The Good Thief

Would you be ashamed to be crucified next to a thief?

Never mind the tenderness of your body, the injustice of being condemned to death for speaking the truth, the betrayal by your friends, the wracking of your entire body and all of your senses with agony, the mocking and scorn of the mob.

Would you be ashamed to be crucified next to a thief?

This is what the thirteenth-century Dominican Jacobus de Voragine said about the pain of Christ’s passion:
The pain of the passion was of five kinds. The first was its shamefulness. It was shameful because it happened in a place of shame, namely, on Calvary, where malefactors were punished. The mode was shameful, because he was condemned to a most ignominious death, the cross being the instrument of punishment for thieves... The Lord’s passion was shameful because of the company in which he suffered. He was reckoned with thieves and robbers who were criminals to begin with; but later one of them, Dismas, who was crucified at Christ’s right side, was converted...and the other, Gesmas, on the left side, was condemned.
Do you remember what Jesus said to Dismas, according to the Gospels? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” A thief! 

But of course. Isn’t paradise where thieves belong? You know, because they rob from the rich and all. And the rich deserve to be robbed. Because property is theft.

YouTube has been suggesting some interesting videos to me this past week, ones that somehow in my study of Milo’s oeuvre I had not previously seen. There was one in particular that blew me away. I am sure you have seen the stills from the event. Milo is dressed in a dark purple leather jacket with a dashing floral scarf around his neck. His hair is dark and tousled (be still, my heart!), and he is speaking with slides but without notes. He commands the stage—he looks daring and mischievous. The red backdrop makes it look as if he is speaking from Hell, the very image of the “clickbait provocateur who [hates] the Left more than he [loves] anything” (as The Guardian would put it).

But what was he talking about? Until this past week, I did not know.

Judging from the photograph, it could be anything. The event was in June 2013 when Milo was working as a tech journalist. He mentions at the beginning of the talk that The Kernel is going to be up and running again, so it was after some financial difficulties but before his first massive public shaming. The event organizers who appear in the video joked comfortably with him, and the audience responded warmly to his talk. But of course they did—because he was already trolling them.

The title of his talk? 10 Reasons Why the Sharing Economy is Bollocks. The joke? The whole conference was about the “sharing economy” in tech. And there was Milo with a warning about how it could all go horribly wrong.

“Owning stuff is awesome,” he told them. “I don’t feel guilty about being a capitalist. I feel quite nice about it. I rather like the things I can buy. I like having nice things. I don’t want other people touching them. And I think that I’m probably in the majority for most kinds of purchase.”

Think about it. Do you want people touching your things? I don’t. I like having house guests, but I do not want strangers in my home while I am elsewhere, unless they are there specifically to take care of my things. The whole thought of airbnb makes me queasy, never mind what Milo says about how it is actually serving only the upper middle class who can afford to take holidays and rent out their homes.

Or how—as he notes—it puts prostitutes and drug dealers in your living room.

But with the sharing economy in full swing, I am now wrong not to want to share out my home or my car. It isn’t even clear, as Milo points out, that those things belong to me at all. At least not morally. At least not according to the ideals of “sharing” on which rental arrangements like airbnb purportedly depend.

I posted the video to my Facebook page, and my good friend—and stalwart British socialist—Paul immediately responded, “Read the Bible FFS,” followed by a string of scriptural citations.
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance. —James 5:1-6 
He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. He fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty. — Luke 1:52-53
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will you heart be. — Matthew 6:19-21
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47
How can you call yourself a Christian, my friend seemed to be suggesting, if you don’t want to share?

How can you call yourself a Christian if you claim anything is yours?

How can you call yourself a Christian if you believe—horror of horrors!—in private property as something good?

There followed a second string of links to articles about how Milo’s current business is failing, including the “privilege grant” that he set up to aid young white men going to college.

Milo, you see, is not a good thief, even when he gives money away. He likes owning things. Unlike, say, Robin Hood.

Milo—according to most mainstream journalists, not to mention not a few of my colleagues and friends—belongs in Hell.

What is Hell like? Primo Levi knew. He lived there for almost a year.

Hell is where nothing belongs to you, not even your name.

“Consider,” Levi asked his readers, describing what happened to him and his fellow prisoners within 24 hours of their arrival in Auschwitz,
what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to sufferings and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term “extermination camp”, and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: “to lie on the bottom.”
What did it mean “to lie on the bottom”? It meant becoming a thief in order to stay alive. As Levi and his fellow prisoners learned, everything in the camp was useful—but everything could be stolen. Including their bodies—and wills.

I dare you to say that it was because Levi was Jewish that he thought property was important to his sense of humanity, to his sense of self. I dare you to say that if he had been Christian, he would have experienced the camp as a great experiment in sharing. I dare you to say that he experienced learning to steal as a good thing, that watching his fellow human beings reduced to phantoms without possessions or names was a lesson in not clinging to silver and gold. I dare you to say that the Nazis were the good guys for forcing him and his fellow prisoners to learn this lesson in selflessness.

Of course you would not, it is beyond despicable even to think as much.

And yet.

Think about the way we valorize thieves. We reward them for their daring. We ridicule those from whom they steal for caring so much about things. We celebrate the Robin Hoods of our government for coming into our homes and demanding, at the point of a gun, that we share. We scold capitalists for wanting to make nice things that others might want to buy. We talk glibly about how “property is theft.” We shame each other for wanting to protect what is ours.

I say “we,” but of course politically the shaming tends to go only one way.

Back in the Middle Ages, before Robin Hood became romantic, Dante put thieves in Hell.

Property is not theft. Owning things is not theft.

You will say that this is not what Jesus meant when he argued against storing up treasures on earth. But note why he argued against them: because these are the kinds of treasures that thieves can break in and steal.

Almost as if he knew how National Socialists would behave.

The sharing economy is bollocks, according to Milo, because it denies our need not just for emotional and intellectual health, but also for security (e.g. a home) and autonomous mobility (e.g. a car). In his words: “My worry is that these sorts of businesses [promoted by the sharing economy] rob us of that because they make us think that nothing really belongs to us anymore. And we’ve seen some pretty horrible examples in history of what happens when government or when business starts to behave like this.”

Like thieves.

There is a further reason, Milo argued, why the sharing economy is bollocks. “Number 9,” he insisted, “the best things in life can’t be shared.” Because the best things in life aren’t things: “It’s the memories. The look on a child’s face. So, holidays, for example. It seems weird to me that we would try to make holidays less special through this grubby sharing of that holidays become this occasion of you engaging in someone else’s life somehow.”

And how do you feel about the fact that Facebook now owns our memories? In an age when businesses own more and more of the things that we use to distinguish ourselves as persons, Milo concluded, “I think it would be nice if they left our personal property alone.”

Would you still be proud to be crucified next to someone who tried to steal other people’s property? 

Next to a thief?

Image: Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475-1546), “Crucifixion of Christ,” Sacro Monte di Varallo

References: Jacobus de Voragine, “The Passion of Christ,” in The Golden Legend, Volume 1: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 203. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 26-27.

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