Property is a right or a complex of rights, of the person or social units involved, to possess, use, and dispose of economic goods of scarce value. The object involved may be tangible, such as food, clothing, and shelter required for life; a productive resource, such as land; or the creation of law, such as a patent or a copyright. Property rights are defined by social practice; these practices are recognized or established by government.
Social practices vary among societies and over time. As a result, the concepts of property and property rights have evolved. The Anabaptist and subsequent Mennonite concepts of property are rooted firmly in a particular understanding of the Bible, but they are also products of the social, economic, and political systems in which the Anabaptists and Mennonites have found themselves.
The biblical basis for the Anabaptist concept of property is primarily the Old Testament. There, private ownership of property, including the passage of heritage, was accepted; but such ownership was in the nature of a trust from God. This stewardship concept modified property rights with specific responsibilities and duties in the use of property when in relationship with other persons. Also, the Year of the Jubilee placed limits on the transfer and concentration of property, assuring each family some access to the most important productive resource, land.
The New Testament did not change this concept of property. Jesus did not see property per se as evil; property was judged on the basis of its effect on people. Jesus placed more emphasis on duties and responsibilities associated with property than on the rights associated with ownership of property. There are several expressions of communism in the New Testament, but the members stressed love more than equality.
A strong challenge to the biblical view of property was Roman law which has become the basis for a number of legal systems, including the modern British property law tradition. The Roman jurists set law free from religious imperatives of what ought-to-be, placing it on a more impersonal basis, which enabled the scientific development of law. They moved away from either the clan or the family as the basic social unit, and defined individual rights. With reference to property, individual rights of ownership replaced existing communal rights. Contract law was developed as a corollary, which included the freedom to dispose of property owned by the individual. These property rights were rather absolute and rigid, favoring particular classes within Roman society.
During the first several centuries the church attempted to maintain the biblical position, especially against the excesses of Roman law as applied to the ownership of land. The obligation of the wealthy land owners to the poor and the landless was stressed. By the time of Ambrose (339-97), charity had been elevated from a mere gift by the wealthy to a right to be claimed by the poor. The emergence of a monastic movement was inspired, in part, by the abuses of private ownership of property, especially land.
A positive, Christian view of property was formulated by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Combining Aristotle's ideas on property with the biblical tradition, Aquinas justified private property on the grounds of increased productivity (people take better care of that which is their own); social peace (people will work more and fight less if individual property rights are defined), and philanthropy. These property rights were not absolute -- the owners had a duty to share the use of their possessions with others and they might be regulated by government. Capital goods had not become important productive assets, so the charging of interest (usury) was condemned. Communal property represented an ideal, reserved for those who desired to live a life of perfection.
Roman law and the church provide the larger context for the Reformation. The immediate origins of the Anabaptist position was the unique Germanic views of property. The primary social and economic unit was the village community (Genossenschaft), a virtually self-sufficient group of households with a strong sense of community, in which the welfare of the larger social unit took priority over the individual. Property rights were relative and changing, with different levels of rights applying to different objects, e.g., consumer goods versus productive assets. The laws tended to show a greater concern for personal rights than for property rights. Temporary possession of a good, solely for the purpose of exchanging it for private gain, was hardly tolerated within the community.
Many aspects of the Anabaptist concepts of property reflected this immediate and larger social environment. A high priority was placed on the welfare of the members of the immediate community; property rights were not absolute, stewardship in the use of property was advocated; and both the charging of usury and mere trading for personal gain were condemned. Some of the unique contributions of Anabaptists to the existing Germanic and Catholic traditions included: (1) effective constraints on consumption, as shown in their critiques of the life-styles of the Protestant clergy; (2) the practice of mutual aid, so that no one had to beg; (3) voluntary membership and participation in the religious community; and (4) defining normative practices for the members of their religious community only, versus the more universal ethic of both the Catholic and Protestant churches.
The attitude and expression of yieldedness (Gelassenheit), featured prominently in the spiritual life of the Anabaptists and, subsequently, the Mennonites. A dependence on God and on the Christian community for all aspects of security in the face of illness, imprisonment, death, or natural disasters, served to foster spiritual life. Accumulation of wealth or the expression of self through conspicuous consumption served to reduce the dependency on God and each other and was disruptive to the well-being of the church community. Such expressions of pride could be punished with a ban. The Hutterites were the one exception; they took the concept of Gelassenheit further, by extending the practice of communism beyond consumption to productive assets as well.
In large part because of extensive persecution, Mennonites became essentially a rural people, involved in farming and village crafts. The concept of Gelassenheit remained important, expressing itself in a rural way of life. A simple life-style, with effective constraints on personal consumption, remained characteristic of Mennonites until urbanization became important: during the early part of the 20th century in parts of Europe and after World War II in North America. On these two continents, effective constraints on consumption are now evident only among such minorities as the Amish, the Old Order Mennonites, the Old Colony Mennonites, the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), and some intentional communities Similarly, the various Mennonite settlements in Latin America continue to reflect the rural way of life, including some constraints on consumption and cooperative (Genossenschaft) economic organization.
Even though Mennonites were primarily a rural people, ownership of land does not appear to have been a significant property issue within the community. Because of rapid population growth, various Mennonite groups experienced overall land constraints and had significant numbers of landless within their midst. This problem was addressed through community efforts to obtain more land, e.g., establishing daughter colonies in Russia or various migrations to countries with available land. The problem of landlessness within the community does not appear to have been attributed to a wealthy few having taken private control of the available land.
The emigration of Mennonites to North America brought them under the British view of property, which was based on Roman Law as modified by the unique contribution of John Locke (1632-1704). Locke identified property as inherent to the output of one's labor (people have property in their own life), and the other resources utilized (mixed with one's own labor) to produce with one's labor. Locke then derived political rights from these personal rights to one's own property, i.e., government may not touch private property (e.g., levy taxes), without the consent of the property owners through their representatives. As Locke's concern was the definition of political limits, he had an absolute view of property, without effective constraints, which allows for vast differences in wealth.
The combination of the British view of property and the productive effects of the Industrial Revolution eventually eroded the ability of the Mennonite churches to constrain individual consumption. With this breakdown, Gelassenheit proved unacceptable as well. The majority of the North American and European Mennonites combined private insurance, pensions, and savings with emerging public programs to provide protection for their families against natural disasters, unemployment, ill health, and old age. Those who could not afford private protection had to be content with available public programs. Poverty, especially for the chronically ill, the unemployed and some of the elderly, has become evident among Mennonites. Some mutual aid is still practiced at the local level and some mutual aid has been institutionalized within the larger Mennonite church. These supplement existing private and public programs and are run on a commercial but nonprofit basis.
The contemporary high standard of living is the product of both extensive use of capital as a productive asset and the role of knowledge as a source of technology. Given the role of both physical and human capital, borrowing money has become productive and the condemnation of charging interest has ceased to be relevant. Associated with these important roles of capital and technology has been the evolution of corporations as the primary institution which holds ownership of vast quantities of both natural resources and productive capital assets. The corporation, as if it were an individual person, can use the combined Roman and Lockean view of property to its advantage. Within the large corporation, the individual shareholder is effectively divorced from either managing the corporation's property or from exercising stewardship over how the corporation's property is used. The church's justification for individual ownership of property on productivity grounds as well as the individual's responsibility to exercise stewardship over how the property is used are both lost.
The extensive involvement of Mennonites in all aspects of society -- as successful farmers and business persons, as corporation shareholders, as professionals, as holders of knowledge, and as consumers -- has largely eroded the fundamental Anabaptist concept of a unique pattern of life that is intended to be normative for the members of the community only. Rather, the majority of the Mennonites have been caught up in the Protestant ethic that is now normative in the larger society.
Mennonite scholars are distinctly critical of the ethos of wealth, competition, and consumerism that characterizes the pattern of life in developed countries. Along with other Protestant and Catholic scholars, as well as socialists and Marxists, there is a call for justice. Mutual aid is advocated, but profit-sharing or other modes of organizing production are the distinct exception in Mennonite practice. Charity is widely practiced, especially through institutions such as Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and the various mission boards, but the underlying causes of persistent poverty are rarely addressed in a creative manner.
The ready acceptance of the standards of consumption of the larger society limits the Mennonite church's ability to critique either the concentration of power in corporations, including the misuse of that power, or the significant disparities in income and wealth within our countries and among countries. Indeed, the Mennonite churches have not been able to address significant disparities in income and wealth among members within a congregation or among the different Mennonite churches.
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Cite This Article
Rempel, Henry. "Property." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Oct 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Property&oldid=143701.
Rempel, Henry. (1989). Property. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 October 2017, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Property&oldid=143701.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 726-728. All rights reserved.
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