*This is a sincere question, not a rhetorical one…though some rhetoric follows.
I’m writing these words in a room with big windows. I’m looking through them at a blue sky on a bright late-summer afternoon, listening to the sound of locusts, and sipping tea. So far it’s been a good day.
Throughout my life I’ve sat and written in many rooms. Not counting my years in a college dorm, I’ve lived in nine different dwellings as an adult. Today, two weeks after moving from Dubuque, Iowa to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, I am once again unpacking boxes and getting used to new surroundings But this time, there is one difference: instead of paying monthly rent, I will be paying a mortgage.
“Congratulations!” people exclaim when I tell them about my purchase. Though I thank them, I must admit I struggle to understand their enthusiasm. Owning property was never a personal goal of mine – in fact, I identified quite proudly as a non-owner. But soon after landing a new teaching job in western Pennsylvania last spring, I found the rental market tight. Taking on a mortgage would not cost much more than renting. In terms of location, neighborhood, and the place itself, buying a condo proved to be the best option.
Some of my aversions to home ownership are purely personal. I’ve often told people I’m not the home-owning type. I’m not handy; I don’t enjoy picking out furniture or planning renovations; I generally only clean before hosting guests (COVID-19 did a number on my previous apartment’s appearance). I have no interest in gardening, mowing a lawn or shoveling snow (which is a big part of why I’ve purchased a condo rather than a house). Also…do I really own this dwelling when I must pay a huge loan back to the bank for as long as I live here? Until it’s paid off, which it may never be… I can’t quite think of it as my own.
But my aversions to home ownership run deeper than a lack of interest in domestic arts and a discomfort with personal debt. At a basic philosophical level, I have never quite believed that property ownership is an individual human right. In Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s recently published novel The Books of Jacob, which is set in eighteenth century Central Europe, a group of men are having a conversation on the topic.
“Seems to me land oughtn’t to be sold or purchased,” declares a hapless merchant named Nussen. “Just like water and air. Nor do people deal in fire. Those are things given to us by God, not to each of us individually, but to all of us together. Like the sky and the sun. Does the sun belong to anyone? Do the stars?”
Many argue that the right to own property is as basic to humanity as the rights to life and liberty. All animals claim territory and defend it; humans have been doing so since prehistoric times. Today, the most infamous ongoing political conflict in the world – that between Israelis and Palestinians – essentially boils down to a dispute over land ownership. The same is true of India and Pakistan’s conflict over Kashmir, not to mention Russia’s brutal ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Humans have a basic need for shelter, safety and security – not only protection from the elements, but the right to inhabit a space, to know that the room where they go to sleep one night will not be forcibly taken from them in the morning.
But while the desire for safety and security may be innate to humans, it is a part of our nature that Jesus frequently rejected, urging his followers to do the same. As an adult, Jesus chose an itinerant life that makes the hippies of the 1960’s seem totally bourgeois: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Jesus urged his disciples to leave everything behind and to follow him. His empathy was not with landowners, but with those on the margins of society: lepers, sinners, the working poor – all people with nowhere to lay their heads. As Christians, we are called to follow this example: not only to give charity to those in poverty, but to live in solidarity with them, to recognize our own fragility and utter lack of control over our lives: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 8:25-26).
It seems that the early Christians followed this advice, particularly when they lived under constant threat of persecution and death. But once Christianity became the official religion of Rome and thus aligned with power, this core Gospel message got lost. The Protestant Reformation, while in many ways responding to the corrupt, wealth-amassing tendencies of the medieval Catholic Church, did not return to Jesus’ original message of eschewing worldly possessions – on the contrary, once Calvinism took hold, riches were interpreted as a sign of God’s blessing (a view that persists widely today, particularly in the US).
Looking back at Jesus’ teachings and the extremely counter-cultural way he lived, it is clear that our basic human desire for stability and our belief in a right to property are at odds with the Gospel message. But, let’s be honest: today very, very few of us professed Christians would be willing to embrace voluntary poverty and homelessness in the ways that Jesus has urged. Even most vowed religious are not averse to amassing wealth and investing in the stock market; the only difference is that they do so as a community rather than individually.
Is it possible to own property and live by the Gospel message? My first response would be to rethink the cultural norm, particularly in the US, that home ownership should stand at the center of civic life and culture. Owning a home is not a mark of maturity or a sign of commitment to community (I was a very civic-minded renter, and I’ve known many homeowners who barely say hello to their neighbors, much less vote in local elections or serve on boards). In the US, our tax system confers unearned benefits on homeowners, and many neighborhoods are zoned to restrict the construction of apartment buildings. As recipients of these benefits, homeowners must devote greater attention to housing equity and justice in their own neighborhoods and beyond, particularly as inflation is putting increased pressure on the middle class and those in poverty.
In the US, European-Americans in particular must remember that the land upon which we’ve built our homes was originally claimed by indigenous people, taken from them by deception and force. European-Americans should also note the unearned privileges that have made property ownership more accessible to them than to African-Americans due to the legacy of the Jim Crow South and the redlined North. Those of us who are fortunate to own property should remember these injustices and work to address them at the systemic level.
In addition, I locate another possible response to Jesus’ call in what we choose to do personally with the homes we own. While Jesus did not own property, his ministry depended on the hospitality of those who did. When Jesus comes knocking on our door, do we invite him in? Or do we tell him that how is not a good time, that we’re too busy, that he needs to call at least a week ahead of time if he wants to visit?
When Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, her initial goal was simply to share ideas, publishing the Catholic anarchist newspaper that has lasted to this day. But she soon realized that eloquent words were not enough. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, people in need started showing up at her door, seeking food, shelter and companionship. Thus began a movement of establishing open houses of hospitality – dwellings where resources would be shared and family would transcend bloodlines, homes where, within the capitalist system of property ownership, a more just model would be developed at the micro-level. Day hoped that these houses of hospitality would be exemplary rather than exceptional. But while the Catholic Worker movement has endured to the present day, this model of living remains the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps for most of us, inviting people in need to come and live with us might seem like too much of a burden – particularly if they bring addiction and mental health struggles with them. But there are many ways to be hospitable, to make our homes outward-focused rather than insular. Hosting church groups or neighborhood meetings, offering to help our neighbors (and in turn asking them for help when we need it), offering temporary housing for a young person in need, becoming a foster parent or a legal guardian are a few possibilities among many.
Returning to the Gospels, while Jesus was not a homeowner, many of the people in his parables were. Who can forget the rich man who ignored the beggar Lazarus pleading at his gates? On the contrary, we all remember the wedding host who, when his own family did not show up for the festivities, invited strangers. Perhaps a most-loved parable is that of the Prodigal Son. In Henri Nouwen’s beautiful interpretation of that story, we all begin life as that foolhardy, reckless youth who squandered his resources. Later in life, we become his resentful older brother, annoyed that our dutiful fulfillment of adult responsibility gets no special mention or reward. The invitation that Nouwen presents – as does Jesus – is to become like the father: holding a feast to which all are invited, making his home a space of refuge, celebration, and welcome.
Right now, I am sitting and writing alone in my little home. Last weekend, I had my first feast – I made burritos and margaritas for one of my oldest friends, her spouse, and their three children (though they drank juice instead of margaritas). I hope to live here for a long time, and I’m excited when I think of all the people – most whom I don’t even know yet – who will find an open door, a cup of tea, and hopefully, a place to call home.