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📖 (15 min. read) The Politics of Ownership

Times of Christian renewal have been marked by a willingness to face challenging agendas. In our time, the challenge is posed by the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a few, typically international capital and agribusiness.

First given as a talk to an international Christian Socialist conference in July 1994 and later appearing in Jesuit journal ‘The Month’ in July 1995, this essay seems even more relevant today.

Total words: 3,967. Text 3,457 words. Additional quotations 510 words.

The Politics of Ownership

It is impossible to comfort the afflicted if one is unwilling to afflict the comfortable.

In communities of monks we have the custom of eating meals in silence while a book is read to us. I recall, thirty years ago, one such book called The Open Church. Its author’s main theme was that the Catholic Church was stuck in a time warp of “non-historical orthodoxy”. Indeed, so often, did he use that clumsy phrase that readers, meal by meal, were allowed to shorten it to NHO.

I met the author two or three years ago at a conference on Religion and Neo-Capitalism. Michael Novak had by then become a staunch defender of democratic capitalism and began his address by telling us of his grandparents in Idaho devoting their lives to small scale husbandry, establishing the family farm, caring for the soil, planting hedgerows, managing water courses. A model of the enterprise culture, of democratic capitalism. And I thought, as I listened, of NHO – that at a time when agribusiness in the US had systematically driven tens of thousands of family farmers off their holdings, uprooting hedgerows, wrecking water courses and reducing vast areas of soil to what will be desert in a couple of decades; have foreclosed local rural communities, shops, businesses, churches and banks – I thought that, when capital had so changed its nature from Novak’s grandparents to the present dominance of international capital, money markets and big business, it is nothing but nonhistorical orthodoxy to hang on to that earlier attractive model.

In responding to a socialist critique of his thesis Michael Novak voices a widespread attitude that market capitalism is nonideological and proven work, whereas socialism is idealistic and now proven not to work. Market capitalists are smooth and competent, socialists are hairy and idealistic. Of course, the smooth ones like to have the hairy ones around (that is the democratic bit) but only as long as they do not influence decision making.

Two Orders of Reality

Whenever we try to comprehend the nature of ownership, we come up against two orders of reality, normally thought of as the communal and the private. This is well illustrated by the Hebrew term eretz. In English, eretz translates either as earth or as land. For instance, “The earth is the Lord’s and all who dwell in it”. Or “The Lord will lead you into the land of promise”.

Earth is eretz in its basic, overarching reality. It is communal, undivided, the source of life and nurture. Given to and for all, it is the context for all else. Land is eretz as subject to history and economics, to administration and property rights.

Eretz as earth and eretz as land provide a metaphor for other forms of ownership. Ownership of wealth, or of technology, or even personal talents. So the following reflections do not apply only to the politics of land.

These two orders of reality are always in tension one with the other, and should be. But we usually manage, one way or another, to avoid the tension.

In our churches, for instance, we keep to the first order – hymns, prayers, plenty of thanksgiving to God for creation and the earth and romantic generalizations. We make very little reference to God as the God of history and justice. So we encourage the idea that faith is about idealism, whereas politics and economics is about reality. Hairy believers, smooth realists: perhaps there is a bit of each in all of us, but it lets us off taking seriously the nature of ownership. It cannot be said too strongly that the distinction between earth and land is not between idealism and realism, not between the romantic and pragmatic. It is a distinction between two orders of reality.

When we seek to clarify our perception of ownership in the light of scriptural faith, it helps to keep in mind the core story around which each of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures takes its meaning. In that way we can avoid giving all Scripture equal weight, we can see how parts of Scripture criticize other parts, and we can certainly avoid using Scripture merely as a sourcebook of suitable quotations. It will also help get us to love Scripture as the Word of God in history, then and now.

In the New Testament the core story is the Paschal Mystery of Christ, in both its historical and cosmic reality. But behind the Paschal Mystery lies the core story of the Old Testament: that of Yahweh, the God of liberation, calling his people out of bondage – not into a void, but into the occupation of land, Promised Land. They were to enter and occupy the land as a social revolution. The Covenant with God and Torah (the Law), were not to be reduced to personal virtue, or domestic virtue, but demanded political virtue. Questions of ownership, of distributive justice, of debt, of welcoming strangers, these were the key questions of fidelity. Yahweh was one God; he demanded that his people be one people.

Before entry, while still in the desert of preparation, the people were given warnings of what would be likely to undermine the social revolution. They were warned that once they were established in the land they would forget their own history, and start seeing everything as their own enterprise:

Take head lest you forget the Lord your God… When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses… and your silver and gold is multiplied, take heed lest your heart be puffed up and you forget through what your Lord God brought you. Do not say to yourself. My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth (Deut. 8)

Forgetfulness of eretz as earth, as the place of commonality where people stand together in the givenness of things, would lead to more and more attention of eretz as land, as the place of administration, property, rights and business. These latter are as much part of God’s will as the former, but once they lose the context of the former – once land loses the contract of earth – they become ever more divisive, pandering to the vested interests of a few and dispossessing many. The warning was that that would tend to happen once the initial clarity of the social revolution wore thin. The people were also warned that they would long to be more like other nations. At least, the dominant regime among them would look to the status of neighbouring and want to be as they were.


It was during the reign of Solomon (and his successors) that these warnings were most apposite. An immensely wealthy producer-consumer economy developed with an intricate bureaucracy to administer it. Read the account in 1 Kings 4. The social order became increasingly centre-periphery, in which a powerful and wealthy regime at the centre saw itself as normative, while the periphery (including foreign slaves in the mines) existed as a support system for the centre.

Years before when the people clamoured for a regime like the other nations, Samuel warned that such a regime would create a centre-periphery social order. Their sons would be enlisted in the king’s armies their daughters taken as servants; they would see their best fields and vineyards taken over by the elite, and find themselves paying heavy taxes to keep the prosperous in place. (1 Sam. 8)

We know from our own contemporary experience what Samuel was getting at. How increasingly centre-periphery social orders, within nations or between them, create dominant regimes which see themselves as normative for everyone else. The widening gaps are not simply, or even mainly, those of economics and distributive justice. They are gaps of cultural values and the terrible inability of the dominant culture to appreciate any other except as a failed version of itself. This dominant deafness can never appreciate a God who tends to offer redemption through the peripheral.

Samuel’s prophetic warning was realised under Solomon as he extended his power from the Euphrates to Egypt. It was, for those in the dominant regime, an age of prosperity and military power (the two-horse chariot being the latest military weapon to secure peace forever).

The accounts we have are, of course, written from the standpoint of that dominant regime. (Such regimes always have access to the media.) They therefore present the whole era as one of unbridled blessing from God. Indeed, God ceased to be Yahweh, the liberator, the abrasive and challenging God of justice and compassion for the poor. He became a domestic God of the royal household. Solomon’s Temple was built in the royal domain itself – and if Solomon did seem to have some misgivings, at its consecration, as to whether God could be so domesticated, he seems to have overcome his doubts. In effect, Yahweh was now reduced to a God whose main function was to keep the dominant consumer-producer culture in order. He had become very like the God of the Pharaohs, indeed very like the God of most dominant regimes in history, not least our own.

To fit in with that domesticated God, spirituality turned away from social justice, from eretz as earth, and focused more and more exquisitely on personal and domestic virtue, on proverbs and wisdom.

…and Prophets

God will not be mocked forever, and in his own time he raised up prophets, from Amos onward, to challenge the easy logic of the dominant regime. What the Solomon regime lists as God’s blessings on the people the prophets list as blasphemy before God. Not because wealth or power are evil in themselves but because they were enjoyed while God’s poor went hungry, and injustice was endemic. The essence of God’s covenant, which is the solidarity of God’s people as a people, has been forgotten. It seems to be very important today to recognise that challenge: that God’s blessings are always mixed and qualified. Those who do well in society always tend to see prosperity as unqualified blessing and therefore a sign of their own virtue. The prophets never allow that wealth-theology and the whole prophetic tradition warns us against it.

The prophet’s call the people back to covenant fidelity, call them to recover their common solidarity, to remember eretz as common earth, not simply privatised land. Of course, this is heard as idealism addressing realism, as the hairy addressing the smooth. But for them (and for us?) common solidarity and the fundamental givenness of the common wealth is more real than any arrangements of ownership or rights.

The prophets also warn that however competent and smooth the dominant regime may appear, in fact that the producer-consumer-military ethic contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. When in due course the whole edifice crumbles, and the people are led into exile, it is the prophets who insist that the people are not innocent victims of other powers, but have brought it on themselves. It is much the same as Jesus warned the regime of his day, if they would not grasp the moment of peace and God’s justice. The more a centre-periphery way of thinking and behaving becomes the accepted norm, the more does a culture bring on its own demise.

And finally the prophets insist that new things are always possible. They will not accept fatalism. They refuse the fatalism of the dominant regime at the centre (those whose inner loneliness is repressed by having, as they suppose, to play into the economic order) and the fatalism of the periphery (who by their very position in life see themselves as victims, and maybe culprits too). The prophets were always calling people to new possibilities.

When we come to consider these matters in the Christian Scriptures, we can study the centre-periphery society of Jesus’ day. Both in religious and social spheres the dominant regimes blinded people to God’s justice and Jesus confronted those powers with the alternative order he knew as the Kingdom of God. But I would rather approach the matter from a different viewpoint.

Open-Ended Human Nature

Our Christian faith is the bearer of a revelation – revelation not only about God but also about our humanity. That is, we have been given an anthropology which we could not have except from God’s Word. (In this sense, we trivialise Christianity in reducing it to a set of values, a moral code, a belief system, or any other contemporary attempt to be tolerant in a pluralist society.)

Human beings are created in the image of God: they are the image of God. Any living being created in the image of another becomes truly itself in becoming as that other is. We discover ourselves by sharing in the life of God, by becoming as God is. This “becoming” is the ultimate meaning of all our present involvements, and will be fulfilled through death and resurrection, when in union with God we shall be fully human for the first time!

Human nature is thus open-ended, open to the infinite, open to participate in that which is more than itself – in the end, God, and in the meantime, the story God is telling. It is being true to our true selves to hand over our perceived programs for the sake of a program not of our own devising. In this context the current Western view that we are, and should seek to be, autonomous, independent, two-feet-to-stand-on individuals is a great illusion.

The shadow-side to image-of-God optimism is not, as we Christians often say, that we are fallen human beings. After all, if in the Genesis story Adam and Eve did not have a problem before they fell, they would not have fallen at all. Surely that problem, the basic human dilemma, is that God has created the infinite in the finite, the image and rumour of God within material reality. This is surely our human agony, and was in Jesus, too.

This means that in all our involvements with God’s created gifts we are tempted to play God ourselves, to use those gifts for our own programs, to redefine reality to our own liking, to be authors of our own morality. The serpent in the garden plays on this possibility with plausible logic, as did Satan in the desert with Jesus. If you are God, then surely…

With all that we acquire and handle in life there is the possibility either of life or death, either of handling them precisely as gift – with reverence, patience, solidarity – or of laying claim to them in order to short cut God’s program with our own more satisfactory one.

All God’s gifts – material, intellectual, affective, cultural – are of God. But none of them are God. And since only God is good, simply, these gifts are always ambivalent, always mixed blessings. This is why so many of the deepest scriptural and sacramental symbols are ambivalent. Fire can purify or devour. Water can cleanse or drown. A desert can be a stark meeting place with God or a place of death. This ambivalence is especially true of gifts of wealth, power and learning. They were the ones Jesus found that people most easily made idols of. These were the ones he found blocked the kingdom (much more that what we usually think of as sins).

Jesus Christ was the one in all human history who was most truly the Image of God – by nature, not by gift. Of all people he had every right to play God; it would not for him been robbery, and he felt in himself, more acutely than any of us, this real dilemma. And he chose the route of solidarity, of patience, of power, truth, and obedience. That choice cost him his life. But it also made him totally available to life – the first to become fully human in union with God. The first born of all creation.

You may be wondering by now what all this has to do with the politics of ownership in the late twentieth century. I suggest it has everything to do with it. For instance, our economic culture has been shaped by the theory, usually associated with the philosopher John Locke and the economist Adam Smith that the common good is best secured by all working vigorously for their own perceived self-interest. If they do, so the theory goes, we can make an act of faith in an unseen hand securing the good of all. There seems to me very little evidence that this theory works – as we see the social divides widening both nationally and internationally. It is, I believe, incompatible with Christian faith and tradition to make such a blind act of faith in anything short of God.

A New Language

At present, both our Christian and our political leaders seem bewildered as to whether wealth-creation is a good thing or not. That bewilderment is a sign that we need a new and deeper language for the question itself.

In Scripture, that language is supplied not by moralistic categories of right and wrong in the normal sense, but in the categories of faith and idolatry. Idols are those good things in life which instead of being handled as gifts and servants of life, we hand ourselves over to as absolutes. They are God-substitutes, lookalikes, and the result of that fundamental human dilemma mentioned before. And we live today in the false security of countless idols: the right car, the right house, the right bank balance, the right consumer goods. You have only to hear the absolute language used of The Market to know what Jesus would mean: the market was made for people, not people for the market.

Of course, we all live with idols and few of us admit it. But if we want to know honestly where we live, we must seek to ask over and over again: who and for whom? This wealth, this political power, this learning, is it for its own sake or is it for solidarity, for God’s justice, for God?

We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Children, keep yourself from idols. (1 John 5:20)

Two thousand years of Christian history have seen a waxing and waning in our fidelity to the mandate we carry. Too often the radical political implications of God’s revelation and our theology of ownership have been our best kept secret. If we are to learn from the times when Christians let the secret out, what lessons might we learn?

First, that times of Christian rebirth, both in theology and praxis, are those when Christians have addressed challenging agendas set by new social realities in the world at large. This was true in Jesus’ day, in the fourth century, the twelfth century, and so on. It is our fate that in the seventeenth century the churches were so preoccupied with their own conflicting agendas that the great revolutions in science, industry, technology, and economics, which have shaped our modern life, got under way with only spasmodic theological response.

Secondly, that when Christian teaching rediscovers its true mandate in the face of social realities, it rediscovers (as regards ownership) the common origin, the common nature, and the common purpose of ownership: that private ownership is not an absolute right but a human arrangement for the sake of responsible participation. It rediscovers earth as the real context for land.

Thirdly, I think Christian teaching has to face the fact that when the rapacious pursuit of wealth becomes endemic among the contented elite of any age, it is impossible to comfort the afflicted if one is unwilling to afflict to comfortable. (Comfort, that is, not in the sense of coddle, but empower.) A lesson surely most apposite for our own politics today, as it was in the fourth century – a time when Christians, for the first time, were having to address the nation, and a time when Roman law made private ownership ever more absolute; land owners added field to field and cities swelled with dispossessed poor. (See Charles Avila’s Ownership – Early Christian Teaching, Sheed and Ward, 1983.)

Our agenda today is in some ways quite new. Our ecological awareness of how precariously we inhabit the planet makes it more urgent that ever to see earth as the true context of land. The interests and operations of international capital and agribusiness are new agendas. Yet in some ways the underlying issues are as old as the Garden of Eden.

What we seek is a more vigorous, more sustained, dialogue between Christian revelation and political activists. It could be an explosive mix.

* * * *

God’s Bounty

“One who holds possessions…and houses as the gifts of God; one who ministers from them to the God who gives them for people’s salvation; who knows they are possessed more for the sake of others than one’s own; who is master not slave to these possessions; and does not carry them about in one’s heart, or bind and enclose one’s life with them; but is ever devoted to good, indeed divine work; and who, when circumstances at some time deprive one of them, is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal as one bore their abundance – such a one is blessed by the Lord and called poor in spirit and a fitting heir to the Kingdom”.

(St. Clement of Alexandria AD 150-215)

“Whom do I injure” (says the rich person). “When I retain and conserve my own?” Which things, tell me are ‘yours’? When have you brought them into being?… Because the rich were first to occupy common goods, they take these goods as their own. If each would take what is sufficient for one’s needs, leaving what is in excess to those in distress, no one would be rich, no one poor”.

(St. Basil AD 330-379)

“Just as idolatry endeavours to deprive the one God of his glory, so avarice extends itself to the things of God…and would lay claim to his creatures as exclusively one’s own – the creatures which God made common for all”.

(St. Ambrose AD 333-397)

“We possess many superfluous things, unless we keep only what we need. And once we seek what we don’t need, nothing ever suffices…so consider: not only do you need few things, but God himself does not require you to answer for many things. Therefore look at what he has given you and take from that what you need; other things, superfluous things, are the basic necessities of others. The superfluities of the wealthy are the necessities of the poor; so their possession is that of other people’s property”.

(St. Augustine AD 354-430)

“Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, you return what is his. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate to yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the rich… You are therefore paying a debt, not bestowing a bounty”.

(St. Ambrose AD 333-397)

(Granted that you came by it justly), is wealth good? By no means. But nor is it bad, you say, if its owner is not covetous. It is not bad if it is distributed to those in need, otherwise it is bad; it ensnares. But if he does no wrong it is not bad, even if he doesn’t do good, you argue. Indeed. But is it not wrong that you should enjoy (for yourself) what is common? Is not the earth God’s and all its fullness? If our ‘possessions’ belong to one common Lord, they also belong to our fellow servants. The possessions of one Lord are all common”.

(St. John Chrysostom AD 334 – 407)


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