Made in China

                                                                                                                                                                                      November 5, 2009

Things are cheaper than ever before. We complain about rising prices and the great recession, but the fact is that at no point in history has as much cheap stuff been available as right now in North America. We are so awash in it that it has become part of the landscape, part of the culture, something that is virtually invisible to us. At the same time, we are producing less than ever before. Who among us creates anything tangible in his or her work?  We have what economists call a ‘service economy’. This means that our economy is driven and based upon services that we do for each other, not on goods that we produce. What are our best professions? Doctor, Lawyer, Businessman, Real Estate Agent, Computer Programmer, etc.  Our teenagers find their first jobs in retail sales or the hospitality industry. None of these jobs produce anything tangible. They are all services.

The obvious question then is, ‘Where does all this stuff come from?’   The answer, of course, is China and a handful of other far-away countries; Malaysia, India, Thailand, Honduras, etc.  Our massive material stockpile is produced in these countries because it is cheap. Labor in these countries is inexpensive and environmental and safety regulations are not as strict as in North America. This enables corporations to produce the things we buy for much less than if they were made here. Is this a good thing?  No, and it cannot possibly be so.
In the fifth chapter of the book of James, the brother of Jesus writes the following:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

These verses must have been bold and offensive to whomever the Church Father was writing. However, he did not write these words to pagans or evil godless men. He wrote them to Christians.

There are several things we should understand from James’ letter. First is the idea that being rich very often involves oppression of others, even if we do not realize it. Second, it is possible, even likely, that those who are rich will not realize they are rich and those who are oppressing the poor will not think they are doing so. Third, the fact that we do not know when we do this does not make us innocent before God.

The words of James are desperately needed today.  Are you oppressing the poor?  ‘Of course not’, you say. In fact we don’t even know any poor people. How can we be oppressing them? This is the problem.  Take off your shirt. Where was it made? Honduras?  It is very likely that the people who made your shirt have terrible lives, living in semi-slavery conditions and oppressed constantly by their employers. What about your shoes? China?  It is likely that the factory that made them employs children, has a record of many injuries, and greatly pollutes the environment, ruining life for thousands in the surrounding areas. Of course, the things you are wearing might have been made in decent factories in these countries, but the odds are against it and you have absolutely no way of knowing.   What if the very clothes that you wear, the things you buy every day and the items all over your home are stained with blood and oppression?  They are.
The problem here is not simply that these countries need better oversight and to improve working conditions. They do, but that is not the point. If they had proper regulation and working conditions our stuff would not be cheap. If every country in the world put into place fair wages, safety and environmental regulations on the North American scale then everything we buy would be very expensive, perhaps double or triple what it costs now. It would in fact be cheaper in such a world, because of shipping costs, to make things here at home.
The bible is clear that to deal with and defeat evil it must first be brought into the light. The current world economic system has conspired to export the results of our lifestyles to the other side of the world, where we cannot see them. There has always been oppression of the poor, but at least in the past it was near to us, a short walk or drive from home. Now it is nowhere visible. Show me a poor person in our midst. Are they really poor? Do they have clothes and food to eat?  They are poor compared to most of us perhaps, but they are not the poor of the earth. These are very rare here. The system has a vested interest in not letting us, the rich of the world, see the poor. As long as we do not see them we cannot cry out against their oppression. Yes, we know that there are a billion people starving and living in squalor, but it does not impact us. We do not see it.   If one person without food showed up on your doorstep you would do more for him than you do now for the billion you do not see.
We must therefore work in the name of Jesus to remove ourselves from this system that makes evil invisible and clothes us all in blood.  We must buy things made here, the few that are left, even though this means we will not have as much money or stuff as we have now.  We must do this not because it is good for our local economy, but because purchasing things made on the other side of the world involves us in one of the greatest evils of our day.

Thrift Store Theology

                                                                                 November 5, 2009

When I was a kid Value Village was an insult.  It was supposed to mean that you were poor. Of course, no one where I lived shopped at Value Village, very few anyway. What’s the point when everything is so cheap at Wal-Mart?
When I became a man I realized that thrift stores are in fact better than buying new in almost every way. First, when I purchase at a thrift store I am re-using something. This is better than recycling BY FAR.  We have been conned into the myth that recycling will save the world. Well, only Jesus will save the world and recycling is a minimal way to honor what God has created. Recycling costs us nothing. We still throw it away, just into a different bin. We still go to the store and buy something new, the cost of which we do not see. These things we buy cost portions of the earth and its resources. Creating them has made the earth that much dirtier. The things we buy also have a human cost. Who made them? How were they treated? How were they paid?  You have no idea.
But when you purchase at a thrift store you RE-USE something. This has virtually no cost to the creation or to our fellow human beings. These were things that otherwise would have been thrown away. In fact, by purchasing them you have saved them from a landfill or incineration.
Second, you have changed your economic relationship to the world, putting money into charities and the local economy instead of into the pockets of huge multi-national corporations.  Most thrift stores are run by local charities.  Even those that are for profit often make significant contributions to local charities.  If you shop at Wal-Mart or Superstore your money is gone. It is in the hands of one of the largest corporations in the world and you have no way of knowing what they will do with it. Will they use it well, to benefit people and the world? Or will they use it to oppress people in places you will never see just to make another dollar?
Third, you save money and get better stuff.  It is often a bit more difficult to shop at a thrift store. They won’t have every size of every item. They might not have the item you are looking for all the time. However, you will often get better quality items for incredible prices.  I have been complemented repeatedly and am very happy with the shoes and clothes I purchase at thrift stores that cost only $10 a pair or $20 an outfit in prime condition. These same items would have cost hundreds when new. What will you do with all the money you save?  Pay off debt. Donate to a charity. Give it away to make friends on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven.
Fourth, you will identify in real ways with the poor.  Are you unwilling to go into a thrift store because it feels strange?  Does it make you feel poor?  Good.  Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’  We have arranged our society in such a way that we hardly ever see the poor, much less are we the poor ourselves.  Shopping at a thrift store is your chance to meet them, to rub shoulders with them, to be like them.  This is what Jesus was all about.
The point is that thrift stores are amazingly beneficial for everyone involved.  They are also a tangible way to express the gospel in our day and our culture. They are a way to do so with your money. You should donate to them certainly, but more than that you should shop at them. You won’t be able to buy everything you need from thrift stores, but you will be able to buy a good bit.  We Christians above all should do this.
For those who live in Vancouver, I would like to highlight the Union Gospel Mission Thrift Store at 671 E Hastings.  Our own Elizabeth Sundrampillai is the manager there and consistently gets high quality new and used items. The money made goes directly toward supporting the UGM ministries, which our church has been a part of for as long as anyone can remember.
Also, check out the Mennonite Thrift Store at 5914 Fraser Street. This is run by Mennonite churches in our local area with whom we have partnered many times.

Centralized Administration and Democracy Tocqueville

    Tocqueville distinguishes between centralized government and centralized administration. By the former he means concentration of political power concerning matters that affect an entire nation, e.g. rule of law, foreign policy. By centralized administration he means concentration of power concerning local or regional business, majority of taxation, infrastructure and oversight of community organizations and schools. Centralized government he says is absolutely necessary to prosperous life in any nation. However, “centralized administration is fit only to enervate the nations in which it exists, by incessantly diminishing their local spirit.’

The idea is that as centralized administration of things that are of primarily local concern increases the ability of citizens to influence and therefore have a stake in administration decreases. Without perceived influence and participation local spirit or local pride decreases. The citizen becomes in his mind a subject, unable to influence the powers that affect his or her place and life.
The end result of this process of centralized administration is reduced participation and energy from the bulk of the population. Even though centralized administration might be able to do a ‘better job’ at some particular point in time on a particular issue than a decentralized administration, the very act of centralization will decrease the strength of the nation in the future, making the process unsustainable and undemocratic.

Lets take an example to illustrate, though Tocqueville does not give an illustration. At some point in the past there was a thriving local dairy economy in most placed in north america.  It was decentralized.  It was not unregulated, but it was not formally regulated for the most part and so it was regulated only by local market and local community.  This situation meant that many people were involved in production of dairy products and many people had small influence in how that production was carried out.  For the most part there were high quality products with few safety concerns.

Centralized administration of dairy was put into effect to more efficiently eliminate the small number of safety problems.  The result at first was similar high quality product with fewer safety problems.  However, over time centralization caused more and more people to abandon their role in the system, whether in actual production or influencing production standards.  At that point the centralized administration of dairy had to do everything on its own.  Ultimately,  this resulted in more safety concerns than the original, decentralized administration.  Centralized administration hurt democracy and eroded the strength of the system over time.