Biblical Commandment, Natural Property and Authority: a Quasi-Marxist Environmental Perspective



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Concluding Remarks
In summary, it is not personal property and private wealth per se which the writer(s) of Deuteronomy etc. rightly denounce, but rather its accumulation beyond what is appropriate for the public good. The reaping of just rewards for personal investment is still respected, but it is balanced by the preservation of basic rights of self-subsistence. Furthermore, the value of labour as such remains linked to the divine, and in this respect to the broader created world. To live virtuously is to live a life dedicated to God.81 And it is in this sense that labour is both valued and, subject to these caveats, personally rewarded.

However, as we have also seen, Locke (and others) blurred these distinctions, leading to their eventual collapse into the single founding attribute of what each individual person has a supposedly ‘natural’ right to own, and thereby to do with as they please. This includes the right to sell what they own to others. Literally everything then becomes a potential product for market sale, subject to market evaluations. The market itself then becomes both the mechanism and yardstick for potentially all valuation, and the value of labour-qua-work, such that people still esteem ‘hard work’ as a value, then also collapses (per Max Weber et al.) into the one-dimensional character of ‘productive work’ – i.e. labour which is only undertaken for producing some product which is typically for sale.

It is in this extreme sense that the concept of ‘universal saleability’82 is fundamentally flawed, in that it can lead to an eventual distorting, and indeed discounting, of what are properly human (including social) values. This includes the recognition that we are not mere individual property owners, but rather that whatever gifts we have we always owe, in at least some part, to the efforts of others. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume that what we currently possess has been due solely to our own labour (which is exceedingly unlikely in communal societies, and especially mass societies like ours, with social relationships of co-dependence and generational transmission of skills, etc.), we owe a debt to others – as well as to the planet itself – for our very existence. By emphasising private property ownership in such an exclusive and privileged way, we not only tend to forget this, but that emphasis inevitably tends to distort our ability to even think it.

Not insignificantly, this distortion also resonates with a tendency to regard authority in a purely one-dimensional way – namely, as simply an exercise of power. It tends to forget the authority of a steward, who not only exercises that authority in the name of another, but also, and more importantly, genuinely in their interests. A prime example of this is that of the biblical story of Noah. Genesis recounts how Noah, his family and the animals on the Ark are spared from the divine judgement of the Flood. Contemporary interpretations can, with some justification, regard this as a story of sanctioned individual authority, including that of humans over animals.83 But what such interpretations can thereby forget is that this is not just hierarchic authority simpliciter (e.g. in which one supposedly higher kind has the natural authority to do whatever it wishes with a lower kind), but rather one of duty. It is not that Noah is simply or even primarily given dominion over the animals in his care; rather, he is given a duty to care for them and, in particular, ‘to keep them alive’ (Genesis 6:20).84

Furthermore, far from being distinct in kind, what Noah and all those in his care share is a certain grace. First, they all share in having ‘the breath of life’ (Genesis 7:15),85 which in biblical myth equates to something of the divine. And second, this life – and indeed being per se – is gratuitously given. There is no reason for it.86 Even in the Genesis account, in which God is the purported cause of creation, there is no imperative for that creation (i.e. other than simple divine fiat). And nor is there any reason for our continued existence. After Noah’s deliverance from the Flood, God (admittedly somewhat belatedly) acknowledges that ‘the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’, and thus that evil is not capable of being eliminated from the earth whilst this remains the case; and yet despite this, God nevertheless promises to ‘never again curse the ground because of humankind’ (Genesis 8:21).87 Mythically, this recognises that what life there is, is entirely gifted. But if being is a gift of such a gratuitous nature, then it also includes the recognition that all of creation is similarly gifted, and that we have no rights, innate or otherwise, to individually squander those gifts to the detriment of others.

And if we can learn to foreground this recognition, then perhaps we can also (re)learn what just property rights, as well as legitimate authority, might actually look like.



1In this paper, I use the term ‘Green’ in the relatively loose sense which links a number of otherwise specific concepts denoted by the terms ‘green technology’, ‘green economy’, ‘green politics’, etc. Notwithstanding their differences, what all these concepts share is an environmental awareness (and rootedness) which recognises the need to help ensure that human impacts on the environment are managed in a way which is sustainable over the longer term. The need for such management is, in turn, based on an understanding that environmental resources can be irrevocably depleted or otherwise damaged by human activities. Accordingly, the need to manage such human impacts tends to be understood vis-à-vis resource use, and in particular the use of limited resources. Once this is recognised, concerns over the equitable or just use of those resources also tend to arise. By definition, this understanding and its related concerns extend beyond that of our more contemporary sense of ‘dominion’ (which is synonymous in modern English with ‘sovereignty’ or ‘control’ simpliciter), and, as I hope to show, tend more to those of stewardship. In particular, this latter concept extends beyond a simple right of control, to also be concerned with whether one is acting in the legitimate interests of the person or persons for whom one is performing the role of steward. Of course, whether such a stewardship view of humanity’s relationship with nature has any actual effect on the way humans treat nature is more an empirical question which is beyond the immediate scope of this paper (I’m indebted to the anonymous reviewer of this article for highlighting this for me). Not least, stewards may, for example, simply be mistaken in their understanding of what the legitimate interests of those they purportedly serve actually are. For example, the history of paternalistic colonialism and ‘welfare’ seems littered with ostensibly well-intentioned acts which nevertheless served to inflict atrocious damage on the supposed beneficiaries of those acts. Also, agents may hold certain views, and perhaps even believe that those views should form the basis of their actions, but nevertheless fail to act in accordance with them (e.g. because other competing priorities and logics, or even just habituated behaviours, prevail). Instead, the purpose of this paper is simply to help show (via historical example and understanding the conceptual shifts and distortions that have occurred) that biblical understandings of dominion qua property and authority, when understood in the sense of stewardship, are far more consonant with contemporary ‘Green’ or even Marxist conceptions of acting in the world, than they might first appear. Indeed, as I hope to suggest, this far older sense of stewardship shares certain salient features with its more contemporary counterparts, which allow at least some comparison and which may yet help usefully broaden our conceptions of each.

2W.A. Meeks (ed.) et al., The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, HarperCollins, London, 1993, p.7. Citations to this work will standardly include reference to the particular book, chapter and verse being cited (e.g. as above, Genesis 1:28).

3This is not to say that even when stewardship views ostensibly prevailed, that they necessarily diminished any such ambitions. As already noted above, the history of paternalistic colonialism and ‘welfare’ seems littered with ostensibly well-intentioned acts which nevertheless served to inflict atrocious damage on the supposed beneficiaries of those acts. But this just means that those intentions, if they were actually well-intended, were misaligned to the acts and consequences which ensued from them. And there are certainly other instances when stewardship views actually did seem to be genuinely enacted, such as in opposition to slavery. This seems especially evident when such views thereby also recognised that, as sons of Adam, native populations also had a right to determine their own forms of governance, etc.

4K. Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, in Early Writings, R. Livingstone and G. Benton (trs.), Penguin, London, 1975 (reprinted 1992), pp.211–241. See especially pp.238–239. The title is a rendering of the original German Zur Judenfrage. However, a perhaps more informative rendering is ‘On The Jewish Question’, since Marx’s essay is framed initially (in Part I) as a response to and criticism of some of the claims made in Bruno Bauer’s The Jewish Question, and thence (in Part II) in response to related claims in another of Bauer’s works. An online version of Marx’s essay, which refers to the title in this way, is available from the Marxists Internet Archive website (along with many other Marxist works) at: http://www.marxists.org/.

5Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, p.239.

6ibid.

7The classic examples of this are F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, George Allen & Unwin, 1927 (English tr. of the 2nd ed. published in 1874) and K. Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, T. Fisher Unwin, 1897 (English tr.).

8E.g. John Foster claims that Müntzer ‘saw the transformation of species into so many forms of property as an attack on both humanity and nature. (J.B. Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000, p.74). And Howard Parsons briefly characterises Müntzer’s objection (i.e. as cited by Marx above) as an ‘ecological protest…against the private ownership of fishes, birds, and plants’ (H.L. Parsons (ed.), Marx and Engels on Ecology, Greenwood Press, Westport/London, 1977, p.18).

9For example, see H.-J. Goertz, Thomas Müntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1993. Goertz notes that Müntzer’s concerns for reform inaugurated ‘for the first time on German soil – a theology of revolution’ (ibid. p.xiv). In this respect, it should become obvious that comparisons could also drawn between what Müntzer preached and the social reformist claims of more contemporary movements like liberation theology. What is particularly interesting though, is that these kinds of claims are able to be derived (and obviously were by Müntzer et al.) on the basis of an understanding of Scripture alone, sans any explicit Marxist influences.

10This is not to say, of course, that such commandments could not be subject to interpretation or even ‘backgrounding’. For example, the Genesis commandment ‘to be fruitful and multiply’ had itself been downplayed by the early Christian church, in its extolling virginity as a virtue, even at the cost of having no offspring at all (e.g. see R. Doran, Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity in Its Jewish and Pagan Context, Westview, Boulder/San Francisco/Oxford, 1995, pp.80–83).

11I use the term ‘Green’ here in the relatively loose sense which I have already described in footnote 1 above. In this respect, it may seem somewhat anachronistic to refer to such a contemporary notion in relation to Genesis. However, for modern readers it is perhaps inevitable that such comparisons will nevertheless be drawn, especially where the biblical text may appear to conflict with contemporary experience and values. In particular, for Christians who believe that biblical commandment and instruction continue to have relevance to contemporary life, they must be able to reconcile any apparent conflicts or else reject competing contemporary values in favour of the biblical tenets which are apparent to them. In either case, readers inevitably conceptually navigate between the two (i.e. biblical text and contemporary experience), regardless of any anachronism which may thereby ensue. In more Gadamerian terms, contemporary experience is the only conceptual horizon from which most readers are initially able to approach biblical claims, and for Christians in particular, a fusion of these horizons is an absolute necessity.

12The Penguin edition of Marx’s Early Writings notes that the purported quote is from a ‘pamphlet issued by Münzer in 1524 and entitled Hoch verursachte Schutzrede und Antwort wider das geistlose, sanftlebende Fleisch zu Witterberg’ (Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, p.239 note 38). This pamphlet, which is erroneously identified as ‘Witterberg’ instead of ‘Wittenberg’, is identified in the English collection of Müntzer’s Collected Works as ‘Vindication and Refutation’: i.e. from the translated title which begins: ‘A highly provoked Vindication and a Refutation of the unspiritual soft-living Flesh in Wittenberg’ (T. Müntzer, ‘Vindication and Refutation’, in P. Matheson (tr. and ed.), The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1988, pp.327–350). For a somewhat different translation, see also T. Müntzer, ‘Highly Provoked Defense’, in M.G. Baylor (tr. and ed.), Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer, Lehigh/Associated University Press, Bethlehem/London/Toronto, 1993, pp.139–154.

13Matheson notes that ‘Schutzrede’ is a ‘statement in one’s own defence’, or ‘apologia’ (Matheson, p.327 note 1). Hence also the title of ‘Apology’ for this pamphlet, i.e. when understood in the particular sense of apologia.

14See ibid. p.335; Baylor, p.144.

15For example, see Matheson, pp.226–227 and p.324.

16Matheson’s translation is more informative here, as follows: ‘for, as I expounded quite clearly to the princes, the power of the sword as well as the key to release sins is in the hands of the whole community’ (ibid p.334; cf. Baylor, pp.143–144). In other words, the power to wield authority and dispense justice, like that of the power to remit sins, is in the hands of the whole community (i.e. of the faithful) rather than the hereditary few.

17Kautsky rather unfortunately omits this reference, so that it appears that Müntzer is only citing three (3) biblical passages, rather than the four (4) which he actually cites. Both Matheson and Baylor correctly include the reference to ‘1 Kings 8’ (in Matheson, p.334 and Baylor, p.144), as the appropriate translation of Müntzer’s citation of ‘i.Regum.viii’ (see image 16 of the digital scan of Müntzer’s original 1524 pamphlet, which is available online from the Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum [Munich Digitisation Centre] at http://www.digitale-sammlungen.de/). However, it is important to note that the passage which is actually relevant here, and which Matheson identifies by way of footnote, is ‘1 Samuel 8’ (Matheson, p.334 note 107). The reason for this is that the first translation of the Bible, i.e. into Greek in the Septuagint, originally linked the four books of Samuel and Kings together as 1–4 ‘Reigns’ (or ‘Kingdoms’), whilst the subsequent Latin Vulgate calls them 1–4 ‘Kings’. E.g. see J.D. Douglas and N. Hillyer (eds.) et al., The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Parts 1–3, Inter-Varsity, Leicester, 1980 (reprinted 1988), p.1385. Hence Müntzer’s reference to ‘i.Regum.viii’ is actually to what we would now call (i.e. following the Hebrew scriptural version) ‘1 Samuel 8’.

18It should be obvious that the conclusion of this passage coincides with that which Marx purports to cite in his ‘On the Jewish Question’. As already noted above, whilst the actual text strictly differs from what Marx offers, the sense remains largely the same, provided of course that it is put into the context of the larger passage.

19 Kautsky, p.136. Compare Matheson, pp.334–335; Baylor, pp.143–144.

20Meeks et al., p.1319. It should be noted that whilst the use of a contemporary version of the Bible is somewhat anachronistic, it serves to highlight the fact that even with this contemporary version, we can still seem to understand why Müntzer selected these particular passages for providing authoritative support for his claims.

21ibid. p.1320.

22ibid. p.2317.

23ibid. p.2317 note 6.6.

24ibid. p.2133.

25ibid.

26ibid.

27ibid. p.2133.

28 It is interesting to compare the use to which Müntzer puts Romans 13, and that to which John Locke does in his Second Treatise of Government (in J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, J.M. Dent, London, 1993 [reprint 1994], pp.113–240). In chapter 2 of that treatise, when Locke provides his account of the ‘state of nature’ pace Hobbes, whilst still acknowledging the remaining need for independent judges etc., he notes ‘that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men [Romans 13:4]’ (ibid. p.121 [treatise II. chapter ii. paragraph 13; henceforth cited as II.ii.13]). Unlike Müntzer, this brief reference does very little for Locke at this point, other than to help functionally stipulate what government is for. However, once one considers it in the context of Locke’s broader treatise, which ultimately allows for the opposition of the ‘unjust and unlawful force’ of tyrannical power (ibid. p.218 [II.xviii.204]), it is possible to read Locke’s much earlier reference to Romans 13 in much the same way that Müntzer does, i.e. pace the far more benign (and perhaps now more common) interpretation which tends solely to foreground the commendation to ‘Owe no one anything; except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’ (Romans 13:8; Meeks et al., p.2134). However, there is a certain tension here for Locke, in much the same way that there is some ambivalence in Romans 13 itself. Namely, whilst the logic of opposing a tyrannical power can be readily accepted, there are constraints for Locke as to what constitutes such tyranny. This includes what we have, perhaps only implicitly, consented to as lawful government. It is possible then for the argument to become viciously circular, in exactly the same way that the logic of Romans 13 can. Namely, the existing government, precisely because it does exist, may be regarded as already legitimate – i.e. in the case of Romans 13 because otherwise God would not have allowed it to have been constituted, and in the case of Locke because there is already implicit public consent as to its authority.

29ibid. pp.427–428.

30ibid. p.428.

31ibid.

32Specifically, Samuel’s warning includes the claim that some of their sons whom the king takes are ‘to plow his ground and to reap his harvest’ (ibid.).

33ibid.

34ibid.

35ibid.

36ibid. ff.

37ibid. pp.295–296.

38ibid. p.296.

39ibid.

40This is significant because it emphasises what is effectively an internal/external systems distinction concerning Judaic societal structuration (i.e. with an emphasis on internal cohesion within Israel, specifically to God’s law, at the risk of destruction from external forces). Consistent with what the Marxist philosopher István Mészáros briefly claims concerning that structuration (in I. Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin, London, 1970, p.29), the passages above provide for a model of society which is internally structured so as to reduce internal class conflicts (usually through justice maxims designed to facilitate fair and equitable treatment and sharing of resources). At the same time, other passages provide for and regulate external relations with ‘strangers’ or outsiders. Together, they provide for what is essentially a systems approach to the structuring of society: i.e. both minimising conflicts and strengthening relations internally, whilst separately providing for external relations, including by way of possible economic inputs and outputs (cf. ibid.).

41Meeks et al., p.1022

42ibid. p.1020.

43Indeed, on this very basis, this passage might be regarded as consonant with a more contemporary Marxist perspective, in which this (essentially non-social) accumulative drive seems to be embedded in that very epitome of late capitalist society, i.e. aspirational but essentially atomised individuals.

44ibid. p.293.

45Mészáros, p.29. Mészáros’ claim here is to be understood in the context of the internal/external systems distinction already referenced above.

46This is illustrative of what Marx seems to partly mean when he suggests, towards the end of ‘On the Jewish Question’, that Christianity is more (too) ‘refined’ and ‘spiritual’ than Judaism (Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, p.240). One way of reading this is that (for Marx at least) Christianity is a radicalisation of Judaism, in the sense that the internal/external systems distinction which Mészáros briefly describes is simultaneously both theoretically annihilated (e.g. in the idealised universalisation of Christian charity etc.) and yet practically and maximally realised in individuals (i.e. in the emergence of Christian-state civil society). Of course, in practice, such ‘universal’ charity depended on the will of actual Christians to extend it in this way, i.e. to non-Christians. For example, as the fictional character Barabas objects in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Christians could ‘themselves hold it a principle, Faith is not to be held with heretics’ (C. Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, A&C Black, London, 1994 [2nd ed.], p.53 [act II. scene iii. lines 12–13]).

47Meeks et al., p.293.



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