An Anglican priest has created controversy in suggesting to his congregation that it is OK for the poor to shoplift in order to get what they need to feed themselves and their families. (Read the story here.) He has been roundly criticized for his comments and rightly so. Of course, he advised that people only steal from big businesses instead of small ones because, as he noted, the cost of the shoplifting would ultimately be passed on to the consumer. How magnanimous of him.
Now before I suggest what should be obvious-- that his advice is plain wrong and dangerous-- let me say that not only should Christians have great sympathy for those who find themselves in desperate situations, but the church should do everything possible to assist those in need. I am well aware that in the current economic situation, theft has increased. Some of it, to be sure, is the kind of theft perpetrated by thugs who do not need a poor economy as an excuse, but there are those who have resorted to stealing because they have been unable to find honest work in order to provide for their families. I have encountered some of those individuals personally. Especially in this Christmas season when some parents are facing the inability of providing even a modest Christmas for their children, the temptations are surely great.
Having said that, however, our character is revealed, not in the easy times, but in the most difficult situations. Temptation can work its way into our lives when we are the most needy and the most vulnerable. The temptation to steal is greatest when we lack what we need. The temptation to lie can be difficult to resist when the truth does not benefit us. The temptation to commit adultery can be toughest when one is in the midst of a difficult and loveless marriage. The point is that moral commands are given expressly for those times when it is most difficult to keep them. This does not mean we never do wrong when life is good, but the very issuance of the commands themselves indicate that discipline is required to keep them.
I remember watching the horrific scenes post-Hurricane Katrina, when people were using that great disaster as an excuse to loot local businesses in New Orleans. People were carrying flat screen TVs, DVD players and all kinds of gadgets, devices, and clothing they had stolen. There were others who in the midst of that time went into abandoned grocery stores to get food for their families. I have no sympathy for those in the former group, but great empathy for the latter, as I too have a family to feed. One of the stories of those days that I will never forget was the father who took food from a local grocery to feed his family. On the cash register he left a note with his name and phone number and an itemized list of what he had taken. He ended the note to the store owner with the promise that he would return and pay the bill once the difficulties had passed. I have never been able to find out if he indeed did so, but if he was willing to take the time to write a note when everyone else simply felt free to take food with no thought of their responsibilities to the one who had made the investment in the meals they were going to eat, I am willing to bet that he did return and settle up. Yes, indeed-- our character, or the lack thereof, is revealed in times of trial.
I sympathize with Rev. Jones and his concern for those who are hungry. As a pastor it is frustrating to have more need than resources; but instead of giving the poor in his congregation license to steal, perhaps he needs to create a food bank in his church, and if he already has one, then maybe should work to expand it. Instead of suggesting that people steal from those big businesses, maybe he should be soliciting donations from them.
Of course, the church has all kinds of resources available to it if the followers of Jesus would commit themselves to the kind of simpler lifestyle that would allow them to be extremely generous. Since we are unable, it seems, to live such a disciplined way of life, we look to the government to do things for us, so we can continue to live the kind of materialistic existence that is not under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But that is the politics of witness thing I keep talking about in reference to the church, that many Christians think is unrealistic, even though they seem to believe that just handing their money over to the government to take care of such need would work just fine.
In any case, Father Jones needs to rethink his position. It is not in keeping with the gospel of Jesus Christ that insists we repent in preparation for the Kingdom as we also focus our attention on the least, the last, and the lost.
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Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian