Justifying Private Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 6)

I will warn you–this post is a doozy.  Even by the preposterously lengthy standards of my posts for the past three weeks or so.  But as thoroughness is intrinsic to what I’m trying to do here, I’m not sure of any way around it.  The long and arduous trek, however, does yield some real fruit at the end (or at least I think it does…it’s quite possible I’ve taken a wrong turn on the way there, in which case the fruit will probably end up being rotten, and I rely on any readers to tell me if this is so).  If you’re the impatient sort, you could just scroll to the bottom for the interesting bits, and see if they make any sense out of context.

Having explored in the last segment a range of possible accounts of the origin of private property, I will here attempt to categorize the different kinds of justification arguments for private property.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that I will survey different answers to the question, “What is the ethical status of private property?”  I will look at nine answers, each of which, I expect, has actually been espoused by a range of thinkers in history; although my grasp of the history is too poor to spell out examples properly, I will try to provide some indications where possible.  Also, there are several points at which the following taxonomy overlaps with or is susceptible of further sub-categorization in terms of the taxonomy I gave in the previous segment; I will try to take note of these connections at important points.

The classification here will be simpler than that of the previous post, with five main answers, two of which admit of three important subdivisions.  So, what is the intrinsic ethical status of private property?


The first and simplest answer is to refuse the question, to insist (1) that private property is an amoral institution, that the decision about what kind of property regime to enact must be based, if anything, on purely utilitarian or pragmatic considerations.  Private property can on this account never be more than a social construction, which human beings may introduce if they expect to gain more benefit from it, or abandon it if they see fit; and whatever they decide, no one can object on ethical grounds.  Historically, this would have been a very unusual answer indeed, and one that no serious political theorist (except perhaps the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes).  However, in modern times, with the breakdown of Christian and natural law ethics, utilitarianism and pragmatism have gained the ascendancy in most of ethical discourse, including property rights.  I’m inclined to say that the influence of Locke and our greedy desire to claim as high a status for “sacred” property rights as possible has prevented such amoralism from gaining as much influence in the issue of property as in most other questions, even among professional ethicists.  A majority still want to claim some intrinsic ethical status for private property, but not a large majority.


If we want, then, to attach an intrinsic ethical status to private property, the two most obvious are (2) to say that private property is simply wicked, or (3) to say that it is directly ordained and positively commanded by God, so that its absence is simply wicked.  These opposite extremes are fairly unusual, both historically and on the contemporary scene.  Regarding the former, Proudhon is probably its most notorious exponent, with his famous declaration that “property is theft,” a conviction shared by a number of modern communistic utopians (though not, I would venture, a large number; more have been historical materialists, like Marx himself, who considered private property to be a stage that must be transcended, and thus more obsolete than evil per se).   There have always been occasional communistic movements that have preached the absolute evil of private property, particularly in Christian history, but they have rarely gotten very far.  The latter extreme, of directly ordained private property, while rhetorically fairly common in our day and age among what I call “divine right capitalists” is, I think rarely seriously advocated.  To make this claim (at least in the sense I intend here), requires that one understand private property as having begun at creation, which as I explored in my previous post on property, is actually a rather difficult claim to coherently maintain.  This is quite distinct, I think, from arguing that private property was a natural, even a necessary, development within history.  We can make this claim and understand it to include some kind of divine authorization, but if we do, we are granting that private property had to come into being; it was not, as it were, part of what God looked down upon on the sixth day and said “it is very good.”


If we deny these two extremes, and that private property is simply amoral, we are left with a whole range of potentially viable options, in which private property is (or may be) legitimate, but is not self-authenticatingly so.  These can be grouped under two main headings: (4) “natural” (meaning here prelapsarian), and (5) “unnatural” (meaning here postlapsarian).  The term “unnatural” will require some brief elucidation before I continue.  I do not mean thereby “wrong”–in fact, some options I will explore under “unnatural” would hold PP to be positively right for us.  However, whereas “natural” understandings of PP regard it as a development that could or should lawfully have happened in man’s created state of innocence, “unnatural” understandings portray it as a development necessitated or caused by man’s fall into sinfulness.  This distinction runs very deep in the Christian ethical tradition, and parallels a similar (and in many ways, intimately related) disagreement over whether political authority would have existed in a state of innocence or only after the fall.  Clearly, a great deal hinges on the decision between these two main options; just as much, however, hinges on the decision between the various sub-options of each, to which we shall now turn.


So, if we take route (4) and say that private property is “natural,” what are we saying?  We are saying that it is part of what has traditionally been called “the natural law”–it is part of how humans are supposed, or at any rate allowed, to live; it is the proper, or at any rate a legitimate realization of man’s nature.  This category can make sense either in Christian or non-Christian conceptions, though clearly a Christian conception can make greater sense out of the category.  For a Christian, to say that private property is “natural” is to say that it was part of God’s preceptive will for mankind, or at any rate within the range of that will.  

Now you will notice already that I keep qualifying with “at any rate”–this shows you that I shall intend to show that “natural” does not necessarily mean commanded.  In his discussion of the “law of reason” (his term for the natural law), Richard Hooker argues that all things are not necessarily good or evil simpliciter–for “in goodnes…there is a latitude or extent, whereby it commeth to passe that even of good actions some are better then other some, whereas otherwise one man could not excell another.”  Hooker distinguishes between three ways in which the law of reason can bind, and I have adopted his threefold distinction as eminently useful for the task at hand.  The law of reason “is either mandatory, shewing what must be doone; or els permissive, declaring onely what may bee done; or thirdly admonitorie, opening what is the most convenient for us to doe.”  (I shall change the order in my discussion, treating the admonitory before the permissive).  The first applies in cases of simple good and evil–there is one thing that must be done, and to not do it would be evil; or there is one thing that must not be done, and to do it would be evil–these are moral absolutes like “thou shalt not murder.”  The second (in my order)–the admonitory–applies in cases where of various possible goods, one is exhorted to choose the most good; failure to do so may be blameworthy in some respect, but not altogether so.  Examples would be many decisions in parenting–questions of how to educate or discipline your child for instance–where there might be a best way to do it without all other ways being thereby wrong.  The third–the permissive–applies in cases where of many evils, we are allowed to choose the least evil, and not to be blamed therein.  An example might be killing in self-defence.  To kill, we might say, is never good, and yet in certain circumstances, it may be permitted to prevent the worse evil of one’s own innocent death.  (Obviously, this example is highly-disputed territory; I merely provide it as an example of how the logic of a permissive law of reason might work.)


If we apply this general paradigm to the question of property, what do we have?

Option 4A: Private property is mandated–although in the beginning, all things are common, this is merely a negative commonality (see previous PP post), and humans are required to realize the proper form of their social nature by developing private property relations.  A failure to do so would be unnatural, unsound, and wrong.

Option 4B: Private property is advisable–in the beginning, all things are common (whether negatively or positively construed), and it could remain so, but on the whole, the goods of mankind and the goods of creation are probably best to be accomplished by a private administration of property, so that a failure to so arrange things would be imprudent and likely blameworthy.

Option 4C: Private property is permitted–in the beginning, all things were common (again, either negatively or positively construed), but the inconveniences attending this arrangement are such that in many cases it would make more sense to enter into private property arrangements, so that one is not blameworthy for undertaking a private property distribution.  This is not in itself good, but it may be so as an alternative to the problems that might otherwise arise–as the “least evil” option.

Now, it is worth noting right away that Option 4C is a somewhat unstable one…it is hard to differentiate between Option 4B on the one hand and varietis of Option 5 on the other.  For when we talk about various evils among which private property must be understood as the least, we are clearly using “evil” metaphorically if we are talking of a prelapsarian condition, and if we are using it metaphorically, then it’s hard to see how we’re saying more than Option 4B–that is, that the absence of private property would imply various inconveniences or just be somehow less good.  However, I include it not only for the sake of logical symmetry (which is always nice), but because I think there is a difference of emphasis that is reflected here, and that can be discerned in various thinkers.  It’s a question of whether you lean toward saying that private property could very well have been instituted, but really need not have been, or whether you say that all things considered, it really should have been instituted, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary.  Aquinas’s theory of property, which I have discussed a fair bit before on this blog, is an eminent example of an Option 4B view.

If you take Option 4A, you are basically committed (unless you posit a change in the natural law, which no traditional ethicist could do) to saying that the initial state of commonality was one of negative commonality, negative commonality that must be resolved into private ownership.  This was our Option IIIA in the previous post, which admits, you may recall, of eight different sub-divisions.  Of these, only IIIA2d would be impossible here, for the ethicist who saw private property as a necessary natural institution.  Any of the others–a Lockean unilateral appropriation, or a division into private property by the consent and under certain constraints from the community (more along the lines of Grotius or Pufendorf, for instance).

Alternatively, if you take Options 4B or 4C, you could construe the original commonality either negatively or positively.   One could imagine an original positive commonality, only one that is capable of being changed (Option IIIB1 in the previous post).  But a negative commonality would make good sense, a commonality awaiting specification into stable property relations.  One could say then that a specification into private property relations would be admonished (4B) or permitted (4C), but a specification into a positively common property arrangement (Option IIIA2d in the previous post) would be possible.  It is unlikely, however, that if one accepted a development into private property under either 4B or 4C that one would consider such a development legitimate if appropriation occurred on a strictly unilateral basis.  After all, if one considered private property as to some extent optional, and considered common ownership of some kind as the original state, this would imply that the rights of the community precede those of the individual, and thus any private property distribution would be subject to some extent to the consent or oversight of the community.


Let’s turn then to consideration of the “unnatural” concepts of private property.  Remember that, as I said above, “unnatural” does not in this context mean “wrong”–it merely denotes the view that private property would not have developed in man’s natural, created state, but only as a result of the Fall (here I use theological language, but there are secular and pagan analogues) .  The views I shall consider here do not, unlike Option 3, consider private property therefore to be in itself wicked; it is, we might say, like the death penalty.  Of course, that is another hotly-debated subject, but most of that debate (for Christian ethicists at least) would fall within the same sort of range I shall explore below, and so this will provide a helpful analogy.  The death penalty is clearly a result of the Fall, but is not therefore in itself evil; rather, it is in principle a legitimate (some would say necessary) response to the conditions introduced into society by the fall.  It is a remedial institution–remedial for wickedness, not merely inconvenience–and that is how most of the Christian tradition up until Aquinas understood private property.  Here again there are three main options, again classifiable in Hooker’s categories.

Option 5A: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is required.  There is simply no other way to administer a world ruled by competing wills, and so property must be divided up this way.  Failure to do so is hopelessly utopian, doomed to failure, and in fact a wicked attempt to deny the order God has required for dealing with man’s fallen nature.

Option 5B: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is advisable.  It is certainly possible to administer property in common, even in a sinful world, but it is very difficult, prone to fall apart when confronted with human greed and laziness.  We are thus admonished that private property is now the best way to proceed, though we are not forbidden to look for ways to make other arrangements work.

Option 5C: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is permitted.  It is still not ideal, to be sure, but it may often be the only way to proceed.  Individuals or societies that administer their resources in this way are not therefore blameworthy, but one may well want to try other arrangements, despite the difficulties attending of common property in a sinful world.  

How do Option 5 views relate to the various accounts of the origin of private property, given in the previous post?  Well, again there is no one-to-one correspondence.  If one believes that the Fall introduced serious tensions into a pre-existing condition of common ownership (a condition obviously somewhat hypothetical if we are talking about only Adam and Eve), then this could make sense whether that condition were construed negatively or positively.  If negatively, one might well say that in the state of innocence, each man would simply take from nature what he needed, without overly trespassing on what his neighbor needed, but sin introduced a greediness to take at the expense of others, that required (or at any rate invited) the remedy of a clear enforceable limitation of who owned what.  Or if positively, one might well say that in the state of innocence, humans would consult together about the allocation and use of resources, and would make sure that they were shared equally, but that sin introduced such quarrelsomeness, corruption, and inefficiency into this arrangment, that required (or at any rate invited) a separation of control, so that each household was responsible for administering its own goods and no one else’s.  It does not seem to me that the choice between Options 5A, 5B, or 5C would materially affect this decision. 

However, what does seem clear is that an “unnatural” understanding of private property would all but rule out unilateral appropriation (Option IIIA1 from the last post) accounts of the origin of PP.  Why is this?  Well, let’s think about it for a moment.  Clearly enough, if one imagines a natural state of positive commonality, of active community ownership, then to get from this state to one of private ownership, direct action of the community is necessary.  The community may decide on any number of ways to break up the common possessions into individual possessions, but it seems highly unlikely that it would it would choose simply to allow a free-for-all–a scramble for possessions in which each individual stakes a claim on whatever he can.  Even if it did allow unilateral appropriation, as it might in a circumstance where the world was wide open for each to claim whatever he needed (as it was after the Fall), the community would presumably still have some say over the use of the property, given its antecedent claim.  What we are imagining here is a situation like that of the 1862 Homestead Act in the US, in which the government permitted individuals to move into undeveloped, unclaimed land (well, theoretically; in reality, occupied by native Americans), and make the land theirs by mixing their labor for it and then filing for a deed.  This is unilateral appropriation of a sort, but not pre-political, as in Locke’s concept; it in fact depends on political organization to legitimate it.  

The same goes if we imagine a state of original negative commonality.  For in this situation, the very problem that private property is addressing is one arising from greedy individuals seizing whatever they can.  The solution to this is a political one–to make enforceable public distinctions between mine and thine, distinctions that cannot simply be based upon however much an individual can appropriate for himself, Lockean-style, since this is precisely the evil that needs to be redressed.  In this understanding, “mine and thine” are not pre-political realities that men enter into political covenant to protect, as Locke understood it, but are rather realities that come into being only by virtue of political covenant.  We have natural common right of possession, then a degeneration into a war of all against all, and then the political creation of a private right of possession.  Private rights having then being created by the community, they are safeguarded by the community, but clearly with restrictions on legitimate appropriation and use enforceable by the community; the absence of such restrictions, after all, was the problem created by sin in the first place.   


A final point that we must here note is the role of redemption.  After all, the Fall is not the end of the story–we have Creation, then Fall, then Redemption.  If PP is “natural,” in the sense of belonging to creation, then it would seem it ought to survive in the state of redemption.  To be sure, redemption does not merely return us to creation, but takes us beyond it; nevertheless, it is creation restored and enhanced, it is recognizably continuous with the state of creation, and not a complete overturning of it.  So private property would most likely continue to be affirmed in redemption.  However, if PP is “unnatural,” in the sense of belonging to the Fall, then redemption seems likely to enact a reversal of it.  Of course, redemption does not undo the Fall all at once–it is a gradual process–but it does call us to start living in a new manner, and to start transcending the old way of life.  So, Christians who have seen PP as a result of the Fall have generally considered the institution to be relativised, overturned, undermined, transcended or some such by redemption–they have considered that redeemed man is called to start living out the replacement of private property that man’s restoration to his true nature involves.  

Indeed, until the late Middle Ages, some form of Option 5 was most common among Christian thinkers; indeed, it seems to me that there was a gradual move from an original stark pessimism regarding private property–a 5C view occasionally bordering on Option 3 (PP is simply wicked), becoming increasingly optimistic so that first 5B became more prominent, then 5A, then 4C, and finally Aquinas’s 4B view (which was still strongly contested by Option 5 variants for a couple centuries).  Then, of course, in the seventeenth-century, optimism about PP took another great leap forward resulting in the historically quite novel Option 4A, with which many of us now live quite comfortbly today.  


Where have we then arrived?  Why does all this matter?  Well, we seen a couple paragraphs above one very important reason why it matters.  If one wants to imagine private property rights as pre-political rights, held by individuals over against society, and toward which society as a whole has only duties, but not rights of its own, there are in fact only a very few routes by which one can reach this conception.  And yet this conception is clearly, rhetorically-speaking, the dominant one in modern America, particularly in Christian America, it is the dominant rhetoric in what I call “divine right capitalism.”  Since this already came up earlier in this series, I will quote a recent blog post by Doug Wilson as a convenient example:

“This command [thou shalt not steal] presupposes the institution of private ownership — private property as a divine institution — and sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property. It does this in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes the institution of marriage. If marriage is just a “social construct” that our laws can redefine or abolish, then the same goes for adultery.”  

Here, PP is emphatically claimed as something that precedes all human laws, that belongs to each individual (or rather, each household) naturally and by divine right.  This must be an Option 4A view (if not an incoherent Option 2 view).

However, in these same circles it is often claimed that the great virtue of capitalism is that it is a system built on the assumption of human depravity–that private property in particular is an institution required by and fitted for sinful man, who simply cannot succeed in any attempt at common ownership.  Capitalism and its corollary, PP, may not be “natural,” but they natural under a post-Fall condition–they are the only option, we are told, and are therefore divinely commanded.  This sounds like an Option 5A view.

Now, one or other of these must be true, it seems.  Option 5A is more theologically plausible, but as we have just seen above, it yields the conclusion that PP is inescapably a political right–it is a product of human society and to some extent dependent on the will and constraints of the community.  And of course, this is precisely what Locke and his modern pseudo-theological followers want to avoid.  Moreover, it strongly suggests that Christians ought, to some extent, to be seeking to transcend private property and live out restored nature, something few Christians seem particularly interested in doing these days.  Option 4A, Locke’s own, seems to yield the desired practical conclusions, but at the cost of being highly suspect from a theological and ethical perspective, as I shall explore further in the next installment.  We simply cannot have our cake and eat it too.  We must recognize that it makes a difference how we account for the origin of private property, and how we account for its ethical legitimacy.  Neither are simply self-authenticating, and the decisions we make have important political and ethical ramifications.  


In the next installment, I’ll look at some problems with the Lockean view.  Then, in the eighth, I hope to finally turn to the constructive task.  That will mean leaving the realm of mere abstraction (which I have inhabited here), which talks freely about the “state of innocence” and “the postlapsarian state” without any attention to the concrete Biblical narrative of these states, and turning its attention (in large part, at least) to the insights and constraints provided by the Scriptural witness.



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.”