Possessed by Christ

In discourse on Christian ethics and property rights, it is conventional for Christian defenders of private property rights to add as a caveat, almost as an afterthought, that of course, we do not strictly speaking own our property, but hold it in trust from God, as stewards of that which is His.  If we can so evacuate such a revolutionary proposition and render it an ineffectual afterthought, this suggests that we have lost the ethical imagination to think seriously about what the concept of ownership implies and requires.  This may, as Joan Lockwood O’Donovan suggests in a profound and provocative essay, “Christian Platonism and Non-Proprietary Community,” have something to do with our modern capitulation to the concept of self-ownership.  

It is often forgotten, perhaps, that most concepts of private property rights as natural rights (as opposed to being a political right, a “social construct”) depend on a prior commitment to the notion of self-ownership.  The well-known Lockean argument goes something like this: every man has an absolute and inalienable right of ownership over his own person and its powers, which includes his labor powers.  Therefore, if he conjoins part of the external world to his person, by “mixing his labor” with it, then he acquires similar ownership rights over that property.  Other approaches, of course, have been suggested, which try to get around the fuzziness of the idea of “mixing one’s labor,” but most still presuppose this notion of self-ownership.  The irony in this, of course, is that in arguing for private property, the concept is itself presupposed, and applied already to one’s own person.  Locke, you see, has already assumed the concept of private ownership, then applied its content to one’s relation to oneself, assuming that this should be considered as a proprietary relation, and then, having constructed this premise out of the conclusion he wishes to argue for, he goes on to generate his conclusion out of the premise–if I am my own property, then other things can be my property. 

Indeed, O’Donovan suggests in her essay that this proprietary concept of individual personhood underlies the entire edifice of modern rights-discourse, so that we are confronted at every turn by the competing claims of individuals that, by virtue of being able to lay exclusive claim to themselves and that which closely pertains to them, can make a plethora of claims upon others: “all natural rights, at least in the Western political tradition, originate in property right, so that to reject property right is to reject natural or fundamental rights as such.  Indeed, the whole panoply of modern rights (including what are called ‘entitlements’) has sprung historically from the attribution to humankind of two radical proprietary rights: firstly, an original or natural proprietary right over the non-human goods of creation, and secondarily, the person’s natural right to dispose of his own acts (i.e., his right of freedom), which came to be explicitly construed as a form of proprietorship.  From these radical proprietary rights has evolved the proprietary subject who seeks to dominate his moral and natural environments not only by protecting what he already possesses against any and every other possessor, but by demanding what he does not yet possess as an entitlement that is entailed in his original proprietorship.”  She goes on to describe the resulting degeneration of society into a unending competition between self-possessing wills, a war of all against all vainly adjudicated by an ever larger and more overtaxed army of governmental referees.  This whole nexus of rights, though, into which most contemporary theologians have heavily invested, depends on a theologically problematic foundation–the notion of self-ownership.  

Again, we often hear in church-speak about how we are not our own but Christ’s, but rarely, I think, do we consider just what all this might mean.  In her essay, O’Donovan seeks to shed new critical light on this assumption by turning back seven centuries to the 13th- and 14th-century Franciscan disputes about property.  For here the question was not merely about the legitimacy of private property, but about whether human creatures, and particularly Christians, could rightly posit any kind of property rights.  And in making their case for a negative answer, St. Bonaventure and John Wycliffe both drew heavily on Augustinian critiques of the notion of self-ownership.  

For Augustine, indeed, the notion of such a privatized self was the root of all sin:

“Augustine conceived the disordered love of the soul as the privatization of good, in that it entails the soul’s turning away from the ‘universal common good’ to its ‘private good,’ that is, to itself as privately possessed.  Pride, ‘which is the beginning of all sin,’ he defined as the soul’s delighting in its powers ‘to excess,’ as if ‘there were no God’ and so it were the source and owner of them.  From pride flows avarice, for the soul that wills to hae its powers from itself loves all other beings excessively, as required by the aggrandizement of its private possessions, and therein misuses them.  In the body politic, disordered love is the destruction of community, of the bonum commune, because it involves radical loss of the shared spiritual possession of being, meaning, and value.”

Likewise, Bonaventure

“followed Augustine in discerning the intimate relationship between the sins of covetousness and pride in the disordered love of the soul: that the soul’s excessive love of other beings and things, its consuming will to possess them, is always in order to aggrandize its powers as privately possessed, as belonging exclusively to itself rather than to God; the coveting soul apprehends, wills, and desires itself, other selves and things, not according to their divinely ordained being, meaning, and worth, but according to an arbitrary measure reflecting its inflated self-love.”

If a selfish claim that I am my own property is linked to the selfish claim to own my own property outside of myself, what is the solution?  We must renounce the latter as a sign of and an aid to our renunciation of the former:

“the renunciation of proprietary right as well as even transient wealth was an efficacious sign that the apostolic wayfarer is not a self-possessor, not a proprietor of his physical powers, but rather is possessed by Christ, receiving immediately from Him all the good that he is, has, and does.  The external sign is efficacious because it both manifests and reinforces the self-surrender of the individual will to Christ’s.  At the same time, by maximixing the disciple’s dependence for his daily necessities on other (human and non-human) creatures and minimizing his control over them, the discipline trains his spirit in receiving the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world as Christ’s gift, and in responding to the generosity of its giver.” 

Such an approach, then, leads us not only to become mindful again of our dependence on God who cannot be seen, but on one another, who can be seen.  In the extension of the Franciscan argument by Richard FitzRalph and John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, particular stress was laid on the relationship of sharing between God and man and thus between man and man–man’s very being depended on a sharing in the gift of divine being, his spiritual life existed by virtue of a sharing in the life of Christ, and so too then did his physical dominion exist only as a sharing in God’s dominion.  God is the original owner of all things, and he does not so much delegate this ownership to man as a steward or yield it to him in trust, but loans it to him “as an imperfect, derivative, and dependent reflection of God’s own, and so, a communicating and communicable possession and use of things according to rational necessity.”  As our participation in Christ’s grace is a corporate one, so is our participation in his lordship over material things: “There is a parallel in Wycliffe’s thought between the principal human act of communicating spiritual dominion, namely, drawing others into the revelation of God’s love and grace thorugh preaching, and the principal act of communicating physical dominion, namely, drawing others into the rational use of the same material goods.  In both cases the human act is merely instrumental to God’s own action.”


Now all of this sounds grand (well, to me at any rate), but can we really live this way?  Well no, we can’t all live that way just yet.  Bonaventure and Wycliffe are not perfectionists though–they both allow that while such a non-proprietary use of goods should be the calling of monastics and churchmen, most laymen will have observe merely a metaphorical renunciation, using their possessions righteously and charitably.  This may sound then like the modern Christian approach–of course we’re to own private property, just don’t forget that technically, it’s all God’s, so you need to use it in a godly fashion (and it’s generally up to you to decide what that means).  However, it’s not quite as safe and comfortable as that.  For while the modern Christian ethicist generally denies that “evangelical poverty” is right for anyone, and argues that all should be content with an “inner” surrender to Christ, a “willingness” to give everything up for Him if necessary, while never expecting to do so, these guys actually insisted that a large chunk of the Church literally live in such self-renunciation, as a perpetual witness to the church militant of what the church triumphant looked like; they refused to dissolve the tension between the already and the not-yet, and required a visible witness of the coming kingdom to keep the Christian of the earthly kingdom from getting complacent.  

I will return to this in a moment–for now, let us revisit the original quesiton of human rights–if the assertation of “rights” is always an appeal to a self-proprietorship that the Christian denies, then what are we to put in place of human rights?  After all, it would take quite a reactionary to deny all the good that has taken place as a result of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that have steadily expanded over the past few centuries.   

O’Donovan’s answer is eloquent and compelling:

“As we are possessed by Christ and receive ourselves from him, the central act of our willing is one of conforming to his will, of surrendering and going out of ourselves.  The self-transcending of our wills in obedience to Christ is preeminently our encounter with the Supreme Good as absolute claim on us, but also, in many cases, our encounter with lesser, created goods as existing prior to and independently of our willing….Of all creatures, but especially of human individuals, this ethic affirms that they are claims, not that they possess rights: as objects of God’s self-communication in Christ persons are claims upon the wills of one another.  Each, in conforming his/her will to Christ’s, recognizes and responds to the claim that the other is.  Each, in obedience to Christ’s law of love, fulfills the demands of justice, but not the demands of one another.”  

Now, that, my friends, is hot stuff. 

But since O’Donovan goes on to point out that on this account such a non-proprietary ethic depends first on redemption in Christ–e.g., it cannot very well become an ethic for the world–then how, to return to the question above, do we relate this evangelical ethic to life in the world–how, to ask the eternal question of political theology, do we relate the action of the church to the action of civil society?  They must be distinguished, says O’Donovan–indeed, it is the failure to do so that has been the depressing legacy of liberal Christianity. 

“The perennial truth of his [Wycliffe’s] ecclesiology is that the community of faith is bound to a more exact and complete conformity to Christ’s evangelical law of love than the civil community; that the church polity, ruled immediately by the Spirit of Christ, constitutes a more perfect common good an fabric of relationships than the civil polity.  So we may conclude that even if the civil polity were properly constituted as a system of proprietary, civil, political, and social ‘rights,’ the church’s essential action would still embody the non-proprietary dominium of self-surrendering love.”

O’Donovan thus concludes with this damning indictment of the modern development:

“The modern tradition of natural rights, which has universalized property right into an original and permanent ethical datum of humanity, is a further phase of theological naturalism, at least on the lips of theologians.  In so elevating a restraining institution of civil society, the concept of natural rights blurs the distinction between civil and eschatological community, concealing both the remoteness and the proximity in their relationship.  Consequently, instead of allowing civil society to be opened up by the Holy Spirit to the demands and reality of evangelical community, this concept closes civil society to those demands and that reality, enveloping it in sinful complacency.  The effects of this closing can only be deleterious for both civil and ecclesial communities; for from the unlimited proprietary powers of sovereign subjects spring a morality that is at once lawless and legalistic, a culture at once Manichaean and materialistic, and a society of contractual relationships at once precarious and potentially totalitarian.”

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