In life and in death, we belong to God.
I’m recovering from reading Go Set a Watchman and Between the World and Me (assuming I will ever fully recover) – two books released on the same day with similar themes that you must read if you hope to be an informed human being in our beloved USA. There. I said it.
Amidst reading those great books – one fiction and one non-fiction – and in the ongoing conversation with Church People who want to take their congregations and their property and leave denominations that offend their theology, I am pondering ownership today. We Americans like to own stuff.
God bless Donald Trump who likes to put his name on the stuff he owns (and even when he doesn’t own it anymore, the name stays.) We in the United States have a strong tradition of claiming property and calling it our own (e.g. Native American land.) And of course, the most heinous period of our national history involved the evil notion that some people could actually own other people.
When the Southern Presbyterians and the Northern Presbyterians reunited as one denomination (now called the PCUSA) in 1983, some Southern churches chose to leave the PCUSA because – among other things – they would no longer “own” their church property. In the PCUSA, property is held in trust. Congregations do not own their own church buildings. But there was a window after the Presbyterian reunion when formerly Southern churches could take action to keep their property and take it to another denomination. Some Southern churches did leave the denomination, and others tried and failed (like the congregation I served for 22 years.)
Today throughout my denomination, there are still churches hoping to leave the PCUSA and take their property with them. Other denominations know this story as well. Again, some have succeeded and some have not.
But one of the reasons I am jolted by Harper Lee’s first (but published second) novel is because she captures the concept of property. It’s the story of my people.
As Scout’s Uncle Jack explains it:
“Now at this very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it – we’re finding ourselves in the same deep waters. As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons. I hope to God it’ll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.” (Note: it wasn’t.)
“The time-honored, common-law concept of property – a man’s interest in and duties to that property – has become almost extinct.”
Our history and culture involve owning property and the definition of what is and what is not our personal property has changed through the years.
The most privileged in our history are increasingly losing what they believed they owned. Husbands once owned their wives. Wealthy farmers once owned their workers. Parents once owned their children. And church members once owned their church buildings. (Some still believe their churches belong to them – and I’m talking here about what actually belongs to God not denominations.)
Here’s the crazy thing – especially for Christians: This is the opposite of Jesus’ message. Yikes. We in the United States – which has been touted as “A Christian Nation” have rarely considered the message of Jesus in the way we’ve built our country.
This is kind of a heavy message for a Monday morning post. But perhaps this is what we really need to own.
Image of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between Two Worlds. Check out his interview on The Daily Show.