In the 80s pop band the Smiths had a song titled “Shoplifters of the World Unite” which some interpreted as drawing attention to the fact that those who governments and corporations who commit the large crimes get away with it, whereas those who commit the petty crimes are incarcerated. One Catholic Priest by the name of Father Tim Jones raised a storm of controversy when he advised the poorer of his parishioners to shoplift if they couldn’t make ends meet, from the large supermarkets that could afford it:
People enjoy watching musicals. Sound of Music, South Pacific, Oliver, Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma – all of them tell a story of people struggling to get something about the world the way it should be. One of the funny things about watching the musicals is the improbability of people – sometimes large groups of people: soldiers, chimney sweeps, lumberjacks – suddenly bursting into song and dance, as a constant reaction to a new circumstance or twist in the plot!
Lest anyone sneer too much at the genre of the musical, one can’t help but notice that Luke’s gospel account of the birth of Jesus Christ seems uncomfortably like the script for a musical. People – or heavenly hosts – keep bursting into song at the mention of Jesus!
These Biblical songs have become an integral part of Christian worship: the Gloria, the Nunc Dimittis, the Benedictus, and, from today’s gospel, the Magnificat – “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.”
This last Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday preparing for the coming of the Christ child, sees our focus shifting to Mary, the mother of Christ. In our reading today from Luke’s gospel, Mary, carrying the Christ child, travels for a week to visit her elderly relative Elizabeth, who, to her husband Zechariah’s amazement, is pregnant. Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s baby as the Lord, and Elizabeth’s unborn baby starts dancing inside her! The baby’s dance is almost like the introduction to Mary’s song.
The Magnificat is a remarkable song. It expresses not just her own sentiment of submission to God, but the aspiration of all Israel. It is at the heart of Christian worship and praise to this very day, because it captures the excitement and the joy that in Christ, the expectations and values of this unjust world are turned on their heads.
The recurrent theme of Mary’s song is the faithful love of God towards his children, no matter how lowly, despised or lacking they may be. The phrases of her song are drawn almost entirely from the grateful pleading of the forlorn in Old Testament prophetic literature. It is a song which has done a huge amount to reinforce the Christian commitment to the poor and needy of society in every age. Advent is the time of preparing for the birth of Christ, and in Mary’s song we are reminded every year and every evening to keep the needs of the poor as close to our hearts as can be, because the poor and forlorn are as close as can be to the heart of God.
All of that is a nice enough sentiment. But keeping the poor ‘close to our hearts’ can be a costly business. Many of us, for much of the time, shrink from this Christian calling, because to accept Mary’s call is leave our comfort zone way behind. The life of the poor is not an idyllic life of simplicity in modern Britain. It is a constant struggle, a constant battle, a constant minefield of competing opportunities, competing responsibilities, obligations and requirements, a constant effort to achieve the impossible. For many at the bottom of our social ladder, lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility.
What advice should one give, for example, to an ex prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support? This is just the situation that presents itself at the vicarage door. What would you advise? One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.
One might wish that they could be supported and cared for by their family, but many people’s family life is altogether dysfunctional, and may be part of the story of how they came to be in prison in the first place. One might give them some money oneself, but when week after week after week goes by, and benefits still do not arrive, the hard reality is that a vicar’s salary is not designed to meet the needs of everyone – or indeed anyone – whom the benefits agency has failed. What else might one advise? They cannot take out a loan, except from the kind of loan shark – and there are enough of them around – whose repayment schedule is so harsh that it constitutes indentured slavery to the criminal underworld. They could beg. But how many of us, good Christian people that we are, give constantly and generously to ex prisoners waiting for benefits? And the likelihood is that, found begging, they will quickly be in trouble with the police, and therefore in breach of their parole.
They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply, and see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body. But in the meantime, having had only £100 in six weeks, what would you do, every legal avenue having been exhausted?
My advice in these circumstances, when people have been let down so very badly by the rest of society, is that they should not hurt anybody, and cope as best they can. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers. Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide.
Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.
I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need, for any longer than they need. And I would offer this advice with a heavy heart, wishing that our society recognized that bureaucratic ineptitude and systemic delay constitutes a dreadful invitation and incentive to crime for people struggling to cope at the very bottom of our social order.
What then, of the eighth commandment? “Thou shalt not steal.” Is this advice to usurp the authority of Almighty God?
No. Not the God who is born of Mary, Mary whose soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. For in Mary’s song of praise is the explicit recognition that the poor are extremely close to the heart of God. The church, the community of faith, the community of people who keep the song of Mary alive, have long recognized that it is permissible for those who are in desperate situations to take food that they might not starve. For ours is a God, Mary tells us, who has “lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53]. The mother of Christ reminds us what Jesus shows us: that God’s love for the poor and despised – and who in our society is despised more than a newly released prisoner? – outweighs the property rights of the rich.
Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt. When people are released from prison, or find themselves suddenly without work or family support, then to leave them for weeks and weeks with inadequate or clumsy social support is monumental, catastrophic folly. We create a situation which leaves some people little option but crime.
People of God at St. Lawrence’s, Advent is at its height. Prepare for the coming of Christ, for Christmas is almost upon us. But don’t let your preparations be limited to tinsel and turkey, crackers, fairy lights and chocolates. Prepare for Christ by singing his mother’s song, and taking her words to heart. Don’t just sing about lifting up the lowly: help with the lifting!
And when we, as a society, are found time and time again to fail lift those at the very bottom, then for the love of God, a God born in a stable of all places, let us not punish them for trying to survive as best they can.