This past week, a colleague (who I would have counted a tentative friend at the time — more on what-that-even-means later) and I had a disagreement involving differing philosophies of ownership and obligation. A fancy way of saying X wanted something Y owned but Y didn’t think lending X anything was obligatory. In the typical ironic fashion of our times, earlier in the week, we had had a short discussion in which X adamantly championed the sole ownership of one’s own body as an absolute. Guess this sentiment of indisputable ownership was forgotten by X in the heat of the moment when Y refused to share.
Not many know that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was the runner up for most quoted verse of United States Declaration of Independence. There’s plenty of backstory which I won’t get into, but a late draft included “property,” not “pursuit of happiness”; in other words, one of the ultimate goals of a well-functioning representative form of government is to ensure the citizens’ right to property ownership.
Of course the US has no monopoly on stringent property law, but if there is one thing that this Great Experiment has instilled in us, is a fierce sense of propriety. And you don’t have to come from a long line of homesteaders to appreciate the economic capital of real estate. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure there’s an economist or libertarian alive who’d deny the fact that the wealth of the United States lies in her land.
Unfortunately, we also can’t deny the copious amount of blood spilled and lives destroyed in the name of greed and ownership of land.
What is — or was — somewhat unique to Americans is how fluid property is, how it passes from hand to hand, owner to owner, family to family. We’ve made it easy to exchange land, while in other cultures, selling the family real estate is a huge deal. It’s like selling one’s identity. I suppose they still openly acknowledge the strength of land ownership, while Americans tend to shrug at it. Then again, my mom’s side are very possessive of the family property. I’ve inherited land and feel strangely protective over it. I’ve even fantasized about buying the surrounding plots to consolidate. Mom and I used to talk about developing it somehow: a family retreat, an orchard, winery, hunting resort…
But all this talk of ownership is problematic on some levels.
I was reminded not long ago about how the civil Mosaic Law handled property rights and ownership, and what Yahweh might have been trying to teach the Israelites. Most striking about their tradition was the Year of Jubilee. Again, there’s a lot I can’t go into now, but essentially, any farm property leased or sold for debt payment was returned to the original steward. Not exactly debt forgiveness because, as this article so eloquently explains, through labor and trust and hope for the Sabbath Year, the debt had already been paid. PROFOUND.
And why say “steward”?
Well, just think about the difference between the earth and a human. One doesn’t have to be a theist to realize that, when you honestly think about it, the idea that a mere mammal who lives fewer than 90 years can “own” any part of this ancient world is ludicrous. Dust simply can’t own the dust from which it came and shall surely return. If anything, the earth owns us. It just so happens that being a theist, though, the dust from which I come has an owner, and He is just letting me handle it for a bit to see what I do with it.
So what’s the point?
Just yet another reminder and realization that cosmically speaking, I don’t own anything. Sure, in this culture, in this world, failing to own is a mistake, a shortcoming in need of correction with the accumulation of stuff. But as I look around at my cosy apartment that is, paradoxically, full of stuff for my convenience, I know that it is by the grace of Yahweh that I get to enjoy these comforts. But then I have to ask myself: how am I handling whatever property He lends me? How can I maximize the good that can come out of this property? I know I’m not. One way I know I’m not is because there’s stuff here at all. Stuff I don’t need, don’t even want, but here it sits. I also know I don’t maximize my property because I do constantly think of it as my property. And really, isn’t it? That was my money, after all, that I exchanged for it. No, not even that was mine. Well, gosh. Guess my body really is all that is mine and mine alone.
HA! Not even close.
So I also want to practice more letting go of the stuff. God isn’t enabling my comfort out of some sense of obligation to the poor mortal girl so that she knows He’s a good god. Just like the earth owes us nothing, neither does the deity. While I figure out how to divorce myself from the idea of ‘stuff accumulation,’ I do think it’s fair to develop a sense of stewardship and generosity of things even while feeling like I own them. (Gotta start somewhere!) I hesitate to even type this, but I think that I do give time/things when I’m made aware of the need more times than I fail to, but stepping up the game is always a better idea. I also think that generosity does not mean being foolish or sloppy in giving. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope my heart is changed sooner than later if I am, but I don’t want to be the type of steward who throws money and quick fixes at a problem. Anyway, that’s a separate post.
The real question is, will Y ever let go and share??