Who owns the land?

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel

In The Mexican state of Chiapas, remnants of the Mayan people who once ruled the region are contending for land rights in an ecological preserve that represents nearly half of Mexico's remaining rain forest.

In California, landowners and the beach-strolling public are at odds over who owns Malibu's sand. Some see the entire shoreline as a public treasure, and others argue that private ownership rights trump public access.

And in the West Bank, displaced Palestinians and Israeli settlers struggle for possession of a land considered holy by Muslims, Jews, and Christians - about half of the world's people.

These and many other disputes boil down to ownership/stewardship struggles - whether the contending parties are seeking rights to arable land, water, oil, minerals, wind-power, or even broadcast frequencies and the development of air rights. With conflicts over resources apparently multiplying between individual landowners and among nations, what will happen as global population expands to a projected nine billion over the next 50 years?

Turf wars may continue to be fought and intifadas waged over disputed territory, but the trend toward armed conflicts multiplying over earth's resources should not be accepted as inevitable. In order to map a less contentious, less environmentally precarious future, however, it will take a change in the way the world's citizens think about the fundamentals of life, land, and ownership.

The means for that needed shift can be found in the word repent. The basic meaning of repentance in both ancient and newer languages is to change one's mind, to think differently, to be mentally and spiritually revised. To repent strongly implies a willingness to submit to the limitless intelligence of God. In that sense, repentance is Prayer 101.

Repentance may make some people think of emotional religiosity. Yet there are seasons and reasons for penitence over the wrongs committed in the name of possession. The example of the patriarch Abraham is a useful starting point toward a sea change of thinking about land and ownership.

"It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the summons to go out to a place which he would eventually possess," the Bible says, "and he set out in complete ignorance of his destination.... Abraham's eyes were looking forward to that city with solid foundations of which God himself is both architect and builder" (Heb. 11:8, 10, J.B. Phillips).

Discussing Abraham, revered alike by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Mary Baker Eddy wrote, "This patriarch illustrated the purpose of Love to create trust in good, and showed the life-preserving power of spiritual understanding" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 579).

In a world that equates success with owning things, Abraham still symbolizes the capacity to trust in the unseen Architect's generosity and wisdom - and the effects of such trust. Abraham told his nephew Lot, with whom he was involved in a conflict over their herdsmen, "Let's have no dispute between kinsmen." And after Abraham gave Lot the first choice of land, God promised the patriarch a spiritual homeland stretching in all directions. Ultimately, as this story shows, "the promised land" is a homeland of ideas, a rich mental universe governed by spiritual laws of being and relationship.

Centuries later, speaking of Christian Science as her discovery of universal divine laws rather than as a religious denomination, Mrs. Eddy wrote of God guiding her to "the land of Christian Science, where fetters fall" (pages 226-227). Chief among those fetters is the concept that matter defines, and confines, our lives.

Jesus refused to be a divider. Christ expresses God's oneness, His unifying power. Christ is divinity touching humanity for universal blessing, without respect to person, faith, or geography.

God's building materials come from the Holy Spirit's own nature, as spiritual qualities. There is equality of endowment and possession only in a sacred sense of existence - in discovering who and what God made us to be, as individuals and as neighbors. And the closer each of us gets to "the life- preserving power of spiritual understanding," the sooner the human family will move toward an abiding harmony that leaves no one in want.

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