If we are serious about our desire to share space, share life together, and participate in God’s new creation, then we must seriously reconsider our understanding of and relationship to private property. Indeed, the more I study the Bible and economics, the more I am convinced that private property is at the core of many of the problems we face and is, itself, a fundamentally anti-Christian belief and practice. There are three sources that have been particularly influential upon me in this regard. The first is the book Faith and Wealth by Justo Gonzalez.
In this book, Gonzalez demonstrates the ways in which the Church Fathers consistently and strenuously attacked notions of private property and replaced those notions with a biblical theology that stresses that everything in creation and culture exists as a gift of God for the benefit of all. Furthermore, because the God of the Bible is defined by acts of benevolent and abundant giving, the same characteristic should define the people who follow this God.
Therefore, if we wish to live in light of the biblical traditions, we would do well to draw our inspiration from the pre-monarchic economics of the Hebrews, from the correctives offered by the prophets, from the type of collectivity practiced by the early community of disciples gathered around Jesus, and from the economic mutuality that comes to the fore in the Collection that dominates the later years of Paul’s Aegean mission. Therefore, Gonzalez convincingly demonstrates that those who participate in the economy of the Christian God should reject any economics premised upon a right to private property.
Similarly, Hilary of Poitier asserts the following: “Let no on regard anything as theirs, or as private. On the contrary, to all of us were given, as gifts from the same Father, no only the same beginning of life, but also things in order that we might use them… Therefore, in order to be good, we must consider all things as being common to everybody.”
Finally, John Chrysostom argues that, “The rich have that which belongs to the poor, even though they may have received it as an inheritance,” and he goes on to say that acts of charity are not enough—one will only have given enough when one has literally nothing left to give.
An important point to emphasize in all of this is that the Church Fathers understood Paul’s teaching that all people are equal before God to necessarily require us to ensure that all people are equal before one another, having equal access to material goods and resources. This, it should be noted, is precisely the opposite conclusion to that drawn by many contemporary readers of the Paul who stress the spiritual element of his letters in order to move the focus away from any sort of material application.
This leads me to my second source. It is the book The Fear of Beggars by Kelly S. Johnson. Johnson calls out those who wish to get around the more radical nature of biblical economics by proposing a ‘stewardship’ model. This model affirms private property—a sort of Christian affirmation of ‘capitalism with a human face’—and fits comfortably with those who benefit from the death-dealing ways of global capitalism (after all, the stewardship model first came to prominence when Christian slave-owners were seeking to justify the practice of slavery). What Johnson does is demonstrate the ways in which this ‘stewardship’ model cannot be made to fit with what the Bible teaches us about property and wealth. Instead, Johnson looks to those like the early Franciscans or the Catholic Workers in order to propose an alternative way of sharing life together.
So, first I learned that private property is an anti-biblical idea, then I learned that Christian efforts to get around this fail to succeed. Therefore, my third source drives this all home by demonstrating just how dehumanizing and fundamentally violent and oppressive systems built around private property will end up being. This source is Karl Marx, whose massive and often dry writings on economics are well worth the effort it takes to read them.
Marx demonstrates that within systems of private property, not only do people gain the right to live without any regard for others, people themselves become alienated from their human identity—for private property itself is the objectification of lived labour, and so labourers become a function of private property—and so we become something less than we could be.
As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once said: “Property is theft” and it is not only theft because private property requires us to steal that which belongs to others, it is also theft because it steals our humanity from us. Of course, if one is speaking in biblical terms about those things which make us less than human then one would need to employ the language of idolatry. Which, again, is why Proudhon—an anarchist who trained as a theologian—is onto something when he states that “Property is the last of the false gods”. No wonder then that he interprets the 8th commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) as saying “Thou shalt not lay anything aside for thyself”. This interpretation fits well with the actual practice of the Israelites in the wilderness, as they were only permitted to collect enough manna to last them one day.
Therefore, I find myself deeply sympathetic to those who are attempting to find ways to re-member communism. As Jacob Taubes asserts when commenting on Marx’s economic theory: communism becomes the positive expression of annulled private property, and the restoration of people from their self-alienation. Thus, “the supersession of private property is the vindication of real human life as [humanity’s] property”. Or as Alain Badiou states in more detail:
The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away… It is foolish to call such communist principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion… our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode.
Of course, learning to negotiate this is difficult and will take time. However, I raise the issue precisely with the hope of problematizing it, so that we will not be satisfied with the solutions we have found thus far. We must press on. That said, at the end of the day, we may discover that we cannot successfully negotiate this, without actually giving up our property. This is what the disciples of Jesus did, it was what the early Franciscans did, and it is also what a good friend of mine is doing now. After living in some quite ‘radical’ intentional Christian communities for over 25 years, he has decided that even this model is too flawed and integrated into the death-dealing ways of capitalism and private property. So, this fall, he and his wife will be selling their house and moving into a life lived below the poverty line—most likely in a squat, like the anti-Olympic tent city in which he has been living since mid-February.
Dan Oudshoorn works with homeless and street-involved populations (in both Toronto and Vancouver). He also regularly speak at conferences on themes related to biblical theology and social justice and have spoken alongside of professors from (for example) UBC, UofT and Duke, as well as alongside of community organizers from inner-city Toronto and Vancouver’s downtown eastside