The Episcopal New Yorker — December 2012
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What Does The Bible Say?

The Bible and the Selling of Land

By the Rev. Frank Morales

Americans are a very ahistorical bunch. Having a scant sense of our own, let alone world history, we tend to think that what is, always was. This is the case when it comes to land use and ownership. Haven't we always speculated on land, bought and sold it like any other commodity? Haven't we always allowed for the machinations of competitive capitalism to dictate who can live where and for how much?

Well, the answer is no. It hasn't always been this way. In fact, in certain times and places the selling of land and the speculation and profiteering on one's (or someone else's) home was not an acceptable mode of social relations. In fact, in some places it was considered a sin to do so. Such was the case in Biblical times, during the era of the Old Testament and the Prophets.

What does the Torah say about buying and selling land, the material basis of life itself? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. The ancient Hebrew people affirmed in Genesis 1:1-9 that Yahweh had created the”land,” the”dry ground” and that it was”good.” And because the land was”good,” it would provide the sustenance for life in God’s Kingdom, land-as-life, which would be a land of justice, for after all, it was God’s household, the God as set forth in Psalm 82:

"God standeth in the congregation of the mighty, He judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Defend the poor and the fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and needy, Deliver the poor and the needy, rid them out of the hand of the wicked."

Hence, regarding how we are to live on the land, we read In Chapter 25 in the Book of Leviticus that,"'the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers." That's right! We simply"reside" here. We can and should own nothing. Why? Because to do so would inevitably undermine the safety of the community and disrupt and corrupt our holy covenant with God.

Further,”when you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.” The Sabbath was about the Year of Jubilee, the seventh day, the seventh year, the seven times seventh years, at which time a socio-economic leveling would occur, debts would be forgiven, ancestral land reclaimed. The occasion provided a means to actualize the ethical requirements necessary in maintaining equilibrium of justice, an equilibrium fostered through egalitarian measures presumed in the household of a just God on His Holy Sabbath Day.

At that time, “the land is to have a year of rest.” So, every fifty years, “on the Day of Atonement, sound the trumpet throughout your land … and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” In the Sabbatical Year the land was to lie fallow, debts (including mortgages) were to be cancelled (“forgive us our debts”), and slaves and bondservants were to be set free.

Underlying the actual legislation in Leviticus was the fact of Israel’s division of the land by lot. As the land was a gift and heritage from the Lord, it was to be passed on to future generations. In fact, the modern word”lot" as used for a piece of real estate, derives directly from this concept. The Greek and Hebrew word usually translates as”inheritance." In the Bible, it means a division made by casting lots. The critical point is that the”lot” expresses the will of God who divides equally to all His people.

Once the land has been divided and allotted, each portion is to remain within the family or clan that has received it and it may never be sold. The land never belongs to an individual, but to all future generations of the current possessor’s descendants, who are not free to give the title of the land to anyone else. Nor are they able to covet their neighbors’ land or to accumulate a large estate for themselves.

Also,”you must not remove your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” (Deuteronomy 19:14)

The Bible of our ancestors is clear. The”land must not be sold” for it belongs to the Creator and we are”only strangers and guests.” This concept underlies all Biblical teaching on land. It is repeated and reinforced by the prophetic teachings. Unfortunately, these teachings were and have been profoundly disregarded.

Over time, the coveting of neighbors’ land and the seizing of property by foreclosing on mortgages became a serious abuse. Because wealth in the pre-modern world was primarily the product of land ownership and the agricultural production that came from it, greed (and laws which sanctioned it) undermined the Jewish community’s prohibition of ownership of land, rupturing the people’s relationship with God, the ultimate foundation upon which we depend.

During the time of Jesus, many centuries later, this process was exacerbated through confiscation of people’s land by the king. Outright theft through military might made sales unnecessary. King Herod had large royal estates, royal lands, which he didn’t buy so as not to violate Jewish law! He in turn gave land to new elites, the priestly class, who’d made their peace with Roman occupation. Foreclosure because of debt (like today), fostered through the burden of taxation, was a pervasive reality.

This in turn led to the accumulation of large tracts of land by the wealthy elite and the commercialization of agriculture, with masses of displaced poor, the”blessed” inheritors of God’s Kingdom, struggling for their”daily bread.”

The erosion of God’s law, wrought by the immoral actions of His people, was justified early on by appealing to the laws attributed to Baal, a”false” and competing god of a Phoenician pagan cult that was promoted by King Omri (about 900 BC), a military man who “did what is displeasing to the Lord" (Kings, 16:30-33). Under his and succeeding reigns it became a blasphemy against Baal to assert rights or duties originally given by the Lord Yahweh. Hence, he was free to enforce the Phoenician system that treated land as a commodity and not as a heritage for God’s faithful. In the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Baalites (owners) freely bought, sold, and mortgaged their lands. The Baal cult was founded in part on the validation of property exchange, contracts, and covenants—the right to buy and sell land. They owned houses, land, and slaves. They were the aristocratic landlords who lived in the cities and were possessive about their possessions. During Jesus’ time, the Sadducees filled this role.

The prophet Amos condemned the land-hungry real estate speculators as men so eager for land that”they trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” (2:7) He warns those wealthy who oppress the poor that,”though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them, though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.”“Seek good, not evil, that you may live,”“maintain justice,”“then the Lord God Almighty will be with you.” (5:11-15)

Clearly, we live in a time that has adopted and normalized the Baal system. But, as we have seen, it wasn’t always this way. It is instructive to note that the Baal concept and all that it implies in terms of unjust and ungodly land ownership was to become enmeshed within early Christian demonology, a demonology that ranked Baal as the first and principal king in hell. Consequently, let us pray for our God to”deliver us from evil” and from all that would dislodge the people from their homes and land, for life is land and land is life. And let us thereby repent and herald a return to the Law of the Lord!

Morales is a priest in the Diocese of New York.

The Cathedral: Stewardship and Sustainability

By Margaret Diehl

The land belongs to the future.

–Willa Cather (1873-1947), inducted into the Cathedral’s American Poets Corner in 1990.

The convening authority of the Cathedral-the gathering of large audiences, hosting rallies and vigils, offering a wide range of religious, educational, social justice and cultural programs, while remaining an oasis of beauty and green space in a busy neighborhood-depends upon the original trustees' choice of building site. On a promontory overlooking Morningside Heights, 11.3 acres contain and support the Cathedral and its ancillary buildings and gardens.

An early history of the Cathedral remarked that"the most long-lived things are the slowest of growth," with a footnote comparing the oak tree to the pine. The Cathedral is a much larger oak now, a nurturing, enduring presence in the community. The function of monumental buildings- religious or civic-is not only to encompass what takes place in them day-to-day but also to state, in stone or steel, that they are firmly rooted and will remain.

As the neighborhood has grown over the last century, Cathedral programs have reached wider and more diverse audiences, keeping pace with a changing society without blurring the Cathedral's distinctive identity. But this very wealth of programs and the maintenance of the historic space have required sustained fundraising as well as delayed construction of many architectural features of the original design.

In 1998, after a comprehensive study, the trustees concluded that both the famed calendar of activities and the architectural integrity of the Cathedral were at risk without significant additional monies. They discovered that necessary repairs to the building and grounds would cost $20 million and that over the next fifteen years another $20 million would be needed for maintenance and repairs. Although the Cathedral is world-renowned and vital to the community, its endowment had become insufficient for operational costs. Structural deficits had accumulated for a decade. This was a dire situation requiring bold action and resolve.

The trustees wisely decided to initiate real estate development in two parts through the ground-leasing of two sites, one on the southeast corner of the campus, and the second on its north, between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. In his testimony to the Landmark Commission, Dean Kowalski explained the need for this initiative:"It has been [made] painfully clear to me that religious institutions that do not attend to their financial health cannot sustain their own internal responsibilities…Our conversations with developers regarding the under-utilized perimeter parcels are directly connected to our mission as a Cathedral…We do not seek these resources simply to help the Cathedral for its own sake. Rather, we ask support [for] this strategy because the Cathedral has served and will in perpetuity serve a mission that radically embraces all people." The Dean presented the restrictions and stipulations that the Cathedral committed to including in any contract in order to protect access, views, and open space, and to ensure architectural quality and congruence. The Landmark Commission voted unanimously to permit construction on these two parcels, and the Cathedral recorded a restrictive declaration with the City of New York detailing the development footprint and envelope constraints.

As open space in the city is precious, and institutional finances are not well understood, there was public opposition to the Cathedral's development plan. The Cathedral listened and responded to people's concerns in community forums. Retaining the park-like feeling of the Close and ensuring neighborhood benefits were important to both local residents and the Cathedral. In order to sustain its mission and protect its buildings from disrepair, a development partnership was, nevertheless, its only recourse.

In September 2006, the Cathedral entered into a 99-year ground lease, retaining title to the land, with the real estate investment trust AvalonBay Communities, Inc., which erected a residential building on the southeast site. At the end of the 99 years, the land and the building revert to the Cathedral, thereby ensuring revenue for the future.

Avalon Morningside Park, completed and occupied in 2008, is a handsome building with a two-story glass entrance opening onto Cathedral Parkway. The building is part of New York City's Housing Development Corporation 80/20 Program- 20% of its units (59 in total) are reserved for individuals and families whose income does not exceed 50% percent of the area median income, adjusted for family size. Preference is given to neighborhood residents. The Cathedral established a Housing Mission Fund that contributes annually to the protection of the affordability of these apartments.

The Cathedral is committed to serving as a wise steward of its capital, developing and sustaining relationships with donors and trusted private interests to secure funds needed for both preservation and expansion. Churches have always relied upon the generosity of their communities and the value of their properties. With so many options for giving in our complicated world, it seems prudent to use what is at hand as well as to request contributions.

Fulfilling its commitment to preservation, the Cathedral has been able to finance and invest $25 million in the preservation and improvement of the Close over the past six years. Some notable preservation and improvement projects include: reconstruction of the massive 110th Street retaining wall after its collapse; completion of the restoration of the Ithiel Town Building, originally the Leake & Watts Orphan House, the original tenant of the land and the oldest structure in Morningside Heights; removal of the South Tower scaffolding, which had stood abandoned for 19 years; construction of a wonderful playground used by Cathedral School students, ACT program participants, and the general public; creation of a new flower garden along the South Drive; and installation of new copper roof systems for the apse, St. James and St. Ansgar Chapels, and the Baptistery.

With the ground lease in hand for the southeast site, the Cathedral is now in conversation with a potential developer and has exciting designs in process. The plan would likely include two residential buildings separated by an open plaza on 113th Street, leading into a restored North Transept, which was damaged by the 2001 fire and awaits rebuilding. The plan also includes a new cloister area between the nave and the residential building, which will open onto Amsterdam Avenue, providing a major new landscaped area for the public that will also accommodate disabled access to the Cathedral. Overall, this construction and landscaping will bind the Cathedral campus and the homes of our neighbors. The Cathedral expects a distinct gain—in grounds keeping, neighborliness, financial relief, and the value of the property left to future generations—from this plan.

Ennead, the Cathedral’s architects, developed a preservation and site improvement plan in 1998, and is now working on a longer-term master plan that includes the rebuilding of the North Transept and the construction of a connecting structure that links the Ithiel Town building to the Cathedral, providing proper access to the nave, ambulatory, undercroft and the apse crypt. An arts center, accommodating music and art rooms for the Cathedral School, is planned for the apse crypt. Additionally, the Cathedral School is in the process of completing a thorough upgrade of the school building, including a new kindergarten, science rooms and kitchen. Work on the school has been made possible with special capital funds raised among the school’s families.

These projects will preserve the Cathedral’s historic architecture while extending its reach, as its buildings are made increasingly accessible and multi-purposeful. The Cathedral is paying particular attention to the issue of sustainability, which, as it becomes clearer every year, is of paramount importance. The Cathedral’s Fabric Committee has created a design committee, which, together with its architectural consultant, continues to carefully consider what can be done within the constraints of the site and existing structures.

The Cathedral stands today as a world-revered treasure, not only for its grand façade and lofty spaces, but also for its history of stewardship and its nurture of the wider community. From its welcoming of European immigrants to its support for Civil Rights to its care of AIDS patients and the environment, the Cathedral has always been at the forefront of new struggles. The challenge before us is to extend this proud history—to do more and to do better, to forge ahead while adhering to our mission and conserving what is precious. Management of its real estate is one of the many responsibilities of the Cathedral trustees. The physical integrity of the Cathedral is a sacred trust, to which the trustees made a commitment 120 years ago when workers first cut and placed the cornerstone.

Diehl is the editor of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s newsletter.