Friday, 6 May 2016



‘…let him not eat’, wrote St Paul in his letter to the Church at Thessalonika. Wise words. Even Lenin, for his own reasons, agreed with them. So much so that they are, wonder of all wonders, the only passage from the Bible quoted in the 1920 atheistic Soviet Constitution.

How does St Paul’s command bear on the case of someone who steals a small amount of food to stay alive? Like homeless Roman Ostriakov, caught in Italy taking a bit of cheese and sausage worth 3 pounds from a supermarket? Sentenced initially to 6 months in jail and a fine? And now acquitted for having acted ‘in a state of necessity’?

Yesterday on LBC radio presenter Nick Ferrari made harsh and unfeeling comments about the final ruling of the Italian court. Accused it of encouraging people to break the fundamental right and value of property. One the Ten Commandments was trotted out: ‘You shall not steal’.

The Apostle Paul upbraided the workshy. Naturally, he did not mean people unable to work because infirm, disabled or too old. Nor has the Christian Church ever taken St Paul’s statement as a licence to despise the poor or to allow the indigent to starve. That would contradict Christ’s injunction to his disciples in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, ‘to feed the hungry’. Christians who deny food to the poor are called worthless servants. They will be doomed to the outer darkness, ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Note how in II Thessalonians, chapter 3, the Apostle both attacked laziness and invoked his own example: ‘We were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying. With toil and labour we worked night and day’. But St Paul, like all rabbis, had learnt a useful trade. He was a tentmaker. Hence he had the skills, the ability and the willpower to earn a living. A very different situation, presumably, from that of the homeless destitute Ostriakov.

Commentators also suggest an eschatological context. Some misguided church people were convinced that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. Excited, they had left their jobs and wanted to scrounge off the charity of the Church. St Paul told them where to get off.

As to the Eight Commandment – You shall not steal – that was never an unqualified, absolute prohibition. Moral theologians indeed distinguish between ‘taking’ and ‘stealing’. And this is a matter of petty theft, not a barrel of cheese and sausage. In cases of extreme necessity it is permissible to take as much of the goods of another person to remedy a present, dire human condition, theologians sensibly and humanely teach.

Was the homeless chap in such extreme state? Well, the Italian Court has so determined. There was ‘an immediate and urgent need for nourishment’. Private property should not trump the fundamental right of a human being to stay alive. When it comes to the horror of human starvation, morality says that the goods of the earth can become common property. Mr Ferrari may be outraged and fear a Corbynista revolution but Christianity and any capitalist worship of private property as supreme are as far apart as the sky is from the earth.

‘Well, let the Church be as charitable as she pleases and feed the hungry as she deems fit, then! The State and society, business and commerce have different priorities. Supermarkets would go to the dogs if anyone who feels hungry were entitled to take free edibles from the shelves. And the food trade would suffer, affecting the whole community'. Callous characters might well argue thus.

It is true that Christians today in Europe have shrunk. The Church is a small flock. State and society are thoroughly secularised, either un-Christian or even anti-Christian. (Forget the fiction of the bishops sitting in the House of Lords – they are as useful as dogs on motorbikes.) Thus, the quaint old distinction between Caesar and God sharply obtains. In Italy and elsewhere of course the Catholic Church runs plenty of programmes for needy people, refugees and the like but charity is not the same as justice. The latter is, or should be, primarily the State’s job. But we live in an age of austerity. The State is getting more stingy. What is to be done then?

Writing in the magazine Islam Today recently I discussed whether religion can help save the NHS. Many believe the pressures are such that it will not survive in its present form. I wondered whether Catholic bodies like the Hospital Brothers of St John of God and the Camillian Order of the Ministers of the Sick could supplement the failing work of the State. Similarly, I submit, the Church – all denominations – should step in and recover the impetus and the holy zeal it had for centuries, before the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie, to serve all people but especially the poor, the sick and the suffering.

In Victor Hugo’s great novel, Les Miserables, the hero Jean Valjean is sentenced to years of hard labour for stealing loaves of bread to feed his sister’s children during an economic depression. Truly heart-rending story. The shape of things to come?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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