Acton Institute Powerblog

Private Property and the Will of God

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Things are looking grim for the rule of law in Bolivia. An article in today’s Washington Post outlines the growing conflict between the minority of Bolivians who own land and the landless majority. As Monte Reel writes in “Two Views of Justice Fuel Bolivian Land Battle,” this month the Bolivian government, under the direction of the “agrarian revolution” of president Evo Morales, “began a project to shuffle ownership rights affecting 20 percent of its land area, giving most of it to the poor. And tensions are starting to boil.”

Choei Yara, a Japanese immigrant to Bolivia whose family has lived there since the end of World War II, says, “No one respects private property anymore, not even the government.” Groups of landless Bolivians are constantly threatening to forcibly take posession of private lands, and Morales’ policies have only encouraged them.

“Emboldened by the recent government announcements,” the landless “are taking over more properties on their own, without government approval,” writes Reel. The rationale is simple for those who live in poverty:

“God created the resource of land,” said Luciano Winchaca, a local campesino advocate who has helped the Landless Movement with its quest for land. “It should be divided equally for everyone, not be given to somebody because they speak better Spanish or come from a certain family. We all have the same rights. These people don’t understand the will of God.”

But how about this for God’s will? “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15 NIV).

To be sure there are real and dire problems of poverty in Bolivia. But the class warfare and rhetoric of socialist revolution advocated by Morales and his ideological partner Hugo Chavez, in the name of God’s will, can only exacerbate the situation and undermine the legitimate functions of government: to justly administer the rule of law and to safeguard private property.

As we can see in the case of Bolivia, when these roles are ignored and subverted by the government, anarchy ensues. Yara knows this all too well, as “now about 50 members of the group, the Landless Movement, are occupying about one-fourth of his property. They keep telling him they’ll take more soon, he said, and they promise bodily harm if he doesn’t let them have it.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Clare Krishan

    Now tell me is Exodus also the source for Hebrew claims to ancient mother earth in Israel? Your use of scripture is selfishly biased: our Lord demands a much higher standard e.g. Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” cited as the second of the two most important commandments in both Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31. Now I’m all for private land ownership, yet my zeal doesn’t show disdain for my neighbor’s interest in private land also. We can quibble about the pros and cons of Mugabe-style land reform vs distributive justice of fossil fuel revenues for Alaskans, but you cannot use the 7th commandment to defend the present generation from the consequences of the sins of their forefathers against the very same commandment. It’s just plain illogical and doesn’t fly. While I don’t want to be guilty of a sin against the 8th commandment, quoting someone who left Japan at the close of WWII with enough liquid assets to purchase land in Bolivia leaves a very big question mark looming in my mind. Peru is still trying to nail their Japanese fugitive-to-justice Mr. Fujimori (whose secret dual citizenship got him out of a “tight-squeeze” a while ago I recall)… It all leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth, Acton must do better if it wants to claim pre-eminence in discerning the truth in these matters.

  • Are the members of the Landless Movement showing love to their neighbor when they take his land by violence and threaten more?

    I agree there are complicating factors, many more than can be dealth with adequately in the space of a single blog post. Of course, on point of a blog post is simply to raise issues that can be dealt with further, and not necessarily be the last word on a subject. Thus, I appreciate your response.

    Even so, to claim that it is God’s will to steal strikes me as rather clearly false. Are you arguing that the Landless Movement folks aren’t stealing? Or are you acknowledging that they are, but that it is morally permissible in this case? After all, Aquinas does consider extenuating and extreme circumstances…

    One of the reasons that I referred to the commandment against theft is that we Reformed folk often identify the Decalogue as “God’s will for our lives,” and thus it was a rather remarkable statement to read that from Mr. Winchaca that it is God’s will to steal.

  • Clare Krishan

    A more helpful WaPo/Acton analysis might have revealed why its so hard to find $200 credit in 2006 but an immigrant had no problem leveraging $80,000 in the 1970s? Somethings not right…

  • Marco

    What’s “plain illogical and doesn’t fly” is your justification of theft, Clare. Let’s be honest, Winchaca and the other Landless Movement members are thieves. I have recently purchased property in Texas and my in-laws own a ranch in South Texas, is it okay for Mexicans to take over these properties? Would it be okay for African-Americans to enslave my family simply because an ancestor of mine may have been a slave owner? In addition, Peru and Bolivia are two different countries and more likely than not Yara and Fujimora are two different types of people. Let’s be fair to Yara. “Judge not or you will be judged.” Matt 7:1