After suffering a string of thefts at his organic farm, Melvin Burns is making an unorthodox offer. He’s responding to robbery with kindness, offering the offender a job if he’ll just return the tools he needs to take care of his animals.
Burns says burglars are targeting properties near his Moo Nay Farms in Cooks Brook, Nova Scotia, which has been robbed twice in as many months. Most recently, they stole $1,000 worth of tools, but in June they took $5,000 worth of animals – including six pigs and 40 chickens.
He took to Facebook on August 2 to offer two rewards. If anyone comes to him with a tip that leads to the recovery of his tools, he will give that person “five pounds of my best Berkshire bacon” – which, he has said, “is one of the most beloved products from our farm.” (Insert Jim Gaffigan joke here.)
The tools, he said, are essential to his livestock’s welfare. “We work hard to keep our animals alive and safe, [and] these tools help us do that,” he wrote. “Please consider our animals.”
But the fact that the perpetrator took food led Burns to his second proposal: If the thief turns himself (or herself) in, Burns will give him a job on the farm and teach him agricultural skills. Burns’ personal training will make that person more employable – and bring him “respect,” Burns wrote.
“Please, if you need money and are close to our farm, offer your labour, offer your time constructively. It can earn you money, respect and a future in the community as opposed to behind bars,” Burns wrote.
Then he appealed directly to a generation left adrift by low expectations, overzealous regulations, and labor policies that hit young people the hardest:
Young people I know it’s tough out there, community has not prepared you to contribute effectively before the age you want to have stuff. In my day we had paper routes, mowed lawns, picked berries, stacked wood, helped neighbors and built skills. Please contact me if you need help. I will offer you much for free and better things to do with your time, and that’s no bull.
In his overly generous response, Burns demonstrates the deep-seated sense of solidarity that farmers and rural people have with others in their communities. They are happy to help those in need, especially if someone wants to better himself.
But his benevolent, likely instinctual response reflects the best teachings of social science and spiritual wisdom.
Burns is right that employment increases feelings of self-respect. “Self-esteem and self-worth are closely aligned with working,” psychotherapist Charles Allen told USA Today in 2013. The percentage of people, especially young men, in their prime working years who are neither working nor preparing for work is rising. Nicholas Eberstadt has described the plight of those seven million American men in his book Men Without Work. Those without work are more than three-times more likely to be depressed than those who are working, one study found. “You feel it in the depths of your brain,” Allen said.
Burns was not merely charitable beyond description to offer his own resources to someone who had just victimized him. At least one study indicates that his charity is a model response when dealing with those who have recently committed a crime. Released convicts who are given employment immediately upon release were roughly one-tenth as likely to re-offend as the average ex-con, the study found. “Statewide rates of recidivism range from about 31 to 70 percent, while the rates for those placed in jobs shortly after their release ranged from 3.3 to eight percent,” wrote Peter Cove and Lee Bowes.
But his most profound insight may be spiritual and anthropological. Man was created for work according to the most profound spiritual literature – from Genesis 1, where God bid His creatures to labor in the midst of Paradise, to the Rule of St. Benedict, which calls on monks living the heavenly life to observe a schedule that could best be summarized as “ora et labora” (although, it must be noted, this phrase does not actually occur in the Regula.) This sacred cycle held work in such reverence that it helped monks preserve classical literature for posterity.
“Idleness is inimical to the soul,” St. Benedict authentically wrote. “Therefore, the brethren ought to be occupied, at fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading.” (Someone once observed that the proper Benedictine formula would be “ora, labora, et lectio.”)
He added, “To weak and delicate brethren, let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].”
Although in a different context, Burns’ kindly offer could perpetuate this cycle. One driven to theft is in a delicate spiritual condition. Teaching skills, furnishing access to real capital, and restoring a sense of self-respect through earned reward is a form of restoration, a vocational rehabilitation that transforms the doer from a menace who loathes his own creation in imago Dei to a producer acquiring the tools to live out his peculiar and singular calling.
And, he could get bacon.
(Photo credit: Thad Zadjowicz. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)