Dr. Presian Burroughs, Assistant Professor of New Testament, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio
Article XV (Confession of Faith) — The Christian and Property
We believe God is the owner of all things and that the individual holding of property is lawful and is a sacred trust under God. Private property is to be used for the manifestation of Christian love and liberality, and to support the Church’s mission in the world. All forms of property, whether private, corporate or public, are to be held in solemn trust and used responsibly for human good under the sovereignty of God.
As I sit down to begin this short essay on private property, my husband – at this very moment – is walking with an inspector through a home we’re attempting to buy. I was in Ohio a month ago, looking at houses for our move to United Theological Seminary; now, at last, we have a home under contract. This endeavor has brought countless, often competing, factors into play: location, cost, space, neighborhood, school district… Housing costs or school district options might compete with proximity to work. Proximity to work might compete with the desire for a yard, a spacious home, or an attractive neighborhood. These are just a few of the factors people of all creeds consider when facing the privilege and the challenge of purchasing property. But what of Christian values, the imperative to seek social justice, and the call to ecological justice? Does Christian theology direct us to particular properties and particular uses of property?
As those who follow Jesus, the Galilean man who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58; all quotations from NRSV), we may question whether we ought even to countenance “private property.” We confess: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1), yet Jesus the Lord chose not to invest his time and energy into his earthly family’s business and property as the firstborn and heir. He followed his Heavenly Father’s call to a peripatetic life of little property. What are we to make of this? When we recall that Jesus enjoyed the hospitality of others during his sojourn, we realize that he also depended on their property. Two concepts here beg for more attention: property and dependence.
Property, as traditionally used in Western society, includes all land, natural resources (minerals, water, etc.), machines, implements, shelters, animals, and plants in the possession of a person or group. “Private property” confers legal “rights” upon an individual (or group of people) to these particular parcels of creation and restrains the legal “rights” of others in seizing them. From this depiction of property, and in view of our confession of faith, two problems arise. First, this language of “rights” puts the entire focus upon humans and their institutions, distracting us from God the Creator’s involvement in the world; in light of Article XV, discussion of human “rights” may sideline the sovereignty of God. Second, the demarcation between what is “mine” and what is “yours” becomes fuzzy especially when we consider certain resources, such as air and water. What I do with “my” property affects the quality of air and water that flows into “your” property, and vice versa. No matter how high we build our security fences, my activity affects you and the rest of the world. The language of “rights,” therefore, encounters extreme difficulty in capturing these complexities and remains insufficient for reflecting our humble stance before the true Lord of creation.
In fact, Article XV makes no mention of “rights” but employs the far less common—and yet, I would argue, far more appropriate—phrase “sacred trust.” Property is provided to us as a sacred trust, as gifts of creation from the Creator. The language of “sacred trust” directs our human gaze away from our “rights” and “property” to our Creator’s prerogative in the world. But what, we might ask, is that prerogative?
Although we humans may not like to admit it, part of the Creator’s prerogative seems to be our dependence on, even our interdependence with, the rest of the creation. As embodied creatures we depend upon the earth. We must have water, food, air, and sufficient shelter. Humans inhabit particular parcels of land in order to secure these resources for themselves, their families, and their tribes. In so doing, they compete with each other and other living things for “natural resources.” This competition—or, more ideally, this fellowship, sharing, koinonia—appears to be God’s intention for creation. As indicated in Genesis 1:29-30, God created the earth in such a way as to provide nourishment for humans and all other living creatures: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” Plants must have enough land, nutrients, sunlight, and water to provide adequately for all of creation’s animated creatures. Homo sapiens, “wise humans,” have the responsibility—the sacred trust—to restrain their activities in ways that ensure the flourishing of creation. This means caring not only for ourselves but also for the health of plants, microorganisms, and natural weather and nutrient cycles on which we all depend. God entrusts us at least not to diminish this global, creation-wide health. Unfortunately, our actions and our use of private property often contribute to just such diminishment. As one study has found, “[t]he earth’s total primary plant growth (the annual output as it would be sustained by natural ecosystems) is reduced by 40 percent through human activity, both direct consumption (for food, building, etc.) and activities that inhibit plant growth (such as paving roads and parking lots).”
In light of this wider, more ecological, sense of sacred trust, we might think of revising the final sentence of Article XV, which currently states that property is “to be held in solemn trust and used responsibly for human good under the sovereignty of God.” Human good is not the only good to be pursued. While some may argue that the wellbeing of nonhuman creatures is assumed within the notion of human good, history teaches that people too easily overlook and forget the good of all creation. “Wise” humans, Homo sapiens, clearly find it challenging to support the flourishing of nonhuman creation, especially when their own “good,” whether economic gain, pleasure, or ease, seems at odds with the good of the entire ecosphere. We as selfish and short-sighted human beings—might I say, Homo ambitiosus—need frequent reminders that property is “to be held in solemn trust and used responsibly for the good of humanity and all creation under the sovereignty of God.”
 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture : An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 53-54.