Friday, 19 March 2010

Someone stole my bicycle

My dear, green, Trek hybrid bike - the one that pulled my son on his trailer-bike when he was too young to ride alone - the one that made the move from Boston to London without incident - the one I just had fixed up to a nice standard - has been stolen.

There is nothing unusual about having a bike stolen in London. Well over 20,000 are stolen in this city each year. The fact that it was stolen out of locked closet in my church does make it a bit more dismaying, but not much.

The police were surprisingly friendly on the phone, but they also made it absolutely clear that my problem was not sufficiently important for them to even bother stopping by whatsoever! My visions of CSI-like investigations were quickly dashed. There would be no fingerprinting. Checking for DNA evidence was not even in the realm of possibility. The police gave me the only thing they could give: a crime reference number. They offered no hope at all that the bike would be recovered.

You might expect that the rest of this post is going to be a tirade against crime and the deteriorating morals in this country that would allow anyone to steal from a place of worship... "What is this world coming to!!!  We need tougher laws, more police, and more prisons!!!"  Well, no...  It's not. I feel very uninterested in a tirade about this. In fact, it is my lack of anger and outrage that particularly interests me...

I discovered the 'theft' immediately before I was to lead a Sunday service. I went ahead as though nothing had happened. Indeed, it felt almost like nothing had happened. "OK, someone smashed into a locked closet inside my church and stole my bicycle. Ho hum..."

Certainly, part of my lack of outrage is related to the ordinariness of crime in the big city. Is it an indictment against humanity that it is so common? There are nearly 8 million people living in London and probably at least 2 million bikes. One in one hundred is stolen each year. It is a lot, but it is not as common as I might have thought.

There are also a few very practical reasons for my serene response to being burgled: I don't need the bike for my livelihood or to commute. I can do without it. Moreover, I am so fortunate that I can afford to replace it - even without the help I expect from my insurance.

More interesting and relevant though is how to think about and respond to this event from a religious perspective.

Traditionally, I suppose, the primary religious response is condemnation. Stealing is a major sin in the Abrahamic faiths, after all. Stealing from a church has got to earn you a special and particularly toasty place in hell... but, of course, that kind of religion is not my kind. I want to take a more nuanced view of crime. My view of evil and sin are not quite so black and white as that.

In my own faith, a central pillar is the conviction that every single person possesses inherent worth and dignity. As a result, we should treat each person with respect and work for fairness and justice. Of course, I was not treated with anything like respect by the thief. What if we look at the broader picture and ask about the worth and dignity of the perpetrator.

I don't know who stole my bike, of course, but it was almost certainly not someone like me - a person who has had a brilliant education, a loving family life, great role models, guidance in climbing the success ladder, and access to the levers of power. It was more likely a person who, by accident of birth, was deprived of the things that make it so easy to be a moral, compassionate, productive, and successful member of society. It would not be at all surprising if the thief had a substance-dependence, and desperate for the next drink or the next fix, was looking for the easiest way to get some quick cash.

I think also about the importance of having a sense of ownership and belonging in our society. I have such a sense because of the opportunities offered to me and the attitudes of the people who surrounded me in my formative years. My upbringing made it clear to me that I had much to gain from playing by the rules. Those who know they benefit from the system are unlikely to act antisocially. The feeling of having nothing to lose is dangerous for individuals and for the overall cohesion and health of society.

We are all part of a web of existence - interconnected inextricably one to the other. While the thief has responsibility to me [and he/she abused that responsibility big time!], I must also have a responsibility to him/her. 

Some will surely see what I am about to say as a weak and woolly liberal way to look at things, but I am reminded by this incident of my role in the systems that created the thief that stole from me. I am comfortable financially. I have had the advantages that got me where I am. The same institutions that helped me and made it possible for me to get where I am fail many others and keep them down. My success and comfort are built, in a real way, on the poverty of others. My religious orientation tells me that I must be uncomfortable - maladjusted, as Dr. King put it - to this essential unfairness in society. Thus, as one of those who is advantaged by the existing systems, I must recognize it as my duty to make the world a better, fairer place.

The loss of my bike is not a 'just payment' for my share of creating equality and a level playing field. Theft is still wrong and I would still prosecute the thief given a chance! But, I want this incident to be a wake-up call to me to become more aware of my blessings and my good fortune and of what I owe to those upon whose deprivation my comfort rests.

1 comment:

  1. Good for you, Andy! It's difficult (and not at all woolly) to take this stance when something has been stolen, especially something with precious memories attached to it. I had a bicycle that I named Rosa Luxemberg (it was red) which was stolen in Germany in 1989. I was rather upset, but as the brakes didn't work all that well, maybe it wasn't such a big loss, and I claimed for it on the insurance. I can't say I was as compassionate towards the thief as you are being, but I regarded the incident as part of the ups and downs of life, almost like a force of nature. I often wonder where the bike went next!