I know what it is like to lose a cell phone, wallet or keys. There was that time when I left my wallet at the beach. Another time I dropped my cell phone out of my pocket at a baseball game. Then there was the incident of leaving my cell phone on the Metro train. In each case, my property was returned to me, thankfully, but not without a whole lot of prayer and hoping. In each case, I was extremely grateful to these people, and describing them as "saints" would accurately portray how I felt about them.
As an experienced loser of things, I found Monica Hesse's feature in Wednesday's Washington Post on "Good Samaritans" expecting handouts in exchange for their deeds spot on and a fascinating look at our culture's view of the moral act of giving stuff back to the rightful owner:
But some people never sign that pact. Some people exploit their roles as finders to make a quick buck. Some people are Bad Samaritans.
Jeremy Wilson-Simerman, a congressional staff assistant, left his cellphone on a Red Line Metro train and encountered his own Bad Samaritan. The phone's finder wanted a reward. Wilson-Simerman suggested $10. The finder suggested $450. Wilson-Simerman suggested the finder was crazy. He never saw his phone again.
Bad form, says Davy Rothbart, editor of Found, a magazine featuring photographs of lost objects. "It's a violation of the human code if you find something that's clearly important to someone else and you don't return it," he says.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton told atheist Christopher Hitchens recently, exactly who establishes the moral code that says it is "bad form" to fail to return another person's lost object if you don't appeal to a higher moral source? If there's no higher power, what's wrong with extracting a little money out of them as payment?
Rather than relying on a random editor, Hesse turns to the Bible and another minister to establish what many Americans consider the standard for what is right and wrong:
"It's a sin," says the Rev. Thomas Kalita, pastor of St. Peter's Parish in Olney. "Any time a person holds onto property that he or she knows belongs to another person without the intention of giving it right back [he] is dishonest."
It's all there in Deuteronomy 22:1-4 (not the part about cellphones, but the general concept), illustrated with those all-purpose biblical examples, farm animals. In part: "If you see your brother's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him."
The passage does not, hopeful reader, conclude with "after demanding 50 shekels."
This biblical admonition is at the root of our current criminal code, which labels the practice extortion.
How often do you see that in a major media publication in the United States? The art accompanying the article relies on the biblical Good Samaritan story that so has become engrained into our culture's moral fabric.
Including basic moral foundations in feature articles touching on issues of right and wrong -- not preaching, but explaining -- can only strengthen such articles. Who out there would disagree that failing to return a person's lost property on request places them in any other moral category than "sinner"? Thank the Lord for the saints out there.