Saturday, January 16, 2010

You Shall Not Steal: Commandment Eight

First published January 13, 2010 8:10PM on Open Salon


We return to our series on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments. The previous essays in this series can be accessed through the links in the left hand column of this page.

As with the other Commandments please remember that they are intended to apply to practicing Jews and Christians. Those who would apply them to others who have not chosen to follow them abuse the original intention of the Commandments.

The Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal," sounds simple enough. Hopefully, by the end of this essay you will realize that, like the other Commandments, it is not as simple as it sounds.

This Commandment probably originally related to two very different things, only one of which we think of as "stealing." Exodus Chapters 21 and 22, part of the "Covenant Code," which expands upon and applies the Ten Commandments to everyday situations, clearly indicate that this Commandment applies to the unauthorized taking of another's animals and other property. That much we can clearly understand as "stealing."

But it also applies to kidnapping (21:16); that it, "stealing a man," or, more literally in Hebrew, "stealing a soul." Kidnapping someone for slavery was a fairly common practice of the time, (Remember Joseph?) and was punishable by death.

This type of theft was the only kind of "stealing" punishable by death. All other stealing was generally covered by making restitution to the owner, sometimes "overcompensating" the victim up to double the value of the stolen property.

Like the other Commandments, the prohibition against stealing was designed to guard the fellowship of the community, to insure stability of the nation, and to promote peace among neighbors.

Israel understood property as many still do today: as an extension of one's "self." Then, as now, people were often valued by what they had more than by who they were. We are not so unlike them as we might think! Theft of property was seen as a violation of the person, an idea not so foreign to anyone who has been the victim of theft.

In Deuteronomy, at 25:16, the Commandment is extended to all forms of dishonesty, an important point which will become more clear as we continue with this essay.

Theft was viewed as an attack on the integrity of the human being by depriving one of the fruits of one's labor. After all, as we know from Genesis, work is part of God's plan for creation. God intends for people to work, and to receive the fruits of their labor.

And a thief does not respect this intention. Nor does a thief respect the gifts or talents that we use when we work, gifts which are blessings from God. Theft, then, makes a mockery of how God intends us to use creation: through the honest use of our time and our talents, as well as the resources of the planet.

Although I am not a great proponent of a "free market" economy, we should be clear that this is not an argument in favor of any particular form of economic system. Nothing in God's plan forbids communal ownership, as we can see by reading the Acts of the Apostles.

In fact, there the withholding of private property from the common use of the early Church resulted in a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, dying - allegedly at the hands of God. In that story the withholding, the hoarding, of property from the good of the community was a type of "theft" that was described as abhorrent to God.

The question there was to do the will of God and to not test the Spirit's intention for the struggling new Christian community. By withholding valuables that were supposed to be pooled to benefit the entire community, this couple "stole" from the community and paid a very high price, indeed, for their "theft."

And while I do not believe that God would order such deaths, the question for us today is similar, but in many ways it is an even more difficult one. How do we apply this Commandment to our lives?

Most Jews and Christians understand the prohibition against stealing in its most obvious forms. We know not to steal something outright. And we know not to condone those who do. Even if we don't, there are laws that do, and that punish obvious theft. It is not the obvious theft that is the big issue for us today, although there is plenty of that going around.

Rather it is the subtle theft that should concern us. It is the kind of theft that we sometimes try very hard to call anything else but stealing, that we try to justify to ourselves, that should worry us. When we become like Pharisees, using the letter of the law, bending it, to do what we want, yet knowing that it is against God's intention, then we violate the Law just as surely as if we steal outright.

I did an essay not so long ago about how God promised to help us understand the Torah because he said that he would write what we needed to know on our hearts. Right and wrong today are still "Written on our Hearts." We all have a conscience. And we ignore it to our moral detriment.

Take taxes. We may hate to pay taxes. Yet, if we knowingly cheat on our taxes, even though we do not get caught, and we know that the chances of getting caught are slim, and we know that "everyone else" does it, we are still stealing.

Take contributing to the or synagogue or church. We know what God expects from us in giving back in thanksgiving for the gift of life God has given to us. Yet, if we have a plan to give a certain amount, but we chose to spend the money on a new "toy" that we don't need, but we really want, instead of giving our fair share to God, then what do you think God calls that?

What about when we sell something to someone and we know that it is defective, but we don't tell them? Or if someone offers to pay us far more for something we have than we know it is worth? Or if the clerk at Wal-Mart accidentally gives you an extra $20 on a busy day, and there is no way she will remember who she gave it to, or, if she did, how to track you down, what do you do?

What about, when you are at work and your boss goes out of town? Do you take advantage of the fact to slack off and fiddle around instead of doing the job for which you are paid? Do you even think that loafing on the job is a form of theft?

There are thousands more examples of how we, day after day, are confronted with decisions, choices, about whether to do the right thing, or to steal. We don't want to call it that, but that is what it is.

And I am less concerned when we aren't even bright enough to know we are stealing, than when we feel our conscience telling us that we are dead wrong, and we go ahead and rationalize our actions anyway. Just how do we honor God when we do that?

But we need to look even further, beyond the petty - and not so petty - thefts that we engage in through our own spiritual dishonesty to the thefts that we see going on all around us on a world-wide scale and either think nothing of or do nothing about. It is this subtle form of dishonesty that the extension of the Commandment in Deuteronomy seeks to confront.

We need to look at the structures of our corporate life together, locally, nationally and internationally, that we are ready and willing participants in, and ask ourselves just what God must think of them, our participation in them, or our indifference to their existence.

And to do that, we need to look first at American affluence. Now, don't laugh. By any economic standard of wealth as it is distributed in this world, most of us are affluent. And, if you literally are not affluent, if you have fallen victim to the economic crisis, have little or no income, and lost all or most of your valuables, then you can attest personally to how "affluent" the middle class family looks when viewed from the bottom of the economic bucket.

So we must ask ourselves about our attachment to the "things" of this life, about the extravagance of our lifestyles, about the mountains of waste we generate every year. How much food do you think is thrown away every day by the restaurants of this country, by the grocery stores that dare not display anything that is not "perfect"?

How many clothes do you already have in your closets that you seldom wear? Are they so bad that you are compelled to go out and buy more, over and over, as they stack up, hardly worn at all? Do we need, really need, all the things we have? But, worse, do we have to replace perfectly good "things" with other "things" just because they are "new"?

How do we justify how we spend our money in the face of the unbelievably wide-spread hunger and poverty in the world, in this country? I don't think that we can, that I can. I think we, you and I, if we are not out of work, homeless, or just plain broke, are stealing from the mouths of others.

Don't you find it sad that people in the lowest economic strata in the USA give more as a portion of their wealth than those in any other bracket? Is it true that you have to have known poverty to understand poverty? Aren't we smart enough to know how bad it must be to live that way without experiencing it ourselves?

Which brings me to the largest point of all. One that you may not even agree with. But that's all right, because it needs to be said, and we all need to think about it. That is all I ask. Think about it. Don't just react, think. We are going to talk a little theology, to tie together how all this gluttony affects our faith; because I think that God must be shaking His head in dismay at our ostrich-like attitude about the plight of others.

The goods, the resources, of this good earth were put here by God to be shared: by all of the people on it and all of the creatures of it. God created this earth for our use, not our abuse. It, and all the resources of it, are ON LOAN to us.

We may think we "own" it. We may even think that we "own" all the things that we have in our possession; but we don't. God does. God tells us, "The earth is mine." And he means just what he says.

The fact of the matter is that we have done a lousy job in distributing the wealth of the earth, God's wealth. When St. Paul talks about the principalities and powers, the rulers and dominions of this world, he is not talking some abstract theological nonsense.

They exist. And we allow them to exist. And we need to, in Walter Bruggemann's terms, "probe even the subtle forms of 'theft' that rob persons of their future." He points to kinds of "theft" that Jews and Christians too often have turned a blind eye to, things we may not have focused on as "stealing".

First, there is a terrible inequity of "haves" and "have nots" in our society. Babies born into acute poverty are, at the outset of life, denied any realistic chance of "becoming all they can be" or, in secular terms, "living the American dream." Where you are born, and who your parents are, can determine whether or not you have any reasonable chance at living a good life.

Yet those children have every bit as much a God-given right to live Christ's promised "abundant life" as do our own children. Very often those children are robbed of their future, not necessarily by "bad people," but rather by power arrangements and social structures that long ago relegated them to a permanent underclass in our society.

It is true, as Jesus said, that "the poor will always be with us." But do not misinterpret what He said. He was stating a fact; not a preference. As Christians, should we be contributing to the theft of the birthright of millions of children, even if we contribute to that theft only through our indifference?

Second, a major theft began to run rampant in the nineteenth century by the developed nations of the resources of the undeveloped nations. We always called it something else: "colonialism," "the white man's burden," "saving the world for democracy," "manifest destiny."

But whatever we called it then, or call it now, the fact is that the rich nations and companies often stole the resources of Africa, Asia and Latin America while giving them only a fraction of the value of those resources. Nor did they develop the infrastructures in those poor lands to allow the people there to become self-sufficient in the future.

And the sad truth is that the developed nations, seldom through direct action, but through the actions of our unchecked giant banks and corporations, continue this rape of smaller, dependent nations while turning a blind eye to corporate greed, and often aiding and abetting that greed through laws and regulations that encourage such stealing.

And while that is bad enough, current credit arrangements, military alliances, and the weakness of international cooperation keep those same countries in abject poverty even now, over a hundred and fifty years later. Thus the world watches a self-fulfilling prophecy as predictable wave after wave of violence, poverty, hunger, illness and plague sweep through those lands.

And what do we do? We soothe our collective conscience by coming in when it is all but too late, with disaster aid, which is, of course, better than nothing. But the root of the problem is institutional, and we do little or nothing to change those institutions. And so the principalities and powers, rulers and dominions of Paul's day are alive and well in our own.

When the theft is raw and obvious we raise our voices in sincere complaint for a day, a week, a month or a year. And then we move on to the next "interesting issue."

But the theft goes on, long after our sound bite attention span has moved on to yet another thing we can cluck our tongues at and shake our heads, "amazed" at the greed of others. Are we really all that amazed, or are we really not all that interested as long as we are not directly doing the raping of resources ourselves?

In our own nation we sit back and watch, and cluck our tongues as corporate executives rob and rape our greatest companies, executives who pay themselves at rates hundreds of times what they pay their employees.

We watch as government leaders turn their heads with indifference, or cluck their tongues, or blame it on someone else, or appoint yet another commission to investigate the greed of the nation's largest financial institutions, even as we give $700 Billion dollars to them to insure that nothing changes.

We support sports teams owned by arrogant billionaires who argue with spoiled millionaire players over who will get our money, all the while the costs to the fan skyrockets to where an ordinary family cannot afford to attend the games.

We think nothing of the fact that a baseball player can make $5 to 20 thousand dollars for every time at bat; a basketball player $3000 and more for every basket attempted, or a golfer more than a million dollars for winning just one match.

Where am I going with this? Just here. Our values are warped, my friends. And include me when I say "our." My values are warped. We, you and I, know what is right. We know the right things to do.

And if we cheat in our day-to-day lives with all the little thefts that we either commit or ignore, then how can we even begin to look seriously at the really huge thefts going on in the world at large? Aren't they just doing the same thing but on a more massive scale?

We might take a quick glance at the Eighth Commandment and think that it is simple and that obeying it is not all that hard. Well that is wrong headed thinking. It is not simple; applying it to your life is not simple; applying it to the principalities and powers that rule this earth is even harder; and, sometimes, obeying it seems almost impossible.

But what is impossible for man is possible for God. If we cannot stop ourselves from stealing without God's help, then we need to turn to God for the strength to "do the right thing."

If we cannot look at the structures of evil which distribute the wealth of this world so unevenly that vast numbers of people have no chance at the "abundant life," then we need to turn to God for the strength to look at the reality of the stealing of the life blood of others that we allow. And we need to do it now.

God bless.