Private Property and the Common Good

As the warm summer breezes at the Jersey Shore give way to the brisk air of another autumn, recent tensions among neighbors in shore-front towns have left many communities feeling cooler than usual.

 The conflict surrounds a $1 billion federal project to build dunes along a 35-mile stretch of New Jersey's shoreline aimed at protecting beach properties from potential devastation caused by storms like the recent Hurricane Sandy. The proposal, which would require considerable amounts of construction on the private properties of seaside homeowners, has left neighbors pitted against one another, with those willingly granting easements to the Army Corps of Engineers for building on their properties feeling resentful towards those holding out, in many cases to protect their ocean views. Those in favor of the project have pressured the remaining others to follow suit in granting governmental permission to build, warning them that failing to do so means that their neighborhoods will inevitably share the fate of Surf City, N.J., where holes in the protective barrier due to six objecting homeowners rendered the dunes ineffective to prevent large-scale flooding. While many of the homeowners who have consented view their dissenting neighbors as selfish for being unwilling to sacrifice their ocean views for the common good of the neighborhood, those refusing to sign the easements continue to argue that it is their right to do (or not do) what they want to their private property.

The political struggle over this dune project once again brings to the forefront the deeper dilemma in discerning the common good when it comes to private property. The rift reflects the perennial and seemingly irreconcilable ideological divide between individualist and collectivist camps.

The individualist perspective continues to view property as an absolute right possessed by individuals; “since government didn't give it to me, government has no right to take it away from me.” Furthermore, the common good is viewed as directly related to individuals collectively fulfilling their own responsibilities toward their properties: freely investing in the improvement of one’s property is contributing to the good of all. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the collectivist perspective views property mainly as a tool for the common good; while individual ownership is not necessarily superseded, if one’s ownership detracts from the public good, that individual ought to relinquish it to the public. Through a collectivist lens, what is viewed as absolute is not so much individuals’ right to freedom with respect to their property, but the individuals’ right to equal well-being, especially with respect to how property is distributed.

Toward a Biblical Perspective

As with most divisive issues of public life, fair-minded Christians can be found sitting on both sides, ready to support their views biblically. Those reading Scripture from a more communitarian sensibility tend to reflect on passages like Acts 4, which shows the early church community as reflecting something like a communal attitude with individuals’ property rights secondary to the well-being of all. Scholars will surely continue to debate different aspects of interpreting this passage, including its normativity (Is this historical account a binding teaching for Christian economic activity?) and applicability (Is it even possible to apply this in today’s Church context?). But even without all such questions resolved, it’s clear that this passage doesn’t denounce private ownership of property. In the very following chapter of Acts, Peter’s condemnation of Ananias & Sapphira for their deception assumes that they did indeed have legitimate claims to their private property.

Those on the other side of the debate naturally turn to the eighth and tenth commandments (you shall not steal, you shall not covet), which seem to not only codify an inviolable right to private property, but to also attach elevated spiritual significance to that right by including those commandments in the divine law code which defined the terms of God’s covenant relationship with His people. Yet if these commandments can indeed be seen as sanctioning private rights to property, other aspects of God’s covenant with Israel - such as the Jubilee principle and the “need makes common” principle - certainly serve to at least relativize those rights.

The way forward in beginning to make sense of these two perspectives must thoughtfully discern a calling to stewardship and governance.

A bulldozer works on a New Jersey beach. 

A bulldozer works on a New Jersey beach. 

Stewardship

A Christian’s understanding of our relation to possessions properly begins with a recognition that the cultural mandate tasks humanity with a responsibility: stewarding creation in a manner that reflects God’s ultimate ownership of everything in existence, including humanity (Ps. 24:1). The responsibility to steward also implies that God has given us a right: in being entrusted with creation’s care, we have been given a legitimate claim towards using its goods for the flourishing of all creation. That right, however, originates in relation to God, not from ourselves. In contradiction to this biblical understanding, both individualist and collectivist understandings of property express a view of man as ultimately sovereign and fully entitled to their property, though they may disagree on what it is that makes one entitled. In stewardship, humans’ individual and collective rights and responsibilities are ultimately vis-a-vis God as the owner of all; in both individualist and collectivist understandings of ownership, they are viewed vis-a-vis other human beings, viewed as autonomous individuals. Because the right and responsibility of humans with respect to property are inextricably tied together in a biblical model of stewardship, equality and freedom are not viewed as irreconcilable values. Rather, our freedom is to be exercised to steward creation for the common good, just as our equal position before God as stewards causes us to respect each other’s freedom. When viewed in relation to God as owner of all, our collective and individual rights and responsibilities work together in concert rather than in conflict.

Governance

As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Political Community articulates, our political community is an important expression of our human calling to steward creation. Instead of simplistic rhetoric pitting government vs. citizen, we ought to recognize that both government & private citizens have God-given rights and responsibilities to work together toward public justice. Just as each shore front landowner has rights as a legal caretaker of their properties and responsibilities toward their local political communities as citizens, the local government has a right to exercise its responsibility to uphold justice for all.

Property, Poverty, and Public Justice

While viewing property through the lens of stewardship can provide wisdom for moving beyond false dichotomies toward a holistic public justice perspective, it can also provide an invaluable perspective for addressing issues of poverty and opportunity. One common issue for those working in economically depressed neighborhoods is the prevalence of abandoned properties, many of them due to tax delinquency, which can initiate or contribute to a downward spiral of diminishing property values. One approach to addressing such issues is volunteerism; indeed, neighbors banding together to clean up and beautify such lots can be an invaluable form of communal stewardship. But a public justice perspective recognizes that more comprehensively addressing such issues requires also working with governments to hold them accountable for their public justice responsibilities, which may look like pressuring city governments to create more stringent systems of property tax enforcement, or working alongside elected officials to design streamlined systems for connecting developers, organizations, and other interested parties to legally acquire vacant, publicly-owned properties.

While the Jersey Shore dune case is a complicated one and likely won’t be resolved immediately, it provides a helpful lens for analyzing the intersection of the role of government, the right of private property owners, and the common good. A holistic understanding of property, then, recognizes that flourishing properties are the result of not only responsible stewardship of individual property owners, but also of the cooperative work of a host of different societal institutions, not least our local governments.

 - The Editorial Team