Thoughts on Theology of Property

Thoughts on Theology of Property


After going through the special issue of insights on property, I decided to record my thoughts on a few subjects. I have divided my thoughts into two sections. The first section are my thoughts on three minor issues that need to be considered. I have not suggested any ways forward in this section, but I have put some questions that need to be addressed in one way or another. The second section includes two major issues without which we can no longer claim to be the Uniting Church. These issues are indigenous Australians and culturally diverse Australians. The Uniting Church since 1985 claims to be a multicultural church and to have a covenant with indigenous Australians. By ignoring the traditions and theologies of these people who constitute the majority of the Uniting Church on the pews but a minority in decision making bodies, we are ignoring the identity of the Uniting Church. Although in this section I have some suggestions, the most important issue is consulting with these people and empowering them to talk for themselves. We do not have the right to talk on behalf of anyone. So, I will not talk on behalf of anyone, but maintain that proper consultation processes be put into place to hear from these majority people so the theology of property becomes the theology of the whole Synod.

Minor issues

A Pilgrim People

The church is a pilgrim people. Does this apply to the church physically as well as emotionally, mentally,  spiritually and theologically? Emotional, mental, spiritual and theological pilgrimage requires that our minds are transformed and renewed to be free of traditions that bind us to things that we presume have not changed. This could include culture. For example, a group of people who migrated to Australia in the early sixties, came together and formed a congregation in the same manner of the congregation that they were used to back home. Today, that congregation is frozen in the early sixties because their emotional, mental and theological awareness of being church is the memory of their home church before they migrated. The home church has changed, but they have not. On the other hand, physical pilgrimage will have a totally different meaning. For that same congregation, there could be little attachment to physical property, because of their constant displacement either through migration, or through finding a place to worship. In this particular example, some of the older people in this congregation have moved over eight times. The generation before them would have moved an additional three or four times. So, physical pilgrimage would be something that they understand not because it is part of being a church, but because of the political and social situations that they have been through.

The Basis of Union says “the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal”. The goal is not a physical goal, but a state of being. We are not on a pilgrimage towards the new Jerusalem, a place, but towards the reconciliation of all creation. A state of being reconciled with all creation and with God. This is a pilgrimage of both individuals and communities. It is the transformation of both individuals and communities. If we want to consider physical pilgrimage to be part of this, it needs to be a pilgrimage of both individuals and communities. The pilgrimage of the church as a community has been talked about many times, but what does it mean for an individual to be on a physical pilgrimage?

Should the Tomb be empty always?

How is the church property serving its mission. The mission of the church, or the mission of God does not exclude congregations who want to grow old on the same pews, or who want to die on the same pews. This may not sound very appealing to many, but to those people who have decided, maybe after a life of service, to grow old and die on the same pews that they worshiped God and served the community, it is essential. Giving them the space to rest and allowing them to die with their dignity needs to be part of the church’s mission. After all, it is part of God’s mission. After Jesus declared on the cross that “it is all finished” and died, he was put to rest in a tomb, where he stayed for three days. If we had been managing that tomb, would we have said, “well, he is dead, there is no point in wasting all this space just for him. Let us move him to another place so we can use this space for something better.” Then, when the angels came to raise him from the dead they would not have found him and getting confused, they would have searched for him. They may have gone to a different tomb, if they had heard about the church moving people around to use property more efficiently. They may have raised someone else instead of Jesus, thinking that it was him. Huh! That would have been a strange story to read.

Anyway, Christ has risen, but the church has not. The tomb of Christ is empty, but ours is still being filled.  Presumably, the empty tomb has been repurposed and is being used more efficiently as a space of worship. Do we jump to Sunday and declare that our tomb is empty and hence can be reused? What about Saturday? How do we treat people on the Saturday?

In but not of the World

The church is “in and for the world but not of the world”. Are we physically not of the world? I can understand this theologically, ethically, politically, socially, etc. Are we aliens in this world? Half human half divine? This presumes that the “Kingdom” of God is not in this world. When we speak of the reconciliation of the whole creation, where does the world fit into this? Are we detached from the world itself physically? I think Paul’s worldview may not have included the world in itself in the reconciliation process. Aren’t we made from the same earth that our physical world is made of (Genesis 1)?

Major issues

Two things I see missing are first the diversity of understandings of property within the different cultures and second the custodianship of Aborigines of the property we are talking about.

Cultural issues

Cultures in this instance also includes the originating churches that a congregation comes from; i.e presbyterian, methodist or congregational. In its simplest form, these understandings, or theologies may range, from “I paid for it, I decide how to use it and who benefits from it” to “what is mine is yours”. If a group of people in the UCA comes up with a theology of property that is different and does not sit well with my thinking and I am not able to do anything about it, then I just ignore it, and continue working in the same manner that I used to. Enforcing the theology of sharing property has never worked and will not work. There are migrant faith communities or congregations who are still struggling with different UCA congregations to find a place of worship. For some communities, the property is more than the mission itself. It becomes a sense of identity. The church building of the Armenian congregation in Willoughby reflects an Armenian architecture. A style of building that we do not use in Lebanon and Syria, where the mother church of that congregation is. It is an Armenian Orthodox style with slight modifications. This gives the congregation the security that their cultural values are being kept within the church bounds. The church itself is part of that culture. For a culturally different and migrant congregation like that, who spent years collecting the funds and paying off the debts to build that unique space that will give them both a place of worship and a security of cultural continuity, mission as the UCA defines it is only one part of their theology of property. That particular congregation has built walls to protect itself even from the UCA because their mission is in conflict with what the UCA would consider its mission should or could be. This is one example that I am aware of with all its details. Others exist that I am not aware of and still others who have not been able to create that space of safety for themselves and live as displaced people even after a long period of time. The UCA declared that it was a multicultural church in 1985. Almost 30 years later, we can still see the assimilation policy lurking underneath all our policies. If we want to abandon multiculturalism, let us declare it and openly do what we want to do. But if we value multiculturalism, then we cannot decide what is good for the other. Each culture, based on their own worldview, will need to decide and bring it to the table. We need to provide that space for conversation. It is not as simple as publishing a special issue and asking people to respond. In the past some cultures have responded and were ignored repeatedly. Of course that is in their view, because decisions were made contrary to their views. Although the church may have had a good reason for that, it had failed in communicating properly and sensitively the decision. This failure has brought frustration to those cultures who have decided not to waste their time believing that their contribution will not change anything.

In many cultures, it is important to ask the right person the right question asking them to respond and allowing them the time to consult with others. In many situations this might seem to be the minister, but it rarely is. Although the minister would have a positional leadership and spokesperson status in the community, there are other people who are more in touch with their community and can speak on their behalf better than the minister. It is not the person in the front who can speak for that group.

Another issue that we usually fail to see is in bringing all culturally diverse people together to discuss an issue and try to come to an agreement on a way ahead before we bring that idea to the discussion in the decision making body. What this does is first it compromises the value of each individual culture’s input. For these diverse cultures to come to an agreement they will need to find a common ground and then build on that with what they are not willing to give up and what they are willing to give up. By the time they have reached an agreement, they have already given up some important things. This is further escalated when the discussion occurs again in the decision making body where further compromises need to be made to reach to an agreement. Second, those people who agreed on that compromised decision, who are not willing to give up anything from their proposal, are not there to say that. It is usually one person presenting the agreed upon statement, and that person usually has no stakes in the issue, or will only defend what they consider important.

So listening to other cultures respond to property policy and property theology needs to be done very carefully and very sensitively. Positional leadership, although the spokesperson of a community, does not always speak from the heart of the community. If someone speaks on behalf of another culture or cultures, they will usually bring a compromised idea which will be more compromised because they have no stake in the matter, even worse when they disagree with what the statement says.

Indigenous issues

The second item missing relates to the Aboriginal people and their place in the church. Most issues that I mentioned earlier in relation to cultural nuances will also apply to Aboriginal people. However, it is essential that we note that all people except for the Aboriginals are migrants, and what the UCA calls second people. Their connection to the land, their cultural structure, and their patterns of responding to issues need to be considered with the sensitivity and intelligence that we approach other cultures as I have mentioned earlier.

All property belongs to God. A very profound half statement. The Old Testament actually goes further and describes the proper use of the land. Of course at the time the agrarian nature of society meant that the principle mentioned related to the proper and ethical use of the farm land. This does not mean that we cannot and should not reinterpret those principles into our current context. What would be the crops on the edges of the land that was supposed to be left for travellers? Who would be those travellers? What does it mean not to pick up the fallen grapes and leave them to the poor? (Leveticus 19:9-10).

All property belongs to God who put man to tend to it (Genesis 2:15). God made man custodian over the land that belongs to God. Our use of the land of which we are custodians needs to be in the interest of God. This includes the ethical use of the land according to God’s principles of use.

Have we forgotten who the custodians of the land which we live on today are? In simple terms, all church property is stolen land. Stolen from God, from the hands that God assigned as custodians. How will a theology of stolen property look like? The Northmead congregation is in the process of putting up signs that the land the church is built on “belongs” to the Aboriginal people. When the day comes and they decide to sell the property, how will those signs affect the decision? How will they affect the sales proceeds?

As we acknowledge the first people as the custodians of the land, and pay our respects to them, we cannot but ask them to lead us in this discussion on property. We cannot come up with our policies and theologies and ask them what they think. They need to be the people who guide us from the start. Otherwise there is no point in asking them their opinion, because the same thing that happens to other cultures will happen to them. They will be ignored, compromised and decisions will be made contrary to their wisdom. If that is how we want to work, let us declare it so there is no misunderstanding of what the intentions are.

Therefore, I do not speak on behalf of any culture, nor do I speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. I only want to stress that other cultures need to be consulted sensitively and Aboriginal people need to be leading the us. Some years back, as a sign of solidarity and reconciliation with Aborigines, many white Australians, including prominent members of the UCA, walked over the bridge. Helen Jamieson puts some questions to those people crossing the bridges: “Did non-Aboriginals think their bridge walking had removed the guilt of living uninvited in another’s land? Or was it believed that the walk actually achieved reconciliation, rather than just showing how much it was needed?”

While the bridge made by the white man may seem to be the only way to cross the gap, Aborigines have used canoes for centuries. Compared to the sturdy bridges, canoes are very fragile and risky, but the expertise of the people in using them guaranties a safe passage. Can we take the risk of stepping into those  fragile canoes, uncomfortable places, and trust Aborigines to guide us across the water? Are we ready to trust in the Aborigines for a safe passage?

I do not wish to see what has happened in the past repeated. The UAICC is given autonomy within the church to work with Aboriginal people. Yet the White Australian still keeps tight control over the churches governance. The UAICC is allowed to have a say in the church, but it is only a voice that will be heard and ignored in many cases.

While thinking about the Aboriginal people and the land the Beatles song Yellow Submarine popped into my head. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the colours of the single, which are the same as the Aboriginal flag. Probably not, since I had not seen the cover of the single before. It is possible that the Spirit put the song in my head. I hope there is a better reason than just to annoy me with the chorus repeating over and over in my head a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine…

I could probably write the Beatles’ Theology of Aboriginal Land, but not today.

Yellow Submarine

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
And he told us of his life
In the land of submarines
So we sailed up to the sun
Till we found the sea of green
And we lived beneath the waves
In our yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
And our friends are all on board
Many more of them live next door
And the band begins to play
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
[Full speed ahead, Mr. Parker, full speed ahead!
Full speed over here, sir!
Action station! Action station!
Aye, aye, sir, fire!
Heaven! Heaven!]
As we live a life of ease (A life of ease)
Everyone of us (Everyone of us) has all we need (Has all we need)
Sky of blue (Sky of blue) and sea of green (Sea of green)
In our yellow (In our yellow) submarine (Submarine, ha, ha)
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

Yellow Submarine