The debate goes on and on. Apparently the actions by #OWS over the weekend, the interventions by Bishop Sisk and Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori, and the arrest of Bishop Packard have aroused passions. One only need read the comments thread on Jim Naughton’s Episcopal Cafe article to see that things have gotten interesting.
Naughton referred to “An extremely insightful essay” written by Tom Beaudoin at America in which he ponders the theological meaning of private property when it comes to churches:
I think we have a very important theological matter before us when Occupy, through its religious-leader allies, is saying to Trinity Wall Street: We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place, with negligible negative financial impact (Trinity is a verywealthy community), and with a rare and time-sensitive influence, by using this particular private property to host the next stage of Occupy Wall Street, and let’s meet to talk about the liability issues and any other concerns you have, let’s have that dialogue starting immediately, but in principle we have a substantial theological point worthy of your consideration.
The presumption in this theological claim, which I think is correct, is that no Christian church is – on the very terms of its theological existence – permitted to fall back on the mere invocation of “private property” without also a theological conversation about the spiritual significance of what that concept means and how it is being used.
There are several interesting issues in this statement. The first has to do with how “private property” relates to the property of an Episcopal parish, which as we all know to well by now, is held in trust by the parish for the diocese, and by the diocese for the national church. It may be different in Trinity’s case because of its unique history with an immense land grant coming from Queen Anne in 1715. Nonetheless, even here there is a question of “who owns the property.”
But aside from that question, there is the question of “private property” itself and that is probably what Beaudoin is getting at. I used to enjoy telling my students that “God is not a capitalist.” No matter how hard conservative Christians try to spin scripture, to derive capitalism, or even the notion of private property from Hebrew or Christian scriptures takes considerable finesse and exegetical hijinks. In Hebrew Scripture, in fact, there is no sense of private property at all. The land is owned by Yahweh, distributed to the people, given a sabbatical every seventh year, and in the fiftieth year, the Jubilee, whatever land was alienated from its original inhabitants, for debt or sale, or whatever, is returned to its original occupants.
But the question is not what private property may or may not have meant in scripture. Beaudoin is challenging the use of “private property” as Trinity’s defense against the use of its property by #OWS. And here I think he is doing some theological legerdemain. For in fact, what he is arguing is not that #OWS is challenging Trinity’s claim to private property, but rather their mission. Read this carefully:
We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place,
In other words #OWS, or Beaudoin’s articulation of it, is not challenging Trinity’s defense of its private property, but of its mission. And this is a different thing. I haven’t read Trinity’s mission statement, and I don’t think that matters much. Trinity has enormous wealth and has done enormous good across the world with that wealth. My guess is that all of those in #OWS would be supportive of Trinity’s work in Africa and elsewhere. But it also has a mission to its particular context and that is Wall Street. Among its members and among its lay leadership are people from all walks of life, including investment bankers and CEOs of banks and financial firms, yes, the 1%.
There is a great deal of discussion about how Jesus would respond to #OWS. Well, in fact, the gospels are quite clear. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and tax collectors were probably the first-century equivalent of the 1%.
My hackles are raised whenever anyone, someone on the outside, whether lay or clergy, attempts to define the mission of a congregation, church, or even denomination. It is the height of arrogance to do so. Mission should be contextual and reflect the life of the congregation. It may be appropriate to ask questions about that mission, to invite an expansion of that mission, but to say that an outside group “can better meet your mission” is nothing more than hubris.