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On Possessions

October 19, 2011

Though it is a compilation of very familiar texts from early church writings, the  following comes from a book at the intersection of my congregational life and my dissertation: The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics by Kelly S. Johnson. (pp. 24-25). I am thinking about my sermon from last week, and my friends down at Occupy Wall Street.  

Tell me then, how did you come by your wealth? Did you receive it from someone? Where did he get it from? From his grandfather, you say, or from his father. Are you able to show, as you go back through the generations, that it was justly aquired? It cannot have been. No, the beginning and root of wealth must lie in injustice of some sort. And why? Because, in the beginning God did not create one person wealthy and another to go wanting; nor did he, at some point later in time, reveal great heaps of gold to one person and cheat another searcher. He gave one and the same earth to all alike. . . . Isn’t the fact that you claim sole ownership of what belongs to the Lord, of what is common property, something evil? Or do you deny that the Lord’s is the earth and its fullness? And so, if whatever we have belongs to our one, common Lord, it belongs also to those who are his servants along with us. (John Chrysostum, Sermon 12.4)

Chrysostum was not alone in raising this question to his congregation. Ambrose asked, “The earth was established in common for all, rich and poor. Why do you alone arrogate an exclusive right to the soil, O rich?” Basil taught, “The bread that you keep belongs to the one who is hungry, and to him who is naked, the cloak that you keep in your chest; to him who has no shoes, the shoe that is rotting in your house; to the poor, the money that you keep hidden. Thus you commit as many injustices as there are persons to whom you could give.” According to sermons of both Leo the Great and Cesarius of Arles, the person who could but does not come to the aid of a starving person should be thought of as an assassin. This set of teachings suggest, though not in a systematic way, that to claim goods as private property is implicitly an immoral act, at least as long as other people lack necessities. The right to hold and use goods as one’s own is supect in these preachers.

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