Friday, February 12, 2010

The Power of What You Buy

How do we promote justice and the love of Christ with our spending power? We say that we want to bring "heaven to earth" with the peace and equality that Jesus brings, but how can we even do that in our daily lives here in suburban U.S. of A?

Is it a matter of trying to live more simply? Is it a matter of taking a bit more time to think about what we are buying? My friend Alice lives in Boston, and she has been giving it some thought:
    Tim & I are thinking through some radical lifestyle changes. I will do my best to share our developing thoughts/changes as they unfold.

    we are beating our swords into plowshares. today we simplified to be a one laptop family & we used some of the money from the sale of my old laptop to buy socks (hundreds of pairs) for various agencies serving homeless youth around the country. [** FYI, you can get some great wholesale deals on Ebay. We got socks for about $0.70/pair!]

    we are starting to write down everything we buy & investigate where it comes from. we currently don't make many frivolous purchases, but even so, we are slowing down and thinking about what we are buying. some purchases are obviously better than others, such as fair trade coffee or cage-free eggs or local'ish milk... but what about dog food? guitar strings? computer parts? how do we promote justice with our spending power? where do all our "essential" things come from? how can our daily purchases further a just global economy and let us buy with a clean conscious? every dollar we spend supports someone, somewhere. What are our purchases supporting? Justice? Equality? Fairness? Peace? Or is it creating a bigger divide between rich and poor?

    of course, how does spending more $ for such items balance with living simply and sharing lives with our less-resourced friends, some of whom are homeless?

    we have ruled out selling our house in favor of living in a bus or a tent, because we are confident God has called us to a life of hospitality (which involves having a home).

    we have also decided the dogs are currently essential. :)

    It must be noted: without love, a passion for justice can fashion a demagogue and a brute. 'Love takes no pleasure in other's sins, but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure what comes.' 1 Corinthians 13:6.

Alice and her husband are still in the process of figuring out practical, everyday ways to live out Jesus' radical message. In the past couple of years, I've often felt that we are completely removed from the origins of the goods that we buy -- our food, our drink, our DVDs, everything. And I have a desire to instill in my children a knowledge and understanding of love and justice, and how it relates to the things that we buy (and how those items are created).

So what do you think, kindly blog-readers? A great idea? Too much work? Off the mark? Let us (and Alice) know your thoughts.


Craig said...

My wife and I have always aimed at Christian Simplicity, although less from a 'social justice' motive than from one of 'detachment from the world'. Which does end up having social ramifications, in terms of who your neighbors end up being, as you buy a house in 'less-well-off' neighborhoods. But you also end up having to count the cost in terms of what kind of schools you're willing to send your kids to. . .

Jillian said...

I recommend I have the handbook, and reference it basically any time I'm going to buy something. It compiles research done by many different organizations and grades businesses based on their environment & social responsibility.

For instance, did you know that M&M/Mars company and Nestle use child slave labor to farm their chocolate? I can't even eat M&Ms now.

I think it's incredibly important for us as Christians, people who want to change the world, to be aware of where our dollars go.

Craig said...

My other thought is that I'm not nearly clever enough, or wise enough, to separate the socio-economic 'sheep' from the 'goats' like that.

Not to pick on Jillian, but if I happen to know about Mars' or Nestle's socio-economic sins, what do I know (or not know) about their competitors'? And what possible 'hidden costs' are there, that I (or am just not thinking of?

Like many years ago, when it was hip to decline plastic grocery bags, so as to keep them out of the landfills. But then, somebody else said, "Hey! paper bags mean cutting down more trees!" So now, we've got our own socially-hip supply of cloth bags, and I'm just waiting for the next round of Enlightened Opinion to tell me why I shouldn't do that, either. . .

Or the whole disposable-vs-cloth-diaper argument, which ended with the choice between landfills and phosphate pollution. . .

Besides which, the whole movement to 'Only Buy From Sufficiently Righteous Companies' smacks, to at least some degree, of The Log and The Speck. Maybe the best thing I can do to promote a More Just Social Order, is to rid my own life of sin. . .

Scott said...

Jillian, thanks for that website. That's definitely something that I'll have to look at some more.

Craig, I see what you are saying and I tend to agree in some ways. But of course (and I'm sure you'll concur) it doesn't mean we can just throw our hands up in the air and say, "Oh well, it's too confusing to work out." Yes, there are perpetually changing studies and science, but I can't just say "They say that too much tobacco and bacon grease is bad for my body, but who knows if they'll change their minds again tomorrow?" :-)

[And for the record, I think those cloth grocery bags are fantastic (and my wife loves them).]

I do think there is great value in promoting justice and peace with our spending dollar. Plus, the fact that one could easily spend countless hours each week researching and trying to figure out where our "stuff" comes from is somewhat indicative of the problem: We have this huge global supply chain in which we are so far removed from the origin of our goods and foods. Maybe I need to plant a garden!

As far as not knowing the "sins of the competition," you're right, it's not easy, but I'm not sure it should always excuse us. We work with the knowledge we have, and pray for discernment. I don't loan my wifebeating neighbor a gun just because I don't know whether or not my other neighbors are wifebeaters. (How's that for an analogy? :-) )

Craig said...

Well, yes. . . Except it doesn't quite exactly work that way. I've got to give my food dollar to someone, and if they're all 'wife-beaters' in one way or another (human nature being what it is, and 'corporate human nature' being what it is), then how shall I choose?

Maybe you're right, and planting a garden is the best way to go. 'Course, if you aim to feed your family from it (to say nothing of your neighbor's family), it's gonna be a heckuva garden. . . ;)

I'm not saying that we shouldn't do what we can, or that throwing our hands in the air is the only reasonable course of action. But yes - it does also become a matter of how much I'm willing to invest of my time and effort to research out the most 'righteous' companies with which I will do business (especially if you have a family like mine. . .) (And if you do have a family like mine, then it's all the more true that the most effective way to a More Just Economic Order is simply to rid my own life of sin; and to raise my children well.)

Of course, when Jesus said, "the poor you will always have with you," He wasn't saying we should give up on the idea of helping the poor. But it is reasonable to understand Him as reminding us of just what our human efforts are and aren't capable of, this side of Heaven. We ought to strive as much as possible to bring The Kingdom of God to bear on earthly life, but ultimately, we can't be Utopians. Final, ultimate justice will always elude our efforts, until the Reign of God is finally, ultimately established. Which won't be because of anything we'll ever do. . .

Joe B said...

This is not supposed to be important or anything, but...
as some of you know I work in financial services so I am always up to my ears in supply chains and money trails. If you follow any supply chain back far enough, everything goes back to the money that capitalized the venture.

Well, I was talking to an economist friend who has given this subject a lot of thought. I explained how I identified a winning stock pick, and that the company (RICK) operates a chain of strip clubs. And sure enough, it fetched a 52% gain in 6 mo and evryo's talking about it (that's really big, FYI.) So he asks if I've sold it or if I'd let it ride, and I told him I never actually bought the stock, since I won't invest in vice stocks.

So my buddy the economist says he hopes I feel good about myself, then he showed me mathematically how, if I had bought @ < $6 and sold >$12, I contributed $3.32 of equity out of 1.1 bil, with which they earned 33 cents gain. So I participated in their sin in the amount of 33 cents, but mostly I just profited from a totally different enterprise, speculating on the behavior of others who did invest in that stock (among thousands of others.) My tithe on the $520 gain would be $52, 157 times the gain they derived from the 6 month investment of my measly $1,000.

So here is the question: Do I care about strippers? Then why have I not donated $157 to their benefit (or in opposition to their industry)? Inescapably, it's because I don't actually love that neighbor, I just like to pretend I do. (Jim Cramer is the one who popularized this argument, so far as I know.)

Is there a point? If there is, it's probably two things: sure, maybe you should tithe your spices, but it is better to personally love your actual neighbors than to theoretically love statistical neighbors you cannot see. All money is dirty money, and there is nothing untouched by sin and its scourge.

One might even contrast my pious refusal to invest in RICK with another friend of mine who spent many years working in Mexico, where he was a frequent guest at border-town strip clubs. He told me "I'd tip the dancers good, but mostly I made sure to buy them a good meal. That way I knew they had something the pimps couldn't take away."

"Which one proved to be a neighbor to the man who had fallen among thieves?"

Scott said...

It's a long, interesting story with a good point, Joe. And just for the record, in case someone asks, I don't necessarily see "trying to promote social justice with our purchases" being the same as "boycotting companies whose morality we may disagree with."

I'm not really a big fan of "Christian Business Directories," either. :-)

"Vice stocks" and the like do bring up another discussion, though. I wonder what everyone else thinks about what you wrote.

One last thing: Joe said "but it is better to personally love your actual neighbors than to theoretically love statistical neighbors you cannot see." It may be better, and it may be more personal, but if we think the people affected by our purchases and actions are just "theoretical and statistical," we are very wrong.

Especially in the 21st century, people in Haiti or Myanmar or Iraq may be the hungry, thirsty strangers who we are called to (in some way) invite in and give something to eat.

Joe B said...

Indeed. So the question is always, just how do you invite a Burmese tribesman or an orphaned cocoa harvester in for dinner? It's a heck of a hard question usually. I think of the well-intentioned Scandinavians who donated millions to purchase & liberate slaves from Sudanese traders in the 1990's. All they succeeded in doing was to quadruple slave prices, and thus stimulate a gold rush of slaving. Similar problem with boycotts, since the poorest people (even cocoa slaves) are always the first to suffer, and it's gonna take some serious boycotting before the executives and generals miss a meal. So I'm open for ideas!

Scott said...

I'm hoping Alice and/or her husband will stop by and answer all of the tough questions for us! :-)

Craig said...

The Law of Unintended Conseuences can be a real b***h. . .

Scott said...

Joe and Craig, I would guess we could find many anecdotes on both sides of the "well-intentioned" debate. For instance, the Kimberley Process, while by no means perfect, has greatly cut down on the number of conflict diamonds imported to most countries, which means the jewelry someone buys on Valentine's Day (not me, I'm too poor anyway) is much less likely to finance some thug with an AK-47, hacking off the hands of women and children.

That's just one example that came to mind. It just seems unwise to write it all off because our global economy is too complicated and we don't necessarily know exactly what's going on with people on the other side of the world.

And on that note, I'm inviting a bunch of orphaned cocoa harvesters over to Joe's house for dinner tonight.

Joe B said...

Am I too much a fool if I point out that the US State Department does wonderful things in this regard? Sure there is always some realpolitik, but I dare say that there is no single entity in the last 100 years that has done so much for so many. I wonder, does that have any bearing on the discussion?

Lauren said...

Practical assistance is a demonstration of love. Withholding that assistance because of a misplaced sense of righteousness places us alongside the two famous church-leader dudes who passed the beaten-up man because they were late for their worship service, leaving the Samaritan/the stripper/the pimp/the car-salesman to actually offer the help.

Re. boycotting Nestlé because of child slave labour...

Who is it who says that children shouldn't work so their families may eat? We wealthy white Westerners have made our children little lords and expect those darn Africans to do the same.

The reality for many African families is this -- if a child as young as perhaps 5 or 6 does NOT contribute to their family's income, collectively the family will go hungry.

So if you boycott Nestlé, you're also cutting off these children from income, and starving them instead.

Which would you prefer to keep intact: your righteous sensibilities or an African family?