Ownership and the Spiritual Life

A bison in the wild - renunciation and property

The False Idol of Ownership

In trauma circles, there is a saying, “Don’t ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Instead, ask, ‘What happened to you?” In other words, all those people who seem crazy and wrong—the addict, the mentally ill, the homeless, the timid, the broken-hearted, the hungry, the prisoner trapped by cell walls or greed or an unacknowledged emptiness of heart—are not crazy or wrong. They are wounded.

Trauma, which is the battering of our defenses, the shattering of our spirit, an event that overwhelms our capacity to cope, is not the only way we become scarred, though it is, perhaps, a more common one than we might suppose. Not all of us have been traumatized; all of us have been hurt.

One way we try to cope with the hurts of our hearts is to amass cars, land, gold, power, servants. We see the rich and famous living lives of luxury, and we want that. After all, from the time we were old enough to grab another child’s toy, our culture has taught us that what we own defines who we are. We come to believe that if we collect enough things, we will be loved, and our shiny good health, and our vibrant good cheer prove it.

Materialism is a false idol. Golden calves, “idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood” (Rev 9:20), are false because they sanctify the worship of wealth. Not every European of the sixteenth century who sailed across the ocean to settle in the Americas did so because he wanted to grow rich. Even so, by the time our nation was seeking independence, we had stolen human beings from their homes and called them property, and we had fought and cheated our way onto Indigenous lands and called them ours.

Trauma and the Founding of Our Nation

It was a curiously self-centered and selfish response to the pain and suffering we caused. What wounds festered so in those original settlers that they could pretend other humans had no value? Not just people of color were abused, but also women and children. What traumas made these powerful men and women discount the wails of the oppressed?

Though to answer such a question would require extensive research, and even then, could not be answered definitively, if we look back through the centuries, we can see multiple examples of terrors that would suffice. Back in England, Puritans were disenfranchised, imprisoned in horrific conditions, beaten, shamed. The loyal Christian’s tendency toward harsh punishments followed them overseas, landing on the backs of the unfortunate and powerless.

Yet trauma shatters not only the victim. The perpetrator is herself broken when she tries to break others. The act of oppressing wounds both oppressed and oppressor. Though the hurts look different, they both fester.

Surely then, trauma in Western society was at least as common in those days before we fought against Britain as it is now, probably more so. If these settlers were traumatized, wounded, and broken-hearted, is it any wonder they sought something to fill the hole within them? It would be a leap to say that their quest for land or slaves arose out of their desire to be whole, yet is there any motivation more pure than a wish to be seen, to be loved, to feel important?

Capitalism Comes to the Americas

At the same time, it is not all that motivates us. Like we do, the settlers longed for adventure, beauty, a sense of control over fate, the blessing of prestige, the glow of pride. They sought grand and wonderful vistas. They longed to create a dynasty or a song, to make meaning, to find peace. To be free to explore and experience the wonders of this land is a marvelous thing.

Unfortunately, to gain these gifts, we are too often willing to murder, manipulate, enslave, and demean. In other words, we are willing to oppress. White settlers had the power to enforce their rule, and so they did. Of course, people around the world, whatever their color or their culture, get trapped by the lure of power. It is a human failing.

Some societal structures make this more likely than others, however. The capitalist system, already accepted by them as normal, informed the values of our nation’s founders. Drew Hart, a professor of theology, suggests that capitalism, at least in the United States, was formed out of “the idea of plunder.” [1] Thomas K. McGraw explains that settlers from Europe had a “ravenous appetite for land.” [2]

Back in Europe, property had been held by a limited few families for generations. Once arriving in America, land-poor settlers saw incredible richness in that vast countryside that seemed free for the taking. If their taking caused hardship for others, they hardly noticed.

Filling the Empty Space

The Virginia Company of London founded Jamestown; the Massachusetts Bay Company founded Boston. Unlike the Virginia Company, whose quest for cheap labor encouraged the abuse of indentured servants and helped support the slave trade, the Massachusetts Bay Company emphasized humanitarian values above profits. [3] In the end, though, a business must make money to survive.

If we are not careful, the making of money becomes an addiction. Then the capitalist comes to revere wealth over relationships, property over kindness, and ownership over serenity. Once we experience the heady rush of accumulating capital, its lure is hard to resist. To maintain our wealth, we may end up worshiping this money-making machine rather than God. Then we are willing to plunder the earth, plunder the goods of others, if only we stay solvent. Unchecked, capitalism leads to theft, oppression, and abuse. According to Hart, once given free rein, capitalism’s “desire can’t be quenched.” [4]

At least, it can’t be quenched by making more money or owning more people or claiming more land. That desire for more can only be quenched if we allow the sacred to fill that empty space within us so we no longer feel so scared and alone.

Giving, Not Taking

This desire for more is not unique to us, nor is it a modern malady. Two thousand years ago, in the Middle East, a small community of marginalized Jews became followers of Jesus. They loved him and served him; they listened to his parables and his teachings. Even so, though they spent years at his side, they still did not understand his message of poverty and servanthood.

Hart offers the example of the Zebedee brothers, John and James. In the Gospel of Matthew, their mother hustles them to stand before Jesus and says, “Declare that these sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

Jesus responds: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” (Matt 20:21-22 NRSV).

Of course, the young men thought they could. Indeed, in the future, they would be martyrs to their faith. Yet no matter their sacrifice, only God can decide who will be honored in heaven.

Though John and James did not get their wish, the other disciples were angry with them. Perhaps they made snide comments or berated the brothers. Regardless, they quarreled enough that Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 20:2-27).

Jesus was a different kind of messiah, a different kind of lord. Instead of seeking worldly wealth and power, he came to earth to serve and to offer his life for others. His power was in giving, not in taking.

The Mountain Gets Taller

Few of us are looking for this kind of power. We don’t want some upside-down version of strength and prestige. As Hart points out, the disciples families had been peasants and serfs and outcasts for as long as they could remember. Most likely, they hated the political leaders, but also envied them. After all, who doesn’t appreciate comfort and safety? As Hart says, “Jesus’ disciples want to live just like these rulers who lord over others.” [5]

Most of us do. After all, it’s easy to live when you have the power of soldiers at your back and the comfort that money brings. We like shelter, clothing, food, freedom. Trapped by fear and longing, we cling to our possessions. If we have nothing, we scrabble and scrape until we “get back on our feet,” as they say. As if we’re not on our feet when we travel the world as a pauper, and as if we lose all respect, even humanity, if we must sleep on the street or beg for pennies.

But of course we do. That’s how society treats those who fall to the bottom. We shame them, chastise them, blame them for falling prey to a system they didn’t create and cannot control. In the United States, there’s this myth that if we work hard and follow the rules, we, too, can climb to the top of the materialism mountain, but almost none of us are allowed to make it. If we all did, then the top of the mountain would simply rise higher.

A bison in the wild - renunciation and property
Do we own the land?
Photo by Andrew Sterling

Clinging to Idols

When we act as if we could win against a crooked system, like the gambler who swears he can beat the odds at the casino, we buy into the lies and perpetuate society’s inequities. We feed the machine and make it stronger. When we seek the rewards of worldly culture, we endorse an oppressive worldview that destroys rather than builds, isolates rather than connects. We enlarge that hole in our hearts until we might fall into it.

From the Desert mothers and fathers comes this story:

Once there was a brother named Serapion. He owned nothing but his Bible. Then, one day, he sold it so he might feed the poor. He said, “I have even sold the very word which commanded me: ‘Sell everything, and give it to the poor.’” [6]

This is a radical noncomformity. Instead of accepting the Western lust for possessions, Serapion gives away even his religious text. The Bible may tell us to give everything away and become one with the poor, but what a radical act to actually do this.

We think we can own pets, land, homes, children, wives. Does anything truly belong to us? Or does it belong to itself? When we let go of everything we own, we defy the culture of domination that turns every object, and every individual, into a commodity.

Chittister asks, “What is it that we would not give away no matter who needed it?” [7] If by reducing what we own and what we consume, we could make life better for others, how much would we give away? To what idols would we still cling?

Making an Idol Out of Everything

As Chittister points out, we can make anything into an idol, even our faith and its holy books. We turn our religion into an object, our Bible into a thing. Yet is religion not meant to bring us closer to God, to show us how to open up to the holy? If so, do we really find it by searching through texts?

After all, Jesus didn’t write anything down. Perhaps he intended for his parables to be told from one generation to the next, a faith as grounded in oral tradition as his was. Did he intend for his words to be cataloged, poured over, taken as gospel? Does that not make an idol of his life? Jesus taught us to love, to grieve the loss of all we love, to let go of what we think we love, and to be born anew into a love more true than any we knew before.

The Christian scriptures tell a tale of sacrifice and love. Chittister points out that, because he fulfilled the Gospel, Serapion could relinquish the book. He no longer needed the words to teach him how to give up everything, to stand as one naked, to open his soul, to become nothing but himself, free from attachments. When he gave up even his attachment to his faith, he didn’t lose it. Instead, he merged with God. He gained holiness. No gold or reputation or texts got in the way of his experiencing the sacred.

Easter Every Day

His model is not one most of us are ready to emulate. Quite the contrary. Many of us go to great lengths to prove such asceticism is unnecessary. In fact, we like to think that by claiming all the creature comforts possible, we become even more beloved by God.

In her book about dying, Kate Bowler describes a Good Friday service she attended at a “prosperity gospel” church. On Good Friday, churches have historically embraced the emptiness of death, the darkness of loss. We hover in that place of unknowing, of hopelessness. On Good Friday, the curtain has been lifted, and we discover that the wizard is impotent. Even the wizard can die.

Prosperity believers will have none of that. While looking for a prosperity church where she could attend a Good Friday service, Bowler had trouble finding one. Ignoring the death, these Christians jumped straight to the rebirth.

Finally, she uncovered a megachurch that held a worship that evening, so she attended. At the beginning, a few somber songs drifted through the sanctuary. Soon, though, the preacher skipped ahead to the joy of worshiping a risen lord. [8]

For some of us, darkness does not exist. Misery is a myth. No challenge is insurmountable, no illness incurable. Good Friday is a blip on the screen. Every day is Easter morning.

The Triumphant Christ

Over the years, Bowler has studied, researched, and experienced the gospel of the prosperity seekers, those who are certain they deserve all good things, like neon lights and sparkling jewels and private jets. Like the Puritans, they measure how much God loves us by how affluent we are. What would they make of that killjoy Serapion?

Bowler wonders if these eager and indomitable people, who will cheerfully continue to demand healing for a loved one even after his body has started to decay, are happy. “Do people find themselves emboldened, shielded from the trials of daily life by the promise that they are more than conquerors?” she asks. She doesn’t know. Still, it seems that what helps give these happy-go-lucky worshipers the energy to keep going is, in part, their fervent belief that they have “total mastery over everything” As Bowler says, “Control is a drug, and we are all hooked.” [9]

The prosperity gospel teaches us that God wants to give us everything we ask for, so we just need to ask. Because of our abundant faith, God’s grace will flow to us. Our bank accounts will flourish, our garages fill with shiny cars; our children will be perfect, our grandparents never die.

For some reason, it seems, perhaps because of some trauma now hidden, even denied, these desperate worshipers need to prove that God loves them. What better way to do this than by collecting all the trappings of the rich? After all, wasn’t Jesus wealthy?

Oh, wait, never mind. We won’t talk about the mere mortal, the reviled carpenter. He makes a terrible messiah. Better we should talk about the triumphant Christ.

Seeing God

It’s desperately unfair to have to admit that sunshine blesses the evil as well as the good. Even harder to accept is that rain falls everywhere. You obey all the rules, and you still get wet. Disaster strikes at random and might even hit us. If it does, though, remember it’s just a test. When we sail through without whining, we will receive a reward as big as Job’s.

What drives us to dream of gems and limousines and a mansion on the prairie? Bowler discovered that prosperity believers seek more than wealth. They long for an “escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives [are] leaky buckets.” [10] They want to know God will save them if they got sick, that their marriages will miraculously mend, that they can snap their fingers and make things right, whatever “right” means to them.

As if we know what is right. Too often, our efforts to fix problems cause problems of their own. But that’s another downer idea. When we need God to be an agreeable magician, we don’t appreciate downer ideas.

But what if we had more to grieve than we could face? Might we not seek respite in prosperity, as well? Might we not long for the promise of the glittering gospel, the promise that we, too, can control our destiny? When life sucks, we seek a way out.

Giving Up Everything

What happened to you? I want to ask these prosperity seekers. What has so broken your soul that you cannot even acknowledge that Jesus died?

Tell me your grief, and I will tell you mine. Being honest with one another, telling the truth to ourselves, and witnessing to the sorrow and the rage is how we begin to heal the hurts that leave us vulnerable to charlatans. Shiny things are idols that get in the way of our seeing God. Serapion had it right. We cannot enter heaven unless we relinquish all we own. Yet how do we do that?

Perhaps we do that by healing the hole in our hearts and our souls. Is it possible that the more we resist giving away what we own, the more broken we are? Can we measure our emptiness by looking at the evil we commit in the cause of maintaining our property, our self-esteem, our lifestyle?

What does it mean to give everything away? If we all did that, there would be no more poor. We would be equal. If, however, you and I give away everything, but no one else does, then we become the poor in a world of commerce. Without money, shelter, shoes, grain, Serapion had to depend on others to take care of him. It is fine for someone who lives in a monastery to renounce ownership. He receives all he needs from the community.

Even in tribal societies, hunter-gatherer communities, people owned things. Perhaps they had a blanket, a beaded necklace, a pottery bowl. When we have nothing, when we are ostracized from the community, we are likely to die.

That is true today, as well. The homeless—the ostracized—die young.

Contributing to Society

I own a lot, and I don’t want to give it up. If I did, I would feel anxious, bereft, maybe desperate. That reveals my spiritual lack.

On the other hand, if I give up everything, how do I contribute to society? How do I work? What clothes will I wear to the hospital? How do I wash? If I have no computer, how do I write? Though maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the world doesn’t need more words. Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

We produce commodity after commodity because we need to “make a living.” Therefore, someone must buy the things we make. The market rules all we do. Even in my work as a chaplain, I serve an institution that scrimps here and saves there so it can make more and more and more. To one degree or another, I am a widget.

So what does the world need? How do provide that? Must we own things for the world to keep spinning, for us to eat, for parents to raise their children? If we give up everything, will God toss manna down to us so we might live?

Not likely. Perhaps, then, there is a middle ground.

For instance, Hart calls on us to be “nonconformist.” He points out that the gospel invites us to rebel against the dominant culture, the one that tells us we are valuable as long as we are powerful, and that we are powerful as long as we are rich. To counter this abusive message, we must rebel as Jesus did. We must refuse to conform to society’s expectations.

Nonconformity

Hart defines this as “living on the underside of our social order,” creating “communities of mutuality, love, and endurance.” It means “caring for the poor, loving enemies, renouncing retaliation, and overcoming evil forces by participating in God’s goodness (Romans 12:9-21).” [11] This is the way of Jesus. It is not about “status and respect.” It is not about prosperity. Living the true gospel is an act of defiance. Jesus turned the norms of the dominant culture upside down. Like that of Rome, “American money, power, and respect are very enticing,” but they are also “oppressive, perverse, and destructive.” [12]

That’s why Serapion gave up everything. He did not want to get trapped in that cycle of oppression, that perversity, that destructive lure of gold.

Yet do we take care of the poor if we, too, are poor? Once his Bible is gone, Serapion has nothing else to sell.

When we have given up all we own, who will lead social justice campaigns? Without phones, without printers, without the internet, how would we communicate? How would we gather? How would we resist the violence of the dominant culture that uses its police and its military to harass and control? Not by taking everything away from them. To create a police force that serves rather than abuses its power requires more money, not less. Who will pay for this if we are all poor?

But maybe we don’t all need to be poor. Maybe only a select few need to embrace the simplicity of poverty, those of us who can stare at that emptiness inside our spirits and allow it to heal. Is that the message, that only the brave need apply?

I am not that brave. I am too much of this world.

Finding God

So what about this middle ground? Can I find refuge there? Is it okay to keep my clothes and the water I use to wash them? What about a roof over my head, a computer in my office? How much can I own without falling prey to greed. Our society is far too materialistic. We cling, we take from others, we lack generosity. Can we fix that with a balanced life?

I wonder. I doubt God—or whatever you name the holy—is inviting us into balance. The spiritual life is dangerous and devastating. It is about death, whether that death be material, emotional, physical. It demands renunciation. To connect with the holy, we must surrender our idols, our beliefs, our very selves. Without Good Friday, there can be no Easter. To embrace the spiritual life—a life that brings us joy beyond understanding—we must be ready to lose all but our souls.

Few of us do this willingly. I never have. Therefore, life will take from us one thing after another until we are scoured of all but our true selves. Then we might find the strength to sell our scriptures. We might be able to give away the coin we receive. Even then, the story will not then be over, however. The coin may well become an idol in another’s hands.

So, how do we all become free?

Sometimes I dream of walking into the woods, of finding a home far from anything of this culture, but the temptation’s not that strong. I enjoy my comforts too much. So I try not to cling. I try not to be afraid. For I have been told by those who seem to know that when everything I own is lost, there God will be found.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Hart, Drew, “Liberating Chaplaincy: Caring for Those Who Have Their Backs Against the Wall,” [plenary], Association of Professional Chaplains Conference, June 11, 2021.
  2. McGraw, Thomas, “It Came in the First Ships: Capitalism in America,” Harvard Business School, October 12, 1999, https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/it-came-in-the-first-ships-capitalism-in-america, accessed 7/10/21.
  3. McGraw, “The Royal Africa Company – Supplying Slaves to Jamestown,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/the-royal-african-company-supplying-slaves-to-jamestown.htm, accessed 7/10/21, and “The Virginia Company of London,” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p264.html, accessed 7/10/21.
  4. Hart “Liberating Chaplaincy.”
  5. Hart, Drew, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2019, 159.
  6. Chittister, Joan, “The Perils of Private Ownership,” In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, Cincinnati, OH: Fransiscan Media, 2015, 11-13, 11.
  7. Ibid 12.
  8. Bowler, Kate, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, OverDrive ebook, New York: Random House, 2018.
  9. Ibid 115 and 116.
  10. Ibid 20.
  11. Hart Trouble 141.
  12. Ibid.

Photo by Andrew Sterling on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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