(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 priestâ€™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.