Is (or Was) Sam Walton Your Neighbor?

(From NTJ, January 1998)

A report on NPR about a sermon by a priest in the Church of England prompted some thoughts about the implications of the Eighth Commandment. The news service copy indicated that this priest had told his parishioners that shoplifting from supermarket chains was not stealing. His reasoning was that such chains were putting the village food markets out of business and, thus, destroying the social fabric of English town life.

This priest’s teaching is not what we would prefer to hear in the pulpit. It does appear to be something of a stretch to say that shoplifting is not theft. And, no doubt, the character of English town life changed long before supermarkets and malls began to show up in the UK. Just ask the Luddites. But his admonishment does raise some interesting questions about how we observe the Eighth Commandment.

For instance, among the sins forbidden by this commandment, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, are “oppression” and all “unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him.” Which might mean that chains like WalMart, McDonalds and Winn Dixie, may actually excessively burden and deprive our neighbors who run local businesses from what would normally belong to them were it not for the consolidation of wealth in corporations and their ability to buy goods in mass quantities and distribute those goods throughout the world. As long as our only consideration in purchasing any item, from food to houses, is simply the lowest price, we will always be suckers for chains and the services they provide.

Which raises another question about who exactly is the neighbor in view in the Eighth Commandment. Is some corporate executive who lives in Downers Grove, Illinois really the neighbor of someone living in Southeastern Pennsylvania? In other words, what kind of economic obligations do we have to real neighbors, the people with whom we share a specific geographic space? Not lying to or having an affair with the wife of the owner of the local food market is good. But how much love and respect do we show to that owner if we travel by car to buy groceries from the Giant Supermarket five miles away?

As Wendell Berry has argued, the health of real local communities depends upon real and viable local economies where “work ought to be good,” “satisfying and dignifying to the people who do it, and genuinely useful and pleasing to the people for whom it is done.” In other words, the problem with chains, national or multi-national, is one of scale. Their reach with regard to their own advantage is everywhere while their accountability with regard to those whose lives they affect is nowhere. American conservatives are inconsistent if they are only concerned about a big central government while also promoting big business. As Berry also writes, “a supranational economy . . . would inevitably function as a government far bigger and more centralized than any dreamed of before.” If it is clear that to be free we need to limit the size of government, it is “foolish to complain about big government if we do not do everything we can to support strong local communities and strong community economies” (“Conserving Communities,” Another Turn of the Crank).

If we are going to champion families, schools, and churches, we had better give some attention to economic arrangements and how big business affects the “common wealth.” So the offbeat advice from the Church of England priest might be more in line with the social teachings of the Bible than it first sounded.

19 thoughts on “Is (or Was) Sam Walton Your Neighbor?

  1. The flip side of this that has always bothered me is the implications for those who work for such establishments. If it may not be loving of neighbor to shop at these mega-marts, what about working for one? The same applies to banks and credit card companies which charge exorbitant interest. So, in a addition to deciding where to shop, how should Christians decide where to work.

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  2. Foggy raises a good point. My hunch is that his problem may be solved by a category called liberty of conscience. I know mine is working for a private contractor in devilish cahoots with those big baddies known as state educators.

    I’ve nothing against the ethic of “strong local communities,” nor with competing views on how to either define them or nurture them; I’m just not clear on what stake Christian virtue has to be consistent with the anti-big government ethic in the first place. I mean, every time I read it the NT seems to make more over submission than either paring down or inflating the powers that be. If submission to government trumps competing philosophies as to its nature then how would it follow that (lawfully) making or consuming certain economies have anything to do with the eighth commandment? Instead of the COE priest backing his way into better social teachings, I think I’ll stick with his being flat wrong on telling folks to lift vegetables.

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  3. “In other words, the problem with chains, national or multi-national, is one of scale.”

    Well is it really just scale, or do volume discounts (aka preferred pricing) either offered by suppliers or coerced by the chain factor in? Perhaps if widget suppler “A” gave all the retailers the same price, the local little guy could be a little more competitive on price with big chain “W”. What if though widget supplier “A” does give the same price to everyone, but just won’t sell to smaller operations, so local shops have to buy from a wholesaler (who needs to make a profit) with whom the widget supplier will sell? “W” etal can operate as both (wholesaler and retailer) so why can’t the savings be passed on? Who’s at fault then? Is a three or four tier distribution system less oppressive than a two-tier system? How about just one? It’s not like those have not existed in the past. (Standard Oil) OTOH, it can be argued that one needs a global distribution system when the source of the widgets is from overseas manufacturers where labor esp child labor is cheap.

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  4. Consumers do not “belong” to local/community retailers, neither do our economic decisions. And what constitutes the “local community” — one’s neighborhodd? Municipality? Township? County? Region? State? (And I wonder if Arkansas consumers should be deemed to “belong” to Wal-Mart?)

    Wow, a Church of England priest exhibiting a profound lack of economic sense and a profound lack of appreciation of freedom of economic choice. Shocking. Just shocking, I tell you. I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me is that the PCUSA suffers from theological drift and declining membership numbers. Crazy talk.

    Big corporations, on their own, cannot prohibit me from growing my own food, from doing business with others who provide superior service to offset higher prices, or from simply deciding to do business with others for non-price-related reasons (e.g., easier parking, convenience to other stores, provision of “niche” items which aren’t available at the Giant Evil Chain Store, etc.).

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  5. Hi, maybe our post might be off topic but anyhow, Having been surfing around your blog and it looks really cool. It is obvious you know the subject and you are fervent about it. I

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  6. “Big corporations, on their own, cannot prohibit me from growing my own food”

    Dan, I suggest you watch Food, Inc. Big corporations can now patent seeds and sue you into bankruptcy if they think you’re violating their patents. If your neighbor uses patented seeds and you don’t, it’s only a matter of time before the wind blows them into your property and you are legally forced to prove your own innocence. Big corporations have the money not only to sue you, but also to lobby the government and change the law to be favorable to them. Big business has no more concern for your rights and well-being than the government does.

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  7. Correct, Nathan.

    And by working for them, zrim, you are empowering them and lending to them the credibility that comes from your good name.

    And losing your own freedom that you initially possess in freedom of conscience to work for them. Soon, you will have no choice. Look at the poor, cornered fishermen of Louisiana. What choices have they now. To put food on their table, they have basically two choices now: prostitute themselves to the *@$’s that destroyed their shores (BP), or prostitute themselves to the *@$’s that destroyed their local economy (Wal-Mart).

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  8. I understand, Jenny, but sometimes I just need some shaving cream and the Chain Outlet is the only store that carries the kind I need for my frustratingly (!) sensitive skin. Sigh. Plus, providence seems to have seen fit to put me to work where I am in order to provide for my family. O, the perils of a compromised life.

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  9. Have you tried some nice, gentle castile soap for shaving that sensitive skin? I can whip some up for you in my kitchen. Self-reliance is the answer, my friend. Self-reliance and leaning on your friends, that is. I don’t fault you, though. My husband and I both used to be public high school teachers, and that’s how we paid the bills. We’re much poorer now, but at least if hubby feels the Holy Spirit tugging him to share the gospel at his workplace, he won’t be tempted to fear for the loss of his job.

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  11. Wouldn’t it be better to say that it is store customers that were “putting the village food markets out of business.” One reason that it may make more sense to be concerned with big government than big business, is that big business cannot force one to patronize them at the point of a gun. In a free society, one can only gain customers by serving them better (as determined by them) than the competition. Of course the current level of state intervention in the market (often cultivated by incumbent businesses) muddy the water somewhat.

    We should also remember that corporate executives are people too. Should we not be charitable to them as well? I suspect that a corporate executive in Downers Grove might be just as neighborly as a Samaritan.

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  12. Erik, NWC Class of 1989!

    Darryl, That Joe Paterno was a person is incontrovertible. By all accounts, until the scandal, he was a considered valuable member of the Penn State and State College community.

    I was not meaning to be flippant in my comment. I am sorry if my comment appeared so. My question was in earnest. I confess that I become weary both at those who think that *everything* that works in a market economy is true, righteous, and beautiful, *and* at those who give the impression that Christian charity demands that we not patronize business that serves us better than others primarily because it is an outlet of a large corporation whose headquarters is out of state. Certainly, corporate CEOs and college football coaches can sin and sin grievously. But then so can I.

    My question is how do we wisely make decisions about issues raised by Berry? I have only met you once on T. David’s back porch. I hardly know you and do not live in Hillsdale. Should I not purchase your books, but only purchase those authored in Mercer County, PA? Should I not purchase Berry’s books because they are not presently distributed locally but only through Amazon? That obviously is absurd. On the other hand, I can see the point of patronizing a local merchant who serves their neighbors as well or almost as well as another chain merchant. I fear, however, that we too easily take something we don’t like and perceive it as a moral wrong and likewise take something we prefer and transform it into a virtue.

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  13. Shawn, so you’re THAT person.

    By all means, buy my books and two of every Berry title.

    I’m with you on not turning this into a moral issue directly. But if I’m on city council, I think about giving Walmart a special break to come to town. And then I know the next town will take Walmart. And then I know we’re all seeking a better country.

    No solutions. But best price isn’t always best.

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  14. I agree about not giving special breaks to a particular firm. I would rather give breaks to all, so that they are not really breaks. There are many margins that determine the best option.

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  15. Isn’t Sam Walton loving us (his new neighbors) by giving us the cheapest price and employing us? And by providing us with the special shaving cream for our oh so sensitive skin?

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