Themes / Bible & economy

But tenants in the land

Land & housing in the Bible

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters June 2010

 ‘A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.’ (Pr 13:23)

When I was in Cambodia last year, I visited a community that was being turned upside down by land conflict. Since 2006 they had seen large swathes of its land given over, without compensation, to commercial agribusiness companies producing export crops, such as teak, rubber and cassava. One woman, Bon Kiet, explained to me that ten years ago their lives had been ‘easy’ – they had enough. Now her family lived on the very edge of survival.

Chris Baker-Evens discusses this struggle over land in Cambodia in more detail in his article in this edition, however in many ways the struggle over land is really a struggle which is generic to human history. In fact I am firmly convinced that issues of land and housing lie at the structural core of injustice of poverty in human societies throughout history, across the globe.

 It is not surprising then, that the Bible has quite a bit to say about how we relate to land. As usual, there is far more to be explored than can be undertaken here, so I will try to draw out some key principles, in the hope that we will get to explore the interesting detail in later editions.

The foundational claim of the Bible in relation to land is that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ (Ps 24:1). This is more than a worshipful reflection that God is the creator of all things; it is expresses a profound conviction that ultimate ownership of land can only reside in only one place, with God. In Leviticus 25, this notion is stated more forcefully: ‘the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (v.24). The implications of this are many. If we claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus as our God, then we must also acknowledge that we are his tenants, and that there are conditions upon our tenancy. So what are the conditions?

 The first condition is to care for the land. In Genesis chapter 2 Adam is placed in the garden, and his stated purpose there is commonly translated in our Bibles as ‘to till it and to keep it’ (v.15). This is a nice image, but it does not do justice to the fullness of the responsibility being given Adam. Firstly, the Hebrew word which we have translated as ‘to till’ is not an agricultural term at all; it is a verb which more accurately translates as ‘to work’, with the normal meaning of ‘to work for’, as a servant works for a master – it implies service. The second word can correctly be translated as ‘to keep’, but the same word is more frequently translated in the Old Testament as ‘to observe’, with the twin meanings of taking note and understanding (eg. Ps 107:43), and also of observing God’s law (eg. Ex 31:13 – ‘You shall observe the Sabbath’) or the dictates of justice (eg. Isa 56:1). Thus, the fullness of our responsibility to the land is significantly elevated if we translate the assignment of Gen 2:15 as ‘to serve and observe it’; that is, to work for its good, to understand its ecology and to abide by its limits.

This ancient concern for ecological stewardship is further reinforced by the repeated commandments that every seventh year the land itself must have a Sabbath: ‘you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard … it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.’ (Lev 25:4-5). Significantly, the concern expressed here is not just for the productive land that serves humans, but also for the food supply of ‘all the wild animals in your land’ (v.7).

The second condition of our tenancy on God’s earth, is that everyone has their place, and that this is the foundation of justice in human relations. The vision of land ownership in the Torah, and re-inforced in the prophets, is one of widespread access to land. Isaiah is famously scathing about those accumulate land to themselves:

                ‘Ah, you who join house to house,

                who add field to field,

                until there is room for no one but you,

                and you are left alone in the midst of the land.’ (Isa 5:8)

The inspirational vision of a world made right in Micah chapter 4 is concluded with a beautiful picture of everyone having a place in the land: ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid’ (v.4).

The importance of everyone having a place in the land to the functioning of healthy and just society is what underpins perhaps the most radical program of social justice in the Old Testament: the Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25. In this startling set of laws, Israel is called every fiftieth year to reset the clock on social inequity and redistribute all land back to its ancestral owners. The legal principle here is that when land is sold, what is sold in not actually the land itself (it cannot be, for it belongs to God), but the right to raise crops from it for a certain number of years. (Interestingly, the Hebrew conception of ‘ancestral land’ is much closer to the Aboriginal outlook than our own. In this outlook, it is truer to say that ‘The land owns me’, rather than ‘I own the land’.)

This leads us to consider another important aspect of how the Old Testament connects  land and justice, and that is through the very way in which property rights are conceived. While the Torah certainly does recognise and protect property rights, the ideas about what someone can do with their own property, are by our standards, severely restricted. Thus the gleanings laws of Leviticus 19 (vv.9-10), state that a person should not harvest to edge of their land, pickup the fallen sheaves or strip their vineyard bare of grapes, because these are effectively the property of ‘the poor and the alien’. This says that rights to property, especially in land, are not absolute, and that others, especially ‘the poor’, have a claim on them. Why? Because, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (v.10): the landlord says so.

The New Testament has comparatively much less to say about land, but what it does say targets our conceptions of property rights, and is even more challenging than the ideas found in the Hebrew law. Two stories in particular are instructive.

In a little considered passage in Luke’s gospel (Ch 12:13-15), Jesus refuses to enter into a dispute over property rights (‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’.) While to the petitioner this may have seemed an issues of justice, to Jesus it was an insoluble conflict between two people with competing claims of ‘rights’. Jesus’ response cuts to the heart of the issue: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed’ (v.15). The only way forward in this conflict was for both parties to give up their own sense of claim (‘greed’) for a broader sense of the common good that encompasses both parties.

In a much more famous, and seemingly unconnected story, Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit-filled Jerusalem community in Acts chapters 2 and 4 pushes further the issues of our attitudes to property rights. Acts 2 begins with a ‘distribution’ of the Holy Spirit amongst the community of believers (v.3 – the Greek word often translated ‘divided’ is better translated ‘distributed’ and is only used twice in the whole Bible, both times in this chapter!) and ends with a ‘distribution’ of goods within the community, ‘to all, as had any need’ (v.45). Importantly, the text stresses that this action was entirely voluntary; there was no compulsion or expectation that people should do this. But what happened with the filling of the Holy Spirit was a transformation of attitude, made explicit in chapter 4 – ‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions’ (v.32).

If we are not yet convinced that Christian discipleship requires a serious revision of our attitudes to property, let us simply recall Jesus’ unqualified statement in Luke 14: ‘So therefore, none you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions’ (v.33).

So what does all of this mean for us in Australia in 2010? I attempt to give a personal reflection on this in another article in thise edition (Reflections of an urban renter), but here I want to draw our attention to some broader issues of our context.

If we want to bring a Biblical perspective to bear on own conduct around issues around land and housing, we need to be clear about where we are starting from, and in Australia that means facing up to three very difficult facts:

  1. Our whole economy and way of life is founded upon an original act of dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants of the land, and this has been and remains catastrophic for their culture and society. What has been done cannot now be undone, but justice demands some restitution beyond words and welfare. I personally have very little idea of what this should mean practically (this would surely make a good subject for a future Manna Matters contribution), but at the very least non-indigenous Australians should recognise that our claim to the land is not unproblematic; this should attenuate our claims of ‘rights’ to property and increase our sense of responsibility as stewards over any land we currently find ourselves occupying (whether owning or renting), including our responsibilities to the whole community.
  2. Since European occupation we have ecologically trashed the land. The speed with which we have transformed the soils, rivers and forests of a whole continent is truly a testament to modern civilisation. Those of us who are city dwellers should not be too quick to condemn the farmers and miners – it is we who have demanded such vast quantities of food and resources so cheaply.
  3. Not only do the ancestral owners of the land no longer have a place in the land, now a very large portion of our urban population are struggling to find a place that can be home. Chris Newland discusses the housing affordability crisis in his article in this edition, however it is fundamentally related to our treatment of property as a private commodity without any view of broader community obligations.

To cut a long story short, if our two fundamental responsibilities in relation to land are to care for the land and to ensure that everyone has a place, we are not doing so well.