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Op-ed: Commandment against stealing has roots in injunction against kidnapping

The eighth commandment, against stealing, takes me back to a 24-pack of crayons stolen from my third-grade desk. Many assumed my classmate Peg took them. She was full of spunk and from “the other side of the tracks.” I liked Peg, not least because her nickname for me was “peaches.”

My mother was asked by the teacher if she wanted this theft “investigated” and she quietly declined. Mom sent me to school the next day with a large box of 64 crayons, containing every color I could imagine. I was excited until I learned that box was to be placed in Peg’s desk without fanfare and a replacement 24-crayon box would go back into my desk. At the time, I couldn’t have had a clue about issues of restorative justice, racial tensions in 1970s Virginia or economic inequality. But my mother’s graceful response to stealing, accusations and friendship did stick with me.

The Ten Commandments aren't merely answers to theological questions, but practical answers to vexing problems faced by real communities. They rectified serious social ills based upon shared moral understandings regarded as revelation. Reading the commandments in Exodus is more enlightening when one realizes that if there were commandments against something, someone was commonly committing that act.

Commandments give us insight into what was actually happening in human communities millennia ago. These rules can be seen as the imperfect glue that hold people together while displaying the kindness of a Creator who delivers them. The Hebrew people were just leaving a long period of enslavement themselves, so it’s noteworthy that they are being given warnings by God about enslaving each other: the word translated do not “steal” can also be translated “kidnap.”

The past 5,000 years of human development have found us moving from placing a lower value on human life toward placing a higher value on it. Harvard professor Steven Pinker asserts that this is by far the least violent era in human history. Even if you view abortion as the devaluing of human life, the very debate around it demonstrates a consciousness of the value of stolen lives. This commandment is an assertion both that human life is valuable enough to steal and that it is worth protecting from stealing. That was not a small thing to command several thousand years ago when the status of women, slaves and children was so low. We still have far to go in this regard.

How should this commandment best be understood today? Slavery and genocide being America’s original sins, one can hardly read “Thou shalt not steal” without thinking about one of its original meanings, “Thou shalt not kidnap.” What manner of kidnapping or stealing of humans is presently taking place in our culture? We must fight to reduce human trafficking and modern slavery (sexual and otherwise) and do the hard work of restitution for all manner of stealing that has taken place.

Just as the Exodus story is about liberating the people of God, so too are the Ten Commandments. This would have struck me as ironic in the third grade, but it makes more sense to me as a parent of three children and steward of an organization with staff, constituents and policies.

The purpose of the commandments is to bind the community together, to protect the vulnerable and promote neighborliness — what my mother did through her compassionate response to stealing. Perhaps there is one meaningful way to find true exodus, true liberation: in selectively submitting oneself to basic community commandments. Do not steal is not as simple as it sounds, but it is a very profound foundation on which to base one’s life. The commandments represent an authority we submit to that has the potential to benefit all in a society attending to these commandments.

Robert Wilson-Black, Ph.D., is CEO of Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice through its advocacy, outreach, www.sojo.net and its Sojourners magazine. The group strategically focuses on racial and social justice, life and peace, and environmental stewardship.