July 3. 2021 Worship Opening
Inspired by Micah 2: 1-5
I’m not sure if it should make me feel better or worse that the issues dooming the community in Micah are the same issues plaguing our contemporary society. Both in the ancient Israelite community and in contemporary American society, land represents the promise of survival and sustainability. Both in the ancient Israelite community and in our contemporary society, the land is the stage upon which insatiable greed and violent oppression play out in the public realm.
In an eerily familiar context, Micah laments a population of oppressors who believe they are free to take what they want. In the societal architect of ancient Israel, it is this grandiose narcissism undermining loyalty to God as creator and owner over that which humanity desires to possess for themselves. The land-grabbing strategies alluded to in Micah are reflective of an inner perversion of ownership.
What begins as an inner attitude of entitlement and superiority leads to terrible acts upon the poor and vulnerable which violate the societal ideals of their nation. Today’s commentary describes, “the economic and social ideal of ancient Israel as of a nation of free landholders – not debt-slaves, sharecroppers, or hired workers – secure in possessions, as a grant from Yahweh, of enough land to keep their families. Other ideals, such as justice, mutual love and fidelity, a close-knit family, and so on, depended on the achievement of this sort of economic security. If the family land was lost, little other economic opportunity remained.”
The white settlers who eventually formed the nation-state that we will celebrate tomorrow came with similar ideals of economic security and land ownership. As Laura Barker writes in her blog, Land – The Original American Dream, “The land has always been a staple of the American dream. From the Homestead Act of 1862 to the ongoing battle for Amazon’s second headquarters, Americans have held the desire to own and prosper from their own land close to their hearts.”
Though we often talk of the fight for American freedom taking place overseas, we typically neglect to identify or even discuss that the fight for freedom has also been a homegrown narrative over landownership since our nation’s inception. The price of our freedom required the forced removal and government-sanctioned genocide of the indigenous peoples who cared for this land before colonizers settled and claimed their home for our own. The cost of this independence has taken the form of ongoing violence to remove people of color from their lands and relentless litigations to remove small farmers and rural residents from their lands. In all our patriotic parades and celebratory ceremonies, the foundation of our freedom is historically absent or actively being erased. This is the foundational reality that we are, at our very essence, dependent on the land for our independence.
Today less than 1% of private lands in the United States are owned by people of color while more than 98% of private lands are owned by white Americans. According to a 2016 USDA report, the five largest landowners in America, all white, own more rural land than all black America. The moral justifications and promises of prosperity that persuaded the white masses to participate in the guerilla wars and systemic policies that separated marginalized populations from land ownership continue to dominate decisions about land use.
Although the prophet in Micah knew that many innocent people would suffer along with the guilty when the inevitable consequences played out, I am not sure if the white settlers would have predicted the same to be playing out today. I am not sure they would have ever imagined that the horrible things we dreamt up to do to others would one day be done to the individual “us” by the corporate “us.” The normalization of excessive exploitation of land to create private wealth and fuel the global market is relatively new in our human history. In her essay titled, “Who owns the Earth?” Antonia Malchik points out that, “As far back as 555 CE the commons were written into Roman law, which stated outright that certain resources belonged to all, never owned by a few: ‘By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.’
The ancient laws and the original national ideologies described the purpose of land ownership as the means to gain an independent life which all (Israelites then and white people today) were believed to deserve. This “right” to land ownership by individuals in the dominant culture has been replaced by a belief that the sole purpose of land ownership is to accumulate private wealth. Since the early 1800s, the prioritization of the pursuit of economic activity for private profit as a public good has widened the gap between land and landowner and thus increased the population of persons without access to land as a means of self-sustenance.
While we may identify communities such as small farmers in the category of ‘new’ victims of this transition in the purpose of landownership, few of us would identify ourselves in that category. Yet between 2006 and 2016 the homeownership rate fell to its lowest level in fifty years while the number of renters rose dramatically. A 2020 article published in the New York Post by Larry Getlen reports that “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, corporations began buying suburban houses en masse and then renting them out, often for more than residents would have otherwise paid in rent or mortgage…This has become so common that, while the phenomenon “didn’t exist a decade ago,” corporations bought one out of every ten suburban homes sold in 2018.
This year, in 2021, it is estimated that corporations bought one out of every five houses. Corporate homeownership can not only subject tenants to higher living costs, but often destroys their ability to buy these homes themselves, as companies pay top dollar to take them off the market. While the history of white settlers in America has been built upon strategies of ensuring marginalized populations lack access to land ownership, this growing trend toward corporate ownership of suburban houses outpricing white middle-class Americans is a new and perhaps harder to swallow story as it is much closer to home.
The connection between the freedom we celebrate as citizens of this country is inseparable from the access we have (or do not have) to land ownership. The system that spoiled the dreams and denied the rights of so many now seeps into the fabric of the white middle-class American. We wake up not because we feel the pain of the past and desire to right our wrongs. We wake up because the dream is dissolving in the lives of the people for whom it was created to benefit. The belief that land ownership most benefits the whole when it is exploited for private profit is the evil of our day, the greatest threat to our freedom, and the largest challenge to our attempts to address the climate crisis. The land is not a commodity to be exploited, developed, or hoarded. The land is the means through which we acquire and maintain our freedom as citizens of this country, and it is the sacred place through which we maintain ties to our identity in creation to Christ.
The systems and ideologies created and manipulated by white settlers to grab land from the vulnerable know no boundaries and understand no limits. The system’s purpose is to consume land and generate as much wealth for private parties as possible through any means necessary. The myth that any use of land that makes money must be for the public good must be dismantled and replaced with a system that honors the health of the land and the interests of all. This work could arguably be claimed as the patriotic duty of the American citizen, but it is undeniably the commitment of the contemporary Christian who for too long has hidden behind false religious doctrines to strip people of their land, their culture, and their identity.
Our allegiance is drawn repeatedly to systems of ownership that identify all land as sacred and manage what is sacred in the interests of all living creatures. Land ownership is not what we do, it is part of who we are and part of our call to care for the commons on behalf of all of creation. Ownership of land is not represented by a legal deed but by an investment in a community, an ecosystem, that we believe is created by the divine for the sustenance of all. Ownership of land is a recognition of our dependence on natural resources not simply for our physical survival but for our spiritual wellbeing. It is the land that exists as the spiritual doorway through which we find our home and reconcile our identities to the greater narrative that sustains all life. We do not buy land to own. We accept ownership of our responsibility to care for land just as the land cares for us which requires a rejection of unbridled consumerism and a commitment to reimagining a future defined not by extraction or exploitation but by love for all of creation and the rights of all living beings.
If we live as water protectors and land defenders, if we live simply and shop locally and struggle for equity, if we love what we have and appreciate what already exists, if we reject the propaganda of limitless progress and re-right history in future we create, together we can reclaim our freedom from a system that will otherwise claim our futures. For clean air, for drinkable water, for fertile soil, and for the salvation of the seed. For the survival of all species including our own, may we commit to a lifestyle of communion, cultivating a culture of the commons where all of creation is free to own the responsibility of reciprocity on the land to which we all belong.
All messages from The Land are meant to inspire deeper reflection and discussion on the intersections between lessons in scripture and problems in contemporary society. To dive deeper into this week’s topic of land ownership, pastor Stephanie offers the following resources:
July 3. 2021 Closing of Worship
8 Heartbreaking Cases Where Land Was Stolen From Black Americans Through Racism, Violence and Murder By A Moore | October 9, 2014
Who Owns the Earth? By Antonia Malchik
How Wall Street Bought Up America’s Homes: The Atlantic By Alana Semuels
The Racist Architecture Of Homeownership: How Housing Segregation Has Persisted
Dr. CUTCHA RISLING BALDY on Land Return and Revitalization /219