12.23.2009

theology | On Theft, Abundance and the Poor

There was a news story recently about a British priest that said that shoplifting by the poor is sometimes okay.

LONDON (AP) -- For a priest in northern England, the commandment that dictates "thou shalt not steal" isn't exactly written in stone.

The Rev. Tim Jones caused an uproar by telling his congregation that it is sometimes acceptable for desperate people to shoplift - as long as they do it at large national chain stores, rather than small, family businesses.

Jones' Robin Hood-like sermon drew rebukes Tuesday from fellow clergy, shop owners and police.

From his pulpit at the Church of St. Lawrence in York, about 220 miles (355 kilometers) north of London, Jones said in his sermon Sunday that shoplifting can be justified if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by.

The remarks drew a summons from Archdeacon Richard Seed, who said on his Web site that the church rejects the view that shoplifting can be acceptable.

"The Church of England does not advise anyone to shoplift, or break the law in any way," he said.

"Father Tim Jones is raising important issues about the difficulties people face when benefits are not forthcoming, but shoplifting is not the way to overcome these difficulties. There are many organizations and charities working with people in need, and the Citizens' Advice Bureau is a good first place to call," Seed's statement said.

Eleanor Course, a spokeswoman for Seed, said the archdeacon wants to meet with Jones to discuss the "appropriateness" of his sermon.

"The point we are most concerned about is that shoplifting is simply not a blameless, victimless crime," she said. "We want to make clear that it simply doesn't help people. And the last thing a desperate person wants is to be caught for shoplifting, so we feel this advice is very unwise."

Jones told The Associated Press that he stands by his comments. He said he regretted only that the media is focusing on his view on shoplifting rather than the underlying problem he wanted to address.

While Jones' statement might seem foreign to our modern ears, I thought it was worth noting that we have voices in Christian tradition that would back Jones up.

For example, Thomas Aquinas asks, in the secunda secundæ of the Summa Theologica (q.66 a.5), whether theft is always a sin. The short answer is yes. But then (two articles later - a.7) he asks whether it is lawful to steal because of the stress of need. His answer:
Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand...then it is lawful for a man to sustain his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.
You can read all of II.2.q.66.a.7, here. So, while Eleanor Course, Seed's spokeswoman, may be correct when she says "the last thing a desperate person wants is to be caught for shoplifting," there may also be the possibility that from the Church's perspective shoplifting out of need isn't even theft. Said differently, one may get arrested for shoplifting, but in the case of need might have nothing to confess.

For the rest of us, those with computers and few worries about food (unlike 35 million Americans who are food insecure), perhaps we need to hear Ambrose - whom Aquinas quotes - in relation to the purpose of our abundance:

"It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."

Maybe Jones, in the end, has a point, maybe Aquinas is right, "in cases of need all things are common property." That's a radical notion but perhaps important to imagining a more just world.

Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

alphasqix said...

'"The Church of England does not advise anyone to shoplift, or break the law in any way," he said.'

Let the record show that this really, really bothers me. Enough so, in fact, that I am having trouble articulating anything intelligent about why this assertion is so asinine. I do not know from the UK legal code, but it's quite difficult for me to believe this is a tenable line.