A StubbornThings Symposium 7/17/14
Introduction • The idea of moral absolutes is a scary notion in this non-judgmental, moral relativist age. “Moral absolutism” fills one’s head with visions of Salem witch trials and thumb screws. And this is the vision that those on the Left with their anti-Christian campaigns have hoped to evoke.
But imagine trying to steer your ship without a compass. It’s of little use to say that “True north is somewhere between this broad range of numbers.” The idea of law, moral absolutes, and true headings has nothing inherently to do with moral exhibitionism, fundamentalism, or just being a hard-ass. Any good principle, as Libertarians regularly show us, can be taken to an extreme, including that of moral absolutes.
But without moral absolutes, we are rudderless. And moral absolutes, quite aside from the stigma intentionally imposed by anti-Christian forces, are not about lacking nuance or making unrefined judgments. Even with a moral absolute of “Thou shall not steal,” it is necessary to apply such absolutes to the specific cases which are always full of unique situations and sometimes extenuating circumstances.
It is the attitude of justice, instead of moral exhibitionism or fundamentalism, which should guide us in applying the moral absolutes. But to not abide by moral absolutes because one has bought into the anti-Christian, moral relativist message of the Left is actually not to lose moral absolutes. They simply appear in a different form and are often deceitful by nature. One of the moral absolutes of the relativists, for example, is the idea of “tolerance.” But they do not tend to tolerate conservatives, Christians, white people, straight people, or just honest, hard-working people who play by the rules.
This is why I unequivocally believe in the Ten Commandments. These are good moral absolutes. These are necessary moral absolutes. And it is by delving into the nuances of these Commandments via this symposium that we may learn justice and wisdom, both of which are necessary attributes for applying these moral absolutes in a constructive and fair way.
— The Editor
Number 8: “Thou shalt not steal.”
The Israelites were a Jewish race of people that were just experiencing freedom after 400 years of being enslaved. They were accustomed to Egyptian customs, culture and laws. God chose Israel for a nation unto Himself and His desire for Israel was that they would go and teach others about Him. Israel was to be a nation of priests, prophets, and missionaries to the world. God’s intent was for Israel to be a distinct people, a nation who pointed others towards God and His promised provision of a Redeemer, Messiah, and Savior. God’s plan for Israel is to be accomplished through the removal of Egyptian (pagan) gods and establishing and implementing His laws. This newly freed nation of people needed established laws on how to live peacefully and harmoniously amongst their neighbors and, above all, holy before God.
Thou shall not steal is a short concise commandment that leaves the reader to interpret the different definitions of the word. Stealing, in the sense of the Hebrew word ganav, refers to both the act of carrying off by stealth that which is not one’s own (i.e., theft), but also to the deceptive inner disposition that accompanies the action. Ultimately, that deceptive inner disposition is a form of self-deception. The English definition is to take (something) from someone, without permission or unlawfully, or to appropriate (ideas, etc) without acknowledgment, as in plagiarism. During the time when Moses (aka “the lawgiver”) presented God’s laws to the people of Israel, they had already relapsed into all kinds of rebellious and sinful behavior. What could these people steal from each other? For one, they could steal each other’s possessions that they received from their Egyptian slave owners as they were leaving Egypt. If an individual today takes both the Hebrew and English definition of the word steal and try to associate it with what was going on during the time of Moses and the Israelites, one might erroneously think that it was easy to keep that commandment because the people did not have many possessions.
Present day conditions presents more opportunities for one to steal with individuals owning vast amounts of possessions. The rapid explosion of technology alone puts individuals in vulnerable situations to have just about everything from their identity to one’s entire bank accounts stolen. However, some things that are stolen are not often discussed. Employees can steal their employer’s time. Artist and writers can steal another’s work (music, manuscripts & poetry).
The word steal has a deeper meaning that encompasses more than just the unlawful taking of material things. Stealing has to do with respect for others. Respect for our neighbor’s belongings. Breaking the tenth commandment “thou shall not covet” could be a catalyst for breaking the eighth commandment. In fact, the eighth commandment can easily be associated with other commandments. When one bears false witness (lie), we steal our neighbor’s reputation. When one commits adultery, we steal another’s spouse (affection). If one kills thou neighbor, he steals his or her life. When we study the Ten Commandments, one must always remember that God is to be the source of everything that the Israelites needed then as well as everything that the believer needs today. God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and had continually provided for all of their needs. There was no need for the Israelites to steal anything from their neighbors.
What are some of the root causes for stealing? Laziness, greed, and selfishness are a few reasons individuals steal. The main root cause is unbelief. If we believe that God is truly the source of all of our needs, why would anyone need to steal from others? Why would anyone need to covet another’s possession? The answer is unbelief. The opposite of faith is unbelief. Individuals steal other’s possession because he or she is ungrateful and does not believe that God will meet his or her needs. All the commandments can easily be summed up with one sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” (Romans 13:9-10 RSV)
Sins are frequently intertwined: theft often results from covetousness, and it’s often accomplished through dishonesty. When an hourly worker falsifies his timesheet and claims more hours than he worked, he uses the means of lying for the goal of stealing, taking from his employer money that he has not earned.
The Christian’s duty is not just avoiding theft and refusing to take what belongs to others; he ought to take action to give others that which is due to them.
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7 ESV)
This command – along with Paul’s teaching, in the same chapter, that the state is a divinely appointed agent of God’s justice – sheds some light on why so many politically conservative evangelical congregations feel duty-bound to show respect even to the most leftist political office-holders.
For myself, I remember that we are a nation of laws, not men, and that even the head of state takes an oath to uphold the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. A stealth radical has won the presidency and has proceeded to the undermine the Constitution at every turn, and I believe our deference to the Constitution allows and perhaps even requires us to hold this dishonest would-be tyrant in utter contempt, giving him the disdain that is due his dishonorable and dishonest behavior.
Indeed, Christians are supposed to pay taxes, rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
(In Matthew 22, Jesus highlighted the fact that the Roman currency bears Caesar’s image. We are to render to God what belongs to God; according to the Bible, man himself bears God’s image, and so we owe to God everything, our complete devotion and our very lives.)
Are we supposed to pay taxes not only for truly public goods but for a welfare state and other methods of wealth redistribution? Beyond the questions of prudence and unintended – but often very predictable – consequences, I have my doubts about the morality of a welfare state.
Milton Friedman distinguished between two types of public welfare, the first where “90 percent of us” agree to tax ourselves to help the bottom 10 percent, the second where 80 percent vote to tax the top 10 percent to benefit the bottom 10 percent.
“The first may be wise or unwise, an effective or ineffective way to help the disadvantaged — but it is consistent with belief in both equality of opportunity and liberty. The second seeks equality of outcome and is entirely antithetical to liberty.”
Is that first type of welfare not theft because of its broad popular support and broad tax base? I’ve begun to have serious reservations.
The question is, is there truly overwhelming popular support for a specific welfare program?
If there is such support, then a public program shouldn’t be necessary, as there should be more than enough people willing and able to fund private versions of that welfare program using voluntary charities.
If there isn’t such support, then welfare-statists are attempting to short-circuit the political process, disregarding the will of the people because they do not trust the kindness of the people.
The one thing I clearly remember from my college philosophy class is the idea that “ought implies can.” We have at least a partial duty to make amends for past offenses, when such amends are in our power, but we have no moral duty to travel back in time and prevent those offenses, because we have no ability to do so.
A moral imperative has other implications as well, and the command of “do not steal” implies that there are indeed things that can be stolen: the Eighth Commandment implies the existence of property, and the command is incoherent without that concept.
By attempting to frame welfare as a matter of justice rather than charity, Leftists attempt to undermine the concept of property. In sneering that property is theft, and in arguing that entrepreneurs didn’t build their businesses, Leftists are laying the groundwork for theft. Denying your right to your own property is the first step in taking that property from you.
The Tea Party is right to proclaim, you are not entitled to what another person earns. The presumption of entitlement is an obvious attempt to justify outright theft.
“Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.” (Psalm 128:1-2)
— John R.W. Kirke is a pseudonym of a Christian husband, father, and engineer who has written elsewhere under other names, including “Lawrence” in the comments at National Review Online. He remains deeply moved by the unpublished memoirs of Professor D. Kirke (1888-1949).