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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Property—Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

The practice of gleaning, commanded in Leviticus and illustrated in the narrative of Ruth, disrupts the sort of connection we may suppose exists between the ownership and the use of property. The principles of economic justice it implies can guide us in our contemporary politics.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

To the modern reader, it is perhaps remarkable that the Mosaic Law appears so consistently focused on the appropriate use of one’s property. Certainly the text draws forward commands that seem, to modern eyes, straightforwardly ethical or moral: “you shall not defraud,” “you shall not steal,” “you shall not render unjust judgement.” But these texts are directly juxtaposed with other texts that question the absolute status or inviolable right of private property. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

In the United States, the absolute use of private property is often regarded as an inviolable or natural right. James Madison, the so-called “Father of the Constitution,” wrote in 1792 that “government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term [property] particularly expresses.… If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property.”

Property, on this account, is propre (one’s own); it is that which is proprius, that which is to be used for oneself (pro “for,” privus “oneself”). The ownership of property and the use of property are bound one to the other.

If property, on this account, is first and foremost one’s own, how can the Mosaic Law demand that this property be appropriated (appropriatus, “to make one’s own”) for the poor and the stranger? Isn’t such a demand a misappropriation, a violation of the proper rights of ownership, an improper requirement?

The demand for gleaning embodied by Leviticus 19 problematizes this absolute continuity between the ownership of property and the use of the property. “Your land… your field… [and] your vineyard” must be left for the gleaning of the poor and the foreigner, even while remaining your own.

Gleaning was an ancient practice that functioned as a sort of welfare system. At the time of harvest, the owner or field hand would leave the corners and edges of the field untouched, additionally crops that are dropped during the harvest would not be gathered in a second harvest. Following the principal harvest, the poor or marginalized (paradigmatically “the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” [Deuteronomy 24.19-21]) would be permitted to gather these remnants in order to provide for their own needs.

This system is narratively illustrated in the second chapter of Ruth, where Naomi instructs Ruth to “go to the field and glean among the ears of grain” (Ruth 2.2), and where the just Boaz goes beyond the requirement of the law and instructs his field hands to “also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean” (Ruth 2.16).

What is illustrated by this demand for gleaning is that the Mosaic Law cannot countenance a notion of the inviolability of private property: ownership does not absolutely determine the right of use. This distinction is clearly picked up by early Christian commentators. Saint Chrysostom speaks with great moral authority on the issue of wealth and property, drawing together those demands which are transparently ethical and those that would seem to relativize property: “not only the theft of other’s goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation.”

The theological ground of this demand is the ultimate return of all goods to the divine: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it” (Psalm 24.1). For the Mosaic Law and Chrysostom, there is ultimately no such thing as private property in the strong sense. There is nothing that is strictly one’s own, because all property finally redounds to God and mediately to those in need.

What can the demand for gleaning mean in a modern Western economy—where, for example, less than 2% of Americans are employed in agriculture? Here one might turn to the generalization of this principle in Catholic thought. In the Catholic social tradition, this limitation of ownership is manifest as the distinction between the right of ownership and the right of use that applies with equal rigor to all property.

In Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum it is stated that, “[while] no one is commanded to distribute to other that which is required for his own necessities and those of his [sic] household … it is a duty to give to the indigent out of that which is left over” (19). For this theology there is a “twofold character of ownership … individual and social” (Pius XI, Quadregesimo Anno, 49).

While the Catholic Social tradition has always maintained the ineradicable necessity of private property (individual), the use of this property must remain subservient to the needs of the common good (social). This is the universal destination of goods, “each man [sic] has therefore the right to find in the world what is necessary for himself … all other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle” (Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 29).

To remain faithful to the spirit of the Mosaic demand, in the modern world, requires more than a reimagining of agricultural practice (though it might also require this), it requires a rethinking of the very notion of private property. In a world where the 8 richest men—and they are all men—own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people, and where wealth and income inequality have consistently grown throughout the last 50 years, it may now be the time to question the social and material consequences of an absolutist conception of private property.

Theologically speaking, what we find in the Mosaic demand, Chrysostom, and the Catholic social tradition, is a unified insistence that private property remain subordinated to the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community. It is not sufficient to affirm the importance of charity while maintaining an uncritical allegiance to the inviolable right to private property.

The question of gleaning is a demand for an “im-proper” justice, a justice that may require expropriation of property that is rightly “my own.” The demand of gleaning is a demand for economic justice.

J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.

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