Can one be an owner and a Christian?*

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* This is a sincere question, not a rhetorical question…although some rhetoric does follow.

I write these words in a room with large windows. I look through them at a blue sky on a bright late summer afternoon, listening to the sound of grasshoppers and sipping tea. So far it’s been a good day.

Throughout my life I have sat and written in many rooms. Not counting my years in a college dorm, I’ve lived in nine different accommodations as an adult. Today, two weeks after moving from Dubuque, Iowa to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, I’m unpacking the boxes again and getting used to a new environment But this time there’s a difference: instead of paying a monthly rent, I will pay a mortgage.

“Congratulations!” people exclaim when I tell them about my purchase. Although I thank them, I must admit that I find it difficult to understand their enthusiasm. Owning property was never a personal goal of mine – in fact, I identified quite proudly as a non-owner. But soon after landing a new teaching job in western Pennsylvania last spring, I found the rental market tight. Taking out a mortgage wouldn’t cost much more than a rental. In terms of location, neighborhood and place itself, buying a condo turned out to be the best option.

Some of my dislikes of home ownership are purely personal. I’ve often told people that I’m not the landlord type. I am not a handyman; I don’t like choosing furniture or planning renovations; I usually only clean before hosting guests (COVID-19 did a number on the appearance of my previous apartment). I have no interest in gardening, mowing a lawn, or shoveling snow (which is a big part of why I bought a condo instead of a house). Also… do I really own this place when I have to pay off a huge bank loan for as long as I live here? Until he gets paid, which may never be… I can’t really call him mine.

But my aversions to home ownership run deeper than a lack of interest in the domestic arts and an uneasiness with personal debt. At a basic philosophical level, I never really believed that property was an individual human right. In the recently published novel by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk The Books of Jacob, set in 18th century Central Europe, a group of men have a conversation about the subject.

“It seems to me that the land should not be sold or bought,” says an unfortunate merchant named Nussen. “Just like water and air. People don’t mind the fire either. These are things given to us by God, not to each of us individually, but to all of us together. Like the sky and the sun. Does the sun belong to anyone? Are the stars?

Many argue that the right to property is as fundamental to humanity as the rights to life and liberty. All animals claim territory and defend it; humans have been doing it since prehistoric times. Today, the most infamous ongoing political conflict in the world – that between Israelis and Palestinians – essentially boils down to a dispute over land ownership. The same goes for the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, not to mention Russia’s brutal and continued invasion of Ukraine. Human beings have a basic need for shelter, safety and security – not just protection from the elements, but the right to inhabit a space, to know that the room they go to sleep in one night will not be taken from them. strong in the morning.

But while the desire for safety and security may be innate in humans, it is a part of our nature that Jesus frequently rejected, urging his followers to do the same. As an adult, Jesus chose an itinerant life that made the hippies of the 1960s seem completely bourgeois: “The foxes have burrows and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). Jesus urged his disciples to leave everything behind and follow him. His empathy was not with the landowners, but with those on the margins of society: lepers, sinners, working poor – all people who had nowhere to lay their heads. As Christians, we are called to follow this example: not only to give charity to the poor, but to live in solidarity with them, to recognize our own fragility and our total lack of control over our lives: “Therefore I say, do don’t worry about your life, what you’re going to eat or drink, or your body, what you’re going to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the sky; they neither sow nor reap nor store in barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you much more valuable than them? (Matthew 8:25-26).

It seems that the early Christians followed this advice, especially when living under the constant threat of persecution and death. But once Christianity became the official religion of Rome and thus aligned with power, this essential gospel message was lost. The Protestant Reformation, while responding in many ways to the corrupt and wealth-hoarding tendencies of the medieval Catholic Church, did not return to Jesus’ original message of avoiding material possessions – on the contrary, once Calvinism took hold, riches were interpreted as a sign of God’s blessing (a view that persists widely today, especially in the United States).

Looking at the teachings of Jesus and the extremely counter-cultural way he lived, it is clear that our basic human desire for stability and our belief in a right to property are at odds with the message of the Gospel. But, let’s be honest: today, very, very few of us professed Christians would be willing to embrace voluntary poverty and homelessness in the way that Jesus advocated. Even the most dedicated religious are not averse to amassing wealth and investing in the stock market; the only difference is that they do it as a community rather than individually.

Is it possible to own property and live according to the gospel message? My first response would be to rethink the cultural norm, especially in the United States, that home ownership should be central to civic life and culture. Owning a home is not a mark of maturity or a sign of commitment to the community (I was a very civic-minded renter and have known many homeowners who barely say hello to their neighbors, let alone vote in elections local or sit on the boards). In the United States, our tax system confers undeserved advantages on homeowners, and many neighborhoods are zoned to restrict the construction of apartment buildings. As recipients of these benefits, landlords need to pay greater attention to housing equity and justice in their own neighborhoods and beyond, especially as inflation puts increased pressure on the middle class and people living in poverty.

In the United States, European-Americans in particular need to remember that the land on which we built our homes was originally claimed by Indigenous peoples, taken from them by deception and force. European-Americans should also note the unearned privileges that made property more accessible to them than to African-Americans due to the Jim Crow South and Redlined North heritage. Those of us who are fortunate enough to own property should remember these injustices and work to address them on a systemic level.

Additionally, I situate another possible response to Jesus’ call in what we personally choose to do with the homes we own. While Jesus did not own property, his ministry depended on the hospitality of those who did. When Jesus comes knocking at our door, do we invite him in? Or do we tell him that it’s not the right time, that we’re too busy, that he has to call at least a week in advance if he wants to visit us?

When Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, her initial goal was simply to share ideas, publishing the Catholic anarchist journal that has endured to this day. But she soon realized that eloquent words were not enough. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, people in need began to turn up on his doorstep, seeking food, shelter and companionship. Thus began a movement to establish open houses of hospitality – dwellings where resources would be shared and family transcended bloodlines, houses where, within the capitalist property system, a more just model would be developed at the micro level . Day hoped these foster homes would be exemplary rather than exceptional. But while the Catholic labor movement has endured to the present day, this model of life remains the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps for most of us, inviting people in need to come live with us may seem like too much of a burden, especially if they bring addiction and mental health issues with them. But there are many ways to be hospitable, to make our homes outward looking rather than insular. Host church groups or neighborhood meetings, offer to help our neighbors (and ask them for help when we need it), provide temporary housing for a young person in need, become a foster parent or legal guardian are just a few possibilities among many others. .

Going back to the gospels, while Jesus was not a landlord, many people in his parables were. Who can forget the rich man who ignored the beggar Lazarus pleading at his doorstep? On the contrary, we all remember the wedding host who, when his own family did not show up for the festivities, invited strangers. Perhaps the most beloved parable is that of the prodigal son. In Henri Nouwen’s beautiful rendition of this story, we all start life as that reckless, reckless youngster who wasted his resources. Later in life, we become his resentful older brother, annoyed that our conscientious fulfillment of adult responsibility receives no special mention or reward. The invitation that Nouwen presents – just like Jesus – is to become like the father: to organize a feast to which all are invited, to make his house a space of refuge, celebration and welcome.

Right now, I’m sitting and writing alone in my little house. Last weekend I had my first feast – I made burritos and margaritas for one of my oldest friends, his wife and their three children (although they drank juice instead of margaritas). I hope to live here for a long time and am excited when I think of all the people – most I don’t even know yet – who will find an open door, a cup of tea and hopefully a place to call home .


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