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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 11: Stealing in Microcosm and Macrocosm


We come next to a Commandment that can be as simple or as profound as one wants to make it. "You shall not steal," Commandment number eight.

Originally it referred to both a human and a material object. To steal a human life, of course, was kidnapping, and that was not a rare practice in the ancient world, where children were often stolen and placed into indentured servitude. The Hebrew people, a people who had been born in slavery, were not likely to tolerate a practice which led to any new enslavement, but as kidnapping became a rarer and rarer phenomenon, this Commandment more and more came to be viewed exclusively in terms of the sacredness of property and possessions, and the right to privacy.

Basically and on its simplest level, it means "You shall not take what is not your own." On a deeper and more profound level, however, this Commandment raises searching questions about how we define, in mass society, what constitutes that which is our own, raising the whole area of tension and conflict between that which is in the private domain and that which is in the public domain. It forces us to examine the meaning of private property and the issues of our stewardship over the physical resources and the means of production in our world. It brings into focus the whole question of an equitable tax structure in a just society. All of these issues are the legitimate domain of one who would search out the depth of meaning behind the Commandment "You shall not steal."

Dr. Joseph Fletcher, in his book Moral Responsibility, distinguishes between what he calls "microethics"—that is, ethics seen in microcosm, particularly in terms of personal behavior patterns—and "macroethics"—that is, ethics that are seen in macrocosm, involving the whole society. Microethics are the personal acts of an individual, his or her personal gifts of charity and personal works of love. Macroethics are the corporate acts of the whole culture, which should be designed to build a just society. They redress the balance of grievances and create a wholesome and socially sensitive world for all who share in it, so that the situations that produce the need for individual charity and individual works of love might be eliminated or at least minimized. Both microethics and macroethics are important. I would like to explore both levels as we view the eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal."

First, let us examine this Commandment on the microethical level. What each of us possesses is, in a way, a part of our deepest self. Our sense of justice demands that there be a general respect for property, that there be a strongly accepted public sensitivity which proclaims a sanctity of ownership. Otherwise, there is chaos, anarchy, and distrust in the society, and the painful necessity to be perpetually on guard to protect what is our own.

When any society loses this tenet of corporate faith, this level of corporate trust, then the crime level soars, and people are reduced to employing burglar alarm systems, arming themselves to the teeth, taking pistol-firing instructions, and installing padlocks, living as ~f they expect to be robbed. When those symptoms appear in th~ life of a society, then that society is in a state of serious, maybe even fatal, sickness. No amount of increased police protection or political oratory about law and order will ever heal that sickness. Police protection and political oratory simply do not reach the level from which the problem arises. What these symptoms reveal is nothing less than the breakdown of the cultural values that glue society together, because in that society there is no longer a culturally accepted norm for what is right and what is wrong. There is no longer a generally accepted assumption that private property is sacred; and something radical needs to be done to reestablish the social fabric, the values of that society, or that society will not endure.

On a radical level the citizens of that society need to commit themselves corporately to see that, in the legal structure of that society, the legitimate needs of those who feel dispossessed are met. They must give hope where hopelessness has taken over and create opportunity where doors have been slammed shut.

No society can or will survive unless there is a wide acceptance of certain cultural values. If those elements of the population for whom crime is an acceptable alternative grow to any sizable percentage because of economic privation or because of prejudice, or if these alienated groups are prevented from finding a way to work within the system, then the whole society will be reduced very quickly to choosing between living in a police state or living in anarchy. That is a dreadful choice. However, in urban America today, that is increasingly the choice we have before us, and in that choice there is no doubt in my mind but that America will choose a police state, even the security of the Mafia, for historically security is always chosen over freedom. Freedom is considered a luxury in human life, perhaps the world’s greatest luxury; but security is an absolute essential. Hopefully we can find that we can have security with freedom, which is, of course, the best possibility. Freedom is not and cannot be achieved unless the society is based on justice, radical justice, in which the worth of every life is equally affirmed. Only in such a society can those who would break the cultural norm and violate the society’s rules be minimized so that minimum police protection will be required and no interference with the essential freedom of life will be necessary.

When a society agrees on its norms for collective living, inevitably it lays these rules down on stone, as it were, inside the society’s code of law. Now in a democracy that code can always be changed by the elected representatives who, in fact, represent the will of the people so long as there is a constitution that forbids the exploitation of the minority. Therefore the law has a certain flexibility in a living society.

Inside the code of every people, however, whether that code be ancient or modern, Western or Eastern, capitalist or communist, there is incorporated a law against taking by force or stealth what is not one’s own, what one has not earned, and what one has no natural right to claim, for that is what stealing is. Stealing comes in lots of sophisticated forms: burglary, larceny, embezzlement, hijacking, skyjacking, shoplifting, plagiarizing, gypping, looting, swindling, cheating, deceiving, concealing defects, false labeling, giving short measures, exaggerating quality. Stealing comes in the dishonest claims of false advertisement, in not doing an honest job, in not paying an honest wage.

When I lived in Tarboro, North Carolina during the late fifties, I could employ full-time domestic help for eighteen dollars a week. I was insensitive to what I did. For me, that was the going wage in the economic law of supply and demand, but in fact, that was part of the exploitation of the weak by the strong. It was robbery. It was stealing just as surely as it would have been if I had held up the local bank. I regard the minimum wage law as a protection against robbing a human life of its value, time, and dignity. I have noticed that it is never the poor who complain when the minimum wage is raised.

There are so many other forms of stealing that are still on the microethical level. There is the taking advantage of ignorance; manipulating people to purchase expensive things in time of bereavement; preying on the distressed; weishing on a bet; doing shoddy workmanship; raising prices for windfall profit in times of shortages; having your child lie to get a cheaper rate; falsifying your income tax form, or estimating your deductions very liberally; manipulating long distance telephone lines to send messages without having to pay. To these examples (or their ancient equivflents) and countless others, the eighth Commandment called Israel and later called the Christian community to live out a standard of radical personal honesty in obedience to the God who established our Covenant.

"You shall not steal." Nothing in the balance of this chapter should in any way minimize the importance of this microethical level of behavior to which this Commandment spoke in the past and, I believe, still speaks today. We must however go deeper into what is specifically a biblical attitude toward property, both public property and private property, in order to examine the Commandment "You shall not steal" in a macroethical setting.

There is a legitimate asceticism within Christianity, but it is not an anti-materialism. Even after Christianity embraced the dualism of the Greek world, the mainstream of Christian ascetical life was still not completely anti-materialist. The monasteries, for example, emphasized personal poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they did not denounce communal wealth, and some of the monastic religious orders wound up in the pre-Reformation days with incredible wealth in land holdings, much of it confiscated in the battles between the various crowns and the papacy.

If one really believes in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation, which proclaims the holiness and the goodness of all life, including material life, then the ethical question of condemning material things does not arise. The ethical question arises rather out of proper or improper use of material things.

The Gospel does not distinguish between the haves and the have-nots nearly so much as between the have-too-muches and the have-not-enoughs. The Gospel recognizes that any material possession can be dangerous if we idolize it. Sometimes wealth does corrupt, and when it does it breeds greed, lust, and human insensitivity. Sometimes wealth also creates saints and benefactors and philanthropists. Sometimes poverty produces piety and a wondrous peace and freedom from the mundane. But other times poverty produces a bitterness and oppression, and the victim of poverty, unable to find a constructive outlet for his hostilities, seizes for himself the right to judge, and violates all the community standards of decency. The real ethical issue is how we use property both in scarcity and in abundance.

This realization drives us to the deeper ethical insight that the use of our wealth is one primary way we act out Jesus’ summary of the Law, which certainly embraced the eighth Commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It raises to a new level of consciousness the meaning of stewardship, making us ask very searching and uncomfortable questions like "Whose wealth is it, really?" and "Who is to be ministered to by this wealth?" An improper stewardship may constitute a violation of the Commandment "You shall not steal." I think that is an unavoidable conclusion.

It is the Judeo-Chrjstian belief that, in the words of Holy Scripture, "The earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof." We human beings are, according to the Bible, acting on God’s behalf as temporary stewards of what is primarily his and not ours. The things of God’s world are ours to use, but as each decade goes by in our increasingly crowded world, it becomes more and more obvious that we are not free to do what we will with these things.

In mass society private property rights mean something very different from what they meant on the American frontier. Even the most conservative people will admit this when they rush to protect their neighborhoods with building codes that compromise the integrity of private property. A frontiersman of the Old West did not have to be sensitive to his neighbor ten miles away as we must be in housing complexes or on highway cloverleafs. In mass society we cannot escape interdependence. "The public interest" is a recognition of our common environment. We must also think of generations yet unborn before we pollute our rivers, lakes, and seas, and rob the land of its minerals and its capacity to sustain life. Acquiring wealth can no longer be the solitary goal of any business, large or small. Business must be socially sensitive to the price the society will have to pay today and tomorrow for those profits that overfeed, overindulge, and overpamper our generation.

Economics thus raise very serious moral issues which the Christian faith must address. Beyond that, other questions have to be faced. Questions such as: Do the natural resources of the earth belong to the God who created them to be used by all his children for their mutual benefit? Or do they belong to those who happen to own the land under which these resources are located? Do they belong to those who have the capacity to tap the resources—like offshore oil deposits, for example? Can the Arabs legitimately bring the whole world to its knees simply because the world’s oil reserves are basically underneath Arab land? If one says, as Americans tend to, that anyone can own the resources of the earth simply because he or she owns the land over which those resources are located, then one must face more questions. What is the obligation of that assigned owner or that assigned developer to the society as a whole? Should limits be placed on the amount of wealth one person may accumulate from the resources of the earth? Should the stockholders of Exxon and Texaco be the primary beneficiaries of the offshore oil that lies, theoretically, under international seas? There also seems to be an incompatibility between the Christian faith and a society in which an individual like the late Howard Hughes could accumulate nearly two billion dollars during the same period of history in which the unemployment rate of the nation soared to nearly ten percent. There must be an appropriate balance between personal accumulation of wealth and public need.

Consider this in a total economic framework. Basically I believe in the free enterprise, capitalist system and its necessary corollary of private property. I believe in this system because I am convinced it is necessary to the psychological dimensions of human life, to the levels of personality from which human motivation finally springs. It is my theological sense of the doctrine of man which says that any system that expects to work with human nature must have some kind of incentives built into it, a profit motive for example, or adequate rewards for labor. A system that rewards industry and ingenuity provides that incentive. A complete state socialism does not seem to understand the nature of human life. Yet at the same time, an unbridled, completely laissez-faire capitalist system can he as destructive to human life and to human value as any communist system might be, for unbridled capitalism will inevitably grind to that point where the capitalists are very few, owning all the means of production, and the masses are many, and they are being exploited. This is exactly the stage that Karl Marx predicted would be ripe for revolution. Karl Marx never understood the ability of the capitalist system to correct its own abuses and to guarantee the good life for the masses of people.

I would say yes to capitalism but no to unbridled capitalism. The best friends that capitalism has in this country today are the antitrust laws, the graduated income tax, the inheritance taxes, the social security program, and all the other legislation that has tempered the capitalist system, spread the wealth, provided for adequate public services, and created the great middle class that makes the American economy strong.

There is an assumption in the American Constitution that rises out of a biblical insight into the nature of human life:given the self-centered, sinful nature of all human beings that causes us to operate from the vantage point of self-interest, no one person or one branch of government should ever be allowed to achieve total power. It is because we are self-centered that power corrupts and total power corrupts totally. Effective government, says our Constitution, must have a system of checks and balances, divided and, to some degree, autonomous branches with executive, legislative, and judicial functions. That is one truth the framers of our Constitution understood, and they understood it quite well.

Not quite so well did they understand two corollaries of that truth. The first is that whenever any life exists without any power, because of the sinful nature of all human life, that powerless life will be exploited. History documents this. History is the story of the exploitation of the powerless. When labor had no power, labor was exploited and we had sweat shops, starvation wages, long hours, and abusive child labor practices. In fact, John Locke, thought to be so enlightened a political philosopher and a champion of laissez-faire capital. ism, wrote: "The children of the poor must be required to work in the industrial enterprise beginning at age three."

The second corollary is that when people—any people—are exploited, the seeds of revolution are at that moment being sown. Exploitation will not be tolerated by any human being forever, for it violates the sacredness, the image of God that is within us. Hence labor unions, which can confront owners with effective power, are an essential ingredient in a healthy capitalist society, for power must be shared in order to prevent exploitation. Exploitation is nothing less than a form of stealing. It is the stealing of a man’s labor for the benefit of the owner. It is a social violation on the macroethical scale of the Commandment "You shall not steal."

I believe that enlightened Christians must seek to remove every vestige of exploitation from within their society. In obedience to this, Christians must oppose segregation at every level and in every form; they must support the rights of labor to organize for collective bargaining. Christians must support the intention of the Equal Rights Amendment and anything else which will stop the economic and sexist exploitation of women.

As a Christian, as a stockholder, and as one who believes in the American system, I also think it is a duty to raise serious questions about the ethical practices of some American companies which seem to be exploiting the natural resources of some of the small and powerless countries of the world, again sowing there the seeds of a deep enmity which we will someday have to reap. Those concerns I should voice legitimately through my right to speak and to vote at the annual meetings of the companies in which I own shares, for the primary purpose of business can no longer be only to make money. The purpose of business must include a sensitivity to the needs of the whole society, domestic and foreign.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, whom I quoted earlier, observed that the basic test of any society is what happens to the underdog. Good intentions will never protect the underdog. That is a kind of naive do-goodism. Only power will protect the underdog. A just society must organize itself so that no one is disenfranchised, no one is powerless; therefore exploitation will be kept at a minimum, and the society will remain healthy.

Beyond these things, a just society will require that an appropriate share of private wealth support the public needs of the whole society. A just society will levy appropriate taxes for this purpose, to support the best possible public systems, public parks, and playgrounds, schools, and health facilities. Taxes are needed to provide for the development of the arts—museums and symphony orchestras, for example-for the enrichment of the life of the public. The public need must always be balanced against private wealth. Where that exact balance is, every society must determine; but it is in the deepest vested interest of those who share most of this world’s goods that they be the most concerned about the public welfare. It is interesting to me that, in the American political scene, the people of great wealth, like the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers, have tended to be liberal in their political thinking.

What does it say about the soul of a nation when, in an economic downturn, the leaders of that nation seek to balance the federal budget by cutting the school lunch program and the food stamp program, while at the same time maintaining a defense establishment that has five times as many admirals in the navy today as in World War II. What are these admirals admiraling, except a very top-heavy bureaucracy?

One of the great jobs of the institutional Church in our age should be to help this society reconceive and revalue its whole system of priorities. In our period of the economics of opulence, we may yet face a massive imbalance between material values and moral values, between private wealth and public need. We might even reach the point where our Christian consciences will force us to work for an increased tax upon our opulence, and that would really be to rise above our vested self-interest in order to provide the necessary public facilities and services for the whole society. To be very specific, I think the whole question of sales tax needs to be studied across the land. I would hope that commodities could be divided into three categories: necessities, desirable goods, and luxuries. I would remove the sales tax from necessities, leave it at the present level on desirable goods, and increase it substantially on luxuries. For example, I think there should be a higher tax on cars with unnecessarily large horsepower, because the whole society has to pay to clean up the polluted environment which they cause. I believe that there should be a substantially larger tax on high-test gasoline, clearly a luxury not a necessity.

My text for recommending these things would be nothing less than the eighth Commandment, raised to the macrocosmic level, "You shall not steal." Living in justice in this world as a good steward of God’s bounty, maintaining privacy and yet caring for every legitimate public need, removing every vestige of exploitation, protecting the environment for today’s and tomorrow’s generations, and being honest in every individual transaction, all of these are covered when we push the Commandment "You shall not steal" into the very depths of our complicated and complex lives. Its echoes reverberate into every nook and cranny of our existence, and there is nowhere to hide. Those naive people who continue to parrot ridiculous statements like "the Church should stick to the Bible and not get involved with life" will be revealed for what they are, because what we believe and how we act on every level of life can never be separated. It is through politics and through economics as well as through personal morality that we are called to build a just society in which we love God with our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our strengths, and in which we love our neighbors as ourselves.

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