LAND IS YOUR LAND,
THIS LAND IS GOD'S LAND":
THE JUDEO-CHRISTIAN LAND ETHIC
Ann Alexander, Fred Clark, Fred Krueger, and Stan LeQuire
Q. How does Scripture define the value of land?
A. Just as a painting or sculpture can reflect the personality of its
human creator, so Scripture teaches us that the land and the creatures
it sustains reflect the glorious nature of their Creator God (Psalm
19). And just as one might hope to learn something of how an artist
views the world by examining her art, so Scripture tells us that
all people -- believers and non-believers alike -- can discern our
Creator's moral order from studying everything He made (Romans 1:18-20).
"The heavens declare the glory of the Lord," the psalmist proclaims
(Psalm 19:1), and the Earth declares his glory as well, through
the majesty and beauty of the land and the creatures whom He generously,
constantly, and lovingly sustains:
makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the pine trees.
The mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the coneys.
How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number--
living things both large and small.
These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works.
104:10-11, 16-18, 24-25, 27-28, 31.
these Scriptures also teach that God graciously sustains us through
the land and blesses our grateful use its fruits, and that the bounty
produced by the land reflects the infinite generosity of His character.
The Psalmist wrote in the same Psalm,
makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate--
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart.
104:14-15. But the whole Psalm -- and all of Scripture -- taken
in context teaches us that the land has value wholly apart from,
and far greater than, the mere value in dollars of the material
sustenance that the Lord graciously allows us to derive from it.
It is nothing less than the work of His hands, a mirror of His character,
and the window through which we may strive to view the world through
sweeping legislative proposals put forth by the property rights
movement, by contrast, are fundamentally grounded in the view that
the value of land is purely monetary, and lies in the dollar worth
of what it can produce. The assumption behind these proposed laws
-- which would require across the board that all owners denied the
"right" to earn the maximum profit from their land be paid for its
diminished value -- is that the land's value can be defined solely
by its profit potential. Environmental laws which preserved the
land's ability to reflect its Creator by restricting activities
that would harm it, but which reduced the dollars that could be
earned from it, would always be treated as a devaluation of the
land requiring monetary compensation. Scripture demands that we
take a broader view in measuring the value of the land, which considers
the possibility that its most valuable use in the eyes of God may
differ from its most profitable use in the eyes of the world.
focus solely on the monetary value of land, to the exclusion of
its holy value as a reflection of its Creator, is a violation of
the First Commandment against idolatry. To do so is, in essence,
to place the love of money, possessions or property -- including
the profit-making potential of private land -- before the love of
the Lord, inviting separation from God and evil results (1 Tim.
6:6-10). It is to worship the false god of materialism, greed, and
unending accumulation of wealth that grips our modern secular world
rather than worshipping our Lord, who calls us to material sacrifice,
and Himself had "no place to lay his head" (Mat. 8:20). And it is,
ultimately, to disregard Christ's warning that "you cannot serve
God and mammon" (Mat. 6:24).
is more, Scripture repeatedly teaches that even the bounty that
we can reap from the land -- the one dimension of its worth that
property rights movement so exclusively values -- is dependent upon
our obedience to the Creator. God warned the prophets that the sins
of the people -- including the greed that would swallow up all of
the land to satisfy their selfish desires -- will destroy the land's
very productiveness and ability to sustain its inhabitants. The
prophet Isaiah writes,
to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.
A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine,
a homer of seed only an ephah of grain."
5:8-10. Conversely, the prophet writes that God's redemption from
the sin of greed brings with it the healing of the earth:
poor and needy search for water, but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them.
I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia,
the myrtle and the olive.
I will set pines in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
sustenance of humankind is one function of the holy land God has
created, and -- as our Supreme Court has recognized and we must
as well -- justice may in some circumstances require compensation
when that sustenance function is taken away. But believers in Scripture
must reject any proposal that would, like the takings compensation
legislation, systematically value the land only for its ability
to satisfy our material greed. Our failure to do so will ultimately
reduce even the material value of the land far more than any environmental
law ever will -- a warning spoken by the prophets and borne out
by damage that human greed has already done to the land.
Q. What does Scripture teach about land ownership?
A. Scripture is unambiguous about who owns the land. "The earth
is the Lord's, and all that is in it" (Ps. 24:1): all its bounty,
its material sustenance, and its holiness. God's eternal ownership
of the land does not preclude human ownership under earthly law,
as "the earth he has given to human beings" (Ps. 115:16) to sustain
us in body and spirit. But the principle that must underlie all
human ownership of property is that, ultimately, the owner of creation
is the Creator.
God is the owner of the land, those who "own" it under human law
are in reality tenants of the land charged, much as in Christ's
parable (Luke 21:33-44), with caring for it until the Master's return.
God's commandment in Genesis that we care for creation (Genesis
2:15) calls us all to be stewards of the land -- that is, caretakers
charged with "tending the garden" in the service of the garden's
Owner. Indeed, as discussed earlier, our call to have "dominion"
over creation (Genesis 1:28) is not, as some have suggested, a license
to do with the land as we please, but rather a call to humble service
and sacrifice. We are privileged to gather the fruits of the land,
but not to diminish its fruitfulness (Deut. 22:6-7).
role as creation's steward receives far more emphasis in the Bible
than our role as landowners. While Scripture never condemns the
idea of "private property," our ownership of property is always
in the context of God's ultimate ownership and our call to stewardship.
It is emphasized throughout the books of Moses that the promised
land, having been placed in the care of human owners by its Creator
and ultimate Owner, was subject to many restrictions on its use
that protected the land and the community inhabiting it. For instance,
private owners were required to preserve their land by refraining
from growing crops every seventh year, and allowing the poor and
wild animals to eat what grew during that year (Lev. 25:1-7). In
all years, anyone passing through another's field was permitted
to eat its fruits (Deut. 23:24-25). A portion of wheat in a field
could not be harvested, but had to be left in place for the poor
and alien to gather (Lev. 19:9). Similarly, trees could only be
beaten for olives once, and what remained was for the alien, the
orphan, and the widow (Deut. 24:20).
these biblical restrictions on landowners' use of their property
and harvesting of its wealth would have diminished its "sale price"
conceived in the modern sense. But it was understood that the restrictions
were integrally related to the moral order God had established,
and to the people's continued faith in Him. The Sabbath rest and
the requirement to ensure provision for all the community's inhabitants
was for both the material benefit of those for whom provision was
made, and the moral benefit of landowners. These commandments called
upon landowners to interrupt their work, reflect upon and recognize
the needs of others, and have sufficient faith to believe that God
would provide for them even if they did not seize every scrap of
wealth from their land.
legislation that has been proposed by the property rights movement
would directly contradict this perspective on land ownership. Underlying
these proposals is an assumption that owning land means having the
right to do with it as you please, including maximize economic profit;
and that our society will be harmed if this "right" is in any way
diminished. The Bible simply does not support this assumption. On
the contrary, property ownership in Scripture consists only of whatever
rights God has chosen in His wisdom to allow the owners -- His stewards
-- to exercise. No one has an inherent "right" to do anything with
property unless God, as its ultimate owner, permits it; and claiming
such false "property rights" that God has not given us will harm
the land, its inhabitants, and our own moral character.
the very term "property rights" is misleading when it is wielded
as an argument against land use regulation, because property ownership
and property "rights" cannot be understood at all apart from their
definition under both God's law and earthly law. Without law (God's
or human), there could be no land ownership at all, since the law
is what establishes and defines ownership to begin with -- that
is, "ownership" and "property rights" would be meaningless words
if they were defined only by differing individual opinions as to
what they meant. It therefore makes no sense to speak of "property
rights" as though they existed apart from the law that defines them
-- including both scriptural and humanly-devised restrictions on
land use. The restrictions of which the property rights advocates
complain are part of the package of law that defines what their
property ownership "rights" are to begin with.
it is appropriate to find ways to ensure that justice is done when
governments act to change the definition of property ownership by
adding new restrictions to it, and we ought not be insensitive to
the economic pain that can be caused when such changes are made.
But the basis for our thinking cannot be an assumption that anyone
has property "rights" that exist in a vacuum apart from the law
of God or humankind, requiring automatic payment of money whenever
those supposed "rights" are diminished by a governmental restriction.
Our discussion as believers of land use and environmental laws should
be based not on false and divisive claims to property "rights,"
but rather on ensuring that the creation and administration of these
laws reflects, as does Christ Himself, both God's love and His justice.
Q. How should the Biblical command to love our neighbor affect
our approach to the "takings" issue?
A. The command to love our neighbor is one of the most vitally
important in all of Scripture. Christ taught that the commandment
to love God and our neighbor summarizes every other scriptural commandment,
and that the love of neighbor is second only to the love of God
(Mat. 22:37-40). The Bible consistently calls upon us to live so
that our neighbors thrive (Lev. 19:13; Prov. 3:29, 27:10; Zech.
8:17; Rom. 13:9-10, 15:2; Eph. 4:25). The righteous person "does
his neighbor no wrong," declares Psalm 15:3.
the parable of the Samaritan, our Lord made it clear that our "neighbors"
whom we are commanded to love include not merely those who live
in proximity to us, or those with whom we ordinarily associate.
Rather, our "neighbor" is everyone who falls within our personal
sphere of influence, whom we have the power to either help or harm
(Luke 10:25-37). Christ furthermore made it clear through His parable
that the commandment to love these far-flung neighbors requires
that we be at least as active in seeking out and protecting their
needs as we are in protecting our own.
commandment applies with the same force in the area of land management
as it does in any other area of our lives. It requires that in making
any decision about what to do with our land -- whether to log it,
construct on it, or otherwise alter it -- we consider not only how
we will be benefited, but how our neighbors might be harmed. And
if we ask, as did the teacher of the law, "who is my neighbor?"
(Luke 10:29), the answer suggested by Christ's parable is broad
indeed. Many land use decisions have the potential to directly harm
anyone who depends upon, uses or enjoys any aspect of the creation
-- from the "neighbor" who takes joy in the beauty of a forest or
a wetland, to the "neighbor" whose property may be flooded as a
result of a proposed development, to the "neighbor" whose life may
be saved by a medicine developed through study of an endangered
species. Beyond these directly impacted "neighbors," our decisions
about land ultimately affect everyone to whom God has given His
creation as a reflection of Himself -- that is, all of us. And even
beyond that, our land use decisions have the potential to impact
our "neighbors" in future generations, who will inherit our land.
together, the interests and needs of these neighbors who may be
affected by our decision are often referred to as the "common good."
It is, in essence, the same common good that was protected by the
Mosaic laws requiring that the land be managed so as to benefit
all of its inhabitants rather than merely its owners. The command
to love our neighbor does not suggest that this common good ought
to be the exclusive consideration in devising and implementing land
use regulations. Scripture requires justice for individuals as well,
and even the wording of the commandment -- love your neighbor "as
yourself" -- implies that personal well being need not be disregarded
in our decisionmaking. Taken as a whole, Scripture teaches that
individual needs and the common good need not be in conflict when
we live in obedience to the Creator.
furthermore teaches that the aspects of the common good relating
to creation care can, when we are obedient, coexist harmoniously
with its other aspects. Our neighbors whom we are called to love
may in some cases be positively affected by certain types of development,
and being responsible stewards and neighbors does not require us
to myopically assume we must resist development in every case.
goal of our environmental and land use regulation, then, should
be to ensure creation care for common good while maintaining a proper
regard for justice for individuals, and for other aspects of the
common good. God's Creation, and our neighbors' common interest
in it, can only be protected if everyone acts together. That is,
for instance, an endangered species is not likely to survive if
only some owners of its habitat take care to protect it, while neighboring
owners of its habitat are destroying it. The government thus plays
a divine role when it acts to ensure that property owners meet their
responsibility to love their neighbors and be servant-stewards of
God's creation (Romans 13:1-5), so long as it does not violate divinely
established individual rights (which do not, as we have seen, include
monetary profit maximization). Loving our neighbors in the context
of land management, then, requires submission to laws that impose
land use restrictions that protect the common good; and justice
requires that these laws be implemented even-handedly and with sensitivity
to their effect on individual property owners.
simultaneous regard for both common and individual needs is the
basis for our Constitution, and the Takings Clause it contains.
The framers of the Constitution struck a balance between these sets
of needs by permitting the government to take private property for
public use in certain circumstances regardless of whether the owner
wants to sell it (for instance, to build a highway), but requiring
that the owner be compensated when that happens. The Supreme Court
has determined that environmental and land use laws affect this
balance -- so as to require takings compensation -- in a limited
set of circumstances, which do not include every instance in which
the monetary value of land is diminished.
proposed takings legislation would drastically tip this balance
away from protection of the common good. It would so exalt the good
of the individual over the common good that property owners would
never be required to sacrifice for the sake of their neighbors (since
a "sacrifice" that one is paid to make is not a sacrifice at all).
Such a system would effectively write into law a disregard for Christ's
Great Commandment. To ask that landowners be compensated for doing
anything that benefits their neighbor is, in essence, to ask the
taxpaying public to reimburse them for not disobeying this commandment.
proposals would, moreover, have their most severe effect on a class
of "neighbors" about whom Scripture reflects God's constant and
profound concern: the poor (Isaiah 10:1-4, 58:7; Luke 4:18). Certainly,
not every property owner affected by land use regulations is necessarily
wealthy. But as a general matter, it is fair to say that those who
own property affected by land use regulations (which include, for
instance, many large mining and agribusiness corporations) are on
the whole better off financially than those who do not own land,
and who are -- together with all of us -- protected by those regulations.
Laws which threaten these protections, or require that the poor
financially compensate the rich for them, therefore have the unholy
impact of driving a wedge between the wealthy and their poor "neighbors."
it is not only environmental regulations that assist us in loving
our neighbor, and that would be harmed by the takings legislation
proposals. Many non-environmental laws play the vital role of protecting
the common good from the effects of individual greed and other sin:
we have enacted civil rights laws that prohibit racial discrimination
by public establishments, anti-pornography laws that prevent owners
of adult businesses from giving minors ready access to their wares,
and securities laws that protect our economy from the effects of
corruption and mismanagement. All of these laws have been challenged
at one time or another as Fifth Amendment "takings" requiring compensation.
For instance, an Atlanta motel owner claimed that the Civil Rights
Act non-discrimination requirements diminished the market value
of his business, and demanded compensation; the proprietor of a
"phone sex" service claimed a right to compensation for the effect
on his business of Federal Communications Commission policies requiring
use of scrambling and access codes; and the owner of a Savings and
Loan institution who had driven it into the ground through legal
violations and unsound practices claimed that the federal government's
Resolution Trust Corporation had exacted a "taking" from him when
it assumed control of defunct Savings and Loans to prevent economic
collapse. All of these claims failed under the Takings Clause; but
all might well have succeeded under some of the takings compensation
laws that have recently been proposed. And had they succeeded, the
laws in question would have been effectively gutted, having become
far too costly to enforce. It was for this reason that Donald E.
Wildmon, president of American Family Association, criticized takings
legislation in his home state of Mississippi as the "Porn Owners
Relief Measure," in reference to the fact that it would entitle
the owners of adult business who were precluded from operating in
certain neighborhoods to claim a right to compensation.
bottom, the takings compensation proposals would distort our God-given
and constitutionally protected freedom into a formula for shirking
our biblical responsibility to our neighbors. Christians would do
well to be skeptical of any such scheme. Biblical freedom -- our
freedom in Christ -- is one of the great joys of being a Christian.
But biblical freedom means being freed for responsible living, not
being free from responsibilities -- including responsibility to
obey God and love our neighbor. While we are free to follow Christ,
and to live life as He intends it, we are not free to harm our neighbors
or exploit God's creation at their expense. Christ, through His
parable of the Samaritan and His selfless sacrifice for us all,
has taught us a better way.