Saturday, 7 January 2012

Nothing is Mine / Everything is Mine

I have written elsewhere of the mixed blessings of an evangelical Christian upbringing. On balance it's something I am grateful for, but it's also left me with some hang-ups, some of which I am still trying to resolve.

One of the many good things I feel I have gained though, is a positive attitude towards money and possessions. My parents have always believed - and this was passed on to me - that everything we have belongs to God. Not only was a proportion of the family income given away - to the church or to various charities - but the attitude I grew up with was that the rest of it didn't really belong to us either. God allowed us to have the use of it, but it really belonged to Him and He was entitled to do something else with it if He wanted.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about property. Karl Marx is sometimes credited with the phrase, "Property is Theft", although I have just discovered that the phrase actually originates with French anarchist, politician and philosopher, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. For another - seemingly contradictory - take on property though, see this vision of future justice from the Biblical prophet Micah, written in about the 7th century B.C.:
In the last days ... Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid ...
Proudhon though - as it turns out - did not condemn all forms of property and is similarly credited with the phrase, "Property is Liberty", which he did not consider to be a contradiction. Proudhon's point was  that, for a peasant or farmer, property meant freedom from the control of a landlord - much like Micah's vision above - but for the landlord, property meant "owning" something which was used and needed by someone else, thus making it possible for the tenant to be exploited.

Property - and the prevention of its exploitation - was an important part of the law given by God to the Israelites in the Old Testament part of the Bible. This law said that every 50 years there was to be a year of "Jubilee", where all land was to be returned to its original owners. In chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus, God speaks these words to the people of Israel:
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
So the land "that you hold as a possession" actually belongs to God - i.e., the same attitude that my parents have towards property and that I was brought up with. In the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it ...
This makes for a radically different attitude towards property.

The New Testament part of the Bible goes beyond this though. In his first letter to the church in Corinth (see here - I've abridged it slightly because the original is in the context of a different discusion), the Apostle Paul says this:
All things are yours, whether ... the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
So if you are a follower of Jesus, then you are "of Christ", Christ is "of God" and thus everything belongs to you! But what does that really mean?

In "Drops Like Stars", Rob Bell points out that there is a difference between "ownership" and "possession" (at least in his particular use of those terms). He cites the example of a Rickenbacker 330 6-string guitar which he "owns". His friend Joey though, who is a much better guitar player, is able to appreciate that guitar, enjoy it and get far more out of it than Bell can. In Bell's words, although he is the legal "owner", Joey "possesses" that guitar in a way that he is simply not able to.

If ownership/possession is viewed more in this kind of a way, it becomes a lot easier to believe the words of Jesus, who famously pronounced that the meek would, "inherit the earth". It is the proud who want to own and control everything, and by doing so often fail to appreciate its true worth. It is the meek on the other hand, who can maintain a sense of grateful awe and appreciation. The proud may end up "owning" everything and yet "possessing" nothing, where the meek may "own" nothing but "possess" the world.

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