“From the Pulpit”
Meditating on the Eighth Commandment
Martin Luther thought that by the time you finish unpacking the ten commandments, you have a complete guide to the life God would have us lead. There is a lot to mull over in each. The first four tell us how to respect God; the last six concern how to respect the rights of others.
Consider “Thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:15)
At one level, the command is easy enough for a child to grasp, and for many it is the first command that they remember.
My parents had a faded photograph of me as a two year old, in which I have gingerly opened up my hand and revealed a marshmallow chick I had treasured so long after Easter that it had begun to grow quite crusty. I am showing its tender details to a visiting cousin to admire. What they did not get on film, but which I distinctly remember, is how that rambunctious cousin grabbed it out of my hand and snapped it into her mouth with a smile of satisfaction. I was dumbfounded by the injustice.
We never have to coach children in ownership. “Mine!” comes naturally and early. And the first problem of justice revolves around the boundary between mine and not mine.
Some social theorists have dreamed of a utopia where all humans would have all things in common. This command is grounded in the more realistic recognition that having is a simply part of being human. We are bodies and require things, desire things–food and shelter and means for living. We express ourselves through the things we have. The prohibition against stealing presumes the right to own and thus the right to extend our presence into the material world.
Ownership is basic to freedom as well. Fareed Zakaria is only one of the more recent to make the argument that liberty is not dependent on the total wealth of a nation, but on how widely spread the ownership is. It is not enough that basic needs are met. Only when a wide range of people are creating wealth and experiencing the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor are initiative and independent thinking fostered. Liberty presumes independence that is insured when ownership is fostered and protected.
But Scripture does not give warrant for the mistake of collapsing all freedom into the freedom to own. And it gives no encouragement to treating private ownership rights as absolute
Modern capitalist and communist theories can both trace themselves back to John Locke’s theory that labor is the source of ownership. Each of us, he wrote, owns our own selves, our minds and bodies and labor. Locke argued that what we own beyond ourselves is accomplished by “mixing” our labor and effort to unclaimed material available. For instance, tilling a piece of wilderness made that land the private property of the frontiersman who expended labor in cutting and clearing, tilling, planting and harvesting. Labor is the original deed of ownership. Things get more complicated if everything from DNA to national forests becomes privately owned.
Scripture starts with a different account of the origin and nature of property, and so a broader understanding of “thou shalt not steal” which in many ways is at odds with modern perspectives. In the Biblical understanding the world is first and finally God’s, entrusted to humanity in common for our enjoyment, use and conservation. We are the stewards, the tenants, sojourners. The lease is temporary for each of us, and revocable for any nation as a whole.
Consequently the boundaries of ownership between people are fluid and fuzzy.
For example, God expects those who own farms (read means of production) to leave the margins of their fields at harvest for the poor to glean. It is an injunction not to maximize private profit at the expense of the unemployed.
To see a person in great need and refuse to help is to steal.
To abuse the land I occupy during my life in such a way that I leave it polluted or depleted is to steal. It may be mine now but those coming after me have a stake in it as well.
To profit by false advertising or withholding information, is stealing even if we post a sign “Let the buyer beware!”
There is a Biblical limit on how much I can take from someone in my debt.
Or consider the Jubilee redistribution. In the Sabbath of Sabbath years, the fiftieth year, all the land was to revert back to the original equal distribution among families. Thus no family in Israel could gain a permanent monopoly. No family could forever lose for the next generation the chance to start over.
“Thou shalt not steal” not only protect ownership it undercuts any absolute ownership claims.
Paul, writing in Ephesians, tells thieves to give up stealing and get honest jobs so that they will be able to those in needs. This passage gives a clue to the positive meaning of the command.
The opposite of taking from others what is theirs is being able to give to others what is mine. In the end the command not to steal in not just about the right to keep private property; it is about answering the opportunities to caring for the least of these.
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:15)