Ownership vs. Stewardship

Ever since George Walker Bush announced his homeownership agenda in a speech at the St. Paul AME Church in Atlanta, Georgia on June 17, 2002, I’ve been warning that “ownership is not a ship that will take you anywhere you want to go.”

Given that Bush was busy planning what would turn out to be a decade and more of war, the speech was not just a distraction, but a pander.

… as we work for a more secure world, we’ve got to work for a better world, too. (Applause.) And that means as we work on our security from possible attacks by terrorists, we also work on economic security. The two securities go hand in hand….And part of economic security is owning your own home. (Applause.) Part of being a secure America is to encourage homeownership….Too many American families, too many minorities do not own a home. There is a home ownership gap in America.

Of course, when we consider that “to secure” is to lock something up or tie someone down, then owning a home does the trick. Having to pay that monthly mortage will certainly keep families focused, never mind that with a house, there’s always something that needs attending. But, leave it to Dubya to speak the opposite of the truth. So, he says,

Right now, we’ve got 60,000 troops fighting terrorism so that we can be free, all of us can be free….We’re also doing everything we can to secure the homeland, to make sure that those who hate us won’t take innocent life again.

In retrospect, after everything came crashing down just six years later, The New York Times outlined the flaws.

There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.

But, when we look at the documents borrowers were pressured to sign, waiving their rights to have the pages of fine print even considered in court, it’s pretty clear that the financial sector was well aware of the risk and banking on it. At a minimum, they were counting on failure so their insurance policies would pay off. “Compassion” was supposed to guarantee that their actions would be just. It didn’t work out.

In part, I have argued, that’s because the tradition of ownership as a sop for social obligation and respect for human rights is so long and strong.

The U.S. isn’t a materialistic culture because people are attached to material wealth; it’s materialistic because human beings are treated like things–always have been, ever since the buying and selling of people was given legal status in the Constitution. Buying and selling people is no longer legal, but owning children still is. And when they get emancipated, the males have to register for service with Uncle Sam.

When Dubya urged the country to “go shopping” after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which protects our trade and exchange, were attacked, his advice was entirely consistent. Ownership of property (property rights) serves to disguise that our human properties (including life, liberty, association and going where we want) are to be circumscribed. It didn’t originate with Dubya or even the signing of the Constitution. After all, Esau, in the Old Testament, was induced to trade his birthright for lunch and nobody, it seems, ever challenged that Isaac didn’t just share. Perhaps the carpenter from Nazareth should have been more explicit about the meaning of the loaves and fishes.

Of course, the parable of the unjust steward might well have been more explicit, as well. Modern day exegists say it is confusing that the steward, having been fired, would “naturally” write down what his master’s debtors owed in order to ingratiate himself. That the essence of poor stewardship is giving away what is owned by someone else just doesn’t seem to register. Perhaps it’s because we expect crooks to benefit themselves directly. Or perhaps crooks are not supposed to be smart enough to look down the road and expect to be compensated later for having given away the store — as our Congress, for a current example, has been doing for decades, when it writes down the tax obligations of the financiers and sticks the working class with the bill. It’s an old story. When we read Dubya’s speech at St. Paul’s AME Church, it is clear he was really good at promising to give away other people’s stuff. Ownership would make them free and all it would take is compassion and love.

Tell that to the people being bitten by bed bugs in shelters.