Faith Matters - Thieves

I was in search of something I had intentionally placed in a secure and easily remembered location. I have been here before. In this case, it was my camera. I had recorded in its tiny, digital storehouse a series of photos accumulated over more than one month. They were a progress report on some work I was doing. I was now ready to see and share. By an orderly process of accessing the memory files in my brain I was confident that I had placed the camera in the glove compartment of the car. When I visited that place, however, the Canon did not answer the roll call. I was quite certain that is where I had stored it, but it was not to be found.

Since I am aware that my memory is not always reliable in these matters, I was now required to conduct an additional search of all of the other likely places where the camera might be concealing itself. Usually, when the missing item finally steps forward, I find it exactly where I had left it. But this extended search was to no avail. The camera had, by one means or another, taken leave.  

At last I remembered that, for the best of reasons, I had entrusted the car into the hands of strangers. One of those anonymous strangers had evidently opened the unlocked glove box and removed the easily concealable compact camera. My search had taken far more days than would permit any reasonable hope of recovery. I reluctantly but inexorably came to the conclusion that the Canon had been stolen by a person who had been the temporary steward of my car. This unknown person lived in a state 1,300 miles away. In a few moments it became clear to me that I no chance of ever recovering the stolen camera.  

Stealing is wrong. It needs to be prevented, prosecuted and punished. Stealing weakens civilized society. Thieves are a menace to what is decent and orderly. Once again I learn that it is only a few millimeters from the discovery of the theft to my anger. When people take from us we feel violated. There is a sense that it is not fair: “I trusted you; I did nothing to deserve this.”  I dine on my anger for a while. It feels good but is not very nourishing.  

The camera can be replaced. In fact, it already has. It is a nuisance to be sure and some financial loss. But no one was injured and the worst for me was another case of twin disappointments: my own lack of prudence and some brother or sister taking advantage of me. It is just one more story to remind me of the reality of the world through which we are passing. It is one additional reminder that I might need to reconsider my reluctance to lock up, lock out and lock down. By any account I am far too trusting or heedless or both. I am foolish enough to hope that people will behave honorably when they are trusted. Those who keep trying to walk the balance beam between serpents and doves need to get accustomed to black and blue.  

For reasons I cannot say, the missing camera called to mind other times in my adult life when I have been a victim of theft. I ruefully recall one thing or another over the years that was taken from me by stealth. Strangely enough, looking back now, I realize that I have made my way through life perfectly well without the stolen objects.    

No one has ever been physically damaged, all of my financial losses were relatively small, and I did the requisite reporting to authorities when that made sense. So far I have managed to outrun the paranoia that often knocks on my door in the face of being more vulnerable than I had believed. I ponder lessons learned over the years when thieves broke in to steal my treasures on which moth and rust were dining. Unknown persons have sometimes inadvertently lightened my load. It may be that the thieves have rendered me a service.  

Stealing is one of those universally proscribed acts that virtually every culture denounces and punishes. The Eighth Commandment as well as evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke all remember that Jesus says that the commandment to not steal, among others, must be observed by those who want to “inherit” eternal life. In Romans, St. Paul sharply admonishes his readers about preaching against stealing but stealing all the same.  

I occasionally try to imagine the persons who have taken from me over the years. In some cases there was a strong suspicion of the ones who broke, cut, entered and took. I never felt constrained to either play detective or to make unsubstantiated accusations. In other cases the thieves were and always will remain anonymous. I ponder their reasons for stealing and in so doing I open a wider door to enter.  

Although I have never broken and entered a home, or smashed and grabbed, or mugged another person with threat of violence, there have been times when, by one means or another, I have taken what was not given to me. There have been other times when by silence or inaction I have been complicit in stealing by others. There have been occasions when I did not give credit where credit was due. I have appropriated ideas, insights, and research freely taken as if they had no rightful owner. I have been careless about copyright, taking without proper compensation.  

The impulse to steal is alive and well, especially if we believe that we will never be found out. So human an animal, we follow the lead of the orchard thieves who took it upon themselves to take and eat fruit that belonged to someone else. The apple does not fall far from the tree. Any accusations we make, we make in a mirror.  

I am long past any need or desire to find or punish those who have taken from me. In the end, they took nothing of any real value. It remains with me now only as food for reflection. The deeper reflection is about how I am probably more like them than I wish to believe. I may not always act upon my desires, I may not always find a means to possess what I covet, and I may have more sophisticated rationalizations when I do, but the reflection illuminates some of my darker internal geography none the less. The theft of the camera is just my latest invitation into a conversation about all of us who take what is not ours.  

I consider those who have stolen from me over the years. Wherever they are now, I pray that they are no longer stealing. I pray that they have found another, more abundant, path to covet. I pray that they have learned that nothing of any lasting value can be stolen. And, just before the “amen,” I include myself in the prayer.  

God’s peace.

Chuck Johns

By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 5/1/2009