Frederick Verinder: My Neighbor's
Landmark: Short Studies in Bible Land Laws
When we meet with a new interpreter, eager to impart a revelation, we set
ourselves to challenge and compare his impassioned message with the ruling
spirit of the
age, the Zeitgeist, as the Germans call it. Thus when Mr. Verinder speaks
of the land-usages and laws of our times, and sets against them the ancient orders
and directions of the Pentateuch, we are aroused at once to question and to find
out how this new view of possession and occupation fits in with the dominant
thoughts of today. From these sacred books he builds a creed for working folk:
that the earth is the Lord's, and that any occupier who claims more than
ancient Jubilee gave is a bold interloper; and he bases on these early Scriptural
regulations a new brotherhood between the man of labor and the soil on which
There springs out of his argument another proof of the universal nature of the
Bible. It is alike ancient and modern. He points out to us that private property
in land is nothing but a survival of privileges won by the mailed fist. We know
that the first settlement of the Jews in the land flowing with milk and honey
was really a raid of
moving "landgrabbers." After their bad times in Egypt, they fell on the natives
of Palestine, drove them out, and took their place: as the missionaries of Jehovah
they proclaimed that they had seized it for His use and in His Name; and they
went on to show the world a better way of occupation, and a happier and more
equable life. ... Read the whole preface
4. Life in the Wasteland: The Just Society
vs. Baal Worship
Fertile ground for the emergence of liberation theology was provided by the clash
of views over the role of politics in the Latin American Church in the first
half of this century. One problem encountered was how to acknowledge God's
sovereignty in history when the everyday world was structured in ways that seemed
to deny it.
- Where could one find a divine presence in a civilization that, in so
many ways, seemed so uncivilized?
- And was it up to individuals or governments to establish a reign of righteousness?
Leonardo Boff points to three models of the Church that have impacted on the
liberation dialogue in Latin America.
- First, "the Church as City of God" holds
that politics and government are essentially outside the realm of religion,
which is for individual salvation.
- Second, "The Church as Mater et Magistra" sees the Church as educating and persuading
political leaders to work for social betterment.
- Third, "The Church as Sacrament of Salvation" has
the religious community opening itself to the world and actively collaborating
with the state in uplifting the members of society.
Finding all three historical models of the Church wanting, Boff suggests a fourth,
drawn from his experiences in the Brazilian basic ecclesial communities. This
model, which can be called "The Church of People-hood and Justice for
All," would be much more participatory, avoiding centralization
and domination. Being democratic, it would emphasize the community more than
individual. Behind Boff's model is liberation theology's concern for the
loss of "people-hood" in Latin America and in much of
8. Power in the Wasteland: Understanding Essential
The new wave of Latin American theologians couple their critique of "individual
Christianity" with an affirmation of the broader concept of
being a "people of God." In the Bible, we are reminded, God has a chosen people.
He loves the poor, oppressed, and landless — as a group. He hates the oppressors — as
a group. It is the people who leave the Wasteland and enter the Promised Land.
And although the generations had passed away, their children and grandchildren
repeated the history of Egyptian oppression and God's salvation in the first
person: "And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon
us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord... and the Lord brought us out of
Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deut. 26:5-10)
The Judeo-Christian meaning of liberation is clarified by some
attention to Baal, the most
active "foreign god" of the Canaanite pantheon. To the Canaanites, fertility
depended upon sexual union between Baal and his sister and consort, Anath.
Baal worship consisted in reenacting the mating of the gods in orgiastic
temple prostitutes. Beyond maintaining natural fertility and harmony,
Baal religion was used by the aristocracy to uphold the social order. Canaanite
tenants worked as dispossessed farmers on estates owned by magnates, the temple,
and the king. They worshiped the landowners, the baals, who held dominion over
both the land and the
peasants themselves. Old Testament exhortations against Baalism
emphasize the proper way to worship
Yahweh: by acting with mercy and justice towards one's fellow
Because justice does not prevail when some,
like the baals, claim the land and its bounty while others are excluded from
these privileges, Hosea denounces Israel for betraying
its covenant to recognize God as the true owner of the earth. And Amos,
referring to the greed for possessing the land and its fruits, said God is
angered by those "who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of
the land to an end" (Amos 8:4). Amos' indictment of
Israel mentions oppression of the poor and cultic prostitution as if they were
one (Amos 2:6-8). This seems strange until one recognizes that the link between
these two sins is a wrongful
concept of land ownership. Recall that Baal-worship and its sexual rites
glorified inequitable land possession and control. In the Prophets, the role
of land is crucial in the divine providential scheme, and the flouting of just
principles of land possession has grave consequences. Human beings are caretakers,
not the owners, of
Amos and Hosea underscored that being a
caretaker of the earth, while defining people's relationship to the land,
people's relationship to one another. Being a caretaker meant loving justice
and doing mercy, letting go of selfish possession and the desire for power
over others by usurping their means of livelihood, and instead becoming,
compassionate. Consider what a revolutionary break this represents from Baal
idolized control of the soil and deified the landowners! ...
Many liberation theologists ignore the role of land ownership and do not even
include land in the indexes of their books. Yet none would deny that land hoarding
and land access are fundamental issues of
justice and economic development.
The following two passages by Henry George, the economist who made the most definitive
statements on land's role in political economy, illustrate the fundamental characteristics
of land that are missed or ignored by modern economic analysts of the left and
Does the passenger
who enters a railroad car obtain the right to scatter his baggage over all
the seats and compel the passengers who come in after him to stand up? ...
We arrive and we depart... passengers from station to station, on an orb
that whirls through space — our rights to take and possess cannot be
exclusive; they must be bounded everywhere by the equal rights of others.
Just as the passenger in a railroad car may spread himself and his baggage
over as many seats as he pleases, until other passengers come in, so may
a settler take as much land as he chooses, until it is needed by others — a
fact which is shown by the land acquiring a value....
On the land we are born, from it we live,
to it we return again — children of the soil as truly as is the blade
of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from man all that belongs
to the land, and he is but a disembodied spirit. Material progress cannot
rid us of our dependence upon land.
Beneath all ideologies, there are basic factors and relationships that underlie
economic behavior. To understand the (otherwise inexplicable) omission of attention
to land's economic importance, it is useful to go
back to these basics.
Now, the objective of all economic behavior
is the satisfaction of human desires. Human beings always seek to satisfy their
desires with the least exertion: this self-evident proposition lies at
the heart of our concepts of economic value and
exchange. The primary thing needed for satisfaction is, of course, the
tangible things, made from natural resources, that satisfy human desires and
have exchange value. Things that meet these four
fundamental criteria are termed "wealth". But money, bonds, and mortgages are
but claims upon and measures of this value; they are not
the wealth they symbolize.
- The term "Land" refers to the whole material
universe, exclusive of people and their products. Not the creation
of human labor, yet essential to labor, it is the raw material from which
all wealth is fashioned. It includes not only soil and minerals, but water,
air, natural vegetation and wildlife, and all natural opportunities — even
those yet to be discovered. It is a passive factor of production,
yielding wealth only when labor is applied to it.
- Labor includes
all human powers, mental and physical, used directly or indirectly to produce
goods or to render service in exchange. Labor is often thought of as work
that is done for hire, at fixed wages, mainly excluded from the risk-taking
and decision-making that is normally classed under the heading of "entrepreneurship".
Yet labor, properly understood, includes all human exertion in production — including
mental exertion. The payment to labor is called Wages. And it is important to remember
that the payment, or return, to labor does not include any returns that are
the result of monopoly.
- Capital is
the economic term that is most profoundly misunderstood and confused. For
the term to make sense in any systematic analysis of wealth distribution,
we must define capital in its classical sense as "wealth which is used to
aid in further production, instead of being directly consumed." Since production
is not completed until the product is in the hands of the consumer, products
on their way to market, or "wealth in the course of exchange," are also considered
A clear understanding of these basic definitions points immediately to the primacy
of land as an economic factor. Human beings have inescapable material needs of
food, clothing and shelter. Regardless of how long a chain of exchanges they
may pass through in a modern economy, these things ultimately have their source
in the land; they
can come from nowhere else. Human beings need
land in order to live. But if we must pay rent to a private
land "owner" for access to the gifts of nature, it amounts to being charged a
fee for our very right to live.
Land's value goes up when population increases
and technological and economic development make labor more productive. Those
who "own" land often withhold it from use, expecting to capture its increased
value in the future — thus, the possession of land enables people to take
income that they did nothing to produce.
Speculative withholding of land has disastrous
consequences. Peasants who seek land on which to survive are pushed out to poorer
and poorer lands. These "sub-marginal" lands become their alternative
place for self-employment. With such a poor alternative, they have no choice
but to accept very low wages. Rent — the payment to landowners — absorbs
of the wealth
produced on all sites.
Land speculation also prevents development near the center of cities, pushing
it to the outskirts while the center decays from neglect and slums increase.
The "sprawl" engulfs farms and forests,
even as it raises the price of land, making
use and development more costly.
Rapid destruction of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil dramatizes how the unnatural
phenomenon of sprawl has an ominous worldwide impact on the environment. In Brazil,
ten per cent of the landowners own 80 percent of the land, while one million
peasants are forced off the land each year. And a mere one per cent controls
48 percent of the cultivable land. The only place in Brazil where there is land
for the taking is in the Amazon rain forest. The destruction of the rain forest
is caused by a system that perpetuates artificial land shortages. Nearly four-fifths
of Brazil's arable land is covered by sprawling latifundios, most of which are
held by speculators who produce nothing.
Here is the root cause of poverty. When laborers
are faced with the choice of either bare subsistence wages or land that can barely
maintain life, labor itself is marginalized and cannot effectively bargain on
its own behalf. Wages, generally, on all land, are driven down toward the point
of bare subsistence. Returns to capital are also depressed for the same reason,
deterring investment. When this is carried to an extreme — when people
can no longer afford the goods being produced and when there is little profit
capital — the economy collapses. The inflated land market, on which the
frenzy has fed, collapses too.
Since the Great Depression, such total ruin has been minimized in more developed
nations through Keynesian measures: monetary expansion, massive public works
and welfare programs. In Third World countries, such Keynesian expedients, which
support high speculative rent levels, work only if demand for exports is strong.
When that demand weakens, the weight of external debt becomes so crushing as
to defy redemption.
The Third World debt crisis is taken by many as the clearest sign of the correctness
of dependency theory. It is asserted that Western moneylenders have extended
loans to corrupt regimes, knowing that the nations' peoples would have to sacrifice
to bear ever-increasing burdens. But when we recognize the land problem as the
basic cause of
the kind of economic collapse that has led to the "foreign debt
crisis", it becomes clear that Western financial interests did not create those
maladies but rather exploited the hapless economic policies of developing nations
for their own gain.
Some defenders of the status quo admit that
all land titles may be traced either to acts of force or fraud (or to the more
respectable-sounding "priority of occupation"). But, they add, we cannot start
over; society has for centuries given legal sanction to private landed property.
Innumerable contracts have been executed on the basis of this sanction, and these
include the good faith purchase of land. For society to withdraw this sanction,
claim, would be a breach of trust.
The passage of time,
however, cannot turn a wrong into a right. Kings and popes and governments never had
the moral right to vest in perpetual ownership what God intended for the benefit
of all. If the acquisition of a benefit under the law were to establish
such a vested right, no law could ever be amended, since it would invariably
work to someone's
Obviously, change that further rends the fabric of society is usually self-defeating.
And the vast majority of beneficiaries of unjust structures — the beleaguered
middle classes — are not intentional wrongdoers but passive recipients
of unearned wealth from a flawed system they did not create. The dismantling
of these structures, therefore, should, whenever possible, be done in ways that
avoid excessive hardship
for them. But it must be done.
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land as common property
I was there first!
land monopoly capitalism
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