My Property Is Worth More Than Your Life

Two court decisions have reminded us of the growing cult of property. In Texas a man was acquitted after killing a prostitute who left with his money but did not have sex with him. It was ruled that she was stealing his property so he was justified in using deadly force to recover his $150. In Florida, stand your ground laws were interpreted to mean that one can follow a ‘suspicious character,’ and instead of backing down and calling law enforcement, one can use deadly force if one feels threatened. In both these rulings we see at work a culture that values property more than life. Both defendants could have walked away and contacted law enforcement, but instead applied deadly force in defense of ‘their ground’ and his money.

This fixation on property is disturbing, and is entirely unjustified from a Christian point of view. You see, for Christians, all the property belongs to God, and we are just stewards. Property is a convenient and practical institution. It helps economic growth and encourages personal responsibility. But it’s not more important than life!

The early church didn’t even think property was more important than poverty.  The Didache, an early collection of Christian teachings says to “Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.’ If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last.”

St. Basil of Caesarea (330-370 A.D.) puts it more evocatively:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

St. Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to suggest that in cases of extreme hunger the hungry are justified in taking another persons property, because the right of private property is subservient to God’s desire for us to steward Creation in such a way that all are fed. Let me quote Summa Theologica at length (II-II Q. 66 A.7):

…whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

I’ve written before on the Bible and economics, which continues the theme of God’s ultimate ownership and structuring society to avoid poverty and inequality. Our laws and courts have decided that property is more important than life. That’s not a society that  values life, and it’s not one that is paying attention to the life of Jesus. Perhaps the most distressing part about this all is that it’s largely Christians supporting this absolutist definition of private property. It’s not that private property is bad, as Reinhold Neibuhr points out, the mistake of communism was to project the bad tendencies of human beings onto private property and to think that by eliminating private property we could eliminate greed and the power struggle. Communism instead concentrated power in the hands of a few and led to disaster. Property is important, but it needs to be placed in context. Your property is not worth someone else’s life.

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