by John W. Ritenbaugh
In every culture on earth, possession of property provides evidence of a person's worth. Whether the property is land, houses, autos, jewelry, cattle, chickens, sheep or industry, others look upon the property and think, "The owner must be somebody of consequence because I can see the proof."
Every community has clever, industrious and careful people who own substantial amounts of property. The same community also has truly disadvantaged people, as well as lazy and "turned off" members who rarely achieve material success. Generally, those with little or no property do not deny the rights of property owners to possess it. However, they may seriously question how the property holder acquired the property in the first place. Revolutions have erupted over such matters. Sometimes, the disadvantaged accuse property holders of using questionable "legal" means to gain their property, so they justify employing any available means to return it to the "rightful owners."
But Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:19 say, "You shall not steal." God includes no "ifs," "ands," "buts" or "maybe under certain conditions." That things can be stolen implies a right to own property. On its face, this law protects a person's right to acquire and possess property, and by condemning its opposite, stealing, its spirit promotes the principle of generosity more directly than any other commandment.
This law is so straightforward that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly misunderstand it. It is certainly up to date. Who could possibly object to it? Even thieves object to being robbed! Yet some human beings will steal anything not welded, bolted, riveted or glued down!
The ethics of property ownership are built on easily understood justice. A person need not be a rocket scientist to understand. No one in the world fails to feel outrage after being robbed. Even when absent during a theft of personal property, the victim later feels personally violated and rarely accepts the crime without protest.
We react this way because we make our possessions a part of us. Steal my clothes, and I may go naked. Take my food, and I go hungry. Cheat me out of my house, and I go without shelter. Steal my tools, and I can no longer work at my trade. Abscond with my savings, and I lose my security.
The Many Faces of Stealing
This commandment covers a great deal more than common thievery. Robert I. Khan, in his book The Ten Commandments For Today, writes that there are a hundred ways to steal but only one way to be honest. In human relationships, possibly no other commandment is so frequently broken, bent, skirted, evaded, sidestepped or ignored.
We can steal by burglary, larceny, embezzlement, robbery, hijacking, shoplifting, kidnapping, picking pockets or plagiarizing. We can defraud, hold up, gyp, lift, loot, nip, nab, pinch, pluck, pilfer, rustle, snitch, snatch and swindle. It is interesting how many words in our language describe this one sin.
National theft statistics from The FBI Uniform Crime Report are appalling. These statistics cannot be totally accurate because only an estimated 50 percent of these crimes are reported due to the public's frustration with police and the courts. The FBI categorizes stealing into six broad areas: robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, fraud and embezzlement. The following information comes from the FBI's 1995 report:
» Robbery is the taking of anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person by force, violence or putting in fear. It takes place in the presence of the victim. In 1995, a robbery occurred every 60 seconds!
» Burglary includes any breaking and entering of a structure with the intent of committing a felony or a theft. In 1995, a burglary took place every 12 seconds! Losses totaled $3.3 billion with 2½ times more burglaries in metro areas than rural. Burglary is so widespread that it comprises 23 percent of all crime index figures.
» Larceny, maybe our most frequently committed crime, occurs once every 4 seconds! It is the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession of another without the use of force, fraud or violence. It includes shoplifting, pick-pocketing, thefts from motor vehicles and theft of motor vehicle parts and accessories. In 1995, Americans reported 6.6 million larcenies, but the FBI says that this crime is the least likely to be reported.
» So many automobiles were stolen in 1995 that a vehicle theft was reported every 21 seconds with an average dollar loss of $5,117, totaling a $7.7 billion annual loss! When we combine all property crimes (robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson), one occurs every 3 seconds, equaling a grand total of $13.2 billion!
Few people are aware how immense a billion is. One billion minutes ago takes us to AD 95, about the time the apostle John wrote Revelation on the Isle of Patmos! Another billion minutes return us to Abraham's day! But in one year, Americans stole $13.2 billion in property. Is it true that "there is a little larceny in all of us?" Are we a nation of thieves or what? A great many people are being deprived of things they most likely earned lawfully.
"Theft of the Mind"
As defined by the FBI, forms of stealing other than robbery involve deception usually because the thief tries to avoid exposing himself to confrontation and/or identification. As a result, stealing frequently involves a second sin, deception.
The Talmud calls this type of stealing "theft of the mind." It illustrates the concept with a merchant selling produce in a basket in which a layer of shelled peas covers many layers of peas in the pod. No word is spoken, no lie is told, but the eye is deceived, and the unwary victim is robbed. He does not get what he thinks he paid for, a full basket of shelled peas.
Similarly, pharmaceutical manufacturers, food processors and restaurateurs play hide-and-seek with consumers on the one hand and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the other. By misrepresenting their products, they make us pay full value for inferior goods. In America, restaurateurs do not have to inform diners when they substitute manufactured "food" for the real thing.
Men steal from each other by taking advantage of ignorance, distress and weakness. How much wealth has been stolen from mineral-, soil- and weather-rich undeveloped nations through the imperialism of a more technologically advanced culture? In our lifetimes, America, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Japan have aggressively taken advantage of the ignorance of less-developed cultures. Even though the natives are paid for their labors, it is stealing. Workers in those nations receive a pittance for their labors, while foreigners become fabulously wealthy.
God condemns this in James 5:1-6:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.
Con artists steal by preying on those in distress or by taking advantage of the weaknesses of human nature. Just this week a series of articles appeared in the Charlotte Observer warning of con artists who prey on the elderly. Cons often prey on seniors' insecurity and their desire to increase their little "nest egg" that looks so inadequate beside diminished incomes and rising costs. Con artists see them as fair game because, as they cynically say, "You can't cheat an honest man." They reason that if the elderly were not greedy for a quick gain, they would not be fooled. Though this may be true, a person should not deliberately exploit another's greed for a personal advantage that is itself sinful. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Others fail to deliver what they promise or is normally expected. To welsh on a debt is theft, as is shoddy workmanship. Many fail to realize that buying stolen goods is also stealing, as I Timothy 5:22 confirms: "Do not . . . share in other people's sins; keep yourself pure." If someone offers a product for sale at a greatly lowered price, it is wise to inquire discreetly into the matter to remain uninvolved in a possible crime. Otherwise, along with being guilty of sin, one may also end up losing his money and the product.
Corporate stealing occasionally dominates the front pages of newspapers, but it receives nowhere near the attention street crimes do. James Q. Wilson, author of Thinking About Crime, writes that the public is correct in fearing crime in the streets more than crime in the suites. He writes, "Economic violators [white-collar crooks] don't make difficult or impossible the maintenance of basic human communities." That is, white-collar criminals do not kill us as they steal from us!
People tend to commit crimes within the range of their opportunities. Bankers rarely rob banks at gun point, but they have embezzled millions in bank funds. The armed robber steals by violence, the banker by intrigue. But one is just as much a sin as the other.
White-collar crime reveals the extent of social corrosion even more than crimes of violence. Stealing often disguises itself respectably in the fine clothing and furniture of the boardroom. Embezzlement, stock manipulation, bribery, tax fraud, stealing from business, consumer fraud and the like dwarfs all "on the street" theft crimes combined. To put it bluntly, the real thief wears a white collar.
In one day a white-collar criminal may bribe a policemen or building inspector, short-weight his product, entertain his wife at company expense, receive a kickback in a business deal, buy a personal gift with company money, enter a fraudulent bid for a public contract, cheat on his income tax, bribe a purchasing agent, fail to pay the maid's Social Security, do personal shopping on company time, or write a personal letter using company time, stationery and equipment.
The Wall Street Journal writes in an editorial, "It isn't very helpful to suggest that white-collar crime is a more serious threat than predatory street crime, which inspires fear right across the board." While it is true that we should not belittle street crime, corporate crime exacts a kind of costly pain to far more people.
According to U.S. government statistics from 1984, white-collar embezzling amounted to more than $5 million per day. Employee theft alone amounted to $30-40 billion and was single-handedly responsible for 30 percent of all business failures. In addition, 50 percent of all inventory shortages are due to employee theft, and 15 percent of all business costs go to cover stealing. Banks consistently lose more than two times as much to employees as to robbers. While the average shoplifter stole $17, the average embezzler took $1,500, but both received the same sentence when convicted.
Does it mean anything to the public when the chairman of a major corporation goes to jail for four years for perjuring himself to a federal commission over insider trading activities? When a Wall Street firm confesses to engaging in a multibillion dollar check-kiting scheme? When a huge military contractor admits it has defrauded the Pentagon by passing on bogus costs? When a large Boston bank admits violating the Bank Secrecy Act after failing to report $1.22 billion in large cash transactions, some of which, according to the Justice Department, involved laundering drug money?
We have only begun to scratch the surface of this sin. A 1982 survey in U.S. News and World Report concluded:
Of America's 500 largest corporations, 115 have been convicted in the last decade of at least one major crime or have paid civil penalties for serious misbehavior. Among the 25 biggest firms . . . the rate of documented misbehavior has been even higher.
While those statistics certainly reveal all is not well in "the land of the free and home of the brave," it does not reveal the cost. Corporate malfeasance is a tax of many billions of dollars each year that cheats consumers and undermines the integrity of the business system.
According to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, price fixing in the U.S. is a considerable problem. A survey completed all the way back in 1971 revealed that 60% of the Fortune 1,000 company presidents agreed with the general proposition that "many companies price-fix." Since the Federal Trade Commission won a price-fixing case against Levi Strauss in 1978, consumers have saved about $2 on each pair of Levi's. This case also lowered the price of competitors' jeans.
Between 1979 and 1983, federal prosecutors in 20 states broke a highway contractors' bid-rigging conspiracy. They handed out 400 convictions leading to 141 jail sentences and $50 million in fines. After the indictments, road building costs fell by as much as 20% in some states, and the average number of bids per federal highway construction job rose from 3 to 5.
Economists' estimates of the annual cost of "restraints on the market"—price fixing and monopoly power—range from a low of $32 billion to $265 billion! That money is being stolen from us by greedy businessmen, and we are paying for it in higher prices for goods, services and taxes. These figures hardly compare to the $13.3 billion for "on the street" thefts.
So Many Ways to Steal
Perhaps we do not think of water and air pollution as stealing, but it can be a very heavy "tax." Profit considerations encourage corporations to pollute the environment since free waste disposal cuts a firm's production costs. However, the consumer picks up the tab in disease, higher health care premiums, an increased mortality rate, decreased property values and higher repair costs. The economists call these things "externalities." They are a transfer payment imposed by corporate managers on unsuspecting citizens. According to an EPA study, if only the amount of sulfates and particulates released into the atmosphere each year were reduced by 60 percent, it would produce health benefits every year worth between $33-74 billion!
Racial and gender discrimination also steal income. Forty-six percent of all workers in America are women, but a full-time woman earns about 70 percent of a man's wages in an equivalent position. This is very costly. After a study of full-time pay scales in 91 occupations, Nancy Rhytina of the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that gender discrimination costs women about $81 billion a year. A 1978 Congressional Research Service study reported that discrimination costs nonwhites $37.6 billion a year in lost jobs or inequitable salaries.
Product defects can also steal from us. Because of a design defect built right into the product, some have had their lives stolen from them! Internal memorandums from the Ford Motor Company showed that the firm knew of a dangerous design flaw in the Ford Pinto that permitted the gas tank to explode even during low-speed, rear-end collisions. The company decided to refuse to install a $10 shield around the tank because the total fleet-wide cost would exceed the probable costs of an occasional lawsuit. Between 500 and 900 people lost their lives!
God records in Leviticus 19:35-37: "You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Deuteronomy 24:14-15 adds:
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.
God states things so simply. Manufacturers have the responsibility to produce high quality, fairly priced products and pay a wage reasonable to the work performed regardless of race or gender. Certainly the manufacturer has a rightful claim to a profit, but he is not to increase his measure of profit at the expense of the consumer, the public at large or nature. God says in Revelation 11:19 that He will destroy those who destroy the earth.
An article titled "White-Collar Crime Is Big Business"by Mark Green and John F. Berry, appeared in The Nation magazine:
Corporate crime is a several-hundred billion dollar albatross around the economy's neck. It lowers productivity, inhibits innovation, boosts prices, misallocates resources, increases injuries and causes deaths. Not only does it squander economic growth and transfer costs from producer to consumer, it also sabotages the trust that binds businesses and consumer together in a competitive market economy. Corporate illegality follows a Gresham's law whereby bad companies drive out the good ones. Criminologist Herbert Edelhertz describes this pattern: "The pharmaceutical company which markets a new drug based on fraudulent test results undercuts its competitors who are still marketing the properly tested drugs, and may cause them to accept similar methods."
Why Do We Steal?
It is easy to blame our tendency to steal on the lust of human nature. It is certainly true, and if we scrupulously track our desires and rein them in before they overcome us, we will significantly reduce stealing. But what is interesting are the excuses we give ourselves and others for the stealing we do. Unless we keep our conscience razor sharp, it is easily dulled by rationalization.
It is not infrequent to hear someone at work complain, "They won't let you make an honest living any more." The blame for not being scrupulously honest is shifted to "they." People make the same justification at every level. A study of business ethics by a Harvard graduate student revealed that most junior executives place the responsibility for their unethical practices upon the expectations of management.
Sometimes we apply a double standard of judgment to what we consider the rich and the poor or small business and corporations. A child may begin a lifetime of petty theft by justifying the stealing of a toy from a "better off" playmate because "he has lots of toys and won't miss this little one." For the same reason, juries award excessively high damages because a corporation has plenty of money and can afford it, or if they are insured, the insurance company will pay it.
In an automobile accident trial in Texas, a lawyer was held in contempt because, against the warning of the judge, he insisted on telling the jury that the defendant was insured. (The jury is not supposed to know lest their judgment be biased by this fact.) This lawyer justified himself because the defendant's lawyer had appealed to the jury not to assess high damages because his client was known not to be a man of means. In other words, both sides were playing on the tendency toward a double standard.
We also distinguish between personal property and public. In our minds, stealing from the government is different from robbing our neighbor. My wife and I once had a landlord who firmly proclaimed that he never stole from his friends!
This tendency is humorously developed in the story of four men who had a social luncheon together. The bill came to fifty dollars, and each of them in turn reached for the check.
"I'll take it," the first man said. "I'm in the 50 percent tax bracket, so the meal will only cost me $25."
"Nothing doing," said the second. "I'm in the 90 percent bracket, so it will only cost me $5."
"Wait a minute," the third interposed. "I'm on an expense account, so it won't cost me a penny."
But the fourth waved them all away. "I'm on a government contract, cost plus 10 percent. I'll make 5 bucks!"
But there is a basic fallacy in this reasoning. Ultimately, what we steal from corporations or the government we must pay back in higher prices and taxes. The effect may not be immediate, but it is the only effect that can occur. Neither the corporation's nor the government's pockets are so deep that they can just absorb multiple, individually small losses.
Another double standard is making a distinction between large and small thefts. It is almost as if a small theft is excusable simply because it is small and thus of no account. Some parents, to "save" some money, unwittingly introduce their children to stealing by lying about their age to save a few cents on a bus trip or movie ticket. Hardly any thief begins his life of crime by stealing "big." They begin "small" and work themselves "up the ladder" to more grandiose and exciting adventures in thievery. One can hardly expect a child to develop honor for his parents in an atmosphere of parental thievery.
Stealing and God
The eighth commandment is the law that guarantees individuals the right to own property. This, by very strong inference, removes any doubt about whether communism—in which property is owned collectively by the state—is a God-approved form of economics. Numbers 33:53-54 shows God intended the Israelites to own property individually:
You shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess. And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; there everyone's inheritance shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers.
When we combine this with the tithing laws in Numbers 18, it becomes clear that God expected the Israelites to work the land to produce wealth for the families. From what they produced they were to pay tithes. The Levites, however, received no land from which they could produce wealth and pay tithes, so they tithed on the tithes they received from the other tribes.
The conclusion is inescapable that the ownership of property and the production of wealth is a God-given privilege. The inequities in the systems and ways by which men produce wealth are givens regardless of when one lives. However, to steal what rightfully belongs to another violates this God-given privilege no matter how one justifies his actions.
This commandment reaches even further into our relationship with God. David writes, "The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). Another psalmist adds, "The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's; but the earth He has given to the children of men" (Psalm 115:16).
These two verses and others recognize that the Lord, by virtue of being Creator, owns everything in heaven and earth. Only He can give or take things away. Therefore no man must despotically usurp the rights to property he has not bought or been given. This includes kidnapping another human. To steal is a sin directly against God as well as against the victim.
Ephesians 4:28 says, "Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need." God's intention is very clear. We are to gain property and possessions by honest work and/or inheritance from those who have the right to give them. We must come into possession of things in a way God approves.
The verb "labor" indicates exertion to the point of exhaustion. In addition, Paul admonishes us not merely to work to satisfy our personal needs and desires, but also to be able to give freely any excess to others in need. The admonition implies distributing the excess personally rather than indirectly through an agency. Paul adds in Acts 20:35, "I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Stealing is totally against the grain of God's way of life. Our God is a working, creating God (John 5:17), and we cannot be in His image if we are gaining possessions through stealing. In the spirit of God's law, a person not only steals by taking another's possessions, but also by refusing to work in order to share and give to others in need.
This commandment does not reach its fullest expression until the ninth and tenth are added to it. Stealing frequently has its genesis in a desire to have something one has no money to purchase or the willingness to work patiently until one does. Deception then enters. A person will try to acquire a desired possession in such a way that others will think he procured it honorably. We can stop this sin at any point in the process, but few make any effort to restrain their lust, deceit and itching fingers.
Robert Kahn was correct in saying, "There are a hundred ways to steal but only one way to be honest." In order not to steal, we must be scrupulously honest. What good is it if we are one-half or three-quarters honest? What if God was honest with us only part of the time? Could we trust Him? Can others really trust us if we are only partially honest? Like our landlord who would not steal from his friends, how could we ever be sure if he still considered us friends? Do we lock our doors because we trust everybody? Thievery creates distrust, fear and suspicion, destabilizing institutions and communities.
The reason we should refrain from stealing is not just to avoid sinning. This in itself is very good, but scrupulous honesty produces integrity, wholeness. Such integrity enables us to live confidently before God and man. The apostle John writes in I John 3:18-19: "My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him." Personal integrity is a major source of positive, confident living.
A conscience can be either a good or bad guide because it is educated by an individual's experiences. Practicing scrupulous honesty builds character and educates the conscience in the right direction so that it will send the right prompting at the right time. We cannot allow ourselves room to rationalize stealing. We must be scrupulously honest always, or our character will descend on a path of degeneracy.
There are hundreds of ways to steal, and dozens of excuses for stealing, but only one way and one reason and one law of integrity. That way is honor, that reason is a clear conscience, and that law is God's. He says, "You shall not steal." Never. In any way. From any one.