Shoplifting is a Christian option. So says Fr Tim Jones of St Lawrence and St Hilda Parish in York, who advised the poor members of his congregation to steal from large national businesses if they were desperate in the run-up to Christmas.
Fr Jones’ comments have been roundly denounced by the police and by the Archdeacon of York, who said:
But Fr Jones’ advice is rooted in a radical Christian worldview that sees the global capitalist enterprise as fundamentally unjust. Shoplifting, then, is a way to subvert a system that keeps the poor in their poverty, both here and in the sweatshops where the goods of the global business conglomerates are produced.
Fr Jones qualified his comments in the sermon itself, saying that ‘stealing from successful shops was preferable to burglary, robbery or prostitution’ and that it ‘is permissible for those who are in desperate situations to take food that they might not starve’.
Jones’ outlook does not seem that far off that of the Belfast-born post-modern theologian, Peter Rollins, in his blog post about ‘batman as the ultimate capitalist superhero.’ In this post Rollins quotes Brecht’s famous line: “what is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding one?”
In the rush of the authorities of church and state to distance themselves from Fr Jones’ sermon, it is vital to remember the context of Jones’ sermon was the poverty of the holy family, who were forced to desperate measures in their journey to Bethlehem and their flight to Egypt. I hope the comparison between Jesus and today’s poor doesn’t get lost in a moral panic.
But a bigger problem with Jones’ comments is less that stealing from the national chains is wrong, and more that shoplifting seems a wholly ineffective way to counter capitalism in its reddest tooth and claw.
Jones may see shoplifting as providing a temporary relief for the poor in their most vulnerable moments, but as last week’s Prime Time special on RTE revealed, it can quickly become a destructive way of life. This programme explored the harrowing lives of people on Dublin’s streets, shoplifting goods worth up to €1000 per day to support heroin habits. In the programme, the manager of a clothing shop explained how this excessive shoplifting was raising the prices of goods for all consumers. Ultimately, shoplifting does not encourage big businesses to make their operating policies more just, and it can keep desperate people trapped in a destructive way of life.
(photo of Fr Jones from BBC)