So, how do we apply this conversation about property rights and land in the Bible to our current context. I will say again that I do not advocate the idea that its our Christian obligation to expropriate possessions, property or land that is being used unjustly. The problem we are left with as Christians is what to do when wealth and land is used unjustly. Certainly definitions are a problem, but I think both science and the Bible give us good guidelines for just use of the land. The Bible also has a lot to say about the use of wealth, but of course not everyone in the world has signed on to the Bible as the authority guiding their behavior.
So When’s the Next Jubilee?
I believe that the laws in the Hebrew Testament represent an evolution of God’s relationship with the world and the Israelites over time. Attempting to reconstruct conditions that would make the exact Sabbatical laws function today could only be accomplished on a small scale (i.e. the Amish and perhaps other intentional Christian communities like Koinonia Farm). The point of these laws is not a prescription for exactly how to order life, but instead principles that can be applied across time and geography. The most important of these principles, I believe, is making the land the foundation of our understanding of economics.
The biblical mandate for stewardship of the earth and conditional giving of the land to the Israelites should give us pause to think about how we should deal with the exploitation of natural resources by companies like BP (not to mention oil companies have spilled more oil all over Nigeria than BP did in the Gulf). These companies flout laws and regulations of their industry. So, the first thing is to have better enforcement of environmental regulations (many of the environmental requirements for deep sea drilling and exploration were waived by government regulators for BP’s Deep Water Horizon). The problem then becomes money and influence in politics that continues to push the government towards policies that favor business in ways that hurt the environment and people (I’m fine with business that doesn’t hurt people or the earth).
MLK called the church the “conscience of the state.” I still think that role is important. The church should hold the state accountable to its own principles. This doesn’t mean that the church shares all the principles of the state, but we can ask the state to be accountable to its own principles. We can also work towards laws, regulations and policies that approximate the principles and values of the kingdom (of course, the problem is that not all Christians can agree on these principles either).
The danger with taking MLK’s statement as absolute is that the church then narrows the scope of its influence to lobbying the government. We’ve certainly seen this in North American politics. The church often looks to the state to legislate its agenda. So, some conservatives hone in on abortion (or homosexuality) and veto any candidate that votes the wrong way or says the wrong thing. Liberals do the same thing in terms of environmental or social justice issues. Both groups have sold their imaginations to the government to solve the problems they see in the world.
William Cavanaugh’s most recent book The Myth of Religious Violence argues that the rise of secularism was really the process of faith moving from the church to the state. What is required is a shift from seeing the state as the entity needing to embody kingdom values to reclaiming the church, the Body, the community of believers as the place in which the world can see these principles lived out in practice.
The Price of Rice in China
One place the biblical insistence on connection to and just use of the land seems most relevant is agricultural commodity prices. T. Rowe Price had a commercial not too long ago that sort of sums up the attitude of the people trading agricultural commodities. The gist was that you could leave the business of making money off of these things to the professionals. When I posted a link to the YouTube video of the commercial on Facebook a friend of mine who’s an agriculture extension agent went off about the “yuppies in California” making money off of something they know nothing about. I recently heard about all the satellite data collected by these investment firms to predict weather patterns that help them with their investments. Instead of this information being used to help farmers improve their agriculture or deal with the inherent instability of farming, it’s used to know when to buy and sell investments and futures in these commodities and make a quick buck. The fact that the livelihood of farmers directly connected to the land is run by investors who know nothing about farming and are interested only in making money is disturbing.
Agriculture, unlike other livelihoods, for most of its existence (about 9,940 years) has been a mixture of business and care/stewardship of the land. Perhaps a better way to put it is that there was no distinction between the land and your living. The entrance of agribusiness and Earl “Get Big or Get Out” Butz in the 1970s transformed agriculture into something that could be a business without caring for the land (that’s definitely an oversimplification). Farmers continue to be directly impacted by the weather, but now they must also contend with market forces that are based more on the nervousness of Wall Street than the realities of farming. (I’m working on another post about the Low German Mennonites in Bolivia as an exceptionally interesting case study of this problem.)
Third Way or Third Rail?
The question ultimately for Christians is how to live in the world, but not be of it. Christians can certainly own and run businesses, but they should not look like every other business out there. They should practice a different standard of ethics than the status quo of the world. This is the tension that the church has struggled with since Constantine and tried every extreme, from isolation to accommodation, to find an answer. In the same way Jesus often took either/or questions posed by his friends and enemies alike and turned them on their head, opting for a third possibility beyond the dualistic thinking.
I recently heard an interesting interview on Tree Hugger Radio about Collaborative Consumption that presents an interesting third way between the ideological extremes of neoliberal free market policies and totalitarian communist centralized planning. This is not communism, because it’s not attempting to break from capitalism or overthrow it. This is not exactly capitalism either, because it shifts the priorities and values at the heart of capitalism without needing to do away with the system. This sort of sharing is practiced in my home community. My community happens to also be interested in starting small businesses to strengthen our church community as well as our neighborhood. So, are we communist or capitalism? Where the church begins to break down these dichotomies, I think the kingdom is being practiced.