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Reflections: Who is my neighbor?

In an ownership society, what do we own?
By Scott Vander Linde

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” – Ps. 24:1

This is a passage Christians have heard many times, so many that we may possibly take its meaning for granted. In reality, it should be acknowledged as the beginning and end of much of life and especially of economic life: I, as part of God’s creation, all that I touch, all that I do and all that I am able to purchase, belong to the Lord. Nothing, in reality, is mine. This is a tough reality to live in a society and culture that is founded on ownership and self—whatever you have is “yours” and what you do is “for you”!

An important question is: Would the financial crisis been so severe—much less would it have even happened—had people in the U.S. been more tuned in to this biblical perspective? If people had viewed the use of past and future equity in their homes, their expectations of growth in financial markets, their expectation of government policy and their jobs, including financial sector jobs, as important aspects of how they have been gifted to manage God’s resources, would they have made the decisions that they made—decisions, for example, in their personal finances to use home equity to continually boost lifestyle? Or decisions of mortgage managers to encourage homebuyers to take on more debt than they could realistically be expected to pay off? Or management decisions to base financial industry profits on unrealistic models and assumptions? Or voter decisions to demand ever lower taxes and yet to expect government to support infrastructure for an ever improving lifestyle?

If we believe the earth is the Lord’s, our economic lives will first and foremost be lives of thankfulness for the good gifts of creation: the ability to work and earn, the ability to grow and buy wonderful foods, to wear colorful clothes, to travel, to own homes and fill them with both functional and aesthetically pleasing items. And if we acknowledge that what we have are in fact gifts from God, we should treat what we have much less “tight fistedly” than we often do. We will realize that God did not intend the fruits of His creation for us alone, but for all who share the earth with us today and for generations to come.

Will this understanding make a difference in what we choose to consume ourselves, versus what we save for our future, so as not to burden a stressed social support system, and in what we are willing to share in collective support of our society through taxation?

The earth is the Lord’s does not mean, It is all mine, except the portion I decide to put in the offering plate. If we follow the divine model of economic life, we will follow God’s model and first and foremost be the giver of gifts to others: Our work will be a gift of service to those whom we touch through it; possessions will be acknowledgments of God’s gifts and tools for service; we will see it as a gift to contribute resources to build families, communities, a nation and a world that gives all of God’s children the opportunity to develop their gifts.

Questions for reflection:

  • We live in an ownership society. How should Christians view ownership?
  • How do Christians actively witness that God owns everything?
  • What changes can I make in my economic life that gives better evidence that everything is the Lord’s?

—Scott Vander Linde, Class of 1980, Professor of Economics, Calvin College

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