Response to Randi Rashkover (1)

J. Ben Quash,
University of Cambridge

Randi Rashkover’s paper is a hugely suggestive meditation on the prophetic appropriation of the idea of the jubilee in both Isaiah and Luke, and leads to a sharp and very pertinent question to ‘landless’ invocations of jubilee: do they spiritualise away the importance of actual land, thus denying what must be a key part of an affirmative theological vision of human life, illuminated by a levitical understanding of holiness?

Rashkover writes: ‘Christianity needs a theology of the land (…) a theology that restores the earth as the place of the glory of God. It needs a re-reading of Leviticus 25. Arguably, without this re-reading, (…) a vacuum remains concerning the character of right possession — right holding — right materiality — the restoration of the created order as God’s order.’

I think that Christianity does have a sort of theology of the land — and that it is bound up with the way it understands the Holy Spirit’s work. In a moment I’ll give an account of the figural way in which this idea was brought home to me earlier this year. But I’m aware that the question raised by the pneumatological Christian theology of the land that follows is that it is metaphorical in some measure — and therefore precisely falls under suspicion in Rashkover’s perspective. So at the end I will return to the question of whether this is a denial of materiality, and of the question of actual land (with all the associated questions about politics and possession).

When I meditated on the story of Noah’s ark during the Easter Vigil in 2005, I was especially struck — and in a way I hadn’t expected — by the description of the sending out of the dove. The dove can be read as a figure of Christ. The dove sent out from the ark first time round is sent into unknown territory — across those deeps that are maybe impassive or maybe wild. On Easter night, this offers an extraordinary image of Jesus Christ departing this life and going into the unknown domains of the dead. Like the beautiful creature released by Noah, he disappears from view: all that can be seen are the great waters, which stand for primal chaos, threat, danger, death. They seem to have claimed him. And then, to the elation of the expectantly gathered disciples, on Easter morning he comes winging back from those deeps, brandishing life, demonstrating to them that there is a future beyond the destructive power of the flood — a life springing up on its far side. He gives them hope. They respond to his return with amazement and joy.

And then this dove, Jesus Christ, vanishes from sight again. His second departure can be read as the ascension.And this time the disciples are left scanning the horizon, but he does not return. The resurrection had been the return that followed upon the first departure. Jesus in his resurrection had come back with the announcement of new life beyond death — as the bearer of that new life, and of all the promise which it held out for the ark-bound huddle of people. Following the ascension, these people are asked to interpret his departure from their sight a second time — and this time he doesn’t come back. What does it mean?

I felt a strange sort of poignancy on Easter night when I heard the words, ‘and the dove did not return to Noah any more’. Noah has had to let the creature go, and it goes this time without looking back, having performed the work it was meant to perform. But it isn’t really meant to be a sad moment. On the contrary. Noah knows what the dove’s non-return means, and it means a joyous new development to surpass even the joy brought by the dove’s earlier return. It means something is now ready. It means there’s not just a freshly plucked leaf out there, it means there’s a whole land opening up — a new world full of new life; with dry ground to walk on once again — and the dove has gone ahead of the others into that land. Suddenly, the tables are turned, and the ark-dwellers have to reconceive their options. They’re no longer meant to wait for the dove to come to them, in their confined space, which seems the only possible place to be if they’re to have any chance of survival. The dove is not going to come into their space any more. They are to go out into the dove’s space — where he is already at liberty — the first inhabitant of the new world God has made after the flood.

Noah, the wise man, realises this with joy:

he removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. (…) Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you (…) so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out . . .’ (Genesis 8:13-18)

Pentecost can be seen as the moment when Christians receive their new world: a land to walk about in, and put down roots in, and settle, and cultivate and grow. The Spirit is that land — that new world. If the moment of salvation for Christians is like the ark — packed with possibility just as the ark is packed with all the living creatures rescued from the waters: people and birds and animals and creeping things — then the coming of the Spirit unlocks all that potential and sets it free. Our transfer to a new world becomes the reality and fullness of life in that new world. The ark is a necessary moment in the story, but its real purpose is only disclosed afterwards, when the flood is past. All that was confined in the ark becomes fruitful and begins to spread once the ark has had its doors thrown open again. The Spirit takes what was saved and begins to multiply it and cause it to abound.

The image of the Spirit as being like a land works in all sorts of ways. It can also be a reminder of the land promised to the children of Israel after the desert-time; and the land returned to by them after exile. It’s the place promised to God’s children in which they will be able to serve God and truly be themselves.It’s a fruitful land — and the Holy Spirit for Christians is regularly associated with fruit.

BUT — and here’s the problem in relation to Rashkover’s challenge — the fruits of the Spirit are ‘fruit’ metaphorically . As Paul reminds us (Galatians 5:22-23), they are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance — and in the letter to the Ephesians (5:9) we are told that the fruit of the Spirit is ‘in all goodness and righteousness and truth’. As for the fruit, so for the land in which it grows.The fact is that for Christians the Spirit does not token a literal land. Rather, it is a realm of existence: it is dry land — fertile land — metaphorically. For Christians ‘have no abiding country’ (Hebrews 13:14). They are ‘strangers and sojourners’ in the world (Hebrews 11:13).

Yet Christians believe that in the working of the Spirit they have been given space of some sort in which to be fruitful and multiply. And the metaphorical land though not always a neatly delimited geographical space is nonetheless dependent on certain material conditions — on there being real spac es where their peculiar form of citizenship is enacted.And this means that the ‘space of the Spirit’ has a political character too — a power to challenge and change the real configurations of territory in the middle of which it opens up.Christians understand themselves to be citizens of a realm which spiritually covers the whole globe, for there is nowhere the Spirit is not, and they believe that wherever the Spirit is, they can expect to find networks of people bound together in gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance — people bearing each others burdens; making room for one another; collectively making the space of the Spirit — which is liberating space and fruitful space, like the dry land into which Noah and his family entered when the waters had subsided. To be sure, this is a ‘spiritual realm’ stretching across the globe, but as spiritual it has concrete dimensions to it — for example, the sacraments which the Spirit blesses and works through — baptism and the eucharist — celebrated in all corners of the world, by people of every nation and race; and the preaching of God’s word of life in every tongue.These activities need real space — in many cases, such activities define space, and map and organise real territory.

Reference to the eucharist here will confirm Rashkover’s insight that it plays a crucial role for me, as for many Christians, in dealing with this issue of right possession and proper relation to materiality.A eucharistic focus is there in my essay on the trisagion where I indicate some of the ways it can reconsititute responsible political and earthly life (as Rashkover shows), and it is also central to ideas I developed in relation to the offertory in an essay that appears in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics . [1] Stimulated by Rashkover’s paper, these explorations seem more compelling and urgent.

In the service of Holy Communion in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662, still used at many of the services in my church, the offertory unleashes an extraordinary wealth of scriptural texts into the liturgy. Directly after the recitation of the Creed and the preaching of the sermon, and before the prayers of intercession, the rubric instructs:

Then shall the Priest return to the Lord’s Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one or more of these sentences following, as he thinketh most convenient in his discretion.

No less than twenty sentences then follow, all of them in various ways inviting the congregation to make offerings. We find there a stark reminder (also present in the service for the Burial of the Dead) that the goods we have we have as a loan not as an entitlement:

Godliness is great riches, if a man be content with that he hath: for we brought nothing into the world, neither may we carry anything out. I Tim. 6

And, overlapping with this reminder, there is a vivid picture of how, when we use ‘our’ resources well, even in the service of creaturely recipients, we are in fact entering a relationship of reciprocal blessing with God , and we are promised that our giving is a preparation for receiving back :

He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord: and look, what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again. Prov. 19

The rubric then states:

Whilst these Sentences are in reading, the Deacons, Churchwardens, or other fit person appointed for that purpose, shall receive the Alms for the Poor, and other devotions of the people, in a decent bason to be provided by the Parish for that purpose; and reverently bring it to the Priest, who shall humbly present and place it upon the holy Table. And when there is a Communion, the Priest shall then place upon the Table so much bread and wine as he shall think sufficient.

Modern liturgies are on the whole more similar to one another than they are to this Prayer Book practice, but the link between the giving of alms (in the form of a collection) and the presenting of bread and wine for eucharistic use is if anything stronger. In many churches now, the bread and wine are brought to the altar in procession, from amongst the people, in the same way that collection money is. This liturgical action stresses that fact that bread and wine are also, like money, the product of human labours in the context of God’s gracious provision (his provision of the conditions we need for the work of our hands to prosper). The words said over the bread and wine make this even more explicit:

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation; through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation; through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and the work of human hands. It will become for us the cup of salvation.

And in each case the people respond: ‘Blessed be God for ever’. In these liturgical exchanges the congregation learns to think about the whole creation (in connection with these specific gifts of the creation) as belonging to God (‘Lord God of all creation’). It learns in appropriate humility to acknowledge that it ‘has’ these gifts only because of life-giving forces wholly in excess of its own control (‘through your goodness’; ‘which earth has given’). It learns to make its offering in the trust that God’s goodness will reciprocate in ways that amaze it and confound normal expectations (‘it will become for us the bread of life’; ‘it will become for us the cup of salvation’). And it learns to set this whole interaction in the context of divine praise (‘Blessed be God’).

This rings true with Rashkover’s argument that, from a levitical point of view, ‘we are to ‘hold property’ in order to point to God as the final owner. “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.” (Leviticus, 25:23) .’ This does not require renunciation of property — just as in the Christian offertory, the offering is followed by a redistribution in which the gifts and returned to human use (though somehow transvalued by having had displayed the real secret of what Susannah Ticciati might call their ‘thinginess’ — their relation to God) [2] . So there need not be a problem for Christians with Rashkover’s claim that ‘[t]he condition of the possibility of the doxological moment (…) is property holding (not negation)’, and her further point that:

[i]n this respect chosenness or covenantal life is a life of possession whereby our possessions are themselves a testimony to God’s holdings. To be chosen is not to forgo one’s property but rather to render it holy.

As Rashkover hopes, such reasonings allow both Jews and Christians to model a very particular and extraordinary form of ‘dominion’. [3] In the Church, Christians have sometimes espied that real Gospel dominion in the tradition of the first apostolic communities in the Book of Acts is ‘communicating and communicable possession’ (O’Donovan). The gifts of the offertory are always distributed afterwards. This shows that in the community of the Church, such ‘possession’ as there is of the non-human creation is shared ‘possession’, and intended for further sharing. ‘Communicating and communicable possession’ represents a recovery of an original and good use of the earth’s bounty, mediated by participation in Christ through the power of the Spirit (who also ecclesially ‘shares out’ all the goods that are in Christ). ‘Evangelical dominion is, therefore, the just communal possession and use of earthly goods that, shadowing God’s own dominion, conserve their being and assist them to realize their divinely appointed purposes’ (O’Donovan). Being thus a ‘possession’ in the image of God’s own dominion, it is far from being the exercise of a lonely proprietary will, and therefore far from the notion of dominion that has dogged much modern use of the term. God’s dominion is generously distributive, and ‘makes room’ for being. It is inherently to do with establishing relations of mutual love.

In the Eucharist, Christians learn how to make their ‘possession’ and use of earthly goods a faithful image of God’s dominion. Recognising that they share being with other creatures whom God has also chosen for existence, their imitation of God’s dominion leads them to try to conserve the being of non-human creatures and help them to occupy and fulfill their God-given place in God’s purposes. In the Church, the ‘land of the Spirit’ opened by Christ’s reconciling work, this ‘possession’ can be learnt and practised together. Christians learn that coming to know and share in the love of Christ means (indivisibly) coming to know and share in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit: fellowship with all the other objects of Christ’s loving regard.

How might this also apply to their occupation of land, and their evaluation of how others too may and should occupy land?


[1] ‘Offering: Treasuring the Creation’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).

[2] Susannah Ticciati, “The Castration of the Sign: Conversing with Augustine on Creation, Language and Truth”, short paper presented at annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology/ Irish Theological Association, Dublin, April 2005

[3] This is a word too often bandied around as the mark of a Christian high-handedness and proprietary arrogance towards the material world. And, indeed, in its roots as a Roman legal term, dominium means precisely full ownership. Joan Lockwood O’Donovan has shown in a fascinating historical study how in the early 14th century, the radical Franciscan ethic of poverty (or non-proprietorship) was countered by a papalist move to justify enforceable legal property rights on the basis that rule over the human and non-human creation was part of Christ’s perfect humanity. Both sides appealed by analogy to the divine life to make their case: for the Franciscans, the rejection of all possessions was an imitatio Christi , and for the papal side, the ownership with which Adam was endowed at the moment of his creation was in the image of God’s own dominium , and subsequent exercise of such ownership could be legitimized by ‘Christ’s purported exercise . . . of universal and immediate lordship over property’. The trouble with the papalist position (apart from its influence on a subsequent secular tradition of natural rights theory, and its exaltation of the proprietary will) is that it obscures the fact made so clear by the offertory that human ‘lordship’ is to be wholly set in the service of God and the neighbour. The trouble with the Franciscan position is surprisingly similar in that it too is individualistic. The Franciscan ethic of poverty is not the complete theological alternative to the natural rights tradition:

For Bonaventuran, as for all Franciscan theology, the communal features of the Minorite life were incidental to, indeed in tension with, the practice of evangelical poverty. The latter was inseparably wedded to the eremitical pattern of the wandering apostle . . . and to the towering figure of St Francis. . . . Thus did St Bonaventure fail to place his idealistic and Christological epistemology and his Augustinian ethic of ordered love directly in the service of elaborating apostolic community as distinct from the apostolic ‘way’.(Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, “Natural Law and Perfect Community: Contributions of Christian Platonism to Political Theory”, Modern Theology 14:1 (1998), p. 34).

In other words, for both positions there was not enough account of the Church (and O’Donovan herself turns to the writings of John Wyclif for the corrective to this imbalance).

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