Never look a gift universe in the mouth! A court jester might well state the seventh commandment in this manner since what is at stake is far more than merely not pinching the odd item that does not belong to us.
What is forbidden by this commandment? The biblical injunction against stealing forbids unjustly taking, keeping, acquiring, or damaging goods that do not rightly belong to us. Hence, what is forbidden is theft, vandalism, cheating so as to gain something, paying unjust wages, breaking or manipulating contracts so as to get an unfair advantage, and any stewardship of nature and mother earth that is not sufficiently respectful. That’s quite a list! Put more positively, the person who respects the seventh commandment, at this basic level, is a person who refuses, even in the smallest of matters, to ever dishonestly take or harm something that does not belong to him or her.
However, the phrase “thou shalt not” is a certain via negativa. The precept is negative, but the challenge is positive. The prohibitions constitute only the bare minimum that must be observed: Do not take or damage property that is not your own. But much more is implied in the commandment.
This commandment also has to do with ecology: To not steal means not only that we do not take what is not ours from other persons, it implies too that we may not steal what is not our due from nature. Mother earth, just as her inhabitants, also has inherent rights that must be respected. Scripture installs us as stewards over nature, but a steward does not own the property he or she adjudicates. The steward administrates the owner’s property. In this case, the owner is God. We do not own the earth any more than we own any public property. Hence any abuse, misuse, and excess use of nature is wrong. Simply put, it is stealing.
Contained in the seventh commandment, too, is the imperative to practice social justice. What is implied here is that we can steal from others not just by personally taking or damaging something that does not belong to us, but also by participating blindly in systems that do the stealing for us. Hence, to observe this commandment demands more than just being honest in our personal dealings with others. We can be scrupulously fair and honest in our own private lives and still be stealing from others, as we all do to some extent in the first world, by profiting from certain economic and social systems that reward us by unfairly taking goods from others who have less power and privilege. It matters little that this kind of stealing is legally sanctioned and that we do not see our victims or even know that we are victimizing anyone. Theft is theft; whether done consciously, face to face, or done blindly through some impersonal system.
Finally, there is a more subtle level still to this commandment: The seventh commandment, paradoxically, protects the right of private property even as it tells us that the world and everything in it is nobody’s private property. The world belongs to everyone, equally. Hence the prohibition against stealing implies that we may not, irrespective of how legitimately we have acquired it, own too much, that is, have excess while others do not have enough. The church has clearly spelled this out many times in its social encyclicals, even though this particular teaching is very unpopular and generally ignored. As the church puts it: Nobody may have excess property while others lack essentials. Hence to acquire excess while others lack necessities is stealing, pure and simple.
This demand, inherent in the seventh commandment, runs smack into the face of some rather deeply engrained, admired, and morally sanctioned habits we have today. We tend to believe that the right to own private property is inalienable and that it is morally okay to own any amount of money and property, so long as we acquire them legally. But there is a caveat within the seventh commandment forbidding precisely this. Having excess while others have too little is a way of stealing. It may be culturally sanctioned and admired, but it is stealing nonetheless, and no glamorous figure in the entertainment world, be she ever so beautiful, or admired athlete, be he ever so talented, who earns millions of dollars along with our adoration, changes that.
A rather humble woman once asked that these words be inscribed on her gravestone: “Thanks for the space!” She was wise since she understood that nothing is owed to us, but that the world gives us a little space as gift. To not steal is to know one’s place and to accept one’s share, and only one’s share, of things.