My church has just started a sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins, addressing what they look like in our lives and, more importantly, how we can live lives free from their power. Two Sundays ago, one of our pastors spoke on the sin of Greed and I want to take some time today to talk about something that has been weighing on my heart for a long time.
We live in a greedy, greedy world. And I think, for the most part, we’ve stopped caring about that fact.
The rise of consumerism, coupled with an extra helping of radical individualism has transformed us as a culture. The American dream has been changed from “a better life [than the oppressive one we left behind] for our children” to “the best I can get.” We are no longer content with anything. We can have food on our plate, clothes on our back, and a roof over our heads, and we are often FAR from content.
We want more.
And I’m not immune.
My family’s budget is tight. Not ‘cutting milk with water to make it go further’ tight, but we have to keep a very close reign on what we spend. We pay our bills, have enough to eat, put a little money aside for our kids’ education, and have a little extra to squirrel away for harder months.
Generally, it’s pretty awesome.
Except when it’s not.
I like going for coffee. Which is weird, because I prefer tea. I also have more hobbies than most households combined. Usually, if I have extra money at the end of the month that is ‘mine,’ I will drop it on one of these pastimes. I don’t stop to think about those less fortunate than myself, I just spend my money on me.
Is that what we’re called to?
I look at the Bible and I see a call to RADICAL sacrifice. Following Jesus can cost us EVERYTHING. This flies in the face of greed. We have to be willing to give up our right to coffee, to hobbies, to new cars and new clothes and new toys. We have to be willing to wrestle with the size of our house and our monthly budgets. Especially here in the West, where many of the things we buy come at the cost of someone’s well being in the developing world.
Yet, by the grace of God, change is occurring. God’s Spirit moves, and in my life I feel a stronger pull to living an ethical life than to buying more things. Since starting tithing over five years ago, money has become less and less of a stumbling block in my journey. If this is true of me, I have to believe it is true of Christians around the world.
If we stop to listen, maybe God will change our hearts. If we ask Him to change us, maybe He will.
A few months ago, my wife and I sat down to watch 12 Years a Slave, a stunning and brutal depiction of slavery conditions in 19th Century America. The film was remarkably well done, and I believe everyone should watch it at some point to better understand the reality of life for those in slavery, and as a viewpoint into a brutal point in our collective history.
However, if we take a minute to think, we will realize we never actually left the era of slavery.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for months now. It’s taken me this long to figure out what I want to say, because it’s a hard pill for some to swallow:
We don’t really care about slavery.
We think we do. We watch films like 12 Years A Slave and we connect with the main characters. We say, “That’s awful, people shouldn’t be treated like that!”
And then we buy things created by people in conditions no better than their 1800’s American counterparts. We support those businesses who have enslaved entire local populations and keep them indentured so that they can sell things to us in the West for cheaper than something made here. We even know that these sort of conditions are real, but we turn a blind eye. It’s easy, because those suffering no longer work on the side of our roads, but in factories and farms half a world away.
We haven’t abolished slavery. We’ve outsourced it to other nations.
All my life I’ve heard about sweatshops. I remember hearing that certain shoe companies used children to make their shoes and paid them almost nothing to do so. Yet, I had little control over where my apparel came from, since I wasn’t the one buying my clothes. Then, as I grew up and had more say in my clothes, I became more interested in how I looked than where my questionably fashionable clothing originated. Finally, as a young adult, my finances often dictated buying things that are cheap, because I couldn’t afford anything else.
The problem is, all of the “cheap” items we buy aren’t cheap at all. Everything has a cost. The difference is who pays for it. For me, my clothing choices were paid for by the hands of slaves in another world.
Slavery isn’t new. Greece and Rome were built upon an economy that was driven by slaves. Persia conquered everything it could see with an army of slaves. And we feed the endless hunger of our Western Consumerism with the lives of those who have no choice but to serve.
For many here in Canada, there isn’t any choice. We need food and clothing and school supplies, and the widening wealthy-poverty gap in our country has pushed our lower-income families to a breaking point. They cannot afford to buy anything other than the cheapest options, even if that means others must work in abominable conditions to produce these necessities.
Yet, for others, the drive to save money wherever possible is a remnant of a different era. During our grandparents’ lives, they had to be incredibly thrifty because money was always tight. They passed this way of thinking to their children, who may still follow that line of thinking, despite living in a different economic situation. However, the cheapest option is no longer the most simple or the one with the least features. It is the one that has been most massed produced with the least overhead. Businesses no longer compete over who can give the best service or the most durable product. They make the cheapest price point they can, which involves making as many of a product as they can and paying those who do so next to nothing.
And then, why should companies seek to sell well-crafted, artisan-made products when our obsession with the “new and improved” means we will discard our purchase as soon as something newer is available? And if we are always seeking to buy this “new and improved” again and again, we need each of these items to be within our buying power. Which means cheap. Which, in turn, means slave-made.
What is my point? What am I railing against? A few things, which I will close with:
1. Our obsessive consumerism is eating away at the lives of less-privileged people around the world.
Perhaps if we stopped the cycle of always “needing” new and cheap, companies would spend less of their resources on mass-produced crap and more on products made by masters of their craft. This may, in turn, produce more jobs for local artisans, who can then support their local economy.
2. Our oppression of our own lower-income families forces them into this cycle.
For some, the “power of the consumer” has been taken away. The cheapest option is the only option, and in order to keep from turning to a life of slavery themselves, they are forced to sit upon those unfortunate souls who happen to sit on a lower social rung in another country.
3. Our apathy is allowing this to continue.
For many of us, we have the choice of where we shop. We can choose to buy local, or from Fair Trade, but we choose not to. Whether because of habit, or a desire for a deal, or because we frankly don’t care, we continue to allow slavery to go unchecked in other parts of the world. We know it’s happening, but as long as we can’t see it, we don’t care.
I am not inculpable in this matter. Even to this day, I sometimes find it hard to care about a faceless family in China or India. I see a t-shirt or a cheap chocolate bar, and my Western-trained brain tells me, “I want that.” And the price lets me have it. And, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes I buy things that come from sweat shops, even as I have the conversation in my head as to why I shouldn’t.
In the end, I’ve had to make some serious decisions about where my family shops, and what we buy. For us, it started with not shopping at certain big-box stores. From their, we’ve moved to buying almost all of our clothes from either Fair Trade sources or from second-hand stores. Our chocolate is almost always Fair Trade now as well (which is easier when one works at a health food store…)
So this week, I want you to just take a few minutes and ask yourself a very serious question: Do I really care about slavery?