From “A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent,” delivered by Rev. Tim Jones on December 20, 2009, at the Church of St. Lawrence in York, England.
The life of the poor is not an idyllic life of simplicity in modern Britain. It is a constant struggle, a constant battle, a constant minefield of competing opportunities, competing responsibilities, obligations, and requirements, a constant effort to achieve the impossible. For many at the bottom of our social ladder, a lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility.
What advice should one give, for example, to an ex-prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support? This is just the situation that presents itself at the vicarage door. What would you advise? One might tell such prisoners to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only inquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex-prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.
One might wish that they could be supported and cared for by their family, but many people’s family life is altogether dysfunctional and may be part of how they came to be in prison in the first place. One might give them some money oneself, but when week after week after week goes by and benefits still do not arrive, the hard reality is that a vicar’s salary is not designed to meet the needs of everyone—or indeed anyone—whom the benefits agency has failed. What else might one advise? They cannot take out a loan, except from the kind of loan shark—and there are enough of them around—whose repayment schedule is so harsh that it constitutes indentured slavery to the criminal underworld. They could beg. But how many of us give constantly and generously to ex-prisoners waiting for benefits? And the likelihood is that, found begging, they will quickly be in trouble with the police, and therefore in breach of their parole.
They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. They could perhaps apply to see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body. But in the meantime, having had only £100 in six weeks, what would you do, every legal avenue having been exhausted?
The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people—family, friends, neighbors, strangers. Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide.
Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.
I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they steal not from small family businesses but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need, for any longer than they need. And I would offer this advice with a heavy heart, wishing our society recognized that bureaucratic ineptitude and systemic delay constitute a dreadful invitation and incentive to crime for people struggling to cope at the very bottom of our social order.
What, then, of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”? Is this advice to usurp the authority of Almighty God?
No. Not the God who is born of Mary. For ours is a God, Mary tells us, who has “lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52–53). The mother of Christ reminds us what Jesus shows us: that God’s love for the poor and
despised—and who in our society is despised more than a newly released prisoner?—outweighs the property rights of the rich.
Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt. When people are released from prison, or find themselves suddenly without work or family support, then to leave them for weeks and weeks with inadequate or clumsy social support is monumental, catastrophic folly. We create a situation that leaves some people little option but crime.
And when we, as a society, are found time and time again to fail to lift those at the very bottom, then—for the love of God, a God born in a stable, of all places—let us not punish them for trying to survive as best they can.