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.