A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Steal... Unless You Need To

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


Brian Vinson said...

Fantastic observation: our character is revealed not in the easy times, but in the most difficult situations.

Jonathan Bartlett said...

Allen -

I agree with the entirety of your post. The practical problem I have is with this sentence:

"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."

The problem is not only in what the followers of Jesus do for themselves, but what they expect for each other.

For instance, my personal income has doubled over the last 7 years. In addition, I actually live more simply than I did before (got rid of the TVs, don't go out much, etc.). The problem is that I still have trouble making ends meet. I could fix this fairly easily if:

1) I moved to a "bad" part of town

2) I sold both the cars and took the bus, and made my wife stay home with the kids and only go places where they could walk to or get a bus to

3) Got rid of my house phone, cell phones, and Internet access

So, if I did any one of these (and, personally, I would like to do all three), I would have my head above water. Unfortunately, if I did any of those, the people _in the church_ would think of me as having abdicated my responsibilities to my family.

The problem is that we expect each other to be able to get places when we ask them to be there, to answer the phone when we call, and to live in a safe neighborhood.

So, all that to say, I wouldn't just say it is about what we do with ourselves, but also what we in the Church are expecting of other people in the Church. If we are expecting everyone to be reachable, available, and mobile, that costs a significant amount of money. If, instead, the church were to start organizing in such a way that assumed otherwise, it would open up many of us to make other decisions in our lives.

PamBG said...

I also agree with the entirety of the post.

I do believe, however, that volunteerism in a society structured to enable the rich and to disable the poor is not as effective as structuring the entirety of society around the needs of all.

In tough economic times like this one, the limits of volunteerism are highlighted. The fact that the US has more people living in structural poverty than other countries in the First World is seen as a triumph by some, but I personally think it's a failure.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

jonathan Barlett,
I enjoyed your response, because it is what we expect of others that determines how we judge them. If one meets their responsibilities, they will be deemed by some as uncaring, ungracrious and uncompassionate, while others would view them as disciplined, responsible, and resourceful.

I have problems with having any ideological commitment when it comes to the material realm...because how we understand the material plays out in our political commitments of value.

I don't think living in poverty is serving "necessarily" anyone's "good"...it is not what we do or don't do (within the limits of reasonable living), but how we treat those that might differ in their understanding and commitments in regards to their personal values. We must allow these difference, without co-ercing a 'one size fits all" thinking, otherwise, we limit individuality, choice, and liberty itself...

Jonathan Bartlett said...

Angie -

I'm going to have to disagree with you. It is the nature of society that we have to have a preferred way. Yes, we must allow for differences, but for society to work (i.e. for us to help each other out) we have to have a direction for us to lead each other in. There is no such direction as "none", and to leave everyone to their own directions is the antithesis of compassion.

PamBG said...

I've done a blog post with a link to the actual sermon. As I say in my blog, I still believe that he was wrong to counsel shoplifting. But he's outlining a specific problem that is a lot more complex than telling someone "thou shalt not steal and take responsibility for your own self, man". It seems to me that in the context outlined, that shoplifting would be a natural - if not ethical - response to being told to fend for oneself.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Compassion" is a direction (way) that cannot be forced upon another without anihlilating itself. In other words, if compassion is a political agenda, then it ceases to be compassionate toward the "uncompassionate" ( or those who don't meet my particular definition of compassion).

Compassion is friendship which runs in short supply in some religious camps, because compassion is defined by serving the poor alone, without understanding that there is a much wider or broader definition of compassion.

I agree that "none" is not a stance that is practical, but it is philosophically. "Wisdom" is also understood within a context of value. And human values do differ.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Lying to save face is required in certain societies, as honor is more important in thier ethical evaluations.

Even though the cultures that differ from ours have just as much validity to exist, one must ask is there a higher value than the cultural norm. For instance, are human rights that protect the individual from certain cultural atrocities, more important than protecting the value of a cultural norm? Is an honor and shame society to be deemed an equal in a business transaction, when they cannot be trusted to honor the contract, if honor comes in conflict?

In the West, where we value difference, but we also provide protection under our "rule of law", we must determine what is more important in an international setting as it pertains to foreign policy, international business, and laws that affect 'difference". Where do we draw the lines, without dissolving society's functionality? These are not easy questions and will continue to be debated in the public square.

Chuck Tackett said...

I agree with Allan's post and am intrigued by the comments. What comes to my mind is that we are to be in the world but not of it. The comments about getting rid of the TV's hits a chord with me because for quite a while I lived without a TV. People would look at me like I had two heads.

We cannot avoid our culture but we do not have to be driven by it. Yes we need to stand up and hold our political, business and civil leaders accountable for their actions. yes we need to be kind to our neighbors and all others in our communities. however, we do not have to live by any of their expectations of how they expect us to live.

We submit to the laws of our government as Paul directs but we do not conform to the norms of society unless they are consistent with our values as followers of Christ.

Christ leads us in many ways, to help those in need; to be good stewards of the resources given to us by God; to confront those who oppress the marginalized through economic, political or cultural structures; and many other ways.

I appreciate the difficulty of the economy as well as anyone given that I was just laid off from my job in October and the prospects aren't rosy at the moment. We have had to make some difficult decisions but they were ones we needed to make anyway.

Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University is a great resource that is helping us and we will make it. I think back to a line I heard in a business seminar saying something to the effect of "if you don't discipline yourself, someone else will do it for you." We weren't disciplined in how we handled our money and now we are paying for it.

God is truly gracious and brought many friends to our aid, not only with prayer, emotional and monetary support but with the knowledge and wisdom that will help us leave this situation much better prepared for the future.

Culture and norms are powerful forces, but they are often forces of darkness that we must be willing to stand against. Having a pastor stand up and suggest that stealing is acceptable under certain circumstances is simply wrong and no culture, economic structure or oppression will justify it.

God is not only gracious but also Holy and righteous. All Jesus asked is that we follow Him if we really love Him.

PamBG said...

Angie, I have to admit that, in the context of this particular conversation, I'm not at all certain what you are saying. What you're saying seems to me to be a non-sequiter?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pam, I mean that our globalized world has led us down this path to subjective reasoning.

Our country values diversity, and as we are a pluralistic society, then how do we do business, support human rights, etc. without undermining the very foundations of our country's laws? Does international law trump our Consitution? Do human rights trump citizen rights or national interests?

These issues are pertinent to Gitmo, because a similar situation occurs when men can undermine government (rule of law), and yet, we now consider human rights, as the trump card.

This means that multiculturalism will win the argument, which undermines our Constitution's laws and our citizen rights (Bill of Rights).

PamBG said...

Um, if you read the sermon, it wasn't really a multi-cultural issue, but to answer your points.

a) On "subjectivity", we are all subjective. So, in my opinion (and I appreciate that others will disagree) Western culture in general and US culture in particular blinds itself to the fact that the way our values and economy work hugely favors those who already have power and money (and I say this as someone who worked for over 20 years in equities). But we are generally blinded to this subjectivity and we think that we're operating fairly objectively.

2) As a Christian, I try to base my ethics on the Great Commandment, not on Western or even - dare I say it - on "American" or "British" values. I believe that gives me a firm foundation that doesn't toss and turn as different value systems become au courant. In my mind, the Great Commandment doesn't let me heartlessly dismiss the poor the way the American value of economic survival of the fittest allows me to do (remember that "survival of the fittest" was originally an economic concept!).

c) As I said here and in my blog, I believe that stealing is wrong and I would not have included the recommendation to shoplift in a sermon. But I don't really think that's what the sermon was about. I think the sermon was about "What do you do with individuals with very difficult circumstances that society seems to think are disposable?" And, as you point out, there are no easy answers here.

I can tell you one thing, though. In my current incarnation as a person in the pew, no one is going to come to my door homeless and penniless. They did do that when I was a pastor and I didn't know what to do either.

The "Christian answer in the context of capitalistic America" seems to be that society should help no one, should hold the most disadvantaged to the standards of the advantaged and then the church should set up its own volunteer programs which individual "needy" people will attend on the terms of the church and at it's convenience. And we all breathe a sigh of relief - including me - because this answer lets us off the hook. But I think that the Great Commandment demands more than that.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

and it is the monied and powerful that say those that are disempowered are to "feed the poor", while they fly off in their jets and stay in their luxury hotels....this I find appalling...

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, interesting story, Allan. And good post!

My position is that the church has to make it a bigger priority. But that doesn't take government off the hook in the need to regulate greed.

To help the poor is a multi-faceted complex problem, and both grace and common grace need to be at work, I believe.