Monday, December 21, 2009

Encouraging the Poor to Steal?

In a sermon on Sunday morning, a minister in York told his parishioners, "My advice as a Christian priest, is to shoplift." Father Tim Jones is worried about the poor, and he feels that shoplifting is better than violent forms of crime. Also,the minister would encourage folks to steal from nameless, faceless corporations rather than "small family businesses." He states that "God's love for the poor and despised outweighs the property rights of the rich."

I understand the pastor's sentiment. He is probably aware of people in his community who are suffering with poverty. There are hungry and hurting people in this world. I am concerned about them as well. However, the solution he suggests is more than naive. Encouraging the poor to steal is downright foolish.

Once when Jesus was teaching the crowds, it was getting late. The people were hungry, and the disciples urged Jesus to send the people away. Jesus told them, "You give them something to eat" (Mark 6:37). The disciples wanted to remove any moral obligation that they themselves might have to help the poor. "That would take eight months of a man's wages ! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" Likewise, this pastor in England is passing the buck. His implied message: "The church has nothing to offer you. Just go out and steal."

How sad for the clergy to express the sentiment of Ebeneezer Scrooge this Christmas season:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

I have met those who criticize charity because it does little for the long-term assistance of the poor. I can agree. Putting a half-penny in the old man's hat does little to help a displaced worker get a new job, the mentally ill get needed help, or the homeless find permanent housing. The church should move beyond emergency assistance to develop sustainable ministries to help the poor rise above their situation. Telling the poor to steal is incredibly cynical. We condemn them to a permanent underclass while we pat ourselves on the back for being "caring".

I am also shocked at how short-sighted the suggestion is from an economic standpoint. Shoplifting is not a very efficient way to allocate resources. Rather than giving to those who are truly suffering, it rewards those with the skills of a successful shoplifter--the liar and the cheat. The more resources devoted to replacing stolen merchandise, adding more security, and punishing violators will not be used for charity or creating jobs.

I worked once for one of those nameless, faceless corporations. I managed a fast food restaurant. Anything stolen would affect my bottom line. When profit margins are slim, a small percentage could make the difference between a restaurant remaining open or closing its doors. Encouraging the loss of jobs in poorer communities does not seem the best use of the pulpit.

Instead, we should preach boldly that we have an obligation to help the poor. Justice demands care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. I much rather turn the energies, talents and resources of the rich to help alleviate poverty than to damn the poor.

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