Keeping a loose grip on private property

Candidates’ policies for curing America’s economic ills loom at the center of this year’s presidential election. Dr. Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, encouraged the audience at this year’s Christians in Political Science Conference to “hold our principles tightly and our policy lightly.” In light of this I would like to consider some economic principles from Scripture, specifically in regards to conceptions of private property. 

American political culture has inherited a legacy of private property rights theory from philosopher John Locke. Locke held that the property owner’s labor makes him sovereign and fully entitled to his property. Christians may consider the Lockean view of property rights pragmatically useful, but we must recognize that all earthly possessions are gifts from a loving Father who retains the authority to place demands on property. 

While the Bible does not explicitly state God’s private property ethic, a consistent set of principles can be derived from Biblical instructions on proper economic interactions. These begin with a purpose for private property wrapped up in God's command to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. More than a command to physical multiplication, this is an invitation to join God in bringing order from chaos as co-creators made in His image. Following this, God gives man dominion over all creation, empowering His children with the rule and responsibility of stewardship necessary to create with God (per Harold O. J. Brown and Richard Mouw in Biblical Principles & Economics). 

We find principles for individual ownership in God’s division of Canaan land among the Israelites. In neighboring cultures the rulers held most, if not all, of the land, but God instructed the Israelites to posses the land within their families. It could be bought and sold, but the Israelites were not Locke’s sovereign owners. God placed two limitations on the acquisition of property: the seller’s family could redeem land that had been sold, and land was to be returned to the original owner in the year of Jubilee. This guaranteed economic decentralization and allowed renewed access to economic markets for dispossessed families.  

Regulations for the proceeds of Israel’s land give insight into our rights to earned income. The landowner was not fully entitled to the proceeds of the land. Portions of fields were to remain unharvested to allow for gleaning by the poor. Tithes were required every year to supply for worship feasts and support the Levites and the poor (see Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger). God further affirms the goodness of enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and possessions in Isaiah: “My chosen people shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” He is also careful to protect His purpose for private property in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal.” 

The early chapters of Acts show the church in Jerusalem holding all things in common and selling property to supply for each other's needs. This may make Christians question whether we can hold any private property, but it is important to note that this is not an abolition of property rights. Peter affirms to Ananias that he was under no compulsion to give, and the property had rightfully belonged to Ananias before he sold it, as did the proceeds after he sold it (Acts 5:4).  The text regarding the Jerusalem church confirms individuals' rule over property and the right to dispose of it, while also setting an example of the provision for the poor and the priority of the Kingdom.       

In the sum of these Biblical examples I find a few clear principles for private property: dominion has been given by God to individuals in regard to specific property for the purpose of joining God in creation and to provide the necessities of life. The products of those co-creation efforts are for the use and enjoyment of the owner, provision for the poor and provision for worship. Economic structures should allow for renewed access to the dispossessed and avoid concentrating the means of economic production in the hands of a few. As we listen to and join in the economic debate during this election season, let us use these principles to weigh policy proposals against the demands of Scripture. 

What Do You Think?

  • How do you apply the Bible's teachings to your understanding of private property?
  • In light of this, what do you make of the economic policies of the American presidential candidates?

 

Comments (2)

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Thanks for this, Eric. Although it was an uncomfortable read for me, Walter Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good was also helpful in pinpointing social and economic underpinnings in the Old Testament, designed by God for the good of all. I didn't agree with everything in the book, but there was undoubtedly more content in the OT than I had previously realized about provision for the poor.

Also, I love my house. I enjoy looking at "house porn" magazines although my home is considerably more modest than the featured mansions. Still, much of my self-worth is tied into being a homeowner, in caring for my property and enjoying it. As I see that it will become an increasingly challenging for the next generation to attain the same standard of living as I've enjoyed, I probably need to be made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

I've always wanted my children to have what I have, to enjoy some of the same security ... what will it mean for me if they can't achieve it in today's economic climate? It might be time for me to ponder seriously how much value and credit I give to home ownership. That kind of self-assessment is challenging. Thanks for a thoughtful post.
Gary North makes an interesting point in his economic commentary on the Bible: the rules about leaving grain for the poor to harvest had no specific penalties. In other words, it was a matter of conscience whether or not a landowner left grain/grapes/olives/orchard fruit/etc. for the poor to glean. That's very different from today's "Christian" governments which take money by force from one group of citizens and to give to another group.

 

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