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I have mentioned a couple times before, I think on this blog, but certainly elsewhere, Aquinas’s (in)famous teaching that it is just for a poor man in great need to “steal” what he and his family need for life from someone who has resources to spare (assuming, of course, that he has no other way to get them).  Although this teaching is a long tradition of the Church (and indeed, Aquinas is being rather conservative, compared to Basil and Chrysostom--see previous post), I always get remarkably violent reactions when I mention this.  
Why?  Somewhere along the way, conservatives picked up the idea (oddly enough, in direct contradiction to at least the first millenium of Christian teaching) that the Bible is especially concerned to safeguard the right of private property, indeed, that this particularly distinguishes Biblical ethics, over against surrounding pagan nations.  (This last part is particularly odd, given that both the pagan societies surrounding ancient Israel and the Roman society surrounding the early Church were noted for legal structures that favored unrestricted and absolute private property rights, against which the Bible seems to be directly aiming.)  Christian conservatives have gone even further, and, defining capitalism (again, in my mind, very oddly) as consisting fundamentally in an affirmation of private property rights (see, for example, here, and Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason), have concluded that the Bible is a blueprint for free-market capitalism.  

So, I wanted to take this opportunity to establish that Aquinas’s claim is firmly in line with Scripture.  The main objection, so far as I have seen, consists in pointing out that Scripture says “Thou shalt not steal,” but that entirely misses the point, because if steal means “to take that which rightfully should belong to another,” then Aquinas certainly does not advocate stealing.  In fact, his point is that the act of the poor man is not an act of theft, because he has taken only that which should rightfully belong to himself, which is to say, enough for his sustenance, since no one’s property right extends to the point of denying another the right to sustenance. 
Before going any further, I should make sure we’re all on the same page, by quoting Aquinas precisely (from ST II-II, Q. 66, a. 7):
“It would seem unlawful to steal through stress of need....
On the contrary, In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another's property, for need has made it common.
I answer that, Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.”
Now, is this Biblical?  I think that can be shown rather straightforwardly:  Here’s three passages: 
Lev. 19:9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Etc...." Deuteronomy 24:19-22: "When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Etc...." 
Deut. 23:24-25: "When you come into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes at your pleasure, but you shall not put any in your container. Etc...." 
All of these establish the same principle that Aquinas is at pains to establish--the right to private property is not absolute, but is relative--it exists as a means to serve the common good. Therefore, property cannot justly be held in a way that seriously harms the common good, so no one has the right to hold their property so tightly as to restrict access to it by those in great need. Those in need, of course cannot abuse this right (see especially the last verse), but within these reasonable limits, they are always permitted to go into a neighbor's field or vineyard and take enough for their sustenance. Obviously, if someone was doing this regularly because they were chronically lazy, rather than absolutely unable to provide for themselves, the community might see the need to restrict this right.
Of course, one might object that this is different--gleaning wasn't stealing, because God gave the poor the right to that food. But that's precisely Aquinas's point--the desperate man's taking of a loaf of bread isn't stealing, because no property right extends so far as the impairment of another's access to it in great need. The only difference is that in the OT, this principle has been institutionalized, whereas Aquinas is imagining what the hungry man would have to do in a situation where this right of his has not been institutionalized. 
And while we’re on the subject, it’s worth pointing out many other features of OT law that clearly relativize property rights.  In the Old Testament, just because you’ve purchased something or have lawfully brought it into your possession does not mean that you are free to do with it as you will--either to use it exclusively, or to dispose of it entirely as you would like.  Here’s some examples, from Leviticus 25 alone:
The Jubilee law (Lev. 25:8-22)--you cannot sell your land in perpetuity, however much you would like to, nor can you buy a property and have rights to it for more than fifty years.
Rules for Hebrew slaves (Lev. 25:39-46)--even if someone sells himself to you, he is not thereby your property, but your hired servant.  Your rights over him are quite limited.
Rules of property redemption (Lev. 25:23-24)--if you purchase a property from someone, his kinsman-redeemer can buy it from you, and you have no right to refuse him.  It’s kinda like eminent domain, only the kinsman, not the State.
Sabbath year laws (Lev. 25:1-7)--the owner is not to reap the land in the seventh year, but its produce is to be shared with all, rather than belonging to its owner.  In other words, the Israelites were basically communists in every seventh year.  (Ok, not exactly, I just said that to be provocative.)
And then of course, there are the usury prohibitions, which put a very big limitation on one’s freedom to use the most important and flexible kind of property--money.  
So, Aquinas is actually being rather conservative about property rights, in comparison to the Old Testament--he never limits the right of someone to buy or sell their land, nor obliges them to let everyone come and take food from their fields every seven years. 
This seems rather straightforward, but everyone insists in telling me how adamant the Bible is about property rights.  So please tell me, am I missing something?


Interesting. It leaves me all sorts of skeptical questions. I definitely think you're taking it too far, but you knew that, and there's definitely some nuancing we need of the way we approach private property, so it's worth bringing up.

For now, I've just got two quick points. First, you need to deal with Proverbs 6:30-31. There's a recognition that thieves stealing to feed themselves are not nearly as bad, but they're still punished. And there's nothing in the law that indicates an exception to this, aside from gleaning, and you said you're going beyond gleaning.
And why are you going beyond gleaning? It seems like the gleaning law is exactly what you're talking about: it's restrained against abuse, and it gives the poor what's "rightfully" theirs.

Second, why is it right for the poor to resort to thievery? The Bible seems to say that the poor and needy, the fatherless and the oppressed, are supposed to turn to God in prayer for their redemption. Nowhere are they told to rise up in violent revolution to take what is rightfully theres. That's violence, and it's not how we're supposed to get things done.
In fact, I think you're making the same error the opposing side is making; all this rights talk is exactly the problem. The conservative/libertarian line is often that we have property rights, so we can do whatever we want with what's ours. And your line seems to be that the poor have a right to food and clothing, so they're allowed to just take it.
But I don't see that language in the Bible anywhere. There may be certain things we should have, and so we have a "right" to them in some sense, but imbalance and injustice are part of life. The Bible never encourages us to just grab at what is ours; we're supposed to be patient and ask God to set things right. "Vengeance is mine" is very applicable to this situation.

March 25, 2010 at 4:13 PM  

Hey Donny,
Thanks for the feedback. First (I'm not going in the same order you raised things), I don't believe I said I'm "going beyond gleaning"--I'm not sure where you got that from. My point is, as you said that "the gleaning law is exactly what I'm [and Aquinas is] talking about." So I'm a bit confused here.

Second, you're right about "rights" language. I actually meant to make that proviso at the end of the the post, but I was in a hurry, so I'll add it here: "I think the use of rights language is problematic here, as it is in other arenas. I used it simply as a convenient shorthand, because this is the sort of language generally used to make these sorts of arguments. However, I think the language of 'privilege' would be better, perhaps, or perhaps simply speaking in terms of 'justice.'" I hope that helps.

Third, I certainly wouldn't support the language of "violent revolution," and neither would Thomas. I don't see that that's implied in what I've said here. Indeed, in Thomistic language, "theft" is distinguished from "robbery" by the fact that the latter involves violence. Aquinas does not apparently think that the the latter can be justified by critical need; at least, he never discusses that possibility, and he tends to be very thorough.

Now, as for Prov. 6:30-31 (Did you just pull this verse off the top of your head? Man, you're good!)--I think it's important to note that a great deal of Proverbs is not prescriptive, but descriptive; indeed, often quite cynically descriptive. Notice that a few verses later it says, "For jealousy is a husband's fury; therefore he will not spare in the day of vengeance. He will accept no recompense, nor will he be appeased though you give many gifts." Is it recommending this response? I don't think so. I think it's clear that verse 31 is descriptive, not prescriptive, because nowhere in the law, so far as I can find, though you might be able to correct me, is sevenfold restitution commanded--depending on the case, it's anything from twofold to fivefold (see Ex. 22). Proverbs is then saying, "Look at how hypocritical people are--they don't despise someone who steals to prevent himself from starving, yet, if he steals from them and they can get their hands on him, they'll wring every last cent they can out of him." It is therefore something of a warning to the poor man who might steal, but a practical, not a moral, warning.
In any case, Aquinas would also say that, as soon as he is able, the thief ought to try and restore what he has taken (though I suppose this would be designated a duty of charity, rather than justice).

Hope all that helps.

March 25, 2010 at 5:58 PM  


I am with Donny!

First, I think that it is good that you are looking at what property rights (in God's eyes) really are for men because I think your general criticism of libertarianism's absoluteness in property rights is spot on. That said I do think Donny is correct about taking things too far. (But you also already knew that.)

One comment I have at this point is the way these biblical principals have surfaced in American law (by way of English common law.) There is a defense to the crime of trespass if it is necessary for survival (e.g. break into the high mountain cabin to weather the storm.) The expectation is that this is a defense only if the trespasser takes the initiative to make restitution for any resulting damage. Additionally for crimes (such as theft of bread for basic sustenance) in America the defendant gets the benefit of a jury to decide whether or not his actions were in fact criminal. If the jury finds that what he did (take the bread) is not in fact a crime the defendant could walk free.

Second, I think that before any application can be made to our culture we have to adequately address "need" and what the needy's other avenues for provision are. Put another way - having exhausted other avenues are they still in fact needy. It is easy to conceive of a situation in ancient Israel where without gleaning from this field (right now) the individual could actually starve. In modern America there are countless charities (not to mention the government) that provide basic sustenance for the needy.

Third, the examples in Leviticus that you point to all have the needy doing their own work to gather the sheaves and then manufacture them into bread (or whatever else they would make). Likewise the Lord permits grapes to be gathered (without benefit of containers) but not wine. Perhaps a distinction should be made between what the Lord gives from the ground (i.e. grapes/wheat) and what the individual produces (or remanufactures) from that raw God given material.

All that said - I think that the focus should be on the non-absoluteness of property rights and not their relativity. Non-absoluteness seems to take us away from libertarianism's false independence but relativism (to my ear) quickly takes us toward communism.

If and when you write on this I would like to read it.



March 27, 2010 at 3:10 PM  

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March 27, 2010 at 4:22 PM  

I pretty much agree with what Jess said, with a couple more points.

First, about violence. I wasn't referring to literal physical violence as part of theft. I mean the act of stealing is a violent act. You're taking something from someone else without going through the normal channels. Instead of someone giving you something, you're taking it from them when they obviously don't intend to give it to you.
This is why I have no problem with "stealing" out of necessity, as Jess mentioned. One example in history is the theft of Indian corn by early settlers at Plymouth. They were exploring the coast and stumbling upon an abandoned Indian town where they found corn buried in mounds. They were near starvation, so they took it. Was this stealing? In some sense, sure, and they recognized it, because they vowed to pay the Indians back (and did, months later). But they're normal means weren't available (no one was in the town, so they couldn't barter). Of course, the actual situation is a lot more complicated, but you get the basic point.

Second, about your closing comment, saying that the poor paying the rich back is probably an act of mercy instead of justice. This, I think, is hugely important, but let me reverse it for one second. When you give to the poor, are you giving out of what is yours to help them? Or are you giving them what is theirs anyway? The way you're approaching it, you seem to go with the latter, which is where things like theft and mercy-repayment come in.
But think back to the whole point of giving to the poor: it's a gift. You are giving out of your abundance to help them. That means you are giving your property, what you own, to them. A moral obligation doesn't remove the basic structure of what's going on, because the moral obligation is to give out of your abundance, that is, what is yours. In other words, the moral obligation doesn't automatically shift ownership to the poor; it calls the rich man to do the shifting.
And if he doesn't? God, not the poor man, steps in and gives it over to the poor. This is why I said the "Vengeance is mine" statement from God applies here. When there is injustice, God does not call us to make vengeance and immediately make things right. We take a hand in it, of course, but when a rich man doesn't give to the poor, the response of the poor is not to just steal it from the rich, because it's "rightfully theirs". Instead, God promises that He is piling up all those riches on the wicked so that He can give it to the righteous in the end. He doesn't call the poor to plunder the rich, though.

March 27, 2010 at 4:25 PM  

One more small distinction to make. The example I brought up, of the settlers stealing from an empty town when they were near starvation (or Jess' cabin example), that's an example of fulfilling a need when the normal route is simply not there. The Indians were gone, or the cabin was empty.
What I'm not so sure about is stealing when the normal route has simply been eliminated by the cruelty of those with the abundance. If the Indians were in the town, and they simply refused to give the settlers food, I don't think they would have been justified in taking it anyway, whether by attacking in force or by sneaking in at night and stealing it. The same with the cabin; if there's someone there, and they refuse to let you in, I can't see you justified in forcing your way in. In these cases, it seems we are called to pray for God's justice and to let Him act. That's where the "Vengeance is mine" applies.

March 27, 2010 at 4:32 PM  

Hey guys, thanks for the interaction. I'm actually not sure why you seem to think we're at odds here, or at least why Jess does. Jess admits that legal exceptions should be made for the violation of a property right in great need. And of course, I agree that in our present situation it would be highly unlikely that someone would need to steal food--there are plenty of soup kitchens around, as well as government welfare, etc. So it is hard to see how the circumstance Thomas envisions would come up, at least in our modern western setting. The principle, however, is still relevant. I think the distinction between grapes and wine you make is interesting--it may just be that the former may be needed for life, while the latter certainly isn't. But there is a distinction, I think, in how property rights work with regard to land, versus property that has been manufactured in some way by the owner. It's an interesting question that relates to some of my research.
As far as non-absolute vs. relative...well, if you're simply trying to make a rhetorical distinction, fine, but from a philosophical perspective, those terms are identical. Something can either be absolute or relative--if it's not absolute, then it is in some way relative.

Now, Donny...first, your distinction between taking when the Indians simply weren't around, and taking when they had outright refused...well, I'm just not inclined to agree. In terms of physical violence against people, I'm all for saying, "Just pray to God for vengeance, don't fight for your rights." But I just don't see property as nearly sacred enough that someone should say, "Oh, I guess I should die, rather than sneak in and feed myself when I know he won't give me food willingly."

As far as justice vs. mercy, you have a sharp eye. This is a very important issue, and I am far from settling it to my satisfaction. You may have noticed a couple recent posts on this subject--how do we distinguish the obligations of charity and justice. Aquinas believes that both have a role to play in alms-giving. There are certain kinds of giving to the poor that are obligations of justice, others that are obligations of charity, as I'll be fleshing out in the paper, or perhaps in a later blog post.
Is this necessary? Why can't we just call it all charity? I'm not sure...for me, part of my concern is that to make it an act of charity implies that it's voluntary, not obligatory, and it also can be taken that there's something particularly meritorious about giving, instead of simply doing one's duty.

But, I'm still thinking through it, so by all means keep adding to the discussion.

March 28, 2010 at 1:32 PM  

"But I just don't see property as nearly sacred enough that someone should say, 'Oh, I guess I should die, rather than sneak in and feed myself when I know he won't give me food willingly.'"

It's not about the sacredness of property; it's about how we approach injustice. It is an injustice that they don't give you what you need; the Christian response doesn't seem to be to forcefully correct the injustice.
Obviously this is a huge generalization, but I just don't see scriptural reason for what you're saying. How do you defend, scripturally, this idea of the needy stealing from the rich? I see them crying out for vengeance; I don't see them stealing.

And, of course, if we take the claim you're making about the individual (the man in need can steal from the selfish rich guy), how does this not become corporate and justify the poor revolting against the rich? Where do you draw the line?

Definitely post on the charity/duty distinction; it sounds interesting. My initial thought is that the two are basically the same for the Christian; our duty is to live like Christ, which is to live charitably. And this goes just as much for the missionary as it does for the rich businessman. But I'm sure that needs some nuancing.

March 28, 2010 at 7:13 PM  

Every time I go back and read Aquinas (like yesterday), I find my radicalism recharged (heh--"Aquinas" and "radicalism" don't usually go together), so I can't see myself backing down on this point. But I think there might be a way to accommodate your concern: not everything that is lawful is profitable. Aquinas's argument demonstrates that it is just and lawful for the needy man to steal for his sustenance. It does not demonstrate that it is advisable for him to do so, or his best moral option. It seems that we could add, without in any way diluting Aquinas's point, that as a matter of Christian virtue, the needy man ought to prefer to suffer rather than take matters into his own hands. This is not to say, not for me at least, that the needy man would be _wrong_ to take the food, but that he would be more praiseworthy if he simply prayed instead. Not altogether satisfactory, but perhaps that helps somewhat.

As far as justice and charity, well, did you see this post?

I'd be interested in your thoughts there; obviously, much more needs to be said, and I'll probably post more soon.

March 30, 2010 at 10:19 AM  

"Every time I go back and read Aquinas (like yesterday), I find my radicalism recharged (heh--"Aquinas" and "radicalism" don't usually go together), so I can't see myself backing down on this point. But I think there might be a way to accommodate your concern: not everything that is lawful is profitable. Aquinas's argument demonstrates that it is just and lawful for the needy man to steal for his sustenance. It does not demonstrate that it is advisable for him to do so, or his best moral option. It seems that we could add, without in any way diluting Aquinas's point, that as a matter of Christian virtue, the needy man ought to prefer to suffer rather than take matters into his own hands. This is not to say, not for me at least, that the needy man would be _wrong_ to take the food, but that he would be more praiseworthy if he simply prayed instead. Not altogether satisfactory, but perhaps that helps somewhat. "

No, that doesn't really help; it just dodges what I'm asking about. My concerns are: (1) Why don't I see this in scripture? (2) Why doesn't this devolve into poor against the rich revolution?

That other post you linked to... I'll try to get to that later today. It looks long, though, so it might be a while. Thanks, though.

March 30, 2010 at 4:35 PM  

Hey Donny,
Thanks for being an indefatigable interlocutor. As far as the revolution concern--sorry, I meant to address that. I think it's pretty easy to put a barrier between this modest permission and something like that. Aquinas, as I understand, has only given permission for someone to take what they need to relieve their immediate needs; they cannot say, "Hm, you know, I'm out of a job, so I'll be starving for weeks to come, so I'd better take his gold watch and buy a few weeks worth of food with that." For that reason, it seems to me that revolution is out of the question--revolution is the attempt to permanently alter the balance of power in favor of the poor, not merely to take what is immediately necessary.

Now, as for your question about my argument being Biblical...well, I don't know what else to tell you. When I look at the gleaning passages, I see, "Aha, here God recognizes the fact that property rights do not extend to the point of depriving the poor of their lives; the poor can always take enough for their basic sustenance. The gleaning laws are a proof that this is always the case." When you look at them, you see, "Ah, here God grants the poor a special privilege that they wouldn't have had in most laws. Maybe other laws should imitate this, but, unless they do, the poor are out of luck." This seems to be a presuppositional difference, and to bridge it would require some very complicated discussion indeed.

April 1, 2010 at 8:07 AM  

The gleaning thing... I think I see where you're coming from now. I'll set it stew in my head for a while.

And the rebellion distinction: practically, I see that distinction falling apart pretty quickly. But I have to think longer about it before I know exactly why. Off the top of my head, the distinction between temporarily and permanently righting an injustice (which is how I'm taking your "permanently alter the balance of power" wording) seems rough. Also, it seems like if a state were to defend these poor laws (making it illegal to forbid gleaning), when they found out about a violation, they wouldn't just want to allow poor temporarily; they would want to right the injustice more permanently. So why not for the poor who are stealing based on their right to aid?

You don't have to answer those questions; I'm just mulling over this "out loud".

April 1, 2010 at 3:39 PM  

Hello Brad,
I know Dr. Eifert and knew Ellis when he was younger in Meridian. Now here are my comments: I would urge you to read Cohn, Norman. 1970. The pursuit of the millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. London: Paladin Books, then Shafarevich, Igor. 1980. The socialist phenomenon. New York: Harper and Row. These will give you a historical background that you are lacking in your discussion.
Mark R. Kreitzer, Ph.D.
Director, International MDiv
Kosin University, Busan, Korea
Professor of Missional-Syntematic Theology, Intercultural Ethics, and Mission Theology

December 27, 2012 at 12:32 PM  

By the way, I have greatly appreciated your discussions on R2K though I don't always now agree on aspects of your discussions on property. I see property as an inter-Trinitarian quality: The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit. Each has unique, several [as older English put it] "property" in their true "oneness." M Kreitzer

December 27, 2012 at 12:35 PM  

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