Shoplifting and moral choices

By Symon Hill
December 23, 2009

For once, a priest's comments about the severity of poverty in Britain have received the attention of the media, politicians and business leaders. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have missed the point.

The Anglican priest in question, Tim Jones, was preaching in Yorkshire on Sunday, when he expressed his shock at a situation that leaves people in desperate poverty with little choice but to turn to crime. He showed his respect for the humanity of those in this situation by emphasising that even in such desperation, they are able to make moral choices. If crime is the only option, he said, it is better to shoplift from large businesses rather than resort to violence, burglary or prostitution.

On Tuesday morning, the story hit the national press. “Thou shalt shoplift” declared the Daily Mail's headline. The Times chose to list biblical passages that condemn theft, with no reference to their context or to the far more numerous passages about the oppression of the poor. Several papers featured strings of comments expressing outraged disagreement - with things that Tim Jones had not said.

The local MP, Anne McIntosh, accused Jones of “inciting crime”. North Yorkshire Police declared him “highly irresponsible”. The Sun described Jones' “support for theft”, happily ignoring Jones' own insistence that stealing was neither good nor harmless.

The fact that the British population still includes people whose poverty leads them to crime is a reality that is far, far more scandalous than any controversial clerical comments. If the press would show half as much outrage over poverty as they have done over Jones' sermon, the political agenda could be very different indeed.

The reaction of several commentators and politicians seems markedly different to their attitude to certain other moral predicaments. When I promote pacifism, I am frequently told that I should “live in the real world” and to recognise that sometimes people have to make tough choices. When I worked for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), we took the government to court over the cancellation of a criminal investigation into BAE's Saudi arms deals. Right-wing columnists insisted that BAE should not be prosecuted because of the economic benefits which they supposedly bring to Britain. “Tough ethical choices”, they cried. No police service accused them of being highly irresponsible.

It seems that some regard tough ethical choices as the preserve of the powerful, while the poor are allowed to think only in black and white. In reality, of course, there are those who are prepared simply to make more excuses for the decisions of powerful people – even though, by definition, it is they who have more options open to them.

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