They showed a piece of paper saying “eminent domain.” —Buckner and Garcia, Wreck It, Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Think about it: What the Court said was that the government can take your property from you and give it to someone else simply if it believes that someone else will make better use of it. —Malcolm Gladwell, “The Nets and NBA Economics” (2011)
Disney’s latest hit, Wreck-It Ralph (2012), shows us the behind-the-scenes life of arcade game characters. The protagonist, not-yet-hero, is Wreck-It Ralph, “a giant of a man.” In the game he spends all his time trying to demolish an apartment building, while his adversary, Fix-It Felix, Jr., works diligently to repair the damage. Behind the scenes, Ralph is depressed at having to play the bad guy and at being treated like one by the other residents of his game-world. Eventually, Ralph sets out to win a hero’s medal, and we follow his adventures. Along the way, we learn to like, even respect, Ralph—or at least the person that Ralph is becoming. But how does Ralph’s growing heroism square with his role as the game’s bad guy? What really makes Ralph tick?
Ralph’s motivations finally come out in the lyrics of the closing credits. In a Buckner and Garcia song, we’re told:
He was minding his own business on the day they came
They showed a piece of paper saying “eminent domain”
They built an apartment building saying progress was to blame
So he got mad
And he turned bad
Brick by brick he’s gonna take his land back
“Eminent domain” is a legal term. It expresses the right or power of the State to take private property for public use, with or without compensation. The apartment building amounts to a city-sanctioned confiscation of Ralph’s property. So all along Ralph has been fighting to push off the city-sanctioned squatters and take back his land, “brick by brick.” From Ralph’s point of view, he’s the victim and the underdog.
In Real Life
Ralph’s situation is reminiscent of two prominent cases that turned on the issue of eminent domain. One is Kelo v. New London (2005). Suzette Kelo sued the city of New London, Connecticut for giving her home to a pharmaceutical company in the name of economic development. She argued that it was unconstitutional for the city to take private property from one individual or corporation and give it to another. The United States Supreme Court disagreed. In a five-to-four decision, the Court announced that “public purposes” qualifies as “public use” as it’s described in the Fifth Amendment.
A second case involves the Brooklyn Nets. New York real-estate developer Bruce Ratner discovered a choice piece of partially undeveloped land in Brooklyn, perfect for luxury high-rises. But fourteen acres of older businesses and homes stood in the way of any sort of redevelopment project. Ratner needed those structures condemned, and so he fastened on a traditionally sanctioned “public use” for otherwise questionable property—a stadium. And so he bought the New Jersey Nets. The City of Brooklyn jumped onboard, exercised its power of eminent domain, and handed the land off to Ratner (2010). But along came the recession, and Ratner had to rearrange his capital. He sold the Nets and scaled back his building plans. He still ended up—by his own projections—with an annual return of 10 percent.
The Theology of Eminent Domain
Where do property rights end and the good of society begin? To answer the question biblically, we must consider the issue of original ownership. “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” the psalmist tells us (Ps. 24:1). That is, God as Creator owns the whole earth. He owns all the real estate, and He owns the men, women, and children who walk its surface. He owns all the land and all of society. All property rights are, therefore, His.
Through His law, God has delegated temporary and limited ownership of property to men. This ownership is defined and delineated by His law. It is summarized in the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15). Jesus put the matter in more positive terms when he has a property owner in one of His parables say, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matt. 20:15). Note the word “lawful.” The issue is not property rights versus the needs of society; the issue is the law of God.
Scripture nowhere gives the State the power to take property, landed or otherwise, from law-abiding citizens. Quite the contrary: at the beginning of the monarchy, God warned Israel that their kings would eventually assume eminent domain over their people’s lands:
And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. (1 Sam. 8:14)
In Ezekiel’s vision of the Restoration Covenant, God turned this warning into an explicit prohibition:
Moreover the prince shall not take of the people’s inheritance by oppression, to thrust them out of their possession; but he shall give his sons inheritance out of his own possession: that my people be not scattered every man from his possession. (Ezek. 46:18)
Scripture also touches on the matter of eminent domain and legalized theft in a story in 1 Kings.
Naboth owned a vineyard just beyond the walls of king Ahab’s summer palace in Jezreel (1 Kings 21). The vineyard was beautiful and well situated. Ahab thought it would a make a very pleasant and useful addition to the royal estate. He spoke of making it “a garden of herbs” or vegetables. So Ahab made Naboth an offer: He would give Naboth a better vineyard in trade or the equivalent in hard cash. So far, so good, at least legally. Ahab made Naboth a legitimate offer, and the Mosaic Law did allow for the short-term sale of land (what amounted to a lease) until the Jubilee, which came every fifty years.
But Naboth wasn’t interested in the offer. His motivations were religious and theological. He said, “Yahweh forbid it me that I should give he inheritance of my fathers unto thee” (1 Kings 21:3). Naboth’s land had been entrusted to his family by God Himself as a perpetual inheritance. And though the letter of the law allowed for a temporary sale or lease, Naboth believed that the land was his responsibility and stewardship under God. He believed that selling the land would be a betrayal of that stewardship. So he simply said, “No.”
Ahab went home and pouted. “Heavy and displeased,” he lay down on his bed, turned his face to the wall, and refused to eat (v. 4). When his queen, Jezebel, asked for an explanation, he told her exactly what had happened.
Jezebel arranged for the elders of the city to proclaim a public fast (v. 9). They were to set Naboth in a position of honor. But at the same time they were to arrange for false witnesses to accuse Naboth of blasphemy, a capital crime in Israel. Based on this false testimony, they were to execute Naboth (v. 10).
The elders did as Jezebel required. Then they sent word that Naboth was dead. Jezebel told her husband and sent him off to take possession of his new vineyard (v. 15). But when he came to the vineyard, he found the prophet Elijah waiting for him. Elijah’s prophecy put the blame for Naboth’s death squarely on Ahab:
Thus saith the LORD, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? … In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine. (v. 19)
Moreover, Elijah prophesied the brutal death of Jezebel and the doom of all Ahab’s house. Only Ahab’s superficial humility and repentance stayed the sentence for a little while (vv. 27-29).
Obviously, the concept of eminent domain was foreign to Israel, even in her apostasy. Ahab knew the only legitimate way he could acquire the land was by an un-coerced economic transaction. Naboth had to freely agree to the sale. Jezebel, a Canaanite princess by birth, also understood the law, but saw no reason that a real king should be hampered by it. So she used conspiracy, perjury, and legal formalities to commit murder and theft. But when God reckoned up the final account, He laid the blame on her husband, on Ahab.
No plausibility deniability. No “I didn’t get the memo.” It was Ahab’s responsibility to know, and, in fact, he did know. God held him accountable, and when judgment came, it was terrible.
A society that rejects the sovereignty of the Creator will not abandon the idea of sovereignty. It will simply relocate it to somewhere within the creation—usually in the State. Eminent domain as it exists in American law is merely a recognition of such sovereignty. There can be no appeal against this sovereignty from within the system. God, however, can bring judgment from outside the system. He can disinherit the oppressors and in fact, He has promised to do just that. (1 Sam. 2:5-10; Luke 1:51-54)
For Further Reading:
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Eminent Domain” in The Politics of Guilt and Pity (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1970).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Eminent Domain” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (N. p.: Craig Press, 1973).
Alyssa Rosenberg, “Real-Estate Developers and Wreck-It Ralph,” ThinkProgress.org, Nov 8, 2012, <http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/11/08/1163081/guest-post-real-estate-developers-and-wreck-it-ralph/>.
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Nets and NBA Economics,” Grantland, Sept 26, 2011,