I’ve been seeing tarps in front of Catholic churches that read: “Bawal magnakaw ng buhay.” (Do not steal lives.)
You could read the message as an alternative version of “Bawal pumatay” (Do not kill), but I prefer to see it as an elaboration of “Bawal magnakaw” (Do not steal), the seventh commandment in Christian teachings and one of the easiest to remember partly because it’s so short and partly because so many of us suffer from people who steal from us, and that includes the kleptocrats (thieves in the government). We loathe kleptocrats so much that I dare say we tolerate President Duterte’s many controversial policies simply because he is still seen as uncorrupted, as someone who does not steal from the public.
We do tend to think of theft as thieves taking away something material from us. But if you study the Jewish Talmud, which gave us many of the books for the Christian Old Testament, we will find a very elaborate description of what stealing involves, beyond material goods. In fact, Jewish scholars point out that the original commandment against stealing actually applied to people — that is, the commandment was more of “Do not kidnap people,” as it happened for slaves.
More than theft
Later, the commandment took on more of the sense of not stealing someone else’s property, but we will find that the Old Testament is quite elaborate in explaining there’s more to stealing, extended into fraud and cheating. Leviticus has long passages not just about the forms of theft but also the restitution that is due, often requiring thieves to pay many times over what they stole.
In Leviticus, there are two passages warning merchants to use accurate scales and weights. In Deuteronomy, there is a warning against moving a boundary marker to claim part of your neighbor’s property. (In the Philippines, people sell property that is not their own, leading to lot owners having to put up signs that read: “This property is NOT for sale.”)
There are several passages, too, in the Old Testament warning against failing to repay a debt, and that makes sense — this idea of defaulting on debts as a form of theft. Failure to take care of valuables entrusted to you, resulting in destruction (for example, by a fire), or its theft, creates a liability almost as bad as your having stolen the valuables yourself. Several passages in the Old Testament also warn against withholding wages, which was expanded in the 1970s and 1980s among liberation theologians as a concept of social sin. By withholding what is due to workers, you are stealing from them.
We should cite Isaiah 1:23, 25 more often: “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves… They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.” This is a reference to corrupt officials, and extends the discussion to point out that when they steal, they cause suffering especially for people already at a disadvantage (orphans, widows).
When we get to the New Testament, we find that the injunctions against stealing are part of a deeper moral message about not becoming too attached to the material, warning against the “desire to be rich,” almost a glorification of poverty. We can find links back to the Jewish teacher Maimonides, who said that stealing progresses to covetous desire… and to murder.
Martin Luther, in the 16th century, wrote on old themes and extended theft to include laziness and “unfaithfulness in paid employment,” referring to workers who shortchange the employer. The Protestants seem to be more mindful of theft as shirking from a citizen’s obligations to pay taxes. And I like Matthew Henry, a 17th-century Protestant minister who noted that the seventh commandment “forbids us to rob ourselves of what we have by sinful spending.” That’s food for thought, especially with today’s temptations in the form of the almighty credit card.
The Catholic Catechism today talks about the seventh commandment more in terms of temperance (not having excessive desires), justice (giving a person what is due him or her), and solidarity (being one with the poor and addressing economic inequality). What then might “bawal magnakaw ng buhay” mean? It could be an outright taking of a life, but I think it comes closer to that passage from Isaiah. When a person steals, especially from public coffers, he or she ends up stealing the future of the people, particularly the young, because it means fewer opportunities for a better education or for better health services. Rumbling down badly paved roads, one would do well to remember that someone stole what was meant for a public road. But instead of just pointing our finger at corrupt politicians, think again of Matthew Henry’s point about robbing ourselves. When we spend beyond our means, we might deprive our children of a better life. In effect, we pawn our children’s lives, and their future.
We should dissect our term “nakaw” much more. Just to give one example: We talk, too, about “puri” (purity/chastity) being stolen away.
I thought of the Mandarin Chinese word “tou” (“tao” in Hokkien or Minnan, used by many local ethnic Chinese). To cheat in class is to “tou kan,” to look at (and copy) what’s not yours. “Tou chi” is to eat what is not yours. “Tou ting” is to eavesdrop on a conversation. Martin Luther’s reference to workers who do not work as they should is described in Chinese as “tou gong,” or stealing labor.
Theft is associated with being sneaky and furtive, so it’s not surprising that even adultery is described with the word “tou” (one phrase, “tou qing,” literally means to steal emotions). The Chinese keep up with the times: Now there’s even “tou pai”—to take a picture (“pai”) of a person without permission, which is so easy to do now with cell phones.
All said, stealing is a breach of trust; it is being unfaithful to our friends, to our employers or employees, to our neighbors. “Magnakaw ng buhay,” stealing life, is a powerful metaphor to show how stealing can come close to murder.
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