23 July 2013

Radical Christianity: property is theft

I imagine most people in (post)modern capitalist Western societies think the phrase ‘property is theft’ is a Marxist sentiment. In fact, the phrase was coined by the nineteenth-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Marx was critical of the idea on the grounds that the concept of theft entails a concept of property and therefore ‘property is theft’ is self-refuting.

The phrase may come from a nineteenth-century anarchist, but the underlying sentiment is much older and has been recognized as a core part of Christian social teaching by some of the greatest Christian theologians. Thus, speaking of giving to the poor, Ambrose could say:
You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.
Drawing on this, Thomas Aquinas argued that anything we possess above and beyond what is necessary to satisfy our reasonable needs ‘is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance’ (Summa theologiae II-II.q66.a7). Indeed, Aquinas goes even further:
It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need. (ibid.)
Putting that in twenty-first century terms, it is not theft when someone goes shoplifting to feed their children. Nor (contra agri-businesses like Monsanto) is it theft when a third-world farmer saves and re-plants seeds from a GM crop.

This piece of traditional Christian teaching puts Francis of Assisi in a rather different light. Modern biographies often present his persistent giving away of possessions to the poor as a (possibly eccentric and certainly unusual) virtue. And contemporary works on Christian spirituality often treat such simplicity/self-imposed poverty as something most of us can only aspire to. But, from the perspective of Ambrose and Aquinas and most theologians before the modern (capitalist?) era, Francis was simply doing his duty as a Christian.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary. I call myself a Christian (and a Franciscan), but perhaps in light of the above that means I need to listen more literally when Jesus says to the rich young man, ‘go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21, NRSV).

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