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7 The Precept Against Theft
Thou shalt not steal.
With the congregation of men into communities and nations there necessarily arises the need for Law, a law which might specify what are to be considered as the orderly and as the disorderly relations among men. For whenever two or more persons come into contact, there may arise either cooperation or conflict between them. Order brings cooperation and freedom and true delight into a community. Disorder brings conflict, compulsions and undelightful fears and anxieties.
The idea underlying all community-life is that of mutual service. The simplest of human communities is that of husband and wife, in which each performs uses to the other and to the Lord's kingdom, each one performing special uses which by Divine providence are clearly assigned to him and to her. And just as each sex is organically and spiritually incapable of performing the uses peculiar to the other sex, so each individual in a community is able to fill some position that he has from preference chosen or for which he has been trained or prepared; and the greater the variety of uses, the greater the perfection of society, or in other words, the greater the specilization, the more perfect can the mutual service be.
It is upon the recognition that each man represents an individual use and thus must be equipped for that use, that the social principle of individual ownership and the right and responsibility of property-holding, rest. Each service a man performs to others - each responsibility which he assumes - makes him the object for service in return. And the return is meant to increase the man's ability and power to serve, and is thus meant to help him extend his usefulness or make it more proficient. The community or the society is itself the judge and valuator of anyone's usefulness. In ages of violence, the use of protection was regarded as the most vital; and so, in ancient times, the physically strong usually became the rulers - and also the greatest property-holders, the men of wealth. What a people values most, will determine what uses will be most richly rewarded, and thus what elements will rule. Seek where the wealth of a people is vested, and you shall find what the people love. Where the treasure is there will the heart be also.
And thus the general state of a people will itself determine the distribution of its wealth and property, whether this be wise or foolish, whether it be just or unjust. And nothing can make for a wise distribution except the knowledge of the degrees of uses and the proper subordination of uses among themselves. And this perception does not come except the people learn wisdom - learn to value that which is of the greatest and deepest use above what is trivial and accessory.
We have dwelt upon these general truths because at this day the Divine precept, "Thou shalt not steal," is being universally challenged, and with it the right of individual ownership. It is complained that there is no justice in the distribution of wealth; yet this complaint is often not accompanied by the desire to curb the love of the world which, prodded by selfishness, has produced this state of things.
And while honesty is accepted in civilized business as "the best policy," there is really no interior and thus actual shunning of the evils of theft and dishonesty except among those who see these evils to be sins against God - God, whose providence is in all things and whose laws have "divided to the nations their inheritance" - among those who see that "the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof."
The Seventh Commandment, like the rest of the ten precepts, can be kept in appearance even when it is broken in spirit. It may appear to a man that he is really honest if he does not steal, rob or defraud, or act unjustly in his work or dishonestly to employees or creditors. Yet such a man may at the same time internally concede no right to his neighbors to possess what they enjoy, but would from envy deprive them of it provided he could do so by legal and approved means which would not reflect discredit upon him. Such a man may even on moral grounds be averse to any dishonest dealings, realizing that society needs laws and that if he and his are to benefit from the advantages of a peaceful and orderly society (which makes it possible for trade and industry to grow and thus for the love of the world to be satisfied), he must encourage the keeping of the law against thefts and surround it with esteem and respectability and even, through religion, exalt it as a Divine law! Yet that man may be utterly devoid of the spirit of the precept against theft. For to be willing to exalt a law into a precept of religion because this would be of assistance in protecting one's own possessions, is in itself a profane thing, a trading upon the name of religion, an action worthy of the spirits of Babylon in the other world who sought to make religion the steppingstone for their own ambitions. Yet this attitude, so evident in modern life, of patronizing religion and supporting the churches not because of any faith in their teachings, but because of the habits of obedience and submission and orderly life they help to cultivate among the simple, and because of the law-abiding citizens they generally produce - this attitude in itself is hypocritical.
None is purified from the evils of theft unless he shuns them from religion and for the sake of eternal life. For only so is man's mind opened to heaven, and it is through the presence of the spheres of heaven that evils of lust are removed from him. But there is also another reason: so long as it is denied that the Lord alone is the Master and rightful Possessor of all things of heaven and earth, it is impossible to see clearly that the S.C. "rights" of holding property is not any mere invention of mankind, but that it is a right bestowed upon men by the Lord, for the sake of use, and that Providence is still the administrator. It would be true that if any man had invented that right, another man might lawfully challenge it. For man of himself has no rights, no inherent dignities; what we speak of as "human rights" are really rights pertaining to the uses and functions which we exercise or are learning to exercise. When thefts and misappropriations are shunned as sins against God, an acknowledgment is implied that it is not for man to say "I may" when the Lord commands "Thou shalt not steal"; for unless we so confess the Lord's right to command, we steal the Divine powers that are His.
Frequently it has been brought in as a matter of grave doubt whether a man can, at this day and as society is at present constituted, conduct himself and his business on the high moral level implied in the seventh precept and nonetheless succeed in his use and reap the fruit of his labor. The Lord has not indeed given any guarantee of worldly success along with His invitation to men to love Him and do His commandments. Rather did He say, "If ye were of this world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of this world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.... In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 15:19, 16:33). Still, the tribulation here referred to is really spiritual more than natural. Spiritual opposition means temptation, and life in the world necessarily entails a constant watchfulness lest a love of the world ensnare our very souls through binding our affections to itself, strand by strand. Yet in externals the opposition is not so discernible. And worldly uses - by whatever men they are to be carried out, need for their growth a sphere of outward order and honesty, "just balances, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin."
To judge what is required for the keeping of the precept "Thou shalt not steal," it is necessary to consult the True Christian Religion, where we read as follows: "In the natural sense, by this commandment, is meant, literally, not to steal, rob, or act the pirate in times of peace; and in general, not to take away from anyone his goods secretly or under any pretext. It also extends to all impostures, illegitimate gains, usuries and exactions; and also to fraudulent practices in paying duties and taxes and in discharging debts" (TCR 317). Workmen, it is further explained, offend against this commandment if they do dishonest work or are unfaithful to duty; merchants, if they misrepresent the quality of their goods or use false measures; officers, if they withhold the wages of their men; and judges, if they are influenced by friendship or by bribes to assist in legalizing frauds.
From this it may be seen how wide the range of theft is. And while it is a dangerous thing to burden the conscience with trivialities if this leads man to forget the main thing of the law, which is the cultivation of charity, of a love for others and a desire to further the welfare of the Lord's kingdom by the faithful performance of the use which is ours, the function or business for whose right performance we must stand directly responsible, yet it is safe to conclude that there are a myriad ways of stealing which do not so directly have to do with our neighbor's possessions.
We can steal by wasting the time of others, steal by a selfish attitude which decreases their advantages in life; we can steal other people's delight in their work or their personal happiness, by constant disapprovals, insinuations and faultfinding; we can steal or destroy a use by defamation or slander or unwarranted accusations. We can steal the dignity from a person's office or use by a distorted sense of humor; or we can ascribe to ourselves the honor which really belongs to our use. We can rob people of their freedom; divert to ourselves the praise which should be theirs; yea, we can squander the future of our children by depriving them of a right education; or gamble away the salvation of our immortal souls which yet belong to the Lord alone.
The mention of this latter possibility leads us away from the natural and into the spiritual sense of this precept.
In a spiritual sense, stealing means to deprive others of the truths of their faith, which is done when false and heretical things are taught. Priests, who, for the sake of honor or gain teach what they know or might know to be contrary to the revealed doctrine, are the principal offenders in the matter of such guilt. The priesthood as an office has been entrusted with the grave responsibility of teaching doctrine from the Word and to confirm it according to their illustration, always with a view to lead men into the good of life. Such doctrine is to be taught by teaching ministers duly ordained and set apart, and this partly in order that responsibility for teaching sound doctrine may be fixed, and partly also that illustration with them may be constant through their constant devotion to that work. These provisions are necessary in order that the truths of faith may be preserved in their integrity, unchanged by the hand of man. To modify away or to altar the truth is "to take away from the people the means of their salvation." This is spiritual theft, and is signified in the Lord's saying, "He that entereth not in through the door into the sheep-fold, but climbeth up some other way, is a thief and a robber" (John 10:1, 10).
But this evil (of teaching falsities which shall eventually permit self-indulgence and thus lead to evil) is not only an alienation of the truths of faith from others; it is also a theft from the Lord Himself. For it means that man claims to himself the power to determine truth, and thus puts human conceit above the truths of Revelation; or else it means that man takes away the truth from the Lord's mouth and ascribes falsity to Him instead.
"Will a man rob God?" asked Malachi the prophet. And, speaking in the name of the Lord, he continued: "Yet ye have robbed Me ... in tithes and offerings." They were unwilling fittingly to support the worship of the Lord. This, according to the law, was really to rob God of His tenth part of the yield. The weekly offering in our worship at this day has also the same important significance of a constant, never-ending, never-absent willingness to acknowledge that all we have is from the Lord, and nothing from ourselves: that we need His help constantly, at all times. To withhold that acknowledgment would, even if, from habit or for the sake of appearances, the significant act of bringing offerings was continued, be to rob God, to claim to ourselves and to our prudence or our merit what really was of His Mercy alone. If there were no such confessions in the hearts of the worshippers, the house of God would, among us as with the Jews, be turned into "a den of thieves." And this is true wherever there is an internal rejection of the Lord's help, when He is denied, when His providence is denied or when men do not trust Him and His leading, but only trust themselves; and also when they think that they can be saved and inherit heaven because of their own merit or righteousness.
All the evils that have been mentioned and many others are involved and are thus interiorly contained within the evil of stealing. The very act of theft, be the stolen object ever so trivial, gives a basis in the natural mind for the influx of all the hells which are in the various evils that have been described. For this reason, and because of this internal connection, stealing leads to deceit and to lying and to all other evils. And while it is true that a man as long as he lives in the world still retains the capacity to repent if he wishes to exert this power; and while we can therefore not accept the proverb "Once a thief, always a thief", yet the Writings of the New Church stress the facility with which the habit of stealing may be confirmed. "When a man has of set purpose committed manifest thefts two or three times, he cannot afterwards desist from them" (i.e., as we suppose, without radical repentance); "for they continually inhere in his thought." "An evil enters into the will by detention in the thoughts" (AC 6203-4), and there is brought a-bout an itch, a fever, to possess what others have. The thief "loves one stolen coin more than ten which have been given him" (DP 296:4).
The Doctrine thus points to the great need of mastering the evil of theft in early life while it is yet controllable; and they show that if a man shuns the cupidity of gaining wealth dishonestly he can tell himself in his heart's thought that such evil is sinful in the sight of God, and then, "after some brief combats," he will be withdrawn from that evil and led by the Lord into the opposite good, viz., into a love of honesty and an aversion for thefts (AE 1167). He would then become gifted with charity, and he who is in the life of charity would rather give of his own to his neighbor than to take anything away from him (AC 1798).
But, on the other hand, if the evil of theft is not arrested, it will "enter more deeply into man than any other evil; because it is conjoined with cunning and deceit, and cunning and deceit insinuate themselves even into the spiritual mind of man" (Life 81).
And when we come to consider what the actual effects of thefts are within the mind of the thief, we will realize that all evils and all falsities are spiritual thieves. The Lord, from our childhood on, bestows upon us the means of regeneration. These are goods and truths which affect a man especially in infancy and youth while the mind is yet docile and the proprium with its conceit does not as yet seriously resist. The general truths of religion are thus learnt in childhood and are stored up in the memory. But when man advances to rational age and begins to think for himself, he either affirms the truth that he had - which indicates that he is in good; or else - if he is moved by evil - he denies and rejects it.
If evil states begin to infringe upon man's early knowledge and affirmation of good and truth, the Lord removes these from the memory into the interiors of the natural mind, so that they will not be so accessible nor be liable to be profaned, but be reserved for later times of need when the conceits of adolescence have become somewhat broken up. States of evils may come, and yet man will be able to repent by virtue of those "remains." But if evil states become really aggressive, if evil lusts are given sway, if the mind dwells on evil desires; then these evils will infest and consume the remains of good and truth, or rather, pervert them and invert them, so that evils and falsities come to occupy the interiors which the Lord destined for His own abode. This is done especially where deceit is present. And it causes a spiritual theft, an invasion of the spirit of man, a burglary committed against the treasures of the kingdom of heaven before these have been so confirmed and appropriated by regeneration that "moth and rust" could not corrupt them nor "thieves break through and steal." The result is an alienation of the truths and goods of remains. All evil is therefore a theft by man's self-will and a usurpation by man of that holy place within the natural mind of man which the Lord had reserved for Himself, for His abode, His dwelling place with man. Only if a man acknowledges that place for the Lord's, can the Lord dwell with him and make him pure in heart. By prayer man must therefore open his mind to the Lord; and by repentance he must cleanse the inside of the cup and the platter of his life, that he may not become guilty of the folly of those who find delight in stolen fruit even though it turns into ashes in their mouths, and who glory when they have deceived others, only to find at last that they have cheated only themselves. From this lot may heaven protect us, and lead us early to accept the gift and guidance of His Holy Spirit.