Recently a British church minister made headlines by suggesting that it is OK for the poor to steal, but only from big stores.
But it’s not OK.
I’m not saying that because I wrote the Ten Commandments. I’m saying it as a citizen.
Stealing is more than a function of taking property without permission. It is the undermining of the common trust in society. Lack of trust leads to fear. Fear leads to anarchy.
From ancient times, even before the Ten Commandments (for those who are not creationists), early documents like the Code of Hammurabi laid out severe penalties for theft of property. Some of these forms of punishment exist today in less civil societies than ours — the cutting off of fingers or hands of the thief.
This serves a dual function — the thief is visibly marked as such for other members of society to be wary of, and he/she is punished in a brutal way that also diminishes their ability to continue stealing.
The minister’s suggestion that stealing from “a big store” is OK compared with stealing from a small shop is equally legally and morally wrong.
Just because a store is big, it doesn’t mean it can withstand thousands of dollars in small thefts. The thief might believe they are stealing from the “rich” — but the store is made up of workers as well as managers.
When the profit margins drop, the workers are the ones who will suffer most because their wages will be static or some will be let go.
In some cases, when there is a theft during someone’s shift, it comes off the wages of the workers who were on the floor at the time.
So who is the thief stealing from? Their brother.
Remember the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you?”
Sure, many people today pass off a small theft as ‘nothing’ — because the Western world is awash in stuff. How can the theft of a small thing be such a big deal?
Well, as the French say, “Il vole un oeuf, il peut voler un boeuf” (if he steals an egg, he can steal a cow). And truly, that is how it goes for most petty thieves.
They begin with a chocolate bar, and not getting caught, they move up to stealing a radio.
Not getting caught with the radio, they move into clothes and steaks.
Bravely they wander the aisles of the local supermarket with pocketed baggy pants and coats designed to allow them to slip frozen steaks into their shorts — feeling refreshed and victorious when they calmly saunter out the door.
Who did they steal from?
The store counts its losses at the end of the day and adds an incremental compensation on all its prices.
Meanwhile, our victorious thief dines on steak and fancies himself invincible, rich and powerful — and if he is rich, then he needs a car. Maybe your car!
And to show off, he needs a girl. Maybe your daughter!
Yes, there is no limit to what one can steal once the habit sets in.
Now the minister in England had specifically suggested it was OK for the poor to steal — but why did he not turn to Proverbs 6:6: “Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.” Yes, how about being as hard-working as an ant as an alternative to stealing to survive?
My father used to relate how in his youth, during the terrible famine in Ireland, itinerant workers would come to his grandparents’ produce farm in the south of Kent in England.
They only wanted to work, at anything, in return for a sack of potatoes.
He said his grandmother fed them up well, baked them loaves of bread and his grandfather gave them fair days work for wages — which they refused.
They just wanted food. Potatoes. And they walked home to Ireland, carrying sacks of potatoes for their starving families.
In Canada, similar stories from the Depression show the difference between a person who respects others and himself. The hobos who rode the rails turned up hungry at the door, but willing to work first, at anything, and eat later.
The one with self-respect is willing to give of him or herself to get something of value from the other.
And if one has self-respect, then it follows there is respect for others and their property, too.
Nothing could be worse than a church minister advising poor people to steal.
He is both destroying a fundamental element of trust upon which our society is built, and advising people to denigrate themselves — ultimately turning the agony of individual poverty into the chaos of social anarchy.
Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka freelance columnist.