Thought for the Day - John Bell

I wonder if the man I saw thieving from my local supermarket the other day believed that “stolen water is sweet” (that’s a quote from the book of Proverbs, by the way) - though it wasn’t water he was stealing, it was an energy drink.

He put two cans in his bag, then sensing that he might have been seen, he pretended to be a busy shopper, I wondered whether I should give him a rugby tackle or, in true Dickensian fashion, shout “Stop, thief!”. Just at that moment a sales attendant walk past. I told him what I‘d seen. He said he’d take care of it, but by the time he had alerted the store’s security man, the thief had gone.

The incident left me with two questions in my mind.

The first was why someone who was not evidently poor should feel entitled to steal from the shelves to the detriment of the store and its honest shoppers. Then I realised that he might have been affected by the ‘trickle-down effect’. This, you may remember, was a term popular in a previous decade when the prevailing political wisdom was that if you enabled those at the top to prosper, those near the bottom would eventually enjoy the benefits.

Well, those at the top have prospered, but in this man’s case what seems to have trickled down is not wealth but the expectation that dishonesty will pay benefits. I don’t think he came from a family of criminals; but I do know that if he had read the headlines regarding the banks last week, his desire to steal might have found encouragement.

My other question was why I - who don’t count myself among the bravest of human beings - felt instinctively that I should do something. Had I failed to react, I would have been complicit in this (albeit petty) act of thieving. So did the impulse to intervene come from my religious beliefs, my logical faculties, my culture? I don’t know. But it certainly registered.

So what has happened to the sensibility of those in high finance who have been complicit in fixing interest rates to their advantage? Last week’s revelations don’t implicate everyone and this is not the first profession in recent times to be in the eye of a scandal. But what has happened raises questions about the integrity of banking. It seems for all the world like some kind of secret financial brotherhood whose motto is ‘Stolen water is sweet.’ Is there no one in that arena whose faith or moral sensibility registers that what is going on is iniquitous and it’s time somebody blew the whistle loudly?

The Apostle Paul was haunted with a curious sense of guilt which stemmed from him being present when an innocent man was stoned to death. Paul didn’t lift a pebble, but he held the jackets of those who did, and later realised that the one who observed was as much part of the crime as the ones who committed it.

I hope to God that this realisation begins to dawn on our presently benighted financial sector. We have now had one high profile resignation over the Libor-fixing affair. But what is required is a change in the culture. We need good people there who will register that what is going on is iniquitous and blow the whistle, rather than endorsing what is clearly wrong by their silence.

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