8. No Stealing

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You shall not steal. —Exodus 20:15

It is hard to imagine a society with no sanctions on taking for your own use what does not belong to you. Some have tried, but even the wildest flights of fancy cannot come up with a sustainable culture that has absolutely no regard for personal property. I think the closest we come is in imagining cultures without individuals, such as the Borg in Star Trek: Next Generation. Each of us has a property in our own body, and much of our law is predicated on the notion that our bodies are our own and that we have certain rights bound up in our bodies that cannot be taken away by governments or other human institutions. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” specified in the Declaration of Independence are such rights. They pre-suppose individual freedom and personal accountability. They pre-suppose that each person has a property in their own body, that they have a right to sustain, protect, and defend that property against those who would try to take it. So the right to property—to own things and keep them for your own use while excluding others from having or using them—is an extension of the right to be secure in your own body.

But is stealing taking what does not belong to you, or is it taking what does belong to someone else? A lot of our history in the United States is predicated on the notion that taking what does not belong to you is not stealing, but taking what does belong to someone else is stealing. Consider the First Nations who were here when Europeans first arrived. Many of them did not consider land something that could be individually owned. It was a common property, owned by no one and everyone. Europeans, however, regarded land as a principle form of wealth. If the land belonged to no one, it was free for the taking.

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Meditation on Psalm 131

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Psalm 131 is only three verses, but the second verse has always nagged at me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Why a weaned child? At first I thought it meant a child who had finished nursing. Clearly, such a child is calmed and quieted and content. But a little research soon dispelled that notion. The NIV Study Bible, for example, notes that it refers to “A child of three or four who walks trustingly beside its mother.” How is that a better illustration of contentment than a younger child who is still nursing? What, I wanted to know, does a weaned child have that a nursing child does not?

Then it occurred to me that it is not what the weaned child has but what he does not have that makes the difference. The weaned child no longer has access to his mother’s milk. His calm and quiet and contentment come solely from his mother’s presence, not from anything she gives him. So the weaned child is a picture of perfect trust with nothing but his mother’s presence to secure his comfort and contentment. The psalmist’s trust in God is so deep and well-founded that God’s presence alone—rather than anything God can or might do for him—is the source of his peace and contentment.

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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 2

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In my last post, I closed with an accusation of lying against God. In this post I intend to clear him of the charge—even though he does not need my defense.

How you understand what someone says depends on how much you trust that person. If you trust them a lot, you will try to interpret what they say as truthful. You will be generous and allow them a lot of freedom to use metaphorical language. If you don’t trust them, however, you will treat what they say with suspicion. You will be guarded and construe what they say as literally as possible.* You can see the difference if you compare love letters to legal contracts. Love letters are written with an expectation that the reader will construe what is said with love and kindness. The language is very open and highly metaphorical. Legal contracts are written with the expectation that the reader may construe them with suspicion and hostility. The language is very careful, circumspect, and literal. Terms are clearly and carefully defined.

We think that we trust others because they tell us the truth, but that is actually backwards. We believe that others tell us the truth because we trust them. Our default is trust. We meet strangers and trust them immediately, and our trust is usually justified. We don’t normally fact-check the clerk who tells us the price of an unmarked item is $12.99. Occasionally we meet people who take advantage of our trust to lie to us or cheat us, but they are the exception not the rule. We normally expect others to tell us the truth even though we do not know them and have no reason to trust them. True, we don’t construe what they say with the same generosity that we use with those who love us, but we also don’t treat them with the same suspicion that we reserve for people who have already wronged us.

In the myth of the Fall, the serpent does not lie to deceive Eve. Instead, he insinuates that God has an ulterior motive for his prohibition. He implies that God is not concerned about protecting her life but about excluding her from opportunities she ought to have. He introduces suspicion into her normal and natural trust of God. Eve is tempted by the prospect of improving her life but also by the suspicion that God is withholding that improvement from her.

Adam and Eve do not suffer biological death when they eat the fruit. It is not poisonous. Something happens, however. They experience shame. They feel exposed and want to conceal themselves from one another and from God. They hide. They blame others for their own choices. Though their bodies remain healthy, something within them has died just as God had said. This metaphorical understanding of death continues throughout the whole bible. Read Ezekiel 18 with this in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Paul tells the Ephesians that they were dead in there sins until they believed in Christ. In the same way, the eternal life implied in Genesis that comes from eating the fruit of the tree of life is not an unending biological life. It is the eternal life that Jesus promises his followers, a life that overcomes their fear of death and makes them invincible. Those who put their trust in Jesus pass from death into life. He restores them to a relationship with God characterized by mutual trust and love.

Some people have strayed so far from this trust in God that they do not even believe he exists. They imagine that the whole story is a fairy tale perpetuated by the powerful to dominate the ignorant. I know that for the most part I cannot change minds and hearts so distrustful of God. Jesus came into a culture where God was viewed as an exacting tyrant, insisting with hair-splitting accuracy on correct behavior. Jesus revealed God to be utterly different, a loving Father who embraces those who return to him and throws them a party. Yes, he is demanding, but in the way a good Father demands the best of his children, encouraging them, comforting them, loving them, and at times disciplining them. But he is not harsh. His commands are not burdensome; they are easy. His way is not weighed down with impossible demands; it is light. He encourages his children to love one another, help one another, carry one anothers’ burdens, and forgive one another. This is the God I serve. He does not lie. He does not deceive. He invites us to trust him and live.

*This goes a long way toward explaining the wildly differing accounts of events offered by supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters give Hillary’s statements and events in which she has been involved the worst possible construction. Clinton’s supporters do the same to Trump. They trust their own candidate and treat as self-serving and cynically manipulative anything the opposing candidate says or does. This is not to say that the candidates are equal. But their supporters are roughly equal in their regard for truth and justice.
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