The photo stops me in my tracks. It shows a young man running from Target with stolen goods – some bedding: a package of sheets and a blanket. In the same photo, another young looter pushes a shopping cart filled with a comforter and two floor rugs. In another photo, a young teenager is stealing – what exactly? – an infant’s car seat.
Fascinated, I google “looters at Target” and scores of photos hit my screen. There I see another young man carrying out a floor vacuum. Another is looting kids’ toys – a basketball, a baseball bat, and a doll set, plus a beige floral quilt. A young woman pushes a cart holding a lamp, two floor rugs, a pile of bath towels, and two Mr. Coffee’s.
An odd thought hits me: Who’s getting the second Mr. Coffee?
I ask these questions because recent protests – and the looting that sometimes followed – prompted vicious put downs, even by Christians, against the “lawless” looters, as if these young people were heathens. For stealing a package of bed sheets? Or a pile of bath towels?
Indeed, what are we seeing here? My questions don’t mean I endorse looting or theft from a hard-working business. “Thou shalt not steal,” the Lord declared (Exodus 20:15), and the pronouncement is clear and plain.
Yet during a riot, while tear gas bombards the air and buildings are burning, what kind of teenager uses the chaos to steal a quilt or a car seat for his baby?
Such questions take us deep into the complications of life in our America. We can quickly blame, shame, and point fingers. But does stealing a quilt and a package of sheets make a man or woman a menace to society? A risk to our republic?
Or is the looter struggling to make ends meet? Barely making a living wage, even before jobs dried up during the pandemic? Failing to provide for a family, plus maybe relatives? Desperate to make a hovel feel like a home? Then, someone breaks a store window and there, free and clear, sits the world’s goods and groceries – just waiting for the taking.
What should a mom or dad do in that moment?
Writing about theft in his classic novel Les Miserables, Victor Hugo gives an answer in his main character, Jean Valjean, who has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child from starvation. On his first night free, he’s given a meal and bed for sleeping by a humble clergyman, Bishop Bienvenue.
In desperation, Valjean steals some silver valuables from the bishop’s church and flees, but he’s caught by police. Returned to the bishop to confess, he’ll face even more prison. But the bishop does a remarkable thing. He shows mercy. The silver, he says, was a gift. Then, he gives Valjean two silver candlesticks, telling police Valjean left them behind by mistake.
This bishop’s kindness is the key turning point in the novel, placing Valjean on track to a redeemed life — helping transform a common thief into a man of virtue, who in the end helps transform others.
Just a fictional story? Or a challenge for these times?
Many were inspired, indeed, by the young man who cleaned broken glass and trash from his neighborhood in Buffalo for ten hours after days of protests in June. His reward? A car and a college scholarship.
But my heart? It pulls toward the young people risking arrest and a jail record to pilfer bed sheets and a cart of frozen food. They may have seen little fairness and justice in the world. Or do my words make you roll your eyes – oh, please – as you click to something more cut and dry regarding biblical values and American life?
Do we forget, indeed, the crooked Matthew — the despised tax collector — who, in Christ, became one of the twelve disciples (Matthew 9:9)? Or the thieves in the church at Corinth who were washed clean by the Savior’s blood (1 Corinthians 6:8-11)? Is a young looter worse than Christians who cheat on their taxes (or on their spouses)? Or a believer who cheats God of tithes and offerings?
As we read in Proverbs 6:30-31, “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving” – knowing even if he is caught, “he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.”
How will people of faith decide in these matters? Fight for justice? Show the Savior’s love? Learn to do both?
I don’t have a clear-cut answer. But in times like these, may God help us to arise on His side.
How will people of faith decide in these matters? Fight for justice? Show the Savior’s love? Learn to do both? In times like these, may God help us to arise on His side. -@PatriciaRaybon: Click To Tweet