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April 4, 2013
In The Village
Property and Consecration
by Orson Scott Card

I run past the neighbor’s yard and their dog rushes toward the property line, barking ferociously.

Fortunately, their dog is tiny and it’s trained to stay inside an electric fence.

Still, the message is clear. My territory! Do not intrude! Stay back!

Of course, there are some big dogs that, when they pass by my yard as they’re being taken for a walk, bark at me. That’s because they think everything is their territory, and who do I think I am?

Don’t I understand what a very big dog is deigning to visit me?

Animals don’t actually understand property — only territory and dominance. It wouldn’t cross their minds that, if they want something, they can’t have it because it “belongs” to another animal that is smaller than they are.

During my mission in Brazil, I remember the first time I saw a desperately poor woman, two children in tow, dragging a large cardboard box behind her. I asked my senior companion, “What does she want with that? She’s got nothing to put in it.”

He answered me sadly and softly. “That’s her house. She’s going to put her children in it to keep them warm tonight. And she has to drag it with her all day or somebody else will take it.”

That image has stayed with me: A woman dragging her house along with her because if she ever lets it go, it will cease to belong to her, and her children will have no walls or roof to keep out the chill of the night.

George Carlin used to do a comedy routine about property, referring to it as our “stuff.” How we fill our houses with it, and then to get away we go on vacation but fill suitcases with our “stuff” and fill our hotel room with it.

Purses, pockets, wallets full of stuff. Full of property.

Then there’s the Ira Gershwin lyric from Porgy and Bess: “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’”:

“De folks wid plenty o’ plenty
Got a lock on de door
’Fraid somebody’s a-goin’ to rob ’em
While dey’s out a-makin’ more.
What for?”

It’s an easy question to ask — because a lot of people don’t know what “enough” means. Property becomes a measure of status, and we accumulate far more than we need.

But we need something.

I hear stories about what goes on in nursery. A new kid shows up, and one of the ways he shows his anxiety is his need to own everything. If he has ever touched a toy, it’s still his, and it makes him upset if another kid uses it.

And whatever another kid seems to be enjoying, this new kid has to own that, too.

Yet one of the jobs of nursery teachers — and parents, of course — is to teach their children to share.

Share ... and yet also to provide them with a sense that they do own some things.

My clothes. My toys. My bed. My blanket. Things children might learn they have exclusive use of.

Our house. Our car. Our television. Things we own as a group.

The street. The bus. The airplane. Things we all share.

The concept of property is this: I own it even when I’m not holding on to it.

That poor woman in Brazil did not live in a civilized society. In her social class, there was no property beyond what you were holding on to at the moment. If you let go of it, it stopped being yours and became the property of the next person to lay hands on it.

If he or she was strong and alert enough to keep it.

But what did she “own” that box for? For her children. For their shelter at night. It was her house, and she carried it with her.

We do the same, don’t we? Only we symbolize our ownership with keys. Key to the house, to the car; we have the key, because the thing is ours, and only those who have that key, that ownership of the property, are entitled to use it.

In small towns and villages, nobody bothers to lock their doors. Everyone knows who owns what, and leaves other people’s stuff alone.

In the city, or while traveling — when we’re surrounded by strangers — we don’t have that trust. We hold more tightly to our property.

For we know that property can be wrenched from us by violence. Carjacking, home invasion — these are terrifying even if no one is physically hurt, because our property becomes a part of our self-definition.

When we are robbed of something that is part of our self, we have been dismembered. We are bereft. We are afraid.

There are those who say that “property is theft.” That to own something is to withhold it, selfishly, from everyone else who might have a use for it.

This is not a true or useful idea. The need for property is a deep one; it begins with that barking dog, and anyone who tries to separate people from the concept of property is going to lose that battle.

What is negotiable is not the concept of property, but the boundaries.

Like that woman with the box, we have an obligation to hold tightly to that which we need in order to provide for and protect our families. Everyone recognizes this.

We also recognize that when someone does not have enough to provide for his family, he begins to feel a right to lay hold on the excess property of others — “excess” being defined as “not being used right now.”

In Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean names his crime as stealing a bit of bread for his sister’s children, the entire audience understands both the need and the gross injustice of his being forced to pay such a high penalty for the crime.

And yet crimes against property are some of the most terrifying; the only societies that don’t have laws against theft are those so small and local that theft is impossible.

What is the balance? What is the boundary?

In Section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Lord is teaching the principles that underlie Joseph Smith’s attempt at formalizing the Law of Consecration, he says:

“I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine” (14).

“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare.... Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment” (17-18).

Here is how we are supposed to think of property, as Latter-day Saints. Everything belongs to God. We are made stewards of whatever we own. We are accountable for what we do with our property. The rights of property are not absolute — not in the eyes of God, and therefore not in our consecrated lives.

The natural man needs property; the consecrated soul holds property only as the steward of its true owner.

But let’s keep in mind that this is not merely a theological construct. In fact, even the natural man “owns” what he owns only by the cooperation of his community.

Property exists only because the community agrees to allow it to exist. In a state of nature, things belong to whoever has them. Whoever can get into your house has the use of it; whoever lays hands on your food and eats it, owns it.

But the community agrees not to take and use that which belongs to another. In fact, they agree to punish anyone who uses others’ property without consent.

This collective agreement allows us to own things that are not in our immediate possession. The community agrees to punish anyone who steals, so that everyone has an incentive to leave other people’s stuff alone.

Without the cooperation of the whole community, no one owns anything that is not in his immediate possession. The deed to your house, the title to your car — these are meaningless unless the whole community agrees to respect property.

This is why, despite the claims of property absolutists, the community has the power, whenever it wants, to void your property rights, in whole or in part.

Taxes, eminent domain, fines, or a refusal to convict or punish a thief — these are not intrusions by the community, but rather a recognition that property exists only by the consent of the community, to the extent that the community agrees to recognize it.

Even if your property is something you created yourself, it is only property as long as the community agrees that it is.

As a professional fiction writer, I live by the law of copyright. But “intellectual property” only exists as long as the community agrees that it does. Otherwise, as soon as I tell my made-up story, anyone else is free to tell it again. It now belongs to everyone.

This is the natural law of property.

But God’s law takes property to a much deeper level. Ownership does not reside in the individual or the community. It belongs to the one who made everything out of which everything is made. Did your hands make something? Who gave you those hands?

It was God who put us here, and while we may form our communities, we are still acting as stewards of what God gave us, including our own bodies. We are accountable to him for what we do with everything.

In practical terms, though, God does not personally call us to account. He is “away,” as the parables involving stewards always tell us, and for the entire duration of our lives, he makes us accountable only to each other.

Then, on a day we can’t predict or control, we are suddenly called to account. Here is all this property that I gave into your keeping. What did you do with it? How did you use it? Did you improve it? Did you make something of it?

Did you use it to make the lives of other people better? Or did you hold it for yourself only, or for those you thought deserved it?

“Economic man” demands value for value. I pay for your goods and services because I think they’re worth this much of my goods and services (as represented by money).

But consecrated man, while functioning as economic man much of the time, does not think that his property is entirely his own, to dispose of as he wishes.

Consecrated man takes into account his accountability.

I desire to own this or do that, and I have enough property to trade for it and obtain it for my own use. Yet I see that someone else has a need much more basic than this particular desire of my own. Economic man does with his property what he thinks will benefit him most.

Consecrated man does what he thinks his Lord would want him to do with the Lord’s property. Consecrated man does not think he has a right to seize others’ property to make them do good; but whatever he has, he will use as he believes the Lord would want it used.

To outward eyes, consecrated man usually cannot be distinguished from economic man, especially if he follows the Lord’s instruction to “let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” when it comes to sharing with the needy.

With his tithes and offerings, consecrated man makes his accounting with the bishop. But the bishop’s authority only goes so far. The bishop turns over the tithing to the Church; the bishop then makes use of what is returned into his care according to strict instructions.

There are good works to be done that bishops cannot use budget or fast offering funds to accomplish. There are people who need help that does not properly fall within the purview of what Church funds can do.

That is when consecrated man stops behaving like economic man and quietly disburses his funds to make it so that no one within his reach suffers from any want that his property could supply.

He does this, not because the community compels it, and not because he will accrue any prestige from it, but because he has consecrated all his property to God, and he wants to be able to face the Lord and account for what he did with that property.

I had “two talents,” and I used them like this.

In the parable, the servants give the talents to the moneylenders, but that is not what God expects of us. Instead, he expects us to magnify our stewardships by blessing those who come into our care.

First our families, of course; but not to excess. We give our children only as much as is good for them, only as much as will bless them. We don’t waste our property by overproviding for them, by giving them things that would make them worse servants of God.

Then we teach them to join with us, or follow our example, by using our time, our skills, and our property to meet the needs of others. We give them the experience of growing up in a consecrated home, where all property belongs to God and is available to meet the needs of others, insofar as they can be met.

In this view, what does it mean to “bury” the property trusted to us?

The person who keeps all property for himself and his family, perhaps displaying their excess property for all to see, gathering prestige and power to themselves, sharing only when compelled, or only in order to gain favor with others — that person has buried his property because it blesses no one.

It doesn’t bless the needy. And it curses the one who hoards it for his own use.

Yes, it’s “his” — for now. But when he dies it isn’t his.

Yet if he had magnified it by giving it away, blessing others with it as the Lord would have him do, then that property is his, forever. Because what he owns is the giving of the gift. Not the thing, but the act.

And what he lays before the Lord, on the day of accounting, is not the property, but what the property was used for.

In that day, the rich man is the one who gave away all for good purposes, not to be seen of men but to bless those in need.

The rich man is the one who allowed no one to be in want whom it was within his power to provide for.

A community of such consecrated souls is Zion, because it is impossible for anyone to be poor among them.

And yet you can walk among them, and see that they “own property,” that they prosper by the standards of the world. You can walk through Zion and never realize that you have done so, because the deeds and titles all say the names of the owners.

But in the hearts of the consecrated, the name of God is on every deed and every title, and they use all that they have been given, all that they have made out of what they were given, to do the Lord’s work in the world.


Copyright © 2022 by Orson Scott Card Printed from NauvooTimes.com