take his word for it about the early church fathers, but neither Jesus nor Paul were optimistic about human nature; and the idea that "every earthly reality" leads to God sounds like universalism to me. But capitalism does channel self-interested behavior into social benefit. The guy who sold you a sandwich for lunch didn't do so because he cares about how hungry you are, he did so because he needs the money to pay his family's doctor bills. You didn't care about him or his family, you bought the sandwich because you were hungry. But by pursuing those self-interests, you both benefited and got what you wanted.

Collins then backs off a little bit and just gives us Augustine's view:
Augustine did not believe that property was in itself evil. It was the Roman law of absolute ownership which permitted owners to wall themselves off from the human family that was evil.
This wildly contradicts so much of what Collins' has written above! But the underlying point remains, Augustine-- like Jesus, Paul, James, etc.-- warns of the evils of loving property more than God as that is idolatry.

But nowhere in Scripture does it say thinking you have a right of ownership means your ownership of the property is sin, and therefore you're misusing the property and therefore forfeiting right to ownership and therefore stealing from others if you continue owning it and thereby giving the rest of the world a right and obligation to expropriate it from you. (Nowhere in his writings does Augustine say all that, either.) However, several converses are found in Scripture-- and I'm always going to go with Jesus' words over a man's.

So, how can Christians make sure that their ownership of property doesn't become idolatry?

I look back to Leviticus 25 to say that the model is holding property loosely. What's yours will not always be yours, and ultimately it's all God's (Psalm 24:1).
I also look to Jesus to see that we should voluntarily forfeit our right of ownership (note: dramatically different from forced expropriation!)

"So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" 1 Corinthians 9:7 (boldface mine)

Matthew 5:39"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

It is "give," "let him have," etc. Not "You forfeit your right of ownership," "You have the right to take..., "etc.

I recently read testimony of a church planter who lent his stereo to someone who asked. He wanted it back but chose not to ask for it. The borrower brought it back months later and asked for a Bible. "Why?" the church planter asked, surprised. "Because if the stereo had been mine, it would have been my life. No way I'd have lent it out. But you were willing to, so now I want to learn about this Jesus you say you know." That's the way Jesus.

In short, if God had wanted things to be Collins' way or Augustine's way, he would have spelled it out in Scripture. Collins appears to take Augustine's views, even where they contradict Jesus, and take them as a prescription for life. The problem is compounded when Collins clearly adds his own words and thoughts to the mix.


Keith Walters said...

I will begin by saying that Jesus certainly a capitalist, nor was he a communist either. For some reason holding theology in tension often proves to difficult for us and we opt, either intentionally or unintentionally, for a theology of extremes. That is what I found this post and in all likelihood this entire site to be about. Don’t get me wrong they are not the only ones who are guilty. I am sure you can visit churches across America who spend every Sunday worshiping their capitalist Christ who spoke the Constitution into being by Divine fiat. Nevertheless Jesus does not fit neatly into either of these extremes.

In regards to the post I like how the author reasons from a couple quotes from Augustine, with little said about their actual context, to the position of all the early church fathers against private property. My main concern with this article is that in the end the reader is left with nothing. The author is passionate and makes a clear point; however, that point is so far removed from reality that it is useless. How are we to expropriate BP’s property? Is this a call for Christian jihad or eco-terrorism? Even more how is the author, who I would assume is a pacifist, going to expropriate anyone’s property? Not to mention where that is found in Scripture or who is to determine what constitutes an abuse of property. I would imagine some would like to expropriate the author’s computer because his post is an abuse of property, to which I am sure he would disagree, but then who decides? This logic cannot be consistently applied.

I think we have to recognize that Jesus does not fit neatly within any of our systems. Indeed Jesus always confounds the systems of man. Whether we have private property or not we must learn to live in such a way as to demonstrate that Christ, not our personal things (for the capitalist) or even our communal things (for the communist), is our treasure.

Keith Walters said...

First sentence should be "Jesus certainly was not a capitalist." Hope that makes more sense now.

Keith Walters said...

Tapp have you seen or read Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistable Revolution? The Jesus Radicals website makes me think of that book. But like them he has a lot of nice things to say and means well but fails to connect anything to Scripture. Above and beyond the fact that you cannot consistently apply what the author is calling for I think what concerns me the most is that he seems to care more about Augustine than Jesus. Maybe they should change the website to Augustine Radicals rather than Jesus Radicals because they do not appear to be that concerned with what Jesus said or did.

JDTapp said...

I have not read Shane Claiborne but one of his books is on my "to read" list. He came to campus my first year here and spoke at a chapel service. I think some of his points need a good critique and I haven't seen any from Christian economists yet. Maybe by 2014 I'll have read it and can do so?

I agree with your points above. Jesus and the early Church are "agnostic" about many things. The Roman system of taxation was also a form of expropriation. Jesus paid taxes and never comments on whether the system is just or not-- it was the authority and he submitted to it. I see the same example from Paul and the apostles. They weren't trying to find "God's man" to run the Roman Empire or to bring about social upheaval, they were calling on Christians to live very differently than the world around them-- to be their own community.

(BTW-- it's odd to say Jesus was "agnostic" but what word should I use here instead? "Indifferent" doesn't have the same connotation for me).