The Seventh Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Steal
If the Ten Commandments are God’s guide to human happiness how does ‘Thou Shalt not steal’ fit into it? Does stealing make you unhappy? Certainly we are unhappy if someone steals from us so stealing does spread unhappiness; but people seem to be happy to steal from others. Theft and fraud are on the increase. Why is this and was it always like this?
Perhaps theft is increasing because it is so much easier to do today in the age of the internet? In the past a thief would have to snatch something from you or break into your house. To get at your savings the robber would have to go in and rob the bank. While that still happens, more theft is happening remotely. People can gain access to your savings remotely and rob you without even being in the country. People who relied on the honesty of banks and pension schemes may find that their savings have been taken and they are left with nothing.
In the past you could be hanged for stealing a sheep. Today you might have your knighthood taken away for robbing a pension scheme. So what does the commandment forbid and what does it allow?
The seventh Commandment is really about providence. Everything we have, the Earth and all its resources are provided by God. The Earth’s resources are for the good of all people. We can take the resources we need as personal property, earning them by work or by inheritance or gifts. The commandment forbids us from taking anyone’s property without their permission. It also regards keeping things we borrow, fraud, paying unjust wages and forcing up prices to the detriment of others.
There is no point in me sitting back smugly thinking that I’m ok with the seventh commandment because I don’t steal; it’s not as simple as that. This is about how we share the Earth’s resources, the gifts from God. We are entitled to acquire the resources we need to live. In simpler times this was very straightforward. You could grow the crops you needed and farm your animals. This was limited by the amount of land you could work. When societies became more complicated that changed. When land was enclosed to create more efficient agriculture there were those who owned land and those who had to work for the landowner. That can be a good system that provides more food than we got from individual plots of land. It’s only good if the workers are paid a fair wage that lets them share in the resources provided.
Industrialisation takes this further and allows the owners to acquire vast wealth. It is easy to forget that the resource of the Earth are provided for the common good and believe that we should take as much as we can as our own personal property. Probably the greatest gift of creation is human life. Our lives are given as a free gift and we have been given free will to allow us how to use this gift. The commandment forbids us to abuse this freedom of our fellow human beings. If we enslave people or see their worth simply as a source of profit then we break the commandment. Slavery may have been abolished but it still exists in practice. People trafficking is now one of the major problems confronting the police.
Now I don’t have any slaves. I don’t have employees. I might feel that this aspect of the commandment does not apply to me. I would be wrong. One of the curious things I have noticed while shopping with my wife is how few items on sale are made in this country. I get the impression that everything is made in the Far East. That is not necessarily a problem but journalists have shown many instances of people in the East working in conditions we would not accept here and for very little money. They have to work long hours and still remain in poverty. That’s not the case for everything we buy but how do we know how the workers who made our clothes are treated? Can I be sure that my cheap trainers were not made by slave labour?
I don’t know what the solution is; even well-known companies have been found to have goods manufactured in conditions that exploit the workers. I must confess that I have never been terribly interested in the trade deals our country has with the Third World. Perhaps it’s something I should be thinking about the next time I use my vote to elect those who make these deals. If I go out to enrich myself by making someone poorer that must be against the seventh commandment; even if the other person is at the other side of the world.
The seventh Commandment goes much further than stealing. The Earth and its contents are a gift from God and we are to use these resources for our good and well-being. These resources are for the use of all mankind, even those who have not been born yet. That makes us responsible for maintaining the ability of the Earth to provide for us. The commandment forbids us from stealing from future generations. If we go about stripping the Earth of its resources to increase our wealth then we are abusing those gifts.
We are responsible for handing on a world that has all that future generations will need. Our use of the Earth’s resources must be sustainable. Now is that what we are doing? It seems to me that we are plundering the Earth’s resources as fast as we can; spending the Earth’s wealth as if there were no tomorrow. Perhaps there won’t be a tomorrow for those coming after us if we keep this up. I was in the Philippines a few years ago and visited a hole in the ground, a really big hole, where there used to be a mountain. They dug the mountain away to extract minerals.
We are also using up the Earth’s animals faster than they are replaced. I don’t mean we are eating all the cattle. We are killing all the elephants to get their ivory tusks. That is only one example of the animal species we are removing from the Earth. Our children’s children may never see some species except in books or films. We are stealing their future wealth.
Now I have never personally dug away a mountain nor shot an elephant but am I in that chain of consumption that is at the root of all this destruction? My home is kept warm by burning natural gas reserves. I have a smartphone that uses some rare metals, supplies of which are running out. This is modern living and I have not given any thought to the damage I might be causing to the Earth. What pollution is caused to the air and the seas just to satisfy my desire to have the latest gadget?
I’m posing myself this question and there is no easy answer. I’ve been smugly satisfied because I’m not a petty thief, shoplifting in ASDA; while I might be a major thief, using up the resources that belong to future generations. The world would be a happier place if we all used less and took positive steps to improve our world. Perhaps I should make a start by sorting out the garden? It’s not much but it would be a start.