Land Ownership: A Lesson from the Landless
by Jay Choi
From the July-August 2010 Issue of New World Outlook
There have been two major concepts of land ownership in the world: private and communal. The Christian concept of communal ownership in the Book of Acts--the communion of saints--is voluntary, not compulsory, as in Communism. But the most widely accepted concept is private ownership, in which individuals own the means of production. Its roots are in dominium, a concept of ownership deriving from Roman law, in which individuals have absolute, unrestricted control over property.
When Rome was still a small kingdom, dominium was intended to protect the property rights of a family unit. But through wars and conquest, the original concept of dominium turned into absolute and exclusive ownership of vast amounts of land by conquering emperors, generals, and aristocrats. Tiberius Gracchus wrote: "The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great...while they have not a foot of ground in their possession." Even long before the collapse of Rome, Pliny wrote: "Land monopoly ruined Rome."
Before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines, the indigenous people's ownership philosophy was expressed in two Filipino words meaning "ours." The term amin, meaning "exclusively ours," referred to lands as collectively belonging to a given village, to the exclusion of others. The term atin, meaning "ours" in an inclusive sense, comprehended literally everyone. Thus some lands were amin (ours exclusively), while rivers were atin (ours inclusively). Then the Spaniards came and brought dominium, to disastrous effect.
The Bible does not justify dominium. In the Bible, there are two classes of ownership: one concerning things brought into being by human effort; the other, things that exist regardless of what humans do. The latter include the field or environment in which people find themselves, the storehouse from which their needs are supplied, the raw materials and forces on which human labor can act. In short, humans can own privately what they made, while they cannot own privately what God has made. Ecclesiastes 5:9 says: "The benefit of land is taken for all." Early leaders of the Christian church, like the Old Testament prophets, harshly criticized dominium because it sanctioned absolute ownership over things regardless of whether they were made by humans or created by God.
Polarization of Wealth
Dominium usually leads to the polarization of wealth. It produces a few dominant rich and a mass of dominated poor. Once the poor are deprived of the fair distribution of wealth, they are easily stigmatized. But God loves them and endlessly invites them to be active subjects in God's mission. Jesus, as Emmanuel, identified himself with the oppressed people under the dominium.
Symbiotic Sharing and Mission
With this understanding, I met and listened attentively to landless Filipinos living in a slum area of Manila and on a large plantation in central Luzon. According to them, land ownership ought to be a symbiotic sharing, in which things are possessed "in empathy." It is like a thoughtful synchronicity between "my having" and "our having." It is also different from accumulating "mine" only or forcing others to share some exact portion.
Symbiotic sharing is having and sharing based on sensitivity to others' having and sharing. An opposite concept could be called parasitic saving--to keep on possessing without caring what others do or do not have. In everyday life, the landless have no leisure. If they stop working, they will fail to earn daily subsistence.
Thus the landless are a socioeconomically powerless sector in society. What influence they have is through "people power" because they are many in number. But their power needs to be organized through actions of solidarity. This is where the church can carry out its mission among them.
The mission of the church is not only for the landless but with them, by empowering them through the full gospel of the Lord. The most fundamental mission of the church today is to teach and show the biblical ownership principle and practice as the early church did. All people need food and goods. The church should not stop sharing love. But if the church wants to lift up the name of God, the Lord of salvation, then it should systematically fight to overcome the widespread practice of dominium. The church must prepare a new wineskin, through truthful self-criticism and self-purification, on its teaching and practice of ownership.
We should remember how the people of the Middle East and Northern Africa became Muslims only 10 centuries ago. The landless at that time followed the slogan: "Land belongs to Allah!" Therefore the church should pay attention to the call from the landless of today for symbiotic sharing.
In the end, the land ownership conflict is a conflict between good and evil. The church has been called to a serious mission. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit land. And blessed are those who struggle for justice on land rights. Though they seem insignificant in the world of dominium, they are standing in the most intimate fellowship with God, who is tirelessly working for the salvation of the world.
The Rev. Jae Hyoung (Jay) Choi is a missionary with Global Ministries serving the Philippines Annual Conference at Union Theological Seminary in Dasmarinas, Cavite. Originally from Korea, he currently works with the Center for Geocentric Ministries, a seminary program that develops training programs on theological understandings of land, educating clergy and laity to be just and faithful stewards of God's creation. His wife, the Rev. Grace Choi, serves with Harris Memorial College in community outreach ministries. The Chois have two sons.
Date posted: Aug 20, 2010