Sunday, January 17, 2010


Shortly before Christmas the Rev. Tim Jones, an Anglican priest at the Church of St. Lawrence in York, England, caused a bit of an uproar when he told his parishioners that it is sometimes OK for people to shoplift.

Jones explained that it was "justified (only) if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by," the Associated Press reported. He also stipulated that any such shoplifting be done only "at large national chain stores, rather than small family businesses."

The reverend later told the AP, "The point I'm making is that, when we shut down every socially acceptable avenue for people in need, then the only avenue left is the socially unacceptable one."

Given the kind of extreme situations that Jones cites, is shoplifting the lesser of two evils? Or is it simply wrong to shoplift, regardless of the circumstances?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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Cranky Old Hag said...

Old story, anyone read "Les Misérables" lately?

Yes, it's sometimes OK to steal. Should a religious leader advocate it? Doubtful. But he has a point. When desperate people are left with no hope, desperate measures are inevitable.

Sean O'Leary said...

The best justification is, “If the owner of the item I am stealing understood the depth of my need, he or she would willingly give the item to me . . . would want me to have it. Therefore, I am faithfully acting in his or her stead.”

It’s a reverse application of the Golden Rule and accurately reflects the fact that most of us would not begrudge a man dying of thirst an uninvited drink at our pond if it was the only source of water for a hundred miles. Of course, we can agree on the “dying man” scenario because the circumstances are so extreme – the small amount of water he would drink is literally of life or death importance to him, while probably not even being perceptible to us since we have an entire pond of the stuff.

But, most situations in which need and abundance intersect are not that extreme and, therefore, the owner’s willingness to part with his property cannot be so easily presumed. And then there’s the slippery slope question of whether it’s even a necessary condition that the owner “would” approve. Is it enough that he “should” approve, whether he would or not? After all, the shoplifter probably doesn’t even know the store owner – whether the owner is a generous person or a selfish bastard who wouldn’t allow even his garbage to shared with someone in need.

In going from presuming what the item’s owner “would” want to what he “should” want, we’ve made a huge and morally perilous leap . . . but also a necessary one because life occasionally demands that we as individuals and more often we as governments choose for others. Still, to act on the basis of what someone else “should” be willing to do implicitly takes from that person his right to choose the moral principles by which he leads his life and arrogates it to ourselves.

The moral imperative for us as individuals and as a society in making such judgments is to recognize that in addition to taking an item we are also taking someone else’s autonomy. That is usually the significantly larger “taking”, therefore, the offsetting benefit must be immense indeed.

M. Lawrence said...

Oh Baloney! In a nanny-state such as England, interwoven with government agencies for every possible hiccup of mankind, not only are their welfare offices and soup kitchens, but people passing on street corners who would give some "spare change" if one were destitute enough to ask for it. This so-called "religious leader" has forgotten that the commandment reads "Thou Shalt Not Steal" - not "Thou Shalt Not Steal - Unless of course You're, like, Really Desperate and You Only Steal From Big Corporations." If that's how the Right Rev. sees it, what's wrong with stealing from big churches and their finely robed representatives?

Susan Hammond said...

There is so much to say on this subject, but specifically to the question asked in this blog, yes, it is always wrong to shoplift, regardless of the circumstances. But, please read on!

The basic problem with Jones' instructions to his parishioners (and now the world!), is that he doesn't seek the solutions to which the Bible directs us. This is more than disobedience of the 8th Commandment of God, "You shall not steal," (which, by the way, Jesus reiterated in Mark 10: 19), but also a blatant denial of faith in God, which (faith) includes following, in context, the whole counsel of Scripture. Viable remedies for addressing human needs are there, even to the most dire of circumstances.

Jones has apparently developed a worldview that looks too much to the government to supply the needs of his parish members. As a leader in a Christian church, Jones should have appealed first to well-supplied members of his own congregation to help meet the needs of their fellow congregants. If they are all in need, then Jones should appeal to the wider Church for help, following the examples and instruction given in the New Testament (See Acts 4:32 - 37; and the much-to-the-point 2 Corinthians 8:1- 9:15 ! - along with Romans 13: 9-10, also relevant to this situation here, and lastly, for now, Ephesians 4:28!).

I was in York this summer. I know that it has been hard-hit economically. But, there are remedies beyond the government, and certainly remedies which do not include breaking either the laws of God or men. Jones should consider working with the Salvation Army, which has an established presence locally there and with worldwide connections and resources. It is, however, just one arm of the Church, and cannot do the whole job. But, if Jones calls out to the Church around the world, supplies and answers will come when there is a legitimate need. Though a large-scale disaster, Haiti is a timely example of the possibilities of such help.

Jones should seek remedies which bring honor to God and His revealed Word, Truth and will. These the Lord will greatly bless. Knowing what those remedies are begins in searching and studying the Scriptures, and in his prayer time alone, and with the larger Body of Christ. From there, the Lord will direct Jones and others, if they have "ears to hear."

The Church around the world has a proven heart of compassion for those who are hurting, because the Lord Himself has such a heart of compassion, and the Church is, as a whole, to be the representation of Him on the earth. Yes, there is great suffering in the world, and there will be no end to that until Jesus' triumphant return. In the meantime, those who call Jesus, LORD, will endeavor, by His grace, to earnestly and humbly live out a life that seeks both justice and mercy - to have God's heart for all the people He has created, and whom He so greatly loves.
Susan Hammond
Mission Viejo, CA

Quirkybutsmart said...

In a fully Christian world/situation, the needy person would ask the store owner and the store owner would give what was needed. "Matthew 5:42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.(King James Bible)

Hard to trump that one methinks...