Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Holy Art Thou, All-Owning

Human community is organized into hierarchical layers called classes based on the amount of wealth they own. The more wealth you own, you belong to a higher class, and the less wealth you own, you belong to a lower class. Class discrimination is the most common, and probably the worst kind. The belief that God is all-owning has the power to break class discrimination. What follows is an explanation of how this is possible.
If the trisagion is expanded further, an affirmation like "Holy art thou all-owning" may be added. The idea that God is all-owning can be seen throughout the Bible. Here are a few examples:
  • To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Deuteronomy 10:14 
  • For everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11
  • 'The silver is mine and the gold is mine,' declares the LORD Almighty. Haggai 2:8.
  • The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Psalms 24:1
  • The world is mine, and all that is in it. Psalm 50:12
That God owns everything is not a descriptive statement about God. It simply means that whoever other than God doesn't own anything. If God is the real owner, human beings cannot be owners; they can only be tenants. The land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. (Leviticus 25:23). God alone is rich. All people are really poor, for they own nothing. Whatever wealth in our possession has originally come from God. It has been given to us to be taken care of and to be used for common good. This is a revolutionary idea that can root out the class difference.

All over the world, people are divided into classes, such as upper, middle, and lower. If nobody owns anything, there cannot be any class difference. James speaks about the sin of discriminating between the rich and the poor. (James 2). Someone wearing fine clothes is respected, but someone with poor clothes is not. The value of human beings is measured according to the wealth in their possession. What a shame! Also people often feel inferior or superior to others based on class difference.

In our everyday life we speak about the rich and the poor. However, they are relative terms, for there is not any clear dividing line between them. A rich person in one context may be poor in another context. The same person may be rich from someone's perspective, but may be poor from someone else's perspective. Someone who owns one million is rich for someone who owns a hundred thousand, but the same person will look poor to someone who owns ten million.

Jesus took a firm stand against discriminating between the rich and the poor. If God is the owner, all people must be poor. But unfortunately, only a few people realize this. Those few people are called the poor in spirit in Matthew's Gospel. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (Mat. 5:3) Regardless of the amount of wealth in their hands, they are still poor in spirit. Job was poor in spirit, which makes him say, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” (Job 1:21) However his wife thought that whatever wealth they had in their hands truly belonged to them. That is why when they lost the wealth, she wanted Job to curse God and commit suicide. 

Thus Jesus did not classify people into rich and poor. However, he classified people into two based on another standard: Those who realize that all people are poor, and those who think that only some are poor. There is a well-known story of a rich man and Lazarus told by Jesus. (Luke 16) Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell. Why? Was is it because the rich man was rich and Lazarus was poor? If so, we will have to conclude that all the rich people will go to hell and all the poor people will go to heaven? The rich man lived as if he was the true owner of his wealth. He did not realize that God was the true owner, and that he was merely a steward. He believed that he was rich because he was blessed by God, and Lazarus was poor for being cursed by God. Lazarus, however, realized that God is the true owner of everything, and so all people in the world are poor. 

After the time of Jesus, his disciples gathered in Jerusalem, and formed a community in which the individual members did not have any private property. They put their wealth together and made it a common property. They knew that they were really poor, for God owned everything. They even called themselves the poor.  (Acts 2:44-46). Because they hoped for Christ's quick return, they didn't engage in any activity for creating wealth. Thus in the long run, they suffered from a shortage of resources, and we read about Paul making collections for them from the communities in other places.  

There have been monastic communities in the history of Christianity. Poverty is one of the monastic vows. It is a vow of the individual members of the monastic community, not a vow of the community itself. Here poverty doesn't mean not having enough of the basic necessities. It simply means that there is nothing in private ownership. No one in the community has his/her own private property. Everything is held in common. A monastic community is a model community that sets an example for the rest of the human community. The entire humankind may not be able to live like a monastic community. However, humankind must try its best to apply the ideal of common ownership as much as possible. 

In very ancient time, when there were very few people, there was nothing private. They felt like a part of the nature along with the plants and animals. Later when the number of people increased, there was more and more competition for resources, they began to claim ownership of land, and they began to transfer the ownership to their descendants. Even today, the resources like air, rain, ocean, and sunlight are not privatized; they remain common. Roads, parks, lakes, and forests are owned in common by communities. Thus we have developed a life style in which we have both private and public properties.

Joint Responsibility for Commonly Owned Facilities
While living in the United States, I noticed that people feel a joint responsibility to appropriately maintain the commonly-owned facilities. Joint ownership is clearly visible in all the commonly- owned places and institutions. People in general don't litter public places. People in general feel "our" nation, "our" government, and "our" laws. They tend to follow laws willingly rather than break them. They do not rebel against the government unnecessarily. Even if there is a ruling party and an opposing party, their competition with each other always remains healthy and decent. Either of the parties wouldn't do anything that jeopardizes the wellbeing of the nation or of the people. Corruption and bribing are unheard of.

Living in India, I have noticed that people in general don't have a sense of joint responsibility for public places or public institutions. People in general don't feel "our" government, or "our" laws, or "our" nation, or "our" roads. They don't feel responsible for maintaining public places neat; many of them even litter in public places. Corruption and bribing seem to be the general rule. There are so many political parties constantly in competition to get into and stay in positions of power. For many of the members of those parties, it is an opportunity to climb up the ladder of financial freedom rather than an opportunity to serve the people or the nation. In India you can see world's best houses equipped with world's best appliances. But alas, the roads, that are publicly owned, are the world's worst. The houses are made and maintained well because their owners have a sense of ownership and they feel responsible to maintain them. Unfortunately, people do not feel a sense of common ownership for the roads or other public places and institutions. When they want to rebel against something, they express their rebellion by destroying some publicly owned things-- they burn some public buses or break some public buildings or create some obstructions in the public roads.  How would they engage in such destruction if they had any sense of ownership! 

I don't mean that America is a heaven. America has an economic system that may not be healthy in the long run, and so others may not copy. Unfortunately India seems to be slowly copying their economic system instead of developing one of our own. Secularism, which is based on naive realism, seems to be the dominant religion in America. This is a godless and materialistic philosophy, which believes that nothing exists beyond human perception. Unfortunately, this religion is slowly running its roots deeper in Indian soil too. I wonder if this western secularism is slowly replacing the secularism in India, which gives equal importance to all the traditional religions. Thus there are things in America that we, in India, should not copy. However, the one thing we need to copy is their sense of joint responsibility about what is jointly owned.

Community Economy
Traditionally we have had throughout the world a community economy in which its members depend on one another. No individual is an island in such an economy. Each and everyone serves everyone else and he/she in turn is supported by everyone else. No one feels insecure in such an economy, for when you are in need, others will be there to support you. Today, it seems, all over the world, we are slowly moving away from such a community economy toward an individualistic one, in which we are supposed to be fully self-dependent. We are not supposed to be interdependent. We are responsible only for ourselves, and if we help someone else, it is out of charity, not out of responsibility. Too much emphasis on the individual responsibility seems to be the reason for such a development. Standing on our own feet without mutual support causes a lot of stress and anxiety. Stress level has dramatically increased throughout the world recently.

We need to find ways to develop an economy in which people can be more interdependent. This is not to minimize the importance of individual responsibility. We need to assume the responsibility to stand on our own feet, but at the same time we need to be willing to support those around us if they fail to stand on their own. Later when we fail to stand on our own, those around us will be willing to offer us their support.

Our is a world in which people are discriminated based on class difference, and one in which an individualistic economy is replacing a community one. In India we don't feel a joint responsibility toward what we own jointly such as our roads and our government. The belief that God is all-owning has the power to effectively root out the class discrimination and to help us feel responsible toward what we own in common. It might also help us to develop an economy in which we are more interdependent rather than fully self-dependent.   


Dr. Joseph E. Thomas said...

Ambassador Galbraith once said that America was privately rich, but publicly poor. This seems to be true of today's Kerala.
Joseph E. Thomas.

Tony Daniel said...

This is yet another thoroughly thought provoking and highly readable article by Mr. John Kunnathu.

It is a scholarly article on the stewardship of God's creation and how its possession is considered a yardstick of human success in some circles.

Raji Johnson said...

Well written and educative. thanks.