Thou shalt steal…?

Father Tim Jones, an Anglican priest at St. Lawrence and Hilda Church in York UK, preached to his congregation saying that he did not believe it was right for people to shoplift but maintained it was the “least worst option” for people in desperate situations. I can see an individual at the end of his or her rope making such a decision for personal application, but for the spiritual leader to add the church’s official endorsement for shoplifting as a solution, well that’s a different kettle of fish!

There’s nothing like a good real-world example to test how theoretical leadership principles really work. This story made me think about how we apply our faith to our leadership practices. This is something we all want to do and here we have an excellent case study.

According to a news report, Father Tim:

…gave the example of prisoners being released from prison without benefits or other financial assistance, saying it was far better for people in such circumstances to turn to shoplifting from large retailers rather than prostitution, mugging or burglary.

“My advice does not contradict the Bible’s eighth commandment because God’s love for the poor and despised outweighs the property rights of the rich,” he said in a sermon Sunday.

A spokesman for supermarket chain Asda, in response, argued that shoplifting affected hardworking store staff more than the rich.

“Maybe Father Tim Jones could repeat his sermon at our York store and see what reaction he gets?” he was quoted as saying by the York Press.  “He’s one psalm short of a sermon!”

Now there’s a spokesman who knows how to turn a phrase!!! To be fair to Father Tim, I’d like to include some more of what he had to say, which was reported in the Daily Mail. (This paper also reported that his congregation includes “a wide mix of social conditions.”)

“I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need. I offer the advice with a heavy heart. Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift.”

“The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. This is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt. We create a situation which leaves some people little option but crime. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers.  Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide. Instead, I would rather that they shoplift.”

Can a spiritual leader endorse illegal activities?

Okay, so that is what Father Tim thinks, and I agree with his indictment of society. I also might possibly accept his argument of the lesser of two evils, if in fact evil was the only option available.  But it isn’t. There is another option that would be a demonstration of grace and redemption and unconditional love. I say respectfully (and without knowing what his church is doing to alleviate poverty), that Father Tim has not considered all the options. I don’t think his leadership reflects what we expect of a Christian leader in this situation.

I was forced into a quick assessment of his leadership because I got an interview request from Canwest News Services to answer the question, “Is it ever right for a spiritual leader to advise his congregation to steal?” The reporter’s deadline was looming.  Now, before I go further, stop and ask yourself, “How would I answer?” You can read the resulting story here.

Principles for thinking theologically about leadership

Here’s how I applied my faith to the answer. I started with some basic principles:

  • The Bible says (pretty clearly I think) “Thou shalt not steal!”  That’s a good starting point.
  • There is a general biblical principle of obeying the law of the land (in both Testaments) unless the issue is blaspheming God. Daniel refused to worship an idol and the early church refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord.
  • There is a closely related biblical example that is quite helpful. The consecrated bread of the Temple was to be eaten only by the priests and their families (Ex 29:32-33), but upon David’s request, the priest Ahimelech gave him consecrated bread for him and his men to eat when they were hungry (1 Sam 21:3-5). Note that they had permission from the custodian of the bread. Jesus commented on this apparent breaking of God’s law in Mat 12:1-8 by drawing on Hosea 6:6 and saying, as one commentator paraphrases it, “human need may take precedence over ceremonial laws.” In quoting Hosea, Jesus said “I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” David did not take the bread by force or stealth, but by openly asking the priest to extend compassion to his hungry men. One modern application would be to ask the stores to give their food to a foodbank when it goes past its “best before” date rather than throwing it out.
  • Christians are to demonstrate God’s love to their neighbours.
  • Churches are to be models for the way God expects us to live together.
  • While God’s people have sometimes engaged in civil disobedience (i.e., continuing to preach when told not to), the more general approach has been to work within the law of the land (i.e., Esther approaching the king willing to bear the legal consequences, Paul appealing to his citizenship rights, Jesus “rendering unto Caesar” by paying his tax – (Oh I wish I might find a few fish like that!).
  • The sharing of resources with the poor has been either ordered by God (i.e., leaving grain on the fields for the poor to glean – Lev 23:22) or has been an encouraged voluntary practice (i.e., the offering taken by Paul to support the hungry in Jerusalem – 2 Cor 8:1-15). Causing people to be involuntarily separated from their assets doesn’t seem to come up in Scripture as a God-approved option! Even the Israelites, when leaving Egypt, did not plunder the Egyptians; they asked and the Egyptians voluntarily gave (Ex 3:22).
  • All sin is sin. Little sins as much as big sins. Sinning against the rich or a corporation is just as sinful as sinning against an individual or a small family business.

I then thought of an excellent application of these principles that comes to us in Acts 4:34-35 and that applies directly to Father Tim’s church, which has a wide range of social conditions in it. “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as they had need.” Here was the community of believers looking after their own.

And when a dispute arose? What happened then? Acts 6:1-5 says that when a complaint arose from the Hellenistic Jews that they were being overlooked in the distribution of food by the Hebrew Jews, the apostles “summoned the congregation and said, ‘…Select from among you seven men…whom we may put in charge of this task…’ The statement found approval with the whole congregation.”

An invitation for churches to be authentically present

So, I think the priest missed the mark on this issue. Instead of advising his congregation to steal, he should have taken this opportunity to call his congregation to be faithful to the purpose to which God has called them and challenged them to come together in mutual support to provide for the needy among them. Their generosity should spur other churches to do similar good deeds, encourage the public to be charitable and invite the government to step in and do its part. If the people of his own church were all poor and needy, then Paul’s example with the Jerusalem church would be for other churches to lend their support.

Father Tim could also have offered to connect the needy with the social agencies and charities that could help them. He could even lay out  some ideas for how the government could solve the poverty problem.

There are, of course, a lot of other issues related to the reporter’s question that I couldn’t get into without making my answer too complex to use, such as civil disobedience, dealing with the Nazis sending Jews and others to death camps, and so on. In the context of this priest’s sermon, the issue is shoplifting and to that I say, “No, it is not okay to tell your congregation to shoplift.” That avoids our Christian duty to take care of each other.

Now over to you. What would you have said to the reporter?

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