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Ownership vs. Stewardship

  • Posted on November 17, 2014 at 10:00 AM

In the United States, we have a culture that perpetuates an ownership mentality. We own a lot of stuff, we own our land, we own our rights, and according to some people we even own our jobs. With ownership comes a sense of entitlement: we have the final say, we make the decisions, we can use what we own however we want. We have many rights, but we recognize few responsibilities. The world owes us a lot, but we don’t owe anyone anything.

In contrast, quite few of the cultures we interact with practice a stewardship mentality. The stewardship mentality generally takes the longer view. According to this perspective, we don’t own much of anything, regardless of property laws, because these things will last longer than we will. This is particularly important with regards to land usage and community. The stewardship mentality recognizes fewer rights and many more responsibilities. Namely, as stewards, we have the responsibility to take care of—not simply use and certainly not use up—our property.

As I’ve said, I’ve been reading First Things First by Stephen Covey and the Merrills, and the issue of stewardship was brought up regarding the roles we choose. Then, after reading this, I watched a news clip about a child that was accidentally vaccinated by the school. In this clip, one of the guest speakers—I don’t remember who—was talking about how parents have the right to decide when and if a child is vaccinated. On the surface, I agreed with her. Personally, I don’t think schools should be vaccinated children at all—it blurs the lines of governmental authority too much for my taste. But, as I listened to her, I couldn’t help but hear the ring of ownership in her voice as spoke about parenting her child.

This isn’t atypical in the United States. Among the many things our culture tells us we own, we’re told we own our kids. This idea has been with us since the founding of our nation and it lingers to this day, though we have made inroads in recognizing our children as people with human rights of their own.

For centuries, parents enjoyed the right to treat their children however they saw fit. Slowly, over time, the rights of parents have eroded. Once upon a time, parents could decide whether or not their children worked or went to school. Then, school attendance became more or less mandatory. Once upon a time, parents could decide how their children were punished. Then, certain forms of punishment were labeled abuse and outlawed. Once upon a time, parents could decide whether or not their children were vaccinated. Then, vaccinations became more or less mandatory. Once upon a time, parents could decide whether or not their children received medical attention. Then, medical care became more or less mandatory.

While there is a part of me that resists the encroachment of government on individual rights, mostly I agree with these shifts, because I firmly believe that children are people with rights of their own. (Though, I can’t help but comment that it seems ironic that as our “old” rights are being eroded, we now have the “new” right to kill our children via abortion, a mentality that I suspect also leads to tragedies like this.)

When it comes to our children, our rights as parents cannot and should not outweigh our responsibilities to our children. This is stewardship, not ownership. We have the right to make decisions, but we have the responsibility to consider our children’s interests when making those decisions. We have the right to direct the courses of their young lives, but we have the responsibility to raise them into people who can choose their own paths. We have the right to resist social and even legal/governmental norms, but we have the responsibility to base our resistance on the best interests of our children and not on our own convenience.

In the name of cultural diversity, we learn about other cultures and we are exposed to how those cultures are mixing with the dominant American culture. As a child, I learned a great deal about Dia de Muertos in the name of cultural diversity. I’ve acquired a smattering of other cultural nuances from my classroom instruction, too. But it wasn’t in school that I learned about the truly substantial differences in culture. It wasn’t in school that I learned the difference between Native American and dominant American attitudes towards land. It wasn’t in school that I learned the pervasive significance of “ancestor worship” traditions among Asian cultures. It wasn’t in school that I learned that there are people whose views of the world are so completely and utterly different from our own that we cannot help but miscommunicate and misunderstand each other. What I learned in school in the name of cultural diversity was decidedly trivial, so as to not even open up the opportunity for us lowly students to challenge the norms of the dominant culture.

As much as I love this country (most of the time), there are things we need to learn from others, and it’s not simply to respect holidays that are different from our own. In grade school, I learned that America takes pride in being the melting pot of so many different peoples. In college, I learned that America could more accurately be described as a salad, because we all don’t end up with the same culture or the same world views and belief systems once we’re mixed together. The irony, which I didn’t learn in school, is that “America” is itself an arrogant misnomer. Canada and Mexico are part of “America,” too. So is the entirety of South America. We may be the United States of America, but “America” is not our own to claim. But the dominant culture does not want to be challenged. People en masse don’t want their minds to be opened to ideas that make them question themselves and their beliefs. We don’t want to learn the truly important things.

The United States has the potential to be that melting pot of yore. But it is not done by making everyone who comes here melt into some longstanding norm. We’ve already figured out that that really doesn’t work—thus, we say “salad” instead “melting pot.” But the melting pot ideal isn’t, by itself, wrong. We have the potential to take the best of the cultures of the world and to melt these “bests” into something truly exceptional, something truly ideal. What if we could combine the Protestant work ethic with the longer, sustainable view of land held by Native American cultures? What if we could honor our history while working cooperatively for a better future? What if we could balance freedom with responsibility, liberty with equality, self-determination with self-restraint?

What if we treated our children with the respect, dignity, and humility they deserve from us? What if we raised our children to balance their rights with their responsibilities? What if we were the kind of parents who made the world a better place simply by sending our children out into the world?

We don’t own our children. They aren’t “ours” do with as we please. We are stewards of our children and stewards of our future. We have the power to shape our children into people we will be proud to know, people who will make the world a better place simply by living their lives. We have this power because we can look beyond our own culture and embrace the best of the cultures we discover amongst others.