Southern Religion

Thou shalt steal (sometimes)?

Rembrandt: Moses with the Ten Commandments

Not quite. Anglican Priest Tim Jones of St. Lawrence and St Hilda Church in York, England, told his congregation on Sunday that vulnerable people who are in extraordinary difficulty should shoplift in preference to robbery or prostitution.

The now widely quoted passage from his Sunday sermon was, however:

My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. 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.

Read the entire sermon here. You will see that he frames a living dilemma of the sort people around us are actually facing, now:

What advice should one give, for example, to an ex prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support? This is just the situation that presents itself at the vicarage door. What would you advise? One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.

One might wish that they could be supported and cared for by their family, but many people’s family life is altogether dysfunctional, and may be part of the story of how they came to be in prison in the first place. One might give them some money oneself, but when week after week after week goes by, and benefits still do not arrive, the hard reality is that a vicar’s salary is not designed to meet the needs of everyone – or indeed anyone – whom the benefits agency has failed. What else might one advise? They cannot take out a loan, except from the kind of loan shark – and there are enough of them around – whose repayment schedule is so harsh that it constitutes indentured slavery to the criminal underworld. They could beg. But how many of us, good Christian people that we are, give constantly and generously to ex prisoners waiting for benefits? And the likelihood is that, found begging, they will quickly be in trouble with the police, and therefore in breach of their parole.

They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply, and see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body. But in the meantime, having had only £100 in six weeks, what would you do, every legal avenue having been exhausted?

Or as Jones explained to BBC:

“When we, as a society, let our most vulnerable people down so terribly badly, I would rather that people take an 80p can of ravioli rather than turn to some of the most appalling things.

“Burglary causes untold harm and damage to people in a way that taking a can of spaghetti rings from a supermarket doesn’t.

“That’s not to say that shoplifting is good. Shoplifting is a dreadful thing but sometimes that’s all we leave people with.”

Your alternative to those in truly extreme circumstances is what, exactly? Starve? What of those with children, who have somehow fallen through the public assistance cracks? Let the children go hungry while teaching them the Ten Commandments?


December 22, 2009 - Posted by | Religion | ,

1 Comment

  1. Both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Those of us who are fortunate not to have the “dreadful thing” choice of stealing to survive perhaps cannot fully comprehend the mental hoops our minds would make in a steal or perish paradigm. I am ambiguous in determining whether or not it is okay to take what isn’t yours, sometimes under certain circumstances…but admit that if ever faced with the need to feed my family I would not wast too much time determining.

    Comment by Keli | December 23, 2009

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