Christian Earth Stewardship—A Critique: Principle Four

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Principle 4: God is the sovereign proprietor of earth. Therefore, earth stewardship is radical land reform.

This is potentially the most radical of all the earth stewardship principles if we take full responsibility for it. At the least, it redefines—and should apply to—the commons, the gifts that all humans and generations hold in common: the atmosphere, including the ozone layer, the seas and great lakes, underground resources like water, oil, coal and other minerals, the electromagnetic spectrum . . .

At the most, God’s sovereign proprietorship of creation and all its bounty challenges the most basic assumptions of capitalism (the private ownership of capital, especially capital resources like minerals), and some aspects of the liberal political-philosophical tradition, especially the central importance of individual rights over and against the rights of the community and the central importance of privately owned property.

As with the other principles, my main criticism of this one is that God’s ownership of earth is just an idea, a theological notion with no practical development or application in the earth stewardship tradition, let alone in our personal and congregational lives. As with the other principles also, a full treatment of how we might live this principle will have to wait until we discuss the principles of dominion and covenant. But the idea itself—that we do not own creation with all its gifts—and its implications for community practice, deserve much more careful attention.

Ownership and inheritance: economics in the commonwealth of God

The Bible has not so much to say about land use, but a great deal to say about land tenure. In a few key passages, the Bible declares God’s ownership and rulership of God’s creative handiwork. And it develops the practical implications of this principle in Torah, the teachings in the Pentateuch, and in the teachings of Jesus and his prophetic predecessors, on inheritance—on who should own the land and under what conditions. The essence of the principle is this: the earth does not belong to us. That is, the ‘earth’ does not belong to humans; ‘public’ lands do not belong to government; private properties do not belong to you or me. We possess the right of usufruct, upon condition of covenantal obedience. But the Creator does not relinquish ownership of the Creator’s divine handiwork.

As a consequence, because it does not belong to us, we cannot just do with the earth as we please. This is the foundation of Christian earth stewardship.

Founding our earth stewardship on biblical principles of property ownership should make us radical critics of capitalism. Capitalism also is founded on principles of property ownership and the two sets of principles tend to confound each other. No other earth stewardship principle has such far-reaching implications for how we live and for our impact on creation through economics, the system by which we work and produce, sustain and project ourselves on the earth.

This is obvious. Nevertheless, we’ve seen very little revolutionary thinking about what an economic system founded on God’s ownership of the world would look like, let alone practical experiments in alternatives that take this principle seriously. We’ve seen some good work on sustainability, but that assumes we keep the private ownership of capital—the foundations of capitalism—intact and just reform the balance sheet, that we make sure that our assets and liabilities line up, and that we consider the landbase when calculating profit and loss. This is an important, even necessary, work and, given that we do not plan to establish a theocracy, really the only way earth stewards can reasonably proceed in a pluralistic democratic society. But reforming capitalism is a secular path; it ignores the greater implications of the biblical principle of divine ownership that virtually all earth stewardship writers proclaim. A more rigorous sense of religious and intellectual integrity requires that we either jettison this principle or explore it more fully, at least on behalf of our own communities and their micro-economies.

This is one of the great failings of earth stewardship, that it has founded itself on a radical economic principle and then failed to build a meaningful economic superstructure on the foundation. This is mainly because, following Paul rather than Jesus, Christianity has abandoned the original superstructure built with Torah.

The Bible makes the rather abstract principle of divine ownership into a practical set of teachings for active community life by encoding the principle in inheritance law and supporting it with an economic theory (that is, a theology) of redemption (that is, of restoring families back to land they have lost through bankruptcy). In the biblical worldview, Israel—both the land and the people—are Yahweh’s ‘portion’; they are His (sic) inheritance by right of redemption through conquest. But he has handed over his estate—the land of Israel—to his people Israel as an inheritance with terms of covenant somewhat like the covenants we sometimes attach to land sales today.

Let me take off into a bit of a tangent in order to explain. This will be a longish detour, but it’s absolutely necessary, given the fundamental importance of the principle of divine ownership in earth stewardship thinking. And besides, it’s fascinating.

Redemption Economics and the Origins of our Tradition

When Jacob (Israel) was forced by famine to go to Egypt and sell his tribe into slavery in order not to starve (Gen 43), he and his people were saved from this debt slavery because Jacob’s lost son Joseph was the vizier in charge of the negotiations. But after Joseph died, the Egyptian crown conveniently forgot the special arrangement for the tribe of Israel and they ended up in debt slavery anyway, trading their labor for their food.

When Yahweh delivered Israel from the hand of Pharaoh at the Exodus, Yahweh took possession of the debt note previously held by Pharaoh: now Israel owed Yahweh for both its existence as a people and its subsistence as tribes, family groups and individuals.

Yet, out of loving-kindness, Yahweh redeemed his (sic) people; he gave them back their life and gave them the land he had promised so long ago to Jacob’s grandfather and grandmother. Under the terms of the covenant, however, he continued to demand a token payment in commemoration of his redemption of their debt to him—“the first offspring of every womb,” including the firstborn sons. As for these human first offspring, he provided a mechanism for their redemption, also. Instead of being sacrificed, like the firstborn livestock, these children were ‘bought’ back by their families with an economic payment/sacrifice. Furthermore, sin-breaches of covenant required material offerings that served as token payments (Lev 4-5) that likewise commemorated the original gift of redemption and that signified renewed commitment to the covenant, its terms, and its God with an ‘economic’ transaction in the form of sin offerings and guilt offerings.

Thus, the entire sacred economy of ancient Israel, with its offerings and sacrifices, its tithes, and its consecration of firstborn, hinged on the foundational act of divine redemption, in which Yahweh took Israel as his own from out of the land of Egypt and then released Israel from the debt they owed to him for his salvation/redemption.

This is why both Torah and the prophets, including especially Jesus, are preoccupied with the poor and with redemption (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors)—with relieving the poor from the burden of debt. The cancellation of debt (redemption) and the restoration of property to debtors on the part of God the divine Creditor is the people of Israel’s foundational experience: they became God’s people through an act of redemption, through the canellation of a debt. Everything they had—their freedom, their land, their livelihood, their very existence as a people—was a redemption gift. And it was also a lease, whose terms were defined by the covenant.

Thus the foundation of ancient Israelite religion and identity was an economic act. God forgave Israel the debt that the people owed God for having been redeemed from debt slavery in Egypt. And the religious superstructure of Yahwistic faith (Torah) was, in one of its all-pervasive dimensions, a system of divinely mandated economics designed to manage this debt.

I go into all this detail because I want to make clear how important the idea of God’s ownership in its economic sense is, not just to earth stewardship, but to the Christian gospel itself. There is so much more to say about the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God, but it takes us even farther away from a focused critique of earth stewardship. In fact, I began another book on a land-based gospel because of my deep dissatisfaction with earth stewardship’s lack of economic substance and almost complete ignorance of the significance of Jesus’ teachings on economic debt and land reform for a sustainable, spiritual relationship with our landbases.

Taking God’s Ownership of ‘the Earth” Seriously

But let us have no illusions about how far this idea so essential to our religious tradition could go in today’s market economy. Today, the market is god. Even in the theocracy envisioned by some on the Christian right, biblical principles of sin and forgiveness apply only to a fairly narrow range of issues in personal moral life and communal concern. They do not extend to the workings of the market. Over the market, the market itself is god and everything is for sale in the market: pornography and sex toys, weapons and congressional legislation, electromagnetic spectrum and wetlands, even our grandchildren’s future.

Religious communities that want to recover a covenantal relationship with God and the gifts God has loaned to us have only church property and their members’ personal property to work with—and a prophetic voice with which to challenge the excesses of the market. It was no different for Jesus and his community; they had no more control over their economy, which was controlled by a priesthood that had sold out to an imperial occupying power, and which was double-taxed, by the temple and then again by Rome. For our communities as for the first disciples, the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God requires a vigorous ministry to the poor, and, like Jesus’ followers, we must do for ourselves rather than look to government, since Pharaoh’s heart is ever hardened.

With their longstanding emphasis on social justice and on environmental justice in particular, earth stewardship writers have taken a lead on these issues. They have found their prophetic voice. But a crucial step remains, crucial in the sense of taking up the cross: religious communities at all levels—congregations, synods, dioceses, denominations, inter-denominational councils—should take up the principle of God’s ownership of their own property with a more developed economic and ecological—that is, covenantal—understanding, and see what innovations in land ownership and management the Holy Spirit leads us to. We already enjoy special economic status in partial recognition of our situation in society: we do not pay taxes. How can we build on this in creative ways?

Churches already exist outside the market economy, as a gift-based economy. We rely on donations not profits for our existence. We already have a theology of stewardship, recognizing that we hold the assets of the institution in trust on behalf of the community as a whole and as a responsibility to God, and we urge our members to consider the care and continuance of the institution as a stewardship obligation.

We need only to extend the assets we consider in this way to include the church’s land, as land in an ecology, and not just as the grounds on which the buildings stand; and to extend our stewardship to include our obligation to God vis a vis the ecosystems God has gifted to us as our habitation. Finally, and most importantly, we need to restructure church governance to take explicit account of God’s ownership as the foundation of our stewardship. We shall return to this when we discuss principle six, covenant.


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