The Eighth Commandment: No stealing
In the movie “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas plays a financial wheeler-dealer named Gordon Gekko, whose most memorable line is, “Greed is good.” Now, interestingly, the drive to acquire property is, indeed, what Adam Smith and the other formulators of capitalism taught drives the creation of many other goods in society. They call this, “the profit motive.” But somehow, when Gordon Gekko says it, it feels creepy.
This is perhaps because capitalism has faced a serious critique ever since the 1920s that holds that all wealth, all property, is theft; that whatever one person has over and above what other people have was, in some sense, stolen from those who have less. To put it in the blunt terms of what is called “critical theory,” all groups in society are in competition for the resources of the society, and what we call Law is just the rules written by the Haves to defend themselves against the just demands of the Have-nots. So, whether it is the Ten Commandments or the Statutes of the Indiana General Assembly, any law making stealing from someone else a criminal offense is seen by some people as merely my group keeping your group from sharing in the resources available to all.
Now, I think this is hooey, but the problem is, I don’t want to sound like Gordon Gekko, either, and use the pulpit of God to sound off on the glories of free markets, profits, and so on. And that leaves me wondering how to explain why stealing is wrong. Maybe if we started with where the notion of private property comes from we might find something that would help us.
I was reading a book recently called, “Catching Fire: how cooking made us human.” I thought it was going to be a book on the history of the culinary arts, but it turned out to be a combination of hard science and anthropology. Its central thesis is that what finally made us what we are – what separated human beings from animals – comes from our diet, and that we became modern humans because we began to cook food. Cooking food – or even just processing it, by removing husks and stuff, or by mashing it up, let alone heating it through – concentrates the food value of what is eaten and made us grow bigger brains and shorter guts and fueled our rise as a species.
It’s an interesting idea, but in studying primitive hunter-gatherer societies to try to understand the beginnings of cooking, we see something even more interesting. Scientists have long thought that the earliest humans would divide up the labor of getting food: women and children would gather roots and nuts and small game, while men would team up and go hunting or scavenging big game. The women would typically return before the men and begin to process the food they had found.
Now, compare what happens next to what happens in a tribe of chimpanzees, when someone comes back with food. If a chimp sets down whatever it’s gathered, that food is instantly set upon by other chimps, who fight over it and steal it from others as they stole it from the original gatherer. Cooking would be impossible for chimps, even if they had the mastery of fire, because they have no idea of private property, no shame in taking from each other, no way of preventing it except the stronger fighting off the weaker.
But along with cooking came the beginnings of what we call marriage. The woman was cooking for her family, which included her husband out on the hunt. And the would-be thief was deterred from stealing from the woman processing her food by the knowledge that when the men came back, her husband would be greatly offended – and so would every other husband, who would feel the threat to this family as a destabilizing event for his own. And then remember that all the hunters were used to working together, and had access to weapons.
If you want a parable about property and law, there it is: in the first primitive families, you have both the origin of private property and the beginnings of government, whose first duty is the protection of private property, because in the protection of each family’s property is the best chance for that family’s survival. And every family that survives increases the chances the tribe will survive. So, the prohibition against stealing is part of our social DNA. It is part of what makes us human.
Socialist types may object that we are more advanced these days and that I am leaving out the role of government in helping the poor, but I’m not. In those primitive hunter-gatherer societies, each woman gathers solely for her own family, but when the men return from the hunt, the game is divided in public, by formula. The best hunter might get the best portion, but all the hunters – and even those families who were not on this hunt – are given something. The women provide individually, but the men provide communally; and someone who steals from the public division of meat would be dealt with as summarily as someone who steals from the private sharing of vegetables. If you want government to help the poor, that’s fine and good, but a government that no longer protects the private property of the individual or family has joined the robber barons, and always makes things worse and no theory to justify it holds water.
So central is this principle to the essence of our ethical code that one writer – I can’t now remember whether it was CS Lewis or GK Chesterton – said that even in heaven, where all is grace and everyone inherits all creation, where the streets are made of gold and the gates are of pearl, still you will find inscribed in giant letters of crystal on every wall, “thou shalt not steal.” Stealing is a violation of another person or family. It is a denial of love, and that is why it is forbidden.
Now, it is true that as soon as you examine human societies more complex than hunter-gatherers, you begin to see some people owning lots more wealth and wielding lots more power than other people. And a lot of them don’t use their resources in loving ways. Many of the rich care only about making themselves fatter and more comfortable, and some of them are quite happy to oppress the poor, which is a denial that the poor are their neighbors.
At the same time, sometimes people who resent the power or wealth of others will justify behavior that means they do not pay everything they owe. They file false insurance claims, pad their deductions on their taxes, help themselves to a little bit of stuff from the office, saying, “the big boys will never miss it.” Which might be true, but even if it does little harm to those who have wealth to spare, it does great harm to the person who engages in such behavior.
Sometimes, too, people will just decide in an unspoken way to cooperate in ignoring the law or their bills. At the time of the American Revolution, here and in England, many people made their living off of smuggling. Paul Revere was a smuggler, and so were many others, who cast their activity as patriotic resistance to the king’s tyranny. And I’m sure after we won our independence, many of them continued to make money by smuggling and found some other way to justify their activity. Meanwhile, over in England, the south coast was rife with smugglers.
It’s interesting to me, then, to read the old General Rules of the Methodist Societies, written by John Wesley at this time. The General Rules are in some ways quaint and out of date, but in other ways surprisingly apt. They state that three things were expected of the old-time Methodists – who would be refused entry to a class meeting if they showed disregard for them. First, they were to do all the good they could, in all the ways they could; and here follows in The General Rules a representative list of good deeds. Second, they were to avoid doing harm; and here was a list of commonplace evils that many did who were not serious about their relationship with God. Finally, they were to be regular in their attendance upon the ordinances of God: worship, communion, private prayer, etc.
Well, back to that second list – the commonplace evils that people did back then. Quite a number of these evils were of an economic nature, and one of them was specifically, “the buying and selling of articles that have not paid the duty,” meaning participating in SMUGGLING, or buying from SMUGGLERS. Yeah, we all know – “everybody does it” – but John Wesley insisted his followers would NOT – not if they intended to remain Methodists.
And why would people who were used to the smuggling trade drop it, just because some religious leader said so? Well, because that man came and showed them the love of God – not merely in his preaching, but in his life. He lived among them, started clinics for their families, raised money for their relief in times of disaster, prayed with them. They came to believe in the God who sent Mr. Wesley and his other preachers, and they wanted to be clean inside and out and be worthy of such a love. So they washed their hands of smuggling, and loan-sharking, and other such behavior, because God condemns preying on others by means of money or property. We don’t refrain from cheating each other or stealing from each other IN ORDER to find God’s love; we find God’s love, and it makes us want to love as he loves, and live by his precepts. And that changes our lives in many ways.
There's an old southern story of a frontier town down in Tennessee, a town with a bad reputation until the local preachers got up a big revival meeting. At the end of the meeting, they passed the hat to "further the work," and among the change and small bills there was a roll of money that amounted to FIFTY DOLLARS. No one had seen who put it in, and there was some quiet speculation about it all that year. Well the next year, the preachers threw another big, two-week revival, and on the last night, as the hat was passed, there were those who appointed themselves to watch it closely, to see if the same offering would be made again.
And it was! There, again, was a roll of money, amounting to FIFTY DOLLARS. And to beat all, the man who had put it in was the local storekeeper, a reviling, backliding old skinflint, who only came on that one night, apparently just to put in his offering. Well, some of the brethren went to wait upon this gentleman and asked him the meaning of his act. Was it a mistake?
"No, sir," said the storekeeper. "I don't make mistakes about money." "Well, what do you mean by it, then?" they asked. "Well, I'll tell you," he said. "When I first set up in these parts, I lost a powerful lot of merchandise to thievery. Stuff just walked off the shelves and out of the barrels. But since you gentlemen have been operating around here, my losses are cut way down. So, they way I sees it, it's a paying proposition to keep you here, and I goes in for it."
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, imagines a church community where thieves leave off stealing and are welcomed into the community of love on an equal basis, where both the rich and the poor and those who would prey on both are reconciled to God and each other.
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.And here’s where the challenge is for us. We must not only defend property, we must love those who do not have it, or who think they have a right to lift it from someone else. We must so live among all people – rich and poor, honest and dishonest – that they have a chance to see and experience the love of God and be remade by his grace. We want to be a community where no one would dream of stealing from another – and also one where no one would dream of letting others go hungry or naked.
It is said that the revival led by John Wesley prevented a revolution in Britain like that unleashed in France – that the Methodist revival gave birth to the middle class in Britain. Certainly, many thousands were brought out of poverty, both in Britain and America, by the rededication of their energies as they left crime and drunkenness and debauchery behind them and now pursued the will of God, that same God who had bought them with the blood of his own Son. It is not enough to leave dishonesty behind. Honesty without LOVE is not yet the life of the kingdom of God to which we are called. And we are called to give ourselves away, and only in that way find the true riches that can never be taken away from us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.