Bible reference – Exodus 20:15
Thou shalt not steal.KJV
What I thought this meant: Don’t steal.
What I think this really means: Don’t steal.
Don’t take what isn’t yours. On the surface, this is about as simple as it gets. In a society, people should expect a certain level of safety. It’s a bad sign if you’re in one of those places where you have to actively avoid getting robbed. People should respect one another’s property. From experience, if a bunch of your friends steal, you will find your possessions mysteriously and systematically disappear.
“There is no honor among thieves”Old adage
Whenever the topic of stealing comes up, the tale of the poor father taking bread to feed his family often follows. I heard that story a lot growing up. Will he go to hell? Or more simply, do the ends justify the means?
“There is honor among thieves”Another old adage
I think we need to consider first what ownership is, and how we go about establishing ownership. For example, can we steal only from people? If a farmer takes a chicken’s eggs and eats them… is that stealing? Can a chicken own possessions? Certainly, we would not allow a farmer to take a baby from a human mother… or even one of her eggs.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.Genesis 1:26
Dominion over all the earth suggests men and women’s right of ownership. So God allows people to own things. What do we own?
Do we own our own bodies? If I consume something, and it becomes integrated into myself… if it becomes part of my body… do I own it? And if I expel something, does it cease to be mine (like a poop)? What if someone cuts off my arm? Is it still my arm if it is not attached to me? What’s the difference between my detached arm and a log of my poop? What about my likeness? My thoughts? My crafts?
Ownership is a funny thing. It’s an illusion, like currency. It only matters if all parties agree. What happens if they don’t? I’m reminded of Native Americans when European Settlers began colonization. They are all people with the God-given right of ownership. The Natives did not perceive of individual ownership of land. The Europeans did.
If something is scarce (in this case, land), then the immediate impulse is to seize what you can, and then “ownership” is merely one’s ability to maintain control of it. You can keep it as long as you are able to defend it from others, which generally means force. The settlers at the time also used contracts of varying legitimacy.
So to ensure ownership, you can use force or threat of force, have agreement, or both.
What about a baby? Babies are not able to agree to any contracts. Do parents own babies? Once the umbilical cord is severed, they are not physically attached to a mother. At what point does a baby cease to be part of its mother, and becomes a whole new being? Can a parent transfer ownership of a baby before then?
Perhaps, we have to earn ownership. Maybe a person establishes their self-ownership when s/he demonstrates autonomy. Our original creations are extensions of that autonomy and we have a right to them. In this case, I think the father is wrong to steal the bread. The baker made it, and has an agreement to transfer ownership for some compensation. The father can buy it with money, or barring that, he can attempt to purchase it through trade or with a sad story of the events that led to his predicament, or start a GoFundMe. Someone else may find pity and purchase it for him. In any case, there are civilized alternatives.
As a society, we should not hinder our neighbor’s pursuit of happiness. We should not interfere with it. Taking the fruit of another’s labor without compensation is a sin. Taking anything we have not earned is a sin.
As a caveat, I would suggest that getting too much is also a sin. Is an 11-year-old pharaoh or a 15-year-old emperor a good idea? People may argue both sides of nepotism, because a lot of people get jobs because of friends or family… but how many of those jobs are you dangerously unqualified for? Along similar lines, the 7th Commandment alludes to the dangers of being a parent before you are ready. You can wreck lives upon lives. Does this mean grandma’s super-expensive gift is a ticket to hell? I want to say no considering that the gift is not expressly being taken from someone else… unless that gift is being the president of a company. If you find a wallet on the street, is it ok to take? What about just money? Don’t I earn it by spotting it, checking around for an owner, and bending over to pick it up? Does it matter how much money it is? Can it be a sin if we are totally passive, like if you get a random door prize, or a high-roller buys a round of drinks for a bunch of strangers?
It seems that autonomy factors in once again. Agency. Free will. Although when or how we establish autonomy is debatable, it seems that the power of choice is the determining factor that “unlocks” our ability to own things. We can earn ownership by creation or by exchange. However, taking by force, or without agreement seems to go against the fundamental principle of infringing on a person’s pursuit of purpose.
Does this pass the Ricky Gervais Test? Yes. It is not a pleasant feeling to constantly be looking over your shoulder. Society is built on a level of trust. If we are going to live with one another, it’s makes sense not to steal from one another.
Does it make sense at #8? Being robbed of things can range from inconvenience to devastation. In contrast to the 6th Commandment, where death is irreversible (aside from various cases of CPR and a resurrection or two) and the 7th Commandment, where adultery can cause irreparable damage to lives, things that are conventionally stolen can be replaced wholly and directly. Even if a fire took all of my possessions, although it would be massively inconvenient, in time I could effectively replace it all. Raising the dead and healing a soul? Not very likely.
It seems to fit in the progression.