When a society loses all reservation against theft and other “petty” crimes, what other moral dominoes are soon to fall?
Frustration over inflation is a real and increasing problem. No one is happy to arrive at the checkout aisle only to discover that the same basket of groceries they purchased last month now costs more. It gets even more frustrating when the next trip to the grocery store brings us yet another price increase and an even higher bill. With wages mostly stagnant, what is a person to do?
An increasing number of people believe they have found the ultimate solution—if it’s too expensive, just put it in your bag and walk out!
In 2014, the California legislature passed Proposition 47, reclassifying non-violent thefts as misdemeanors if the stolen goods cost less than $950 total. Since that time, news agencies across the United States and Canada have shown surveillance footage of individuals walking into stores, helping themselves to their products of choice, and walking out the front door. This is often presented to Canadians as an “over there” problem, something happening in the state of California but not having any broader ramifications. Many fail to realize that this problem is increasingly becoming an issue throughout Canada as well.
While not alone in facing this increase in theft, grocery stores appear to be bearing the brunt of the cost. The Canadian Press reported that “a growing number of supermarkets report an increase in thefts of food and pharmacy products” (“Supermarket theft rising, shoplifters more aggressive, warns grocery industry,” February 8, 2022). The article goes on to state that the data is difficult to track as retailers often respond by asking the suspect to leave, rather than involving police.
Why wouldn’t a grocer want to involve the police? It is not the same situation as California, where the passing of a proposition essentially made shopkeepers powerless. Yet the results are much the same. So, what is happening here in Canada to foster similar increases in shoplifting? Writing for CBC News, David Burke summarized it with this impactful statement: “Our justice system is crumbling both on a federal level and provincial level” (“Shoplifting and other petty-crime cases are being dropped by courts,” May 30, 2019). Burke explains, “Across Canada, people accused of petty crimes like shoplifting, minor assault and fraud are walking free—because the justice system doesn’t have time to deal with their cases, as it struggles to move more serious crimes through the courts.”
Crime has increased to the point where the system does not have enough time to prosecute “less serious” crimes like shoplifting. Note that Burke’s article was written prior to the pandemic, which, along with the ensuing downturn, has created an environment where the normalization of shoplifting has accelerated.
Two recent trends have worked to push this crisis forward. First, as the labour market shrank and consumers expressed a desire to limit interactions, many stores became increasingly reliant on self-checkout stands. These stands allow customers to scan their own merchandise before bagging and paying. How we act when we believe no one is watching is a vital aspect of one’s character, yet the opportunity to avoid payment is too much for some to ignore.
Second, inflation has resulted in soaring prices, leading some to take desperate measures to pay their bills. A recent Toronto Star article titled “Confessions of a Shoplifter” showed the moral gymnastics of one shoplifter: “I don’t have any kind of moral quandary with stealing food. If the prices were fair… I’d pay.” The article goes on to show that this individual was not alone in his line of reasoning: “The Star spoke to several Toronto residents for this story who say they’re shoplifting more as food prices increase and feel justified in doing so” (January 30, 2023).
These two trends can be summarized as opportunity and motive: increased opportunity to shoplift and increased motive to do so. Combine these two elements with a decrease in the moral fortitude to simply say, I will not take what is not mine—I will not steal, and you are left with the perfect environment for a shoplifting epidemic.
What about the future? If the shoplifting crisis is not being addressed due to backlogs in the criminal justice system and that trend continues, what comes next? What will be the next law to become unenforceable and essentially abolished? If a few percentage points of inflation are all it takes to justify and normalize something that was previously seen as unequivocally wrong—stealing—then what becomes justifiable next?
As the struggles of society worsen, those who value individual morality and character stand out more and more. If you are struggling financially and find yourself questioning whether shoplifting is a legitimate way to save on shopping, consider this proverb: “Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel” (Proverbs 20:17). This doesn’t mean that the loaf of bread will turn into gravel while you are consuming it, but it speaks to the unsatisfactory nature of sin. The time will come when you will regret your choice. When you allow difficult times to wear down your character, you rob yourself of the opportunity for growth as a person—among the many problems you will reap.
If someone can’t be trusted not to steal, what can they be trusted with? Giving His “Olivet Prophecy,” Jesus Christ revealed the result of a society void of law. “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). It is easy to see the growing mistrust, division, and hatred in our society today.
Truly, the love of many is growing cold.
In writing to Christian brethren at Rome, the Apostle Paul drew attention to the link between love and law.
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8–10).
As society allows for the normalization of lawlessness, the love of many will continue to grow cold, and divisions will increase. Hatred and suspicion will only escalate. But you don’t have to allow that to be the story of your life. God recorded Ten Commandments—laws that, when followed, result in the exact opposite of what Christ warned about. While lawlessness leads to a lack of love, God’s commandments teach us how to treat one another in such a way as to promote lasting trust, peace, and harmony.
Be sure to download or order our free booklet The Ten Commandments, which illustrates how these principles lead to a happy and abundant life.