Property Is Idolatry
Recently, I saw a pithy quote on Facebook that proposed that, in order for us to survive as a human race, we must identify the root cause of all the violence in our world. My comment (which I rarely do on Facebook) was one word: “property.”
I love my property. I have an inalienable right, according to the Constitution, to my property. I love my car, my computer, my house (which actually belongs to both the bank and the state). I love all my stuff. I am an idolater. I love objects! I am possessed by my possessions. The demon god of Mammon controls me. This is, I have discovered, most definitely, my worst “sin.”
I want to repent, I do, but I have swallowed the key that opens the prison door of materialism which I have constructed. And the evil system of capitalism, which presents itself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), supported by institutional religion, ensures that I have a very limited ability to retrieve that key and set myself free. Capitalism has given you and I the tools to construct our property prisons, just like a drug dealer gives an unsuspecting person the drugs that addict them.
Property Is Theft
Not only is my love of property a mortal sin of idolatry, which keeps me from intimate relationships with God and people, it also clearly violates the seventh commandment, which states “Thou shall not steal.” But how is simply owning property thievery? The great saints of old were clear in their thinking:
St. Basil asked, “And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? When someone steals a man’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?” St. Ambrose said, “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.” St. Jerome said, “Tell me, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it? The rich person is either an unjust person or the heir of one. Do not say ‘I am spending what is mine; I am enjoying what is mine.’ In reality it is not yours, but another’s.” “St. Chrysostom said, “There is not mine and thine, but this expression is exterminated, that is a cause of countless wars.”
Over a thousand years later, political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, would ask famously, “What is property?” To which he answered unequivocally, “Property is theft.”
People Are Not Property
Turning around the order of Proudhon’s thinking, where he stated that property is theft, he first said that the ownership of people (or slavery) is murder. People are not property. And here is another commandment I have broken and area where I must be set free.
The psalmist proclaimed this solemn truth: “The universe is the Lord’s and the fullness of it all, and all who inhabit it” (Ps 24:1). The process of setting myself free from property, from my idolatry, thievery, and murder includes setting free those people I think I own: “my” wife, “my” children, “my” staff, “my” ethnic group, etc. People are not objects, they are free souls who should not be controlled. The desire to possess or control people is the essence of pathological co-dependency. Interdependent folks view others as they see themselves: fully free and dignified in their sacred personhood, needing one another to become their fullest and most true selves. Our cultural language (which determines, to a great extent, how we live) of possession as it relates to our relationships will need to change for us to be free from our desire to control one another.
Thus, it is not surprising that Jesus proclaimed, “In order to find your true self, you must lose your false self” (Jn 12:25).
Nothing Left To Lose
If it is “for freedom, that Christ has set us free” (Ga 5:1), then the words of Janis Joplin must also ring true: “Freedom’s just another word, for nothing left to lose.” When we have no property, nothing left to lose, then we become free. Instead of fighting for our right to own property, we ought to fight to release ourselves and others from that which possesses us: our possessions.
© Paul Dordal, 2018