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A few Saturdays ago, I attended the Diocesan Mission Conference held at St. Mark Ocean Park. Responding to animated discussions at the Diocesan Synod last May which were centered on the Report by the Task Force on Homelessness and Affordable Housing (1) as well as resolutions calling on the church to address the ongoing housing crisis, the theme for this year’s Mission Conference was “Toward a Theology of Land”.

There were four plenary speakers at the Conference: Dr. Mari Joerstad, the current Academic Dean and Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Vancouver School of Theology, who drew on selections from the Hebrew Bible to illustrate dynamic understandings of the relationship between land, animals, plants, humans, and God; Kerry Baisley, Diocesan Missioner for Indigenous Justice, who used stories to render key Indigenous beliefs about land which have important implications for reconciliation; the Rev. Dr. Richard Leggett, who provided broad ruminations on how to tend property resources in ways which are consistent with Christ’s teachings; the Rev. Tellison Glover, Diocesan Director for Mission and Ministry Development, who expounded on the possibilities of property development as missional work through a step-by-step imagination of a parish redevelopment project. The Conference concluded with Bishop John Stephens urging those gathered to ponder the question: “We have been gifted this resource [land]. What do we do with this?”

Throughout the Conference, we were invited to engage in the Spiritual Practice of Listening. After each plenary speaker’s presentation, we were prompted to wonder and reflect on how our heart was connected to the presentation, what we were challenged by, where we saw our parish in the presentation, and what God was saying to us. I have now had some time to listen to my own wonderings. What I hear is unsettled dissonance.

I am frustrated with our conceptualization of land. The Conference started with Mari calling for a biblically rooted, relational conceptualization of land. Referencing the creation story in Genesis, Mari argued for a reading of the sequential order of creation not as an order of power or importance, but as an order of dependence: those created later – humans were created last – were not more powerful or important that those created earlier; rather, those created later depended on those created earlier. Such a reading challenges human exceptionalism and highlights the inalienable interconnectedness between all creation. It also resonates with the version of an Indigenous creation story which Kerry shared (2), in which all creation were part of the same family, and humans were the youngest – most helpless! – siblings who needed to be cared for by elder relations: animals, plants, rivers, the land. The morning session of the Conference concluded with echoes of emergent themes – family, relations, interconnections – being reverberated with fervent agreement around the room. For a moment, it was as if we felt connected to each other, to the land.

When we came back from lunch break, however, the discussions were all about property. What happened to land as relations? I found myself listening with increasing discomfort, unable to silence the story with which Kerry had opened his presentation, and which was now clanging against everything I was hearing. The story goes: A politician went to see an Indigenous Chief. He asked the Chief, “how much money do you want for your land?” The Chief responded, “how much would you give for your mother?”

If it seems ludicrous to consider buying and selling our relations, not least our own mother, why is it so easy for us to slip into talking about land as property, as if it were not a relation but a thing: a discrete object, separate from our being, a commodity ready to be bought and sold?

Many scholars point to the commodification of land as marking the start of capitalism. In technical academic jargon, it is called “primitive accumulation”: the process of some (colonial) entity (forcibly) taking land, enclosing it, expelling the population residing on it (thereby creating a class of people cut off from their means of survival – land – and who must now sell their labor in order to survive), then relabeling that parceled land “private”, thus eligible to be bought and sold on the market. This may all be theoretically interesting, but what is it to us? The reality remains that, whether we like it or not, we now live under capitalism. As such, land is property!

The acceptance of equating land with property as “just the way it is” is, to me, problematic in two ways.

First, it conflates what is normal – in the sense of being statistically prevalent – with what is natural. Writing in The Great Transformation (3), which traces the historical rise of the market economy in England, the economic anthropologist/sociologist Karl Polanyi commented, “what we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institution. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors” (2001:187). Along the same vein, the historian Ellen Wood has argued against treating capitalism as the natural outcome of human history, pointing instead to its contingency and historical specificity. In The Origin of Capitalism (4), she wrote, “capitalism has existed for a very short time, barely a fraction of humanity’s existence on earth” (2017:3).

Being able to problematize the taken-for-grantedness of “land as property” is a first step towards understanding our past as well as imagining our future. If there is nothing “natural” about the buying and selling of land, then the regime of “land as property” requires explanation. Thinking through how we got to a point where “land as property” became the dominant way of doing things forces us to grapple with the violent histories of land expropriation and, with it, the destruction and annihilation of social relations in which our ancestors and institutions may have been complicit. This is necessary for truth, without which there is no basis for reconciliation. Rejecting “land as property” as “just the way things are” also frees our imagination for what the future may hold. If society is not, as a matter of course, organized such that social relations are subsumed by the capitalist logic of profit and accumulation, might we dare to imagine a non-capitalist future? Or, short of overhauling the system, might it be possible to carve out protected, non-capitalist spaces within capitalist society?

A second problem with accepting “land as property” as “just the way it is” is that, building on the conflation of “normal” and “natural”, it risks conflating what is “natural” with what is “good”: if land is naturally to be bought and sold, surely it must be good that land is bought and sold. This dangerous illogic has been used for centuries to justify and sustain colonial plundering carried out around the world in the name of development. For example, the privatization of land in British India and French Algeria violently disrupted social relations in Indian and Algerian society, but it was justified by the colonial British and French administrations via a two-step process: first, legislation on the privatization of land was framed as being desired by colonial subjects; second, both the British and French colonial administration invented “scientific” arguments which posited that private property was a necessary precondition for more intensive and improved cultivation of the land. In that sense, the buying and selling of land was not only presented as a matter of course (i.e. what is natural), but also a matter of prudence (i.e. what is good).

We now know that colonial methods of “scientifically” cultivating the land have had disastrous, long-term ecological consequences around the world. More generally, too, the treatment of land as property has given rise to intractable social problems. Let Palestine be a cautionary tale (5): From 1915 to 1916, while the First World War was underway, the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, corresponded with Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the patriarch of the Hashemite family and Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina. McMahon convinced Husayn to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was aligned with Germany against Britain and France in the war. In exchange for the successful revolt, McMahon promised support from the British government for the establishment of an independent Arab state under Hashemite rule in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. Yet in 1917, the British foreign minister, Lord Arthur Balfour, issued a second, separate declaration (the Balfour Declaration), this time announcing the British government’s support for the establishment of “a Jewish national home in Palestine”. Around the same time, a third deal, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was secretly negotiated between Britain and France to carve up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and divide control of the region. The war between Israel and Palestine, still ongoing, traces in no small measure to these conflicting agreements which take for granted the conceptualization of land as property: discrete objects with neatly drawn boundaries, separate from social relations, parcels ready to be exchanged between parties.

Conceptualizing land as property, as it turns out, might be rather treacherous, perhaps even as treacherous as thinking about buying and selling one’s own mother.

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that, if we are to return to a biblically rooted conceptualization of land not merely as property, but as encompassing the relations of creation connected through land, we must develop a theology of land which is intentionally anti­-capitalist. But what does it mean to be anti-capitalist in the everyday, living under capitalism? (6) As a parish which occupies land with tremendous property value, I believe there is some urgency for the community of Christ Church Cathedral to discuss and debate this question. In 2023, close to a quarter of the parish’s revenues was generated through land, that is, through renting out the right to use our land (7). Is it possible to re-direct this income, generated through capitalist means, into anti-capitalist work? Is it possible for us to relate to the land beyond extracting income? Is it possible for us to develop more meaningful relations – with our neighbors, with our environment, with our history and our future – through the land?

I recall the questions which Kerry posed at the end of his presentation at the Conference: What do you believe in when you think of the land? What are you willing to fight for? What are you willing to give up?

May we have faith in more than we can ask or imagine under capitalism.


(1) The Report is available online: 

(2) At the Conference, Kerry explained that in some Indigenous traditions, storytelling is to be done in very specific ways, and only by specific people. I have his permission to re-tell the stories that he told at the Conference.

(3) Karl Polanyi. [1944] 2001. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

(4) Ellen Meiksins Wood. [1999] 2017. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.

(5) I have paraphrased material from “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer” by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar. This excellent and timely guide is available online:

(6) The sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s last book, written while he was battling cancer, is How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-first Century. A short version is available as an article here:

(7) I have included as land-generated income (i) Building use donations ($168,926) and (ii) Park Place payments for use of the Cathedral’s air space ($300,000). Because Park Place payments get paid into the Cathedral’s Heritage Building Fund before it gets transferred into the operations account as part of “Transfers from Reserve Funds”, I have included as total revenues (i) Total Revenues as reported on the financial statement ($1,000,636), (ii) Transfers from Reserve Funds ($831,500), and (iii) Bequests and special gifts ($150,000).