Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life

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Overview

The Last Few Decades have witnessed the expansion of market economies into a complex global system. From shantytowns in Africa and rural villages around the Black Sea to the high-tech worlds of Tokyo, Berlin, and New York City, no place on the planet has escaped this development. While the present conditions of economic life are unique to our time, the human impulses that stand behind them are not. People have always negotiated life in economic terms, constituting much of their personal and social identity in relation to the things they possess. What, if anything, might religious studies and theological reflection contribute to thinking about and responding to the basic human reality of "having"? The engaging inquiries found in this volume provide some answers. Distinct from books taking purely economic, political, or social-scientific approaches to the subject, this book uses resources from the biblical traditions to throw fresh light on the role of property and possessions in cultural processes. Well-known scholars from a variety of fields (theology, ethics, economics, and biblical studies) explore in new and penetrating ways how people find value in having things, and how having things, in turn, gives value to social life. Their work will interest anyone grappling with issues of ownership and consumerism in today's global age.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802824844
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 4/12/2004
  • Pages: 415
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 Property and possession : biblical trajectories and theological meanings
Property and possession in light of the Ten Commandments 17
Sharing and loving : love, law, and the ethics of cultural memory in the Pentateuch 51
Possessing wealth, possessing women, possessing self : the shame of biblical discourse 69
Silver chamber pots and other goods which are not good : John Chrysostom's discourse against wealth and possessions 88
Subjectivist "faith" as a religious trap 122
2 Property and possession : having and using the body and material meanings
The body and projects of self-possession 141
What is enough? : Catholic social thought, consumption, and material sufficiency 162
On using the world 189
Material grace : the paradox of property and possession 222
3 Property and possession : greed and grace in the social, cultural, and religious imagination
Reconsidering greed 249
The cultural contest for our attention : observations on media, property, and religion 272
Identity, possession, and myth on the web : yearning for Jerusalem 296
Avarice, prudence, and the bourgeois virtues 312
Property and possession : the moral economy of ownership 337
Economies of grace 353
App Bibliographic resources on property and possession - a critical analysis 383
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First Chapter

having

PROPERTY AND POSSESSION IN RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL LIFE

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2484-6


Chapter One

Property and Possession in Light of the Ten Commandments

Patrick D. Miller

The Commandments As Cultural Code

Within the culture(s) where the Ten Commandments function, they do so as a kind of cultural code. The code character is suggested in at least two ways. One is reflected in their symbolic role. The Commandments are, in effect, a cultural icon, one that, like other icons, can be an object of true devotion and a relic on the wall - or in some instances both simultaneously, as would seem to be the case, for example, for the Alabama judge who has insisted that the Commandments be posted in his courtroom. They are immediately known by all members of the culture, even those who do not self-consciously identify themselves with the community for whom they are constitutive. They are the subject of sermons and jokes, books and cartoons. They are seen as both foundational and simplistic. Their normative and definitive character is assumed, again by the culture generally and often precisely because they are a cultural icon rather than because they have been appropriated as the formal teaching of a religious community, though that has contributed to their cultural status. There tends to be a general assumption that in the Commandments, the culture is given a set of universals - for which some case can be made, but primarily by way of the particular story out of which the Commandments come, a story that rarely functions as a part of the code. The disappearance of the story is a facet of the loss of cultural memory, or the loss of community memory in the experience of "historical oblivion" that characterizes contemporary culture with its "perpetual present amid perpetual change." The imaginative power of the story that grounds and makes the Commandments intelligible has succumbed in large ways to the "infinity of images of possible worlds and lives" circulated by the media. The power of the icon is deflated or the story is "mediaized" into a historical thriller or a cartoon. Or, as happened in a cartoon that implicitly puts down the Alabama judge, the students who went on a murderous rampage in Littleton, Colorado (or their unidentified equivalents), are depicted as saying that if there had only been a set of the Ten Commandments on the wall, they, of course, would not have gone out and killed people. It speaks volumes that such a cartoon is probably reflective of a generally liberal moral perspective that has failed to perceive what the Alabama judge understood about the Commandments as a cultural icon.

A second way in which the Commandments function in the culture as a code lies in the fact that when the simple code language is deciphered or interpreted, important messages are thereby transmitted, some of which are not fully self-evident in the simple code. Those messages have everything to do with the character of life in the community, with its values, its relationships, its economy, and its identity. It is in behalf of this dimension of the cultural code that this essay seeks to engage in an act of decipherment and interpretation toward reading the Commandments in thick fashion to recover the fulsome way in which they address the culture about goods, signs, valuation, and the way the culture in which they operate is meant to take on the character of a neighborhood. Human interrelationships in behalf of life and the valuing of life are articulated in complex ways so that property and possessions are defined, enhanced, and protected not only from encroachments by the neighbor but also from the greed that devises modes of economic oppression - legal and illegal - against those whose property makes them vulnerable to an intrusive acquisitiveness.

The Commandments As Starting Point

In the Christian tradition, reflection on the place of property and its use and misuse takes its starting point from the Commandments. It can be argued - and such argument is implicit in the following - that the single largest issue or concern of the Commandments as a whole is the matter of property and possession. The aim of this essay is to ask how the Commandments help us think about property and possession as a significant dimension of human society and culture.

The specific starting point for this analysis is the most explicit connection between the Commandments and property: the prohibition against stealing. While this commandment remains the focus throughout, other commandments will be brought into the picture to show how the Decalogue as a whole comes at the question of property and society from many angles. The process for discovering the Commandments' way of illumining human thought and action about property and culture involves the uncovering of a trajectory of meaning and effect, of thought and action, that flows out of the Commandments and serves to mark out and define a moral space for life with God and others or, to put it more concretely, to create a "good neighborhood."

The Eighth Commandment: Against Stealing

The commandment, "you shall not steal" or "do not steal," is one whose force seems clear and whose moral pertinence is universally accepted. The matter is a little more complicated than that, however, for this commandment has a specificity that opens up into a broader horizon of application from the beginning, and its trajectory of meaning and effect is already underway when we encounter it in the Decalogue. The substantive word of the commandment, "steal," means exactly what it suggests: to take from another and to do so by stealth, that is, under cover. There is an immediate problem, however, having to do with the implicit sanction or punishment for disobedience of this command. The other commandments are clearly identified as a kind of absolute law, for when we find forms of them in the Book of the Covenant or in the Deuteronomic law, they regularly are crimes for which the penalty is death. For example, Exodus 21:12 and 15:

Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death (sixth commandment);

Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death (fifth commandment).

In the statutes of the Book of the Covenant, there are several cases in Exodus 22 that deal with theft of property - for example, a work animal or a food animal. In each case, there is economic restitution by the thief, not capital punishment. The one other case where an act of stealing is involved follows the two cases cited above about striking a person or striking father or mother and, like them, prescribes the death penalty: "Whoever steals a man, whether he sells him or is found in possession of him, shall be put to death" (Exod. 21:16 RSV). Deuteronomy reiterates this point in the only statute in the Deuteronomic Code that specifically refers to stealing: "If a man is found stealing one of his brethren, the people of Israel, and he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die" (Deut. 24:7 RSV). The original force of the commandment, therefore, still operative by its specification in the two related codes of law, is the freedom or protection of the individual, a prohibition against the theft of a person and the conversion of the "personal" good into property for economic exploitation. No member of the community can appropriate any other member of the community illegally or against his or her will for economic gain or advantage.

The story of this commandment begins early in the Old Testament when Joseph says from prison in Egypt, "I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews" (Gen. 40:15). That story is revealing for the way in which it depicts the effects of the stealing of Joseph: the loss of home and family, enslavement in Egypt, subjection to imprisonment through the false accusations of his master's wife. What is particularly noticeable in this story and in the laws that have to do with stealing persons is that stealing a person's freedom is virtually always a matter of economics, the theft of a person for economic gain, turning the stolen object into a human machine of productivity. Judah's comment to his brothers is, "What profit [besa'] is it if we kill our brother ...? Come, let us sell him ..." (Gen. 37:26, italics added). The statutes prohibiting stealing a person assume in each instance that the purpose is to sell or ransom the individual. Thus every attempt to enslave, to restrict the freedom of, and to coerce and force economic production from one's brother or neighbor is a violation of the eighth commandment. The slave trade thus gets its first blow under the hammer of freedom and economic protection that is the eighth commandment, and the Commandments are seen to uncover a complex of legal and justice-shaped specifics about slavery that begin with the free Israelite but move out into other relationships that involve both the non-free and thus not-equal Israelite and the outsider or foreigner - for the question of persons as property is also taken up in the Sabbath Commandment and the complex of statutes that unfold its moral ethos.

In the Deuteronomic form of the Sabbath Commandment, the purpose of the Sabbath rest is "so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you" (Deut. 5:14). The trajectory of this commandment is best seen in the establishment of the sabbatical principle, articulated in Deuteronomy 15, which provides for release of debts and of slaves in the seventh year. Not only do the sabbatical laws provide for release of the bondage of debt and servitude at regular intervals, but they insist that liberality must be the response to the person in need even if the sabbatical year is near (Deut. 15:9). The slave is to be released, and not just with ten dollars and a suit of clothes; the one who has benefited from the productivity of the bond servant is to "Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you" (Deut. 15:14).

Furthermore, if the slave is well provided for in your home, he or she may choose to stay there and enjoy the benefit of your blessing forever. In Deuteronomy 15, of course, the issue is not the violent act of kidnapping for economic enslavement; it is the legal servitude of a person because of economic deprivation. The issue is still and even more so an economic one, however, and a further blow to economic enslavement or economic control of the life and productivity of another person is given. So the Commandments, as their complexity is spelled out in statute and story - and there is a narrative about the release of slaves in Jeremiah 34 - begin to open up a way of acting that transforms the servant who is in economic bondage into the recipient of economic benefit, while the recipient of the productivity, the master, becomes the dispenser of the benefit to the slave, who is either freed with economic goods or given a permanent place at the table of blessing and prosperity (Deut. 15:13, 16).

It is not to be denied that slavery in different forms existed in ancient Israel and is recognized in the laws. What is evident from the legal literature that may be connected to the Commandments, however, is that the legal tradition implicitly acknowledged the reality of persons coming into bondage of various sorts, either by capture in war or by bonded indebtedness because of financial obligations (practices that were standard in the world of ancient Israel's time), but explicitly was concerned particularly to provide procedures that humanized and restricted oppressive and permanent enslavement. The biblical narratives and stories attest to the way in which creditors could seize defaulting debtors or their dependents to exploit their labor or to sell them (e.g., 2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5; Isa. 50:1; Amos 2:6; 8:6). The laws address the treatment of such persons so as to limit the possibility of exploitation and to protect against permanent enslavement. They also seek, especially in the Book of the Covenant, to preserve the interests of the creditor or master (e.g., Exod. 21:2-11). In the Deuteronomic form of the debt laws - probably a later development than the Book of the Covenant - the legal tradition is less concerned about the creditor's/master's continued economic benefit and more concerned about the renewal of economic possibility for the debtor servant (Deut. 15:7-17; see above). The selling of oneself, and especially the selling of one's children, was a practice in Israel as it was in other states, but this was an act in extremis (2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5), and the legal tradition manifests a concern, already reflected in the Decalogue and continuing in the statutes and ordinances, for humane protection against oppressive enslavement. The concern of the laws was not to provide for bonded indebtedness, but to ensure that one could get out of it. The treatment of women in the slave law in Exodus 21:2-11 shows that they were more vulnerable to legal permanent enslavement than males, depending upon their status, but the laws also reflect some concerns both with regard to the captive slave who has become a wife and with regard to the enslaved daughter (Exod. 21:2-11; Deut. 21:10-14).

The jubilee year law of Leviticus 25 is the most explicit in recognizing permanent slavery as an acceptable practice for captives taken in war or for resident aliens who became slaves (25:44-46). Such slaves may be passed on to the next generation, and there is no mechanism for their release. There is, thus, a limit to the effect on slavery of the commandment's trajectory.

Even here, however, the point is made in the context of a passage that is more explicit than any other in ensuring that no fellow Israelite ("your brother") shall be made into a slave even if he is forced to hire himself out for a time because of becoming impoverished. The divine deliverance from slavery in Egypt is the motivating force for the law (25:42). The jubilee law is there to protect against permanent slavery. The distinction between the treatment of the brother/neighbor and the foreigner in this context is the reason the identity of one's brother/neighbor is such a freighted moral issue in Scripture (Luke 10:29).

There is a kind of realism at work here that recognizes that human beings do become caught in economic bondage but insists that the legal system protect them from being permanently bound and provide opportunity for them to break free and resources to start afresh. It is revealing that these laws are regularly read in our time as a kind of utopianism, which is to say that we assume a moral world where economic bondage has to be permanent and the unreality is thinking one can get free of it. The realism of the Commandments and the dynamic that flows from them is that economic bondage is real but not required and not per during.

Continues...


Excerpted from having Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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