Jones’s fifth chapter, “The Way of Sharing,” calls Christians to a life of bounteous, exuberant generosity, but one which goes beyond the pale, stingy virtue that we tend to think of as “generosity” or “charity.” Too many of us complacently accumulate vast possessions and then give out of our excess, secretly congratulating ourselves on giving up something that we are entitled to, and making sure (subtly, to be sure) that the recipient knows we have made a sacrifice. It is not hard to see that this is not a Biblical model of generosity. Instead, we are called to transcend the opposition between “mine” and “yours,” to be people of whom it might be said, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32) Rather than saying, “This is all mine, but I will deign to give some to you,” we should learn to say, “This is yours, for you have need of it.” That much, I would agree with Jones, seems clear from the Biblical testimony; and yet this is a subject sorely fraught with confusions and tensions. Immediately, in our post-Cold War world, our thoughts go to that perennial bogeyman, “Communism,” and its shadowy sidekick, “Socialism.” Does “sharing” mean giving up private property altogether, and holding all things in common? we worry. And what, after all, is it that we’re being condemned for—is it sheer abundance of material things, wealth as such? Or is it some people having more than other people—is inequality as such a problem? Or is it just some people having too much while others suffer in need—inequality in the face of indigence? Usually people mean the last of these three, but sound like (or are heard as if) they mean the first or the second.
To be sure, some of our difficulty in thinking clearly about wealth results simply from our greed and unhealthy attachments, our bondage to Mammon, as Jones would describe it. But part of our difficulty rests with the legal/ethical/political concept of property that we have inherited in our culture, in which the concept of property ownership is almost entirely private and individual. Think about it. Even when we in America think about public property, we have to reify “the government” as a unitary agent, one which “possesses” the property in a way analogous to private ownership; but historically, public property is supposed to be property which we all own, and administer through trustees—government officials. To possess property means to have complete power of disposition over it, sole entitlement to its use and its fruits, to the extent that no other party may make any use of it except by your express consent, consent that can be always withdrawn. So engrained is this concept of absolute private property that we re-read Old Testament laws like the “law of gleaning” as if they were merely recommendations to individual landowners to offer such consent to give up some of their property for the use of the poor. We can’t imagine that such “laws” were actually laws, and did what they purported to do—namely, describe a prior right to the partial use of land, which conditioned and limited the scope of the landowner’s property rights over it.
I am increasingly convinced that this is a largely modern, but more precisely, a largely American confusion. Most cultures have always understood that property rights, far from comprising one indivisible bundle of inalienable absolute powers, consisted of a bundle of different rights and obligations regarding the disposition of a piece of property, some of which belonged to the property owner, others to the state, others to the society at large. Since rights of property ownership are defined by law, this means that law—the instrument of the commonweal—always has a determining interest in the scope and exercise of property rights.
If it seems that I am wondering off into an irrelevant disquisition in political philosophy, let me bring this back to the matter at hand. Jones clearly recognizes the problem in our contemporary American concept of “absolute property”—indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to the subject later on (ch. 15), which it may be helpful to read alongside his discussion of “the way of sharing.” The problem with this notion, he says, is that it does not take seriously the fact, to which we will all give lipservice when pressed, that God alone is the true owner of our possessions: “In short, the Lord banned any absolutistic notion of private property ownership. Only he was an absolute owner; no one else. The Lord owned the land, and everyone else used it with his permission and constraints” (64). He then outlines how the Jubilee laws, and other property laws in the Pentateuch, institutionalized this concept of derivative ownership by defining in advance limits to how far and how long land ownership could extend, and establishing rules for the equitable use of this land (e.g., the gleaning laws). I would warmly echo this whole line of argumentation, having written extensively on this subject myself (if you are interested in reading more, see for instance here and here, or for a systematic examination of the issue of private property, here and here and here).
But I worry that Jones seems to think that all of this is somehow dependent on faith; it is the response of the covenant people to their covenant Lord, who has shared generously with them and calls them to share likewise with one another. To be sure, faith—in the Creator God, the God of the Exodus—makes an important difference, as I will return to below. But the basic point—that property rights do not belong solely and absolutely to the individual owner (since he is only a secondary and derivative owner) but are limited by the rules of justice and the needs of society at large—has plenty of analogues beyond Scripture. Indeed, in a secular context, it has often taken the form of holding that the monarch alone is the ultimate owner, and private owners hold their property within certain limits, subject to the needs of the commonwealth. A friend from England explained to me that even today, Brits do not have nearly as absolutist and individualistic a concept of property as Americans do, because they have this concept of the Crown as the prior owner that conditions all other claims to ownership.
Why is this important? Well if it is indeed true that much of what Jones is saying about property has been considered by many thinkers and cultures intrinsic to the concept of property, then perhaps it is unhelpful to describe it as somehow part of the way of the cross. As I outlined in the previous installment, it seems to matter very much how we classify these things; if we describe as the way of the cross things that are in fact simply the way of being human then we risk a sort of Manichaeanism, and we risk replacing the motive of gratitude with a motive of guilt. Jones is obviously very keen not to do either of these things in this chapter—see e.g. page 62: “The way of sharing is not about resentment and a reluctant parting with our things. The way of sharing asks us to imagine a world in which people become more human, more divine without the encumbrances of possessions. It is a world of great freedom and joy.” And yet the chapter struggles to hold together this vision with clarity and consistency (indeed, we may ask already what it means to be rid of the “encumbrances of possessions”), and I suspect that this lack of a foundational natural-law concept of property is the culprit. Some of what Jones is describing under the heading of “the way of sharing” might be part of the way of the cross, a self-denying act of renunciation to destroy the bondage of sin, but other parts might simply be good common sense, or simply what it means to live as a created being. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a Christian makes no difference, but the difference is to radicalize and re-orient that which we ought already to know is the case.
Common sense ought to tell us that none of us can be absolute, individualistic property owners because we are all dependent upon one another, and upon society as a whole, including its legal and governmental structures, to live, prosper, and acquire and administer property. (To be sure, in very rare conditions of frontier life in completely virgin territory, these dependencies are dramatically attenuated, but such conditions do not last long, and are almost nowhere to be found anymore today.) It only makes sense then to acknowledge certain prior claims of others and of society as a whole on what we have. To know ourselves as created beings (something I would argue most of us partially know instinctively, but which is fully revealed to us as followers of Scripture) is to radicalize this sense of dependence—to realize that quite simply everything we are and have is a gift of God, and a gift not given to each of us alone, but equally to the whole human race, so that no claim of mine upon the fruits of the earth can be maintained in a way prejudicial to the life and well-being of others. To know ourselves as redeemed beings adds perhaps nothing of substance to this prior fact of utter dependency, but drives it home all the more strongly, provoking more irresistibly the motive of gratitude; it also establishes a sub-community of the human race—the church—within which we may particularly focus our work of sharing, though ultimately we should seek to extend this to the whole human race.
Accordingly, when Jones begins his narrative of “the way of sharing” with the Exodus, rather than in Creation, he is beginning in medias res. This may be a mere oversight, but has major consequences, which undermine, I think, what Jones is trying to do. By starting with the Exodus, in which “the Lord tried to turn his people away from the seduction of Mammon-Egypt, [and] led them through the self-denial time in the wilderness” (63) he treats the way of sharing, again, not as a response to the bounty of creation, not as part of what it means to be more human, but as a response to the problem of greed. The result is that he has trouble explaining why property is not a bad thing. Property appears on the scene in this narrative as the privatization of this world’s goods that Mammon tempts us to, and the laws governing the use of property that appear in the Pentateuch are there “to ensure that Israel could not turn into a Mammon society” (64). Of course, he doesn’t seem to think property is necessarily a bad thing, since he says “The Lord banned any absolutistic notion of private property ownership”; presumably to speak of an “absolutistic notion of private property” implies that there are other notions, other ways of holding private property. So what are they?
This is one of the points at which I think that the apparent lack of historical awareness weakens Jones’s argument in this book. Christian ethics has in fact wrestled long and hard with the problem of property and God’s call to share. But for the tradition, the problem was almost always couched in terms of creation. It seemed clear that God had created the world for the common use of all mankind. The resources of the earth, beginning paradigmatically with food (Gen. 1:29) were given by God as a gift to sustain the lives of his image-bearers, to enable them to rule his good creation. But since all human beings are equally his image-bearers, the bounty of creation belongs equally to all; none can make a claim upon it that would exclude others from their share. The world was there to be shared; that much seemed obvious to Christian ethicists from Genesis 1. What then are we to think of private property? Is it intrinsically sinful, an attempt to make an exclusive claim upon that which is common? A few radicals said so. Or is it perhaps not itself sinful, but a regrettable institution made necessary by sin? Some Christians took this line.
The best and most persuasive conclusion, though, was that offered by Thomas Aquinas (though he was not the first, and certainly not the last; rather, his was probably the standard Christian view through the later Middle Ages, Reformation, and early modern period). Aquinas distinguished between the right of private administration and the right of common use, and made the former subservient to the latter: private administration, private property, was the ordinary means by which we accomplished common use. This might seem strange and paradoxical at first, but consider the immaterial gifts that God gives to his people: he does not endow us equally with all the same gifts and talents, the same ingenuity, strength, discipline, etc., and yet we are each called to use our particular gifts and talents for the blessing and upbuilding of the whole human race. God gives us an ability, which we are not to hoard for our own benefit, but to put to use in dominion-taking for the benefit of all creation. It should be easy enough for us to realize that this is actually a better way to make sure everyone is blessed, than if God had given us all identical gifts; we would forever be getting in each others’ way, and fall to arguing over just what tasks should be carried out by whom. Private property works the same way—with the exception, of course, that God does not usually divide it up among people personally, but indirectly through his authorized means of human agreement and human law. We then gratefully receive what we have been given and put it to use for the common benefit of all (though of course, this includes ourselves; if we did not feed and clothe ourselves first, we wouldn’t be of much use to others), whether that means sharing it directly, as we must when confronted with those in urgent need, or else indirectly, by making its fruits available to others at a fair price.
If God has given you a house with space to spare, use it to bless others: show hospitality as much as possible, and maybe even let a needy family share your extra space for awhile. If God has given you a car, give rides to those who need them or if you can spare it, and someone needs it more, let someone borrow it, without being picky about being paid back for gas.
One helpful thing about this notion—the subordination of private administration to common use—was that it enabled Aquinas, and the Christian tradition, to integrate Biblical teaching on property with the philosophical and legal intuitions that could be found in many non-Christian cultures. Most cultures recognized that the community was prior to the individual, and the earth and its fruits were prior even to the community; accordingly, the ownership of portions of the earth and its fruits could be regulated by the community to ensure that the community as a whole could benefit. What Christianity sought to do was to root the relevant obligations in God, rather than the political community alone, thus doing away with the envious jostlings between private and public authorities, and clarifying the universal scope of the the duty to pursue common use. Needless to say, the Christian tradition did not understand the property justice pursued by political authorities and that pursued by Christians to be in intrinsic conflict (as Jones does, polemicizing against all state regulation of property justice as “Mammon solutions” that
have nothing to do with the church’s work (62, 196)).
Aquinas’s approach also helped achieve a balance between two extremes that seem to dominate a lot of contemporary discourse. On the one extreme, some will say that what matters is fundamentally internal, an attitude of appropriate detachment toward wealth, and a willingness to share if the need arises. From this standpoint, commands like those to the rich young ruler simply mean: “Be willing to give everything away, should God require it; meanwhile, use it as you please.” Jones rightly critiques this way of thinking, which is how many of us, whether explicitly or subconsciously, tend to interpret the parable. But on the other extreme, if what matters is an actual outward divestment of property, then we should take commands like that to the rich young ruler literally, which immediately runs into the quandary of non-universalizability: we couldn’t very well all sell everything we have and give it to the poor, because then the roles would simply be reversed. What the Thomistic approach calls for is a divestment from possessions, but not necessarily from property. That is to say, it calls for us to stop treating the property which we have been given to administer as simply our own, but to think of it as a gift to use for the common good. To this extent, it sounds a bit like the internal extreme just mentioned, though with a more rigor; but it entails tangible external consequences. For example, it means that those in desperate need have a genuine right to what they need for their basic sustenance. Aquinas, and the whole tradition after him (indeed, up to and including Locke) argued that the Jean Valjean type of thief, the one who steals a loaf of bread when in desperate hunger, isn’t a thief at all, and shouldn’t be prosecuted; indeed, anyone who consciously withholds bread from him is a thief, even though it might be imprudent for the law to try to prosecute them as such. (For more on this, see here and here.)
Lacking the clarity provided by this distinction between administration and use, and the distinction between property and possessions, Jones seems to have some difficulty in this chapter trying to synthesize the various biblical teachings on property into a workable ethic.
He begins by rightly deploring readings of the story of the Rich Young Ruler that make him out to be some bizarre exceptional case, with no relevance to us, either because we really aren’t that wealthy (as Jones notes, we are in global terms) or because we’re not pathologically attached to our wealth in the way he surely was (Jones asks us to consider how many of us would have probably “gone away sorrowful” as well). So does that mean we need to take it literally and universally? Well, maybe not quite; mainly the command applies only so long as there are any Christian poor whose needs must be met. He quotes 1 John 3:17 and says, “In other words, we’re deceived about how happy God is with us, if we have yet to share enough to have no Christian poor” (62). Of course, this is still a pretty tall order. “The poor you will have always with you,” say both Deuteronomy and Jesus, and while Jones claims he is being softer than John, he actually seems to stretch John’s actual words in a couple important ways. What John actually says is “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” These are plenty convicting words; don’t get me wrong. In fact, for me personally, this has been the most challenging passage in the whole Bible. But it’s worth attending carefully to what John does and doesn’t say.
First, note that John focuses on the heart; he could’ve easily said, “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and refuses to share with him…” but he doesn’t. This is partly because mere sharing, without an open heart, is no good. But it is also because the actual business of sharing is quite complex. Are you supposed to feed the person every day, or give him enough money to feed himself for the next year, or give him a job, or train him in a marketable skill, or perhaps help him get in rehab to deal with his addictions before giving him things he doesn’t know how to use? My first instinct, when I moved to Edinburgh and found myself for the first time living in a city where I passed beggars every day, was to apply 1 John 3:17, and give at least something whenever I passed one, but the Christian homeless charities in the city actively advised against this. The beggars’ main issues were psychological and relational, with a good deal of substance abuse mixed in—not monetary. Accordingly, the best way to help was to refer them to a competent charity, and, if possible, to volunteer with that charity yourself. The key—and this, I assure you, was hard enough, after you’d passed enough beggars day after day—was, whatever you did, not to “shut up your heart against them.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that straightforward self-sacrificial giving is never called for; it often is, and we should beware the temptation to dismissively say, “Oh, it’s too complicated. Money won’t help,” and get ourselves off the hook.
Second, note that John says “and sees his brother in need.” This implies some kind of fairly direct contact—at the very least, that the needy person be within the horizon of your personal knowledge. Indeed, this is presupposed in speaking of “shutting up one’s heart”—you can’t shut up your heart to someone you don’t even know is in need. Had John said, “Whoever has this world’s goods, while there exists a brother in need, and fails to help him, how does the love of God abide in him?” this would be an intolerable burden on consciences. Of course, one can also shut up one’s heart by remaining willfully blind to needs, whether in one’s community or on the other side of the world. We should be actively educating ourselves about needs, and working to relieve them. But again, this will not necessarily involve simple redistribution. Systemic poverty, like that in much of Africa, cannot be solved merely by mailing checks. In any case, God calls us to spheres of responsibility—which for most of us means to work to meet needs first in our family, then our community, and then beyond it.
Having suggested that “the way of sharing” means “giving until all Christian needs are met,” Jones later implies again that it means complete renunciation. The rich aren’t supposed to give out of their excess, to support the ministries of the church; rather, he suggests, we are to be like the poor widow, who “put in all the livelihood that she had” (Luke 21:3). Jones comments, “She gave all, in the way the Rich Young Ruler had refused. We resist his words at that point. All? Isn’t that irresponsible? We qualify by running to other passages. But at some point we have to let Jesus’s words weigh on us, just hang there for a long time” (70-71). This is the sort of thing I worried about in the first installment of this series—the replacement of dialectic with rhetoric: it sounds like we aren’t supposed to stop and figure out what Jesus did and didn’t mean (which necessarily involves looking at the witness of the rest of Scripture), just to sit there and let the words “just hang there for a long time.” But in fact, Jones himself will shortly afterward “qualify by running to other passages”; he does not think we are all supposed to give all. Certainly he doesn’t think the desperately poor, near starvation, are to give all to support the rich temple priests, as this widow did—that would turn on its head everything he has said about these commands being addressed to the rich, for the sake of the poor! In fact, the best reading of this passage is to recognize it simply as a condemnation of the rich Pharisees, both because they prided themselves on their charity when really they were making little real sacrifice (and to this extent, Jones is reasonable to make use of it), and also because they had guilt-tripped the poor into giving what they could not afford to give.
In any case, on the very next page, Jones introduces the notion of “half.” Maybe, he says, we are supposed to give up half of what we own. His first citation isn’t nearly as precise as that: “John [the Baptist] answered by invoking the notion of half: ‘He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’ (Luke 3:11)” (72). The point is clearly meeting urgent needs when we encounter them, rather than giving half per se. The next few passages Jones cites say nothing about “halfness” as such, only the point, which we have already seen, that we have a duty to relieve the urgent physical needs of those we encounter; the only example of giving half that he cites is Zacchaeus. Jones then notes that Jesus did not insult him for not giving all; so, it would seem that we don’t need to take the command to the Rich Young Ruler universally, though Jones never says this straightforwardly.
Then, he goes on to offer still another model, one in which it is not so much about how much one gives, but about not considering your possessions your own, following the example of Acts 4. Among these Christians, he says, “no one claimed absolute private ownership of their goods” (73). This would seem to get us back to something like Aquinas’s notion, which would seem to be supported by 2 Cor. 8:13-14, which Jones also appeals to: “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.” In other words, when you have extra, and your brothers are in need, then you need to share, since the right of common use governs the right of private disposition. But in this same section, Jones seems to blur these, by suggesting that actual common ownership is the only way to do this right. After all, it worked for the monasteries, he says (73, see also 197). But then we will find him in chapter 15, “Absolute Property,” saying, “This rejection of absolute property rights also doesn’t require that all property is commonly owned. Reflecting the Trinity, a biblical understanding of property includes both communal and individual aspects. It doesn’t teach that all is held in common or that all is held individually. It precludes aspects of both” (195). Both communal and individual aspects—so maybe Jones doesn’t come down that far from the Thomistic view after all. But it remains less than clear quite what he’s aiming for, as his pronouncements seem to point in several different directions. The result, again, is my familiar complaint: readers are feeling their consciences burdened, but to no constructive end, because they’re confused about what they’re supposed to do. Are they supposed to give everything they have away? Go join a commune? Or just be much more conscious of the material blessings they do possess and the urgent needs with which they are surrounded?
It’s impossible to give a complete, one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, I’m convinced. Aquinas, and the long tradition he represents, don’t give us easy answers either. But at least they give us a coherent framework for reasoning toward an answer in our own circumstances. For some, this will mean holding onto most of the resources that God has given them, but seeking to actively use them for the benefit of others—say, use them to start a school, or a business that gives well-paying jobs to people who need them and supplies life-enriching products at fair prices to those who need them. For others, it will mean giving away things they don’t need, and trying to live more modestly. For some, it may mean joining an intentional community that shares possessions in common (while common ownership is not required for all, and will not be the norm, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it either, when it can be arranged to work well). For all, however, it means recognizing that everything we have has been given to us, and committing before God to use everything we have as a gift to bless those around us.
Note: This post represents the sixth installment in an ongoing series, beginning with an “Introduction” and “Overview of the Way of the Cross,” followed by examinations of “The Way of Weakness,” “The Way of Renunciation,” and “The Way of Deliverance.” Although originally projected to be twelve parts in total, I’m afraid the series is on pace to be even longer than that. In any case, given the great length of these posts, I will be taking a break for at least the next ten days before resuming the series, in order to give readers (and myself!) a chance to catch up.
 We will leave aside the various objections we might raise against such a facile appeal to the monasteries, and note only that the monasteries were only able to sustain an orderly form of common ownership for long periods was by a very strong hierarchy within the monastic communities and monastic orders. Few contemporary experiments in common property are enthused about that kind of hierarchy.