Do you lock up your house when you leave for the day? Do you lock your garage? Do you wish you didn’t have to? Do women stroll comfortably through your streets at night in the dark? If you feel besieged in your own neighborhood, you live in warzone, not a community.
Thomas Hobbes (1651) argued that we live with one another in a “state of war,” a social Cold War of sorts: “Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house, he locks his chests.”
But properly speaking, life together is a community of trust. Consider the most basic community: the home. There are no locks on the bedroom doors because everyone trusts one another. An incident of theft within the family is devastating. It destroys the family by denying and undermining its moral bond, which is trust.
The same is true of the civic relationship. In a healthy community, i.e., a community properly speaking, you don’t have to lock your door. No one will steal your bike if you ride into town and park it in front of a store. Or you can safely leave it on your lawn. You can trust your neighbors. In Iceland, as in the Scotland of my mother’s youth, women park their babies in prams outside the bakery and the café.
And in many places today in America, people live this way, prams notwithstanding. When I lived in rural Iowa, no one locked their doors. Why would they? In the winter, people would leave their cars running and unattended while they went into the bank. They were not robbing it. In the bank, your face was a valid form of identification. And this bond of trust extended beyond the long-time locals. Friends told me that when they moved into the area, they accidentally found themselves embarrassingly short of cash when checking out for the first time at the local supermarket. “You can pay us next time,” the cashier assured them. (I wouldn’t have believed that one if I hadn’t heard it from a credible source.)
God indicates in His law that crime is a “breach of trust” (Exodus 22:9). Theft, for example, is more than just a misappropriation of property, but an attack on the possibility of a shared life. The Hebrew word for “breach of trust” (ESV) or “trespass” (KJV) suggests “a breach of relationships, civil or religious, between two parties” (G. Herbert Livingston in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). When someone steals a soda from the store, he steals more than just drink. He robs the whole community of its trust. He robs it of itself.
Our society used to be a lot safer than it is now. We used to be more trusting of one another. What has changed? Can we restore what we have lost?