Public Finance based on Early Christian Teachings

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Article: Alanna Hartzok. Earth Rights Democracy: Public Finance based on Early Christian Teachings. Christianity and Human Rights Conference. Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. November 2004



"This paper makes a case for a new form of democracy based on human rights to the earth as a birthright, linking this to the Judeo-Christian Jubilee Justice tradition and Old and New Testament teachings. It presents a tax fairness practical policy approach based on the ethical stance of these teachings."


Alanna Hartzok:

"Early Christian teachings on the Land Problem, however, were clear and precise. The question of "Who Should Own the Earth?" was unequivocally answered. The land ethic of the early Christian communities was that of "koinonia" meaning essentially that God was the sole owner of the earth which was given as a gift to all for the "autarkeia," the self-reliant livelihood, of all. In the words of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople at the close of the fourth century, "The very air, earth, matter, are the Creator's; and so are you yourself...; and all other things also."

When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, the early Christian teachings on land were overtaken by the Roman land laws of "dominium" - a legalization of property in land originally obtained by conquest and plunder. A largely corrupted Christianity, uprooted from its early teachings on land ownership, too often went hand in hand with the exploitation and degradation of centuries of colonial conquests. A statement by the great South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed this point in a succinct and profound manner. He said, "When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land."[10]

Charles Avila, in his profoundly important book entitled Ownership: Early Christian Teachings, explored the early church fathers' view of property rights in land. He contrasted these teachings to Roman property rights law. In his chapter on "The Concept of Ownership" Avila states:

The concentration of property in private hands began very early in Rome and was indeed based on the foundational and legitimizing idea of absolute and exclusive individual ownership in land. This was the same idea which would come to form the basis of the slave-owning, the feudal, and the capitalist (including the pseudo-socialist, or state-capitalist) economic systems successively. Modern civilization has not yet discarded this antiquated ownership concept, which was originally derived from ancient Rome. In fact, it seems to us, this is one of the main roots of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.[11]

Avila further noted that "the distinction in legal terminology between "real" and "personal" property is the survival in words of an ancient real distinction between property held in both theory and practice as common by its very nature and property which was the fruit of one's labor."[12] Avila said that modern social thinkers

- advocate the promotion of social justice without stopping to think that individual ownership of nature's bounty might be socially unjust in itself. And yet patristic thought insisted long ago that there can be no real justice, or abolition of poverty, if the koina, the common natural elements of production, are appropriated in ownership by individuals.[13]

Here are a few Patristic period quotes on land ownership that Avila compiled in his book:

Ambrose: How far, O ye rich, do you push your mad desires? Shall ye alone dwell upon the earth? Why do you cast out all the fellow sharers of nature and claim it all for yourselves? The earth was made in common for all. Why do you arrogate to yourselves, exclusive right to the soil?

St. George the Great (Pope 590 - 604) rebuked the Romans when he said: They wrongfully think they are innocent who claim for themselves the common gift of God.

Clement of Alexandria: (The functions of property) -"to be shared," "to minister to" and serve "the welfare of all"; "not for personal advantage as being entirely one's own" but "for those in need"; "to achieve autarkeia" and "to foster koinonia" - constitute the very essence of Clement's view of property.

St. John Chrystostom: God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor; nor did he afterwards take and show to anyone treasures of gold, and deny to the others the right of searching for it; rather he left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

Augustine: He (according to Avila's research) saw that the poor are poor because they have been deprived by the propertied few of the wealth that should belong to all. He laid the blame for this unjust situation squarely on the doorstep of an absolutist and exclusivist legal right of private ownership. He reminded his audience that they were all "made from one mud" and sustained "on one earth" under the same natural conditions, having the same essence and called to the same destiny. He rejected the legalized status quo as inappropriate for human living. Holding that legal arrangements of property rights were of human origin, he asserted that they should be changed, in theory and in practice, in function of a faith-informed ethic based on the true meaning of ownership.

Basil the Great: He saw that a privileged few were exceedingly rich, ostentatious, and powerful, inasmuch as wealth, particularly the wealth-producing resource, land, was concentrated in the hands of the few. He taught a philosophy of ownership based on the view that God was Father and giver and Provider for all, and that therefore a few must cease stealing the food-producing resources that God had destined for the use of all.

Basil admits a certain right of laborers to the product of their labor but asks the landlords by what right they exercise ownership over their vast estates: "Which things, tell me, are yours? Whence have you brought them into being?" Whatever you have produced, or brought into being, may justly be yours. However, it is land that has made the landlords rich, and land is not something they have brought into being." Speaking to the rich Basil said:

You are like one occupying a place in a theatre, who should prohibit others from entering, treating that as one's own which was designed for the common use of all.... If each one would take that which is sufficient for one's needs, leaving what is in excess to those in distress, no one would be rich, no one poor. Did you not come naked from the womb? Will you not return naked into the earth?[14]

Jesus pointed to Old Testament teachings regarding land ethics. According to some contemporary theologians, one of the tasks of the mission of Jesus was to restore the original intent of the Jubilee. In Luke 4:18 (by way of Isaiah 61:1-3): He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.. to proclaim release of captives.. To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

As theologian Walter Brueggeman explains in "Land: The Foundation of Humanness"[15], the "acceptable year" is the year of the Jubilee when the land was to be returned to the original holders. The "release of captives" is the release of debt slaves who had lost their land because they could not pay the mortgage. A crucial aspect of Jesus' mission was the reassertion of the land rights of the poor and displaced.

The early Christian land ethic echoed Old Testament teachings concerning land rights. Hear these voices anew:

  • The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me. - Lev. 25:23

  • The profit of the earth is for all. - Eccles. 5:9

  • Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place. - Isaiah 5:8

  • Restore, I pray you, to them even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive yards, and their houses. - Nehemiah 5:11

During the 15th century and several centuries thereafter, the "commons" (land that had always been available for free use by the community) were enclosed by the wealthy or powerful for private use only. This accelerated the rise of the market economy, for without land, peasants had to survive by their wits and their abilities to manufacture. The emerging economy which used money as a primary medium of exchange opened up an opportunity for the landless to acquire land - they could now buy it. But working to accumulate enough wealth to buy land, instead of asserting an inherent human birthright to the earth, is akin to a slave's saving enough money, by cleverness, skill and extra hard effort, to buy him or herself into freedom.

We must not forget that mainstream institutionalized Christianity once promulgated the doctrine that the right of some humans to hold other humans as slaves was encoded in the Bible. After much struggle and centuries of suffering, it gradually dawned on the majority of people that slavery was unjust and it was abolished. A similar awakening regarding the land problem lies in our future, hopefully the near future. The vision for a just land ethic was held by several great sages of our own recent history. Their statements could be useful to us today.

Thomas Jefferson - The earth is given as a common stock for men to labor and live on.

Abraham Lincoln - The land, the earth God gave to man for his home, sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man, corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the air or water, if as much. An individual, company, or enterprise should hold no more than is required for their home and sustenance. All that is not used should be held for the free use of every family to make homesteads, and to hold them as long as they are so occupied.

Henry George - Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on. This is the subtle alchemy that in ways they do not realize is extracting from the masses in every civilized country the fruits of their weary toil; that is instituting a harder and more hopeless slavery in place of that which has been destroyed; that is bringing political despotism out of political freedom, and must soon transmute democratic institutions into anarchy.

Avila, again in Ownership: Early Christian Teachings, wrote:

On first reading Henry George (Progress and Poverty) almost twenty years ago when doing research for this volume, I was particularly struck by the similarity of his arguments, and even analogies, to those of the fourth century Christian philosophers on the topic of land ownership.[16]

Henry George, the great American political economist and land rights philosopher (1839-1897), eloquently confronted the enigma of the wealth gap in his masterwork Progress and Poverty and set forth both an ethical and practical method for holding and sharing the land as a sacred trust for all. He made a clear distinction between property in land and property in wealth produced by labor on land. He said that private property in human made wealth belonged to the producer and that the state should not tax wealth produced by human labor.

George said:

- To abolish these taxes would be to lift the whole enormous weight of taxation from productive industry. The needle of the seamstress and the great manufactory; the cart-horse and the locomotive; the fishing boat and the steamship; the farmer's plow and the merchant's stock, would be alike untaxed. All would be free to make or to save, to buy or to sell, unfined by taxes, un-annoyed by the tax-gatherer. Instead of saying to the producer, as it does now, "The more you add to the general wealth the more shall you be taxed!" the state would say to the producer,

- "Be as industrious, as thrifty, as enterprising as you choose, you shall have your full reward! You shall not be fined for making two blades of grass grow where one grew before; you shall not be taxed for adding to the aggregate wealth.[17]

In an economic system such as ours which uses money as a medium of exchange, land and resources come to have monetary value. In asserting that the gifts of nature are common property and should be equitably shared by all, George saw that in a just society the ownership of land and natural resources would be conditional upon the cash payment to all of a fairly assessed tax, or land rent, for the exclusive right to God's gifts. Thus the collection of land rent for the community as a whole would replace the taxation of productive endeavors. Those with more and/or better located land would pay more into the common fund, while those with little or no land would pay much less or nothing at all.

As George explained it:

...the value of land is at the beginning of society nothing, but as society develops by the increase of population and the advance of the arts, it becomes greater and greater. In every civilized country, even the newest, the value of the land taken as a whole is sufficient to bear the entire expenses of government. In the better developed countries it is much more than sufficient. Hence it will not be enough merely to place all taxes upon the value of land. It will be necessary, where rent exceeds the present governmental revenues, commensurately to increase the amount demanded in taxation, and to continue this increase as society progresses and rent advances.[18]

The author of Common Sense was onto the same idea when he said:

Men did not make the earth...It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property...Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds. - Tom Paine

Enormous sums are currently accruing as unearned income to a relatively few individuals, families and corporations who are holding large amounts of land, very valuable and well-located land, and natural resources as their own exclusive private property. These enormous land values and resource rents are also accruing as unearned income to banks holding mortgages based on exploitative compound interest rates. It may be of interest to note that the word "mortgage" means "dead hand." Truly, when one must work so many years of ones life to pay off a mortgage, one productive hand is as if dead in terms of producing for oneself, as the labor of that hand pays the mortgage. For the 33% of citizens (40 million people) in the United States who are renters, there is not even equity ownership to look forward to after a life of labor. For the more than three million homeless people in American and the multi-millions who are homeless around the world, what Henry George said in 1879 holds true today:

- Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on.[19]

Not only is the land ethic of Old and New Testament prophets and Henry George virtually the same, the policy approach of "resource rent for revenue" also known as "land or site value taxation" has its corollary in the approach called for by the ancient rabbis in their discussions about the finer and little known details of Jubilee.

Talmudic rabbinical discussions considered how fairly to partition the land of Canaan among the tribes under Joshua. Those with poorer land were to be given more acreage and those with more fertile land would be given less. As for land disadvantageously situated, the adjustment was to be made by money; that is to say, those holding land nearer the city (Jerusalem) should pay into the common treasury the estimated excess of value pertaining to it by reason of its superior situation, while those holding land of less value, by reason of its distance from the city, would receive from the treasury a money compensation. Upon the more valuable holdings was to be imposed a tax, or lease fee, the measure of which was the excess of their respective values over a given standard, and the fund thus created was to be paid out in due proportions to those whose holdings were in less favorable locations. In this, then we see affirmed the doctrine that natural advantages are common property, and may not be diverted to private gain.[20]

The early Christians were attacked and persecuted and the Christian land justice teachings were undermined by Roman law. Similarly, there was a great movement to discredit the teachings of Henry George. Pope Leo XIII issued the Rerum Novarum Encyclical in 1891 which propounded an exclusivist right to private property in land, exhorting those without land to work harder, longer and smarter to save money from which to buy land.[21] Money from vested interests poured into the University of Chicago, Columbia University and other emerging schools of economics to thwart and obscure the understanding and the solution to the land problem and the wealth divide. Academics were paid to undermine Georgist economics which had followed in the classical tradition and to instead develop an approach to economics which minimized the contribution of nature's gifts to the production process. Land, the term in classical economics which denotes all gifts of nature, was made a secondary factor, a mere subset of capital. The two major factors became Labor and Capital. The intellectual crime of the century - the neoliberal economics paradigm - has predominated in the field of economics ever since.[22]

Yet the truth of George's koinonia based economics endured through the work of several schools, publishers and research organizations established during the first half of the 20th century, both in the US and worldwide. In 1949 this movement issued An International Declaration on Individual and Common Rights to Land.[23] The policy approach urged by Henry George and Thomas Paine as a way to assure human rights to the earth's resources was successfully implemented in part and to varying degrees in several places throughout the world." (


  • 11 Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teachings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 1983 p. 8
  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 9
  • 14 Ibid., p. 134-135.
  • 15 Walter Brueggeman, "Land: The Foundation of Humanness" Whole Earth Papers #17, Global Education Associates
  • 16 Charles Avila, op.cit., p. 156
  • 17 Henry George, Progress and Poverty, Book IX, Chapter 1 in paragraph IX.I.5 (Available from Robert Schalkenbach Foundation,
  • 18 Ibid, Book VIII, Chapter 2 in paragraph VIII.II.18
  • 19 Henry George, "Ode to Liberty" Delivered in San Francisco by Henry George as orator of the day July 4, 1877

Afterwards incorporated in Progress and Poverty under the chapter "The Central Truth".

Addendum: Quotes


People without land or without any control over the value of land lack security in a major dimension of their lives. - National Bishops General Convention, Action Proposal for Economic Justice, 2/22/88

A great deal of what is amiss alike in rural and in urban areas could be remedied by the taxation of the value of sites as distinct from the buildings erected upon them. - William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, in Christianity and Social Order

Equity insists that we cease levying taxes on the fruits of human toil, and make the monopoly value of land be the exclusive basis of taxation. - Episcopal Bishop C.D. Williams


All creation is the Lord's and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. We believe that Christian faith denies to any person or group of persons exclusive and arbitrary control of any other part of the created universe.


The land is a gift of the Creator to all men and therefore its richness cannot be distributed among a limited number of people while others are excluded from its benefits. - Pope John Paul II, Bahia Blanca, Brazil, 1986

God intended the earth and all things in it for the use of all peoples, in such a way that the goods of creation should abound equitably in the hands of all, according to the dictate of justice, which is inseparable from charity. - Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II

The right of land ownership and of free bargaining in land are subordinated to the fundamental right of man to obtain the necessities of life. In the force of the fundamental claim of the Commonwealth there is no unconditional right of land ownership. - Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 1967

Every man, as a living being gifted with reason, has in fact from nature the fundamental right to make use of the material goods of the earth. - Pope Pius XII" (

More Information

  1. International Declaration on Individual and Common Rights to Land
  2. Neotraditional Economics