Saturday, March 28, 2015

There’s No Such Thing as Private Property

As the title suggests, I am calling for the demise of “private property” as we generally define it.  But you can relax.  I haven’t joined those who are singing the praises of socialism.  Instead, I am offering a biblical definition of private property; one that is essential for a free market, capitalist economy to operate in a just and moral fashion.  But first, let’s consider some context.

Western culture is steadily evolving; or perhaps more accurately, devolving.  At the heart of this devolution is the crumbling moral foundation of institutions that have supported civilization for several millennia.  The institutions of marriage, family, and citizenship are all being redefined based on moral relativism in place of objective truth claims from the Bible.  For purposes of this article, allow me to suggest that the definition of private property has also changed.  And I contend that this change in how we view “private property” explains why many have become disgruntled and critical of capitalism.

Replacing Capitalism with Socialism

During the past decade, the call for social justice has focused attention upon the plight of the poor, the ethnic minorities, and other groups who are considered disenfranchised.  Meanwhile, there has been a growing sense that social justice cannot be complete without major changes in two aspects that form the context of the injustices. 

First, there is the perceived need to change how material wealth is distributed.  Liberal scholars and leaders call for a shift away from free market capitalism toward some form of socialism to assure that each person gets their “fair share.”  Second, there is a perceived need to change the way in which humans interact with the environment of planet Earth.  According to this view, the Earth’s limited natural resources are too overtaxed to support the growing human population.  What’s more, natural resources are being consumed disproportionately by the rich and powerful.  To remedy these perceived duel injustices, one against the disenfranchised and the other against the Earth, the social planners have a solution which is summarized by Ralph Chaplin,
(1887–1961), American writer, artist and labor activist:

It seems the most logical thing in the world to believe that the natural resources of the Earth, upon which the race depends for food, clothing and shelter, should be owned collectively by the race instead of being the private property of a few social parasites.  

Chaplin speaks for many today who believe the answer to injustice toward people, animals, and the Earth is to move from individual to collective ownership of property—i.e. to “spread the wealth evenly.”  Never mind that to bring about this massive transition and then to maintain the collective in a just manner would be a difficult task, even with strong coercion and tyranny.  Furthermore, based on the history of socialism, how can we assume that those placed in charge of managing the collective would be any more just and fair toward people, animals, and the Earth than the so-called “social parasites” they now condemn?   Ben Shapiro points out that socialism has its own moral flaws:

Socialism violates at least three of the Ten Commandments: It turns government into God, it legalizes thievery and it elevates covetousness. Discussions of income inequality, after all, aren't about prosperity but about petty spite. Why should you care how much money I make, so long as you are happy?

On the other hand, capitalism offers the promise of freedom, but also a two-edged sword.  It depends upon individuals owning private property which in turn motivates a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit which often paves the road to prosperity.  But there is also the temptation toward greed and unjust practices that earn some capitalists the name “social parasites.”   As Shirley Chisholm states, “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

Although capitalism invites injustice, it is also true that greed and injustice thrive in both the private and public sectors.  It doesn’t matter whether the material resources of Earth are privately or collectively held; corruption has no favorites.  The source of trouble is not the material resources or the sector of the economy in which they are managed.  We must go deeper to find the cause.  The trouble comes from the depraved human heart.  Two writers, one a prophet of God and the other a Russian novelist and historian, expose the truth about the nature of the human heart:

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?  -- The Prophet Jeremiah (17: 9)

the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. -- Alexander Solzhenitzyn

Reviving Our Concept of Private Property

Because moral depravity is rooted deep within the heart of man, if free market capitalism is to be moral, I believe we must also dig deep to identify and extract the cause of injustice; and then, revive the heart with a biblical concept of private property.  In Scripture, we discover the basis for the title of this article.  According to Scripture, “There is no such thing as private property.”  Although it is possible in America and some other countries to hold legal title to property, Scripture teaches that we do not own anything.  “The Earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24: 1) and He has given humans dominion over creation (Genesis 1: 26-28) to manage it on His behalf as His servants or stewards (Genesis 2: 15).  We are stewards but not owners of “private property.”  Therefore, biblically speaking, private property is any portion of the Earth over which an individual has responsibility to God to manage for His glory.  In this definition, “private” refers to our individual responsibility.  And although we may hold temporary legal title, the property belongs to God.

The “stewardship view” of private property is a key by which humans can open the door and allow intimate relationship with God.  We can see this truth throughout Scripture from Adam and Eve all the way to the Apostle John in Revelation.  For example, Abel’s offering was a pleasing aroma to God, but Cain’s wasn’t (Genesis 4: 3-5).  This distinction rested at least partly on how these two men submitted themselves and their “property” in their worship of God.  Later, Noah worshipped and obeyed God; and God gave him dominion over the living creatures resulting in their salvation from the flood by means of the ark he had built (Genesis 6-9).  Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was a nomad.  Although he had great wealth, Abraham’s grasp upon it, even upon his beloved son Isaac, was very loose compared to his tenacious pursuit of God (Genesis 12-25). 

Remembering God Is Our Provider

Four centuries after Abraham, King David typified the same stewardship view that he learned from the patriarchs, but adds an additional principle.  King David not only understood that his kingship or dominion was a stewardship granted by God, but he also understood that even his ability to acquire material wealth was from God.  Listen as David prays before the people at the dedication of the material resources for the temple that Solomon would later build (1 Chronicles 29: 11b-14):

Yours is the dominion, O LORD,
and You exalt Yourself as head over all.
Both riches and honor come from You,
and You rule over all, and in Your hand is power and might;
and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone.
Now therefore, our God, we thank You, and praise Your glorious name.
But who am I and who are my people that we should be able
to offer as generously as this?
For all things come from You,
and from Your hand we have given You.

King David wanted his worship of God to be a picture of how all God’s people ought to exercise stewardship of the material resources of Earth day in and day out—managing “property” as that which comes from God’s hand and which, by God’s grace, He enables us to give back to Him or to our neighbor.  The Apostle Paul reiterates this principle in 1 Corinthians 4: 7:

For who regards you as superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as if you had not received it?

The Scriptural view of private property means we view the “property” as God’s, the “private” as our individual responsibility to work and manage it as unto Him, seasoned with an attitude of humility that recognizes all we have is ultimately a gift from God.   Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31, Paul teaches us that having a continual awareness of the eminence of Christ’s return will help us to “possess property as though we didn’t possess it” (emphasis mine):

But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;  and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess;  and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

Notice Paul cites the relationship of husbands to wives, and the relationship of humans toward material property (ultimately the Earth) in a similar sense.  Husbands are responsible to love and nurture their wives as unto the Lord; likewise, those who buy are responsible as stewards to act as “husbandmen” to care for their property as unto the Lord.  Here, Paul teaches that God’s people are to undertake both responsibilities with a “stewardship view”—a view that aims to glorify God as Christ’s return draws near, rather than an “ownership view” that aims to multiply wealth without regard to moral and ethical responsibilities toward God and our neighbor.

Realizing Even Our Bodies Are Not Private Property

But there is a third principle that deepens the biblical meaning of private property even further.  God’s redeemed not only do not own their spouses, cars, houses, and land; they don’t even own their bodies.  The redeemed are bought by Christ’s blood from the slave block of sin.  Paul wrote,” …you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20).  Paul summarizes the biblical responsibility of the Christian toward God in a comprehensive manner in Colossians 3: 17:

Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

But how do we know whether we are actually “possessing as though we do not possess?”  Thankfully, God has instituted two routine tests by which we can check our attitudes and priorities when it comes to our “property”—our regular responsibility to give back to God our tithes and extra offerings; and, our weekly responsibility to set aside a day in which we celebrate God through our worship and rest from routine labor.  These observances provide a routine check on the tightness of how unselfish we are with material resources and time.

Renewed Hope for the “Free Market?”

I have provided a brief sketch of a biblical definition of private property. Now, if free market capitalists were to adopt this definition of private property, do you think they would still be considered “social parasites” by many who are disgruntled with capitalism?   The second question is, does this “stewardship view” of private property address the accusation by many that capitalism and its biblical roots are to blame for our insensitivity to disenfranchised people and to the deterioration of planet Earth?  I believe the answer to both questions is “yes” based on the account of the early church in Acts 4: 31-35 (emphasis mine):

And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.   And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.   And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.  For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

Although some who advocate social justice and socialism interpret the sharing of property in common by the early church as an advocacy of socialism by Christianity, the passage does not support that notion.  Instead, notice first that these folks were born-again believers on the basis of having trusted in Christ’s redemption from their sins through His death and resurrection.  As “new creatures” in Christ, they submitted their wills in obedience to His Word under the power of the Holy Spirit.  The resultant unity of Spirit enabled them to view their material possessions as “common property to them.”  From their perspective of “possessing as though not possessing,” they were able to see with eyes of compassion the physical needs among their number and therefore to voluntarily share generously.   Many acted upon their concerns by selling their “private property” and making the moneys available to the leadership to distribute funds to those in need.

At the time of the events recorded in Acts, persecution and ostracism often severely impoverished Christian converts and their families.  Therefore, the outpouring of generous sharing among these people of faith was nothing less than an essential, voluntary expression of the compassion of the Risen Christ toward those in need.  The expression of charity (agape love) by the 1st century church has been reproduced in countless congregations throughout the world, often going unnoticed except by the recipients.  Note also that this “voluntary sharing” distinguishes this biblical economy from a socialist model.

Yet, the Christian church is not immune from selfishness and greed as we have noted previously in “Greed, Charity, and Capitalism.”  Therefore, one of the challenges of today’s evangelical church is to provide the setting in which God’s Word is taught under the direction of His Holy Spirit to believers who are Spirit-filled and receptive to Christ’s example as One Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9: 58).   Christ lived as an example of “possessing as though He did not possess” and cautioned against attitudes that would oppose this “stewardship view” of private property.  For example, he warned against the love of money (e.g. Matthew 19: 16-25) and contrasted those who give out of their surplus with the poor widow who freely gave all she had (Mark 12: 38-44). 

Revival by Church and Civic Institutions

The evangelical church must function as a counterculture in which individuals and families learn to implement biblical stewardship of private property.   Local schools and the local community have historically contributed to this lifestyle as I have explained in Environmental Stewards Are ‘Grown’ within a Moral Community.” Historian Thomas Woods comments on the importance of individual responsibility and other virtues in a free market economy:

One of the market's virtues, and the reason it enables so much peaceful interaction and cooperation among such a great variety of peoples, is that it demands of its participants only that they observe a relatively few basic principles, among them honesty, the sanctity of contracts, and respect for private property. 

Arthur Brooks noted, “what America needs is not less capitalism but better capitalists.”  In my view, better capitalists are those that adopt a “stewardship view” of material possessions, one that is taught in the context of family, church, and community.  But as explained in “Dominion 101 - Spheres of Responsibility” government has the important role of maintaining the rule of law.  Rep. Paul Ryan makes this point well:

We believe that the government has an important role to create the conditions that promote entrepreneurship, upward mobility, and individual responsibility.

Our Founding Fathers understood the depravity of mankind and the danger of power in the hands of one or a few.  Therefore, the U.S. Constitution calls for a system of checks and balances, and includes a justice system to maintain accountability and rule of law.  Today, greed and corruption are common at every level of both public and private sectors.   Many are asking, “Is capitalism moral”?   Arthur Brooks answers, “Of course not. Only people can be moral.  We're not asking the right questions."  Instead, we should ask, “What economic system will most likely encourage moral behavior in us?”  For me, that system is capitalism in which individuals have a “stewardship view” that sees private property as a temporary trust to which God holds title.   As temporary title-holder, the “owner” is responsible to use it for the glory of God and for the benefit of his or her neighbor.  A free market economy in the hands of such responsible stewards will address both of the concerns of social justice advocates—provision of assistance to the poor and disenfranchised that respects the dignity of human beings, and good stewardship of the environment of planet Earth.

I welcome your comments.  The following questions may stimulate your thinking further:

1.   How would the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matthew 19: 16-25 define private property? 
2.   Does Jesus’ condemnation of the “Barn Builder” in Luke 12: 16-21 suggest that it is immoral to be rich?
3.   What does the following quote from Lewis Black tell you about Christianity versus socialism? 
Socialism appeals to me.  It's like imposed Christianity. You've got to share.
4.   In what sense do advocates of socialism express a different view of humankind than advocates of capitalism?
5.   Is a free market economy really a better system to address the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than socialism?   Which one better addresses environmental problems?
6.   How would you grade your attitude toward your “property” based on your material giving and your observance of “Sabbath rest?”

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