Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 22, 2000
Ellerslie elevator held key to justice
The land occupation in Zimbabwe brings into focus once more the ethical and legal question of ownership. How much can one person, or a corporate entity for that matter, possess without trespassing some moral limits?
It is a good question that needs to be seriously considered in an age of concentrated wealth on the one hand and stark poverty on the other.
On the highway near Ellerslie there long stood a grain elevator with a painted message in big bold letters: "What does it profit a man if he owns the whole world and loses his eternal soul?"
I don't know if this stern warning implies a direct correlation between degrees of ownership and loss of soul, but Luke (12 to 16) seems to suggest that.
In his account of the rich man who couldn't see the beggar at his gate and the rich farmer who stored up his abundant harvest so he could "take things easy and have a good time," the loss of soul seems pretty final.
Matthew 25 clarifies it even further, illuminating both sides of the question.
We haven't quite reached the point yet where anybody owns the whole world, but metaphorically we are moving in that direction. Not only is the gap between the haves and have-nots growing globally, but within countries (our own included) a tiny minority controls the lion's share of the wealth.
In the days when the Church was a great landowner, it hobnobbed with kings and potentates and dilly-dallied with the rich and powerful. While it was amassing great wealth, it could not see the beggar at the gate.
It took a prophet like St. Francis to point out the transgression but the Church was not yet ready to confess.
Vatican II was the dramatic turning point in this long dark history. Paraphrasing the text on the Ellerslie elevator, Pope Paul VI wrote in 1968: "Exclusive concentration on having more means being less."
And he explains: "Inequality in the sharing of our wealth is not the only scandal crying out for justice. Increasingly the scandal is inequality in the sharing out of power."
The problem was identified. The confession was to come later.
In 1997, the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice came out with a document that addressed the Challenge of Agrarian Reform. In conclusion it prompts all Christians "to make a serious examination of conscience, recalling those times in history when Christians indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter witness and scandal."
It goes on: "In treating the subject of an equitable redistribution of land, we want to focus the attention of all on one of the most squalid and painful spectacles - that of the shared responsibility, including that of many Christians, for grave forms of injustice and exclusion, and the acquiescence of too many of them in the violation of fundamental human rights."
It continues "Acquiescence in evil, which is a troubling sign of spiritual and moral degeneration, is producing a disturbing cultural and political void which makes people incapable of change and renewal."
Because this change and renewal has not taken place peacefully and justly, violence is breaking out in the former colonies in Africa and Latin America.
Robert Mugabe might be going about it in the wrong way, but he is forcing the question that was missed by most Christians who are unfamiliar with the Church's social teaching.
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