Sharing and caring – and a question of land ownership

There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human.

Feb 28, 2018

By Anil Netto
Linguists from Lund University in Sweden have found a previously unknown language near Jeli in Kelantan.

The language, given the name Jedek, is an ‘Aslian’ variety spoken by about 280 people who have been resettled in the Sungai Rual area. They were previously hunter-gatherers along the Pergau River.

The community is remarkable in that it is more gender-equal and there is virtually no violence among them; so there is no real need for laws or courts.

What’s more, children are encouraged not to compete. Instead, everyone knows the hunter-gatherer skills needed to live in such a community, skills which largely do not harm the environment.

So there are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts, no words needed to describe ownership (eg borrow, steal, buy or sell). Instead, the community has a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing, notes the Lund University team.

“There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there,” said Niclas Burenhult, one of the researchers.

What a stark contrast to those of us in urban areas, who tend to consider ourselves more enlightened and so used to ‘modern’ living.

Our economic system and capitalism encourages us to compete (survival of the fittest, they call it), it promotes the cult of the individual over the needs of the community. Some job advertisements even stipulate that the candidate has to be “aggressive” (maybe ruthless is not-so-nice a word).

In modern society, the right to private property, while recognised as a basic human right, is sometimes given exaggerated importance even superseding the wellbeing of the community, the common good. Exaggerated because it often ignores the customary rights of those forest dwellers and their ancestors who lived off the land for much longer, long before title deeds were introduced.

These days, we also have great big chunks of the Commons — even swathes of the sea — being hived off and sold to private interests. Our urban vegetable gardens have made way for tower blocks of expensive condos, many of them vacant. Country roads have given way to wide highways choked with private motor vehicles.

The small number of remaining communities that promote sharing and caring are precious reminders of the direction humanity could have taken. They also point us to an alternative future beyond exploitative capitalism that has wrecked the planet, burdened workers with low pay and long hours, depleted natural resources and wreaked havoc with the climate.

In Acts, chapter two, the early Christian community “owned everything in common”.

45 They sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed. 46 Each day, with one heart, they regularly went to the Temple but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously;

Who do you think lives more closely to the spirit of the earlier Christian community mentioned in the Acts: our sophisticated ‘modern’ urbanites — or the close-knit supposedly ‘primitive’ communities in today’s world, who don’t even have a word for compete or ownership?

In Mark, chapter 12, Jesus relates the parable of the vineyard and the evil tenants. A man had a vineyard and leased it to tenants while he was away. But eventually, the tenants get greedy and they plot to thrash the owner’s servants and eventually seize the land from even the owner’s son.

The traditional way of interpreting this parable is to look at the owner as God the Father, the owners’ servants as the prophets of the Old Testament and the owner’s son as Jesus himself, all of whom were rejected by the greedy tenants.

But perhaps we should also ponder over the question of the land (the vineyard), which is at the heart of the parable. Who does it belong to? In the parable, the land belonged to God; it was leased (not given) to the people for the common good (the harvest), which could be shared in an egalitarian manner among the people. But along the way, a few greedy ones decided to usurp the land and its harvest for themselves.

Now, wasn’t this what was happening during the time of Jesus, when farmlands were seized from people who had fallen into debt, perhaps due to a poor harvest or bad weather. The land, originally meant for the common people to till and farm, was then seized by wealthy lenders and turned into large estates. And the rich got richer.

Meanwhile those farmers who had lost their land, now had to work as hired hands, casual workers earning an almost hand-to-mouth wage on the brink of destitution.

Now does it make sense why Jesus seemed to favour the casual workers, many of whom would have lost their farmlands? So in another parable (Matthew 20:1-16), even those who were enlisted later in the day were generously given equal wages by the landlord (the Father). The other casual workers who had worked longer hours grumbled. They just couldn’t understand the landowner’s (the Father’s) generosity.

Perhaps Jesus recognised that without a basic minimum daily wage, these casual workers, who had lost their land, would find it impossible to feed their families. They needed a certain basic minimum income to compensate for their lost farm lands on which they previously tilled their land.

Immediately after the parable of the tenants, also in Mark chapter 12, enter the Pharisees and the Herodians who try and trick Jesus by asking him if the people should pay taxes to Caesar.

At that time, Palestine and surrounding regions were under Roman imperial occupation through client (puppet) rulers and Roman governors. So again control over the land by illegal occupiers was very much at the back of most people’s minds.

Jesus’ answer was cryptic: 15 ...“Why are you putting me to the test? Hand me a denarius and let me see it.”

16 They handed him one and he said to them, “Whose portrait is this? Whose title?”
They said to him, “Caesar’s.”

17 Jesus said to them, “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and God what belongs to God.”...

Now could Jesus also have meant: give back to Caesar his instruments of economic exploitation (the imperial currency) and give to God (the landlord in the preceding parable) what belongs to him. Give back the unjustly and illegally acquired land that did not belong to Caesar in the first place and hand them back to the landowner (God) who had “leased” or entrusted it to another community to live on and to provide for their families.

Much food for thought. But at the heart of it, is how we view the land and the Commons entrusted or leased to us by the Father.

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