Don’t take what’s not yours.
This is a principle that most of us learn in kindergarten. And for the most part, I would imagine that many of us are not law breakers who engage in theft. So what does this commandment say about us?
In the modern world this includes taking the intellectual property of others. Those ads and warnings about piracy of movies and music are not just notices about breaking the law but also about breaking the commandments. “But everyone does it,” is a common response. However, that is never a justification before God. Always, we are called to be a people set apart.
As a teacher the biggest area I see this in is cheating, particularly plagiarism. In the internet age, it is so easy to simply copy and paste information from Wikipedia. In fact, I would imagine that this problem is so commonplace that we may have thousands of students who do not know how to do basic research. Also incredibly problematic is the fact that many of these students see nothing wrong with taking someone else’s words and passing them off as their own.
In business, some of us have the temptation to skim a little off the top. If not outright theft, perhaps we play around with our work hours or expenses and over charge for our labor. Again, here we are taking that which is not ours and was not earned.
And often among friends and family we borrow things without returning them. Or if we return them, they are much worse for the wear. These might be little offenses that are winked at among loved ones or these could fester into real areas of division.
There is a reason that this commandment follows the commandment about adultery. Both commandments six and seven involve looking at another person like an object.
The main principle behind this commandment is the idea that we must respect the rights of others and that includes the rights of their property. To take what belongs to another without permission is to see the owner not as another person equal in rights and dignity. Instead, you see the other as simply a means to an end. You desire their stuff over them. If you valued the person more than the object, then stealing the object would not come into your thoughts.
Because theft really does injure others. Take something as mundane as illegally downloading movies. The film industry has been seeing drops in revenue for a while now. Part of that is because people watch movies online without paying for them. (There are of course several other reasons for the loss of money, but piracy is a contributing factor). The loss of revenue means that fewer people can be employed. As someone who has made several student films, if I ever made a professional movie I would want to receive the financial fruits of my labor. I’m sure that would be true of any art, whether it be music, writing, painting, or what have you. If someone were to pirate my work, that would directly affect my finances.
Now, you may not like that example because you may believe Hollywood is a cesspool of immorality. Or you may look at them like a very wealthy corporation and think, “Hey, they make a big enough profit. They can afford it.”
But look already at that mindset. If you think that way, you have determined what another person or business can and cannot afford. But you do not have that right any more than if someone said to you, “You make enough money so you can never earn more than $30,000.00 a year.” I believe you would be incensed if anyone tried to put a salary cap like that on you. And would not simply be the loss of larger income but because someone limited your rights.
And it is the same in the above example.
But even if this point is brushed aside and the industries that are injured are bad or to wealthy to care, theft is still bad for the thief.
As with all vice, feeding it only makes it stronger. When we nurture greed, we dig a deeper hole in our hearts and a hunger for more material possessions. But that hunger can never be filled by those material possessions. Greedy people can never get enough. Even if you never get caught stealing, the greed removes your ability to truly be satisfied.
St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Our Sister Lark has a hood like a religious and is a humble bird, who gladly goes along the road looking for some grain. Even if she finds it in the animal dung, she pecks it out and eats it. While flying, she praises the Lord, like good religious who look down on earthly things, and whose life is always in heaven. Moreover, her clothes, that is her feathers, resemble earth, giving an example to religious not to wear clothes that are colorful and refined, but dull, like earth.”
In other words, if we can be satisfied with very little, we are free to find love and happiness. But if we burden ourselves with greed, particularly taking what is not ours, then we try to make earth the focus of our happiness. And that creates a greed that can never be satisfied.
We take what is not ours to feed a hunger inside that only gets worse.
But we if instead live generously and give to others instead of taking, we will be truly satisfied.
Copyright 2017, WL Grayson