"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you"

Chapter 8   STEALING what is not ours by right

The eighth of the ten commandments sounds obvious enough, "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15), but every person in every nation interprets that in a different sense, usually to their own advantage. Most would agree with our universal moral judgment:

8  We have no right to appropriate the property of others

But there are huge questions as to who owns what. Is property what I have inherited, or paid for, or taken by force of arms? Slave owners thought their slaves had been paid for, and so belonged to them. Aboriginal tribes of North America claim that much of their property was taken by trickery. People who own land by the sea think they own the seashore. During the last war people in Holland, who were hiding Jews from being sent to prison camps, took ration cards from government offices, and did not call it stealing because their guests had a right to food. But what would we say of Robin Hood who took money from rich travelers who were riding through Sherwood forest to give to the poor?

The early Christians tried a system where "the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (Acts 4:32, see the origins of this in 2:44). The problem is that someone has to pay the rent, take responsibility for a house or farm, and mind the horses and donkeys. Children need a home. The plain fact is that voluntary communism has only worked in small communes like the Hutterites with strong autocratic leadership.

Throughout history there have been those who maintained that there should be no private property, and this must be enforced by revolution. In Europe Anarchists advocated the forcible ending of all government, the law courts, police and all other means of claiming ownership. Marxism was based on the idea that each person should give according to his or her ability and receive what was needed in their situation. But this would have to be enforced by a dictatorship till the people's inherited greed was eliminated. This was tried in Russia, but at the end of 70 years (1989) of terrible inhumanity and oppression by the Communist Party, the system was toppled.

In civilized countries the complicated problems of ownership are settled in a court of law. And that requires making a difference between stealing and necessary taking. If I had been lost up in northern Canada for three weeks and found a cabin with food in it, I would break in and take what I needed. When I got to the nearest town, I would report what I had done to the police, and send a check for the food and the damage to the owner. In such a case no judge would convict me of breaking and entering.

And if I was out walking past a farm, and saw a boy jumping from the barn and breaking his leg with the blood spurting out, I would put on a tourniquet and take the farmer's truck to get the boy to hospital. Neither the boy's parents or the police would have me arrested for taking the vehicle and so breaking the eighth commandment.

When the government has to expropriate land for a new road, or airport, we do not call it stealing as long as they pay a full and fair price to the owners. But there comes a point when people begin to call taxes stealing from the public.

There can also be stealing without any money being taken. When people pay for groceries, and then it turns out that the balances or weighing machine have been tampered with, ordinary people and most governments want the grocer sent to jail. We are horrified when employers hold back what is due to those who work for them. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote "The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (James 5:4).

Rape is the very worst kind of stealing. It is robbery with violence. Every woman has the right to her own property. Rape takes away her freedom. These days it can condemn her to death from AIDS. It is bad enough if a married man does it to his wife. Among students "date rape' after a drinking party is abhorrent. But all over the world the rape of a virgin is considered one of the worst forms of immorality. "Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah" (Lamentations 4:11)

We also want to call it stealing when civil servants and politicians goof off instead of doing the work they have been paid to do. In business there are continually cases of fraud, and senior citizens are robbed of their life savings. There are laws about copyright to prevent the theft of artistic and literary property.

How can we ever settle these thousands of cases of what should be counted as stealing? Jesus gave the principle "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). That should enable us to imagine what one would feel like if treated in such a way.

The flip side of stealing is giving. Generosity to those in need is universally approved. It is also a way to remind ourselves that the property we have inherited, and our ability to make money, are given to us. We are stewards of what is entrusted to us (as in 1 Corinthians 4:7)..

Some religions require the giving of alms to the poor as a religious duty. But we all object to giving for the purpose of gaining approval. "Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do so that they may be praised by others" (Matthew 6:2). Giving to buy votes, and obtain favors, is equally despicable.

In the Old Testament a tithe (one tenth of income) was set aside for "the Levites (temple servants), the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns" (Deuteronomy 26:12). In our churches, if everyone tithed their income there would be no need to spend time and energy on fund raising, and there would be plenty for people in need both in our own area and to help in disasters throughout the world.

In our day for those who want to tithe their income there are many ways of calculating how much this should be. Governments take more than one tenth of our income and take care of many things that charity used to provide. What seems reasonable is that our giving should be proportionate to what we receive to spend. Obviously rich people have more to give than most of us who have mortgages, insurance, and taxes to pay. Ultimately what counts is not a legal precise calculation but our heart concern for those in trouble. My wife and I have practiced tithing for fifty years, and having lived in five different countries we have never heard of anyone who became poor by setting aside a definite proportion of their income to invest in the needs of others.

But generosity can also be taken advantage of. We are very angry when we have given to a charity, and then discover that most of the income goes for expensive cars, hotels, and world travel. Two weeks ago as I write, the papers reported that a well known bag lady in Toronto was discovered to be a very wealthy woman. She would drive to "work" in a luxury car, park it nearby, and sit all day pleading for help from compassionate people who felt sorry for her terrible situation.

When we give, we should know how the money is used. And in general it is far better to be personally involved in the lives of those we give to. "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease" which means that it is not those who are organized to shout loudest who deserve our help.

Paul obviously knew that there were petty pickpockets and thieves in the churches he was writing to. But he makes an astonishing suggestion. "Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy" (Ephesians 4:28). If we began focusing on what we could contribute to our world instead of what we can get from others, any form of stealing would lose its appeal. In questions of stealing and giving a new vision is a far more creative motivation than the fear of incarceration and legalistic rules.

Chapter 9   ACCUSING others falsely, slander, gossip