The Problem with Giving Tuesday

Black Friday seems to now be the first day in a series of spending-oriented days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and today’s Giving Tuesday.  Apparently 2013 marks the second official Giving Tuesday.  According to the official website, the day “celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. I suspect, however, Giving Tuesday works because it is paired with days of spending and consuming; giving to others can sometimes be a way to make people feel less guilty for their own high levels of consumption.  We consume with ourselves (and our family and loved ones) in mind; we give to help others we do not know.

In the United States, it seems that getting the best deal often becomes the most important goal in our consumption. Post after post on my Facebook feed reveals friends letting others know about the money they saved in the purchase of some toy or gadget. While I’m not against saving money (I use electronic coupons to lower the cost of groceries quite regularly!), paying the lowest price should not be the highest priority when it comes to our consumption. Black Friday thrives because we’ve convinced ourselves there is moral virtue to finding the lowest price.

At the same time, I think all of us are willing to admit that there are limits to what we can and should do to save money or pay lower prices.  For those who pay people to clean their homes, I suspect paying an elementary school child to do the work (when they should be in school) wouldn’t be an option, even it was legal.  For those who hire people to care for their children, paying someone $2/hr who was undocumented and in severe financial need and willing to accept that low wage is probably also not an attractive option.

Yet somehow we think that if we buy an item in the informal marketplace, we are not responsible for how the business treats their workers. If we get a low price because the business we buy it from hired a child,  paid someone under the minimum wage, or made people work under hazardous conditions, then that’s not on us.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask, much like Cain.  That’s their problem, not ours.  I assume this because I see people championing their great deal much more often than people asking questions about why prices are so low.  Economic sociologists often talk about the ways we’ve become disconnected from the items we buy under modern capitalism.

But then, in Giving Tuesday, we give to organizations that help those in poverty–often workers who may have been involved in the goods we buy.  How can we fail to see the irony within this?  Since this day just started, and we in the US like our specially named days, what about a different way to help, that actually connected with all the buying this season entails.  Informed Sunday.  That’s what I would support. What if, as Christians, we connected the buying and the giving; our consumption with our concern for others we do not know. The idea that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that we are not responsible for the conditions under which our goods are produced — it’s a lie.  We are called to live in covenant with God and with others.  While the market may be depersonalized, when we buy items, we lend our support to the business practices of the seller.  We are connected to the workers involved.

Why don’t we reflect? Why aren’t we informed about our purchases?  I think for many, it’s simply too hard. I have students come to me, overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to live justly in a system they see as unjust.  How do they make ethical purchasing decisions? How do they choose a workplace that values human dignity above profit? But doing nothing… it’s always less than doing something.

This is why I plan to celebrate Informed Sunday. It’s a way for me to think more critically about the ways I spend money, and to demand of myself that I am informed about the conditions that I support.  As Christians who seek to pursue God’s justice in the world, I don’t think we have an option to not be informed.  We are called to be obedient and to love, regardless of the impact that has.  Being informed about my purchasing decisions isn’t solely or mainly about changing the economic structures that exist.  It’s primarily about learning to be faithful to God and God’s call to love others.It’s about owning my role in the economic structures I participate in. It’s about embracing a responsibility to be my sister’s keeper.

Second, as Christians, we are part of a larger community.  Again, as Christians in the US we often see the word you in the Bible and think about ourselves; others throughout the world may see the word you and think about the community that they are a part of.  Committed individuals who challenge the dominant logic of the systems they live in can promote real change.  In my research on Central American coffee farmers, I was struck by how disappointed many of them were in the Christians in the United States.  As they tried to sell their ethically-produced coffee, they found Starbucks was able to give them a higher price than the Christian organization they wanted to work through. One leader lamented that Christians in the US only wanted to give him aid; he wanted fair prices for a product. My new research endeavor will look at how non-profits on the ground have the potential to change some of the exploitive conditions workers are in, and challenge the logic of transnational corporations.

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In 2013, I’ve decided to try and think each month about one product I consume, and change my habits in a way that is more faithful.  And I hope to blog about them this coming year.  The first practice I’m changing is only buying organic, fair trade, or single origin chocolate and chocolate products. I love chocolate. But I have to admit it’s a luxury, and much of it is produced under some bad conditions. In 2001, there was a lot of attention in the media to the forced slavery occurring in cocoa production in West Africa. After a measure was passed by the House in 2001 requiring chocolate manufactures to verify their goods were “slave-free,” the Chocolate Manufactures Association successfully lobbied against it, and promised to regulate themselves through the Harkin-Engle Protocol. Groups such as Hershey and Nestle agreed to eliminate the worst forms of child and adult forced labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. CNN’s Freedom Project has an interactive website that provides different details about the protocol and the larger context.

A 2010 statement (one of several following up from the initial protocol) claims they (chocolate manufacturers) will reduce child labor by 70% by 2020. A report in 2010 from Anti-Slavery International, highlights the child-trafficking that still occurs in the Ivory Coast (where about 30% of the world’s cocoa is produced). The Payson Center for International Development at Tulane has lots of research available on this topic, including on-going analysis funded by the US Department of Labor. Their research also suggests that the chocolate industry’s pledge to regulate the chocolate trade has largely failed. A 2013 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights problems in the cocoa sector, along with other agricultural and manufacturing fields. According to UNICEF, around 500,000 children labor in cocoa production.

Buying organic or fair trade or single origin chocolate ensures that retailers know the conditions under which the chocolate was produced, and insures that child-trafficking is not being used to harvest cocoa. It’s expensive, however.  And chocolate is used in all sorts of products: cookies, brownies, hot chocolate, etc.  For someone trying to balance work, family, and community commitments, it can feel like an inconvenience to go the extra mile to find chocolate; or to go without the treat my daughters want for a special event.  It’s a small inconvenience to say no to an awful scenario of accepted exploitation.  This website, hosted at UCSD, is just one example of information available that makes buying ethically produced chocolate possible.

As Christians, we should call ourselves to a higher level of accountability for our actions that legal requirements dictate. We should desire to love our neighbor, including people we do not know, better. We should resist a consumerism that says working conditions don’t matter – or that we need not be concerned with such things.   I have friends who challenge and inform me in all sorts of areas. Some buy second hand when they can to avoid buying from factories whose conditions they are uniformed about. Others buy all their gifts at Ten Thousand Villages because they know the artisans receive a fair price.  Yet others buy produce from CSAs where they know local farms produced agriculture.  Some resist buying Apple products because of worker conditions.  All have challenged me to become more informed, and to change my practices, one step at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Tuesday?  I’m all for contributing to non-profit organizations, and I think there are a number of international NGOs who are using their resources to promote real social change.  A recent chapter I co-authored with my husband, Stephen Offutt, in The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford, 2013) discusses some ways that evangelical non-profits are moving towards more structural engagement, and provides some examples of ways they are challenging different economic structures.  I financially support a number of those initiatives.  But Giving Tuesday can’t just simply exist alongside Black Friday. We have to challenge the assumptions we have about our place in the economy; consuming unjustly and giving to promote justice contradict one another. Giving Tuesday needs to exist alongside the more informed and ethical buying practices of an Informed Sunday, and not alongside the glorification of the lowest prices sought on Black Friday.

 

 

 

 

Deliver Us From Evil

There have been a number of tragedies recently in our world.  In Nairobi, Kenya recent attacks at the upscale Westgate mall by terrorist group Al-Shabaab injured close to 200 people and 67 were reported murdered.  In Peshawar, Pakistan, at least 60 Christians were killed outside a church by suicide bombers this past Sunday. In Washington, D.C., a U.S. citizen and former navy reservist murdered twelve people at the Navy Yard.

The United States is considering military actions towards Syria after the use chemical warfare by the government; the nerve agent sarin was used near Damascus, and left at least 1300 dead and 3600 people displaying neurological symptoms. This attack comes after two years of a civil war that has left around 100,000 dead in the country.  Here, the perpetrators are both “legitimate” government actors and rebel forces.

One of the goals of those perpetuating the violence—whether an individual, a terrorist group, or a government—was to invoke fear.  One response of those in power has been to try and take away the power these violent actors have.  One of the central premises that Gary Haugen argues in The Good News about Injustice (InterVarsity Press, 1999) is that those perpetrating injustice have to be stopped, and if they continue to have power, the abuse will also continue.

However, another response in these instances mentioned above has been to characterize the perpetrators as a special kind of evil.  The incidents above are clearly horrific, as are a number of “normal” events that occur habitually—the marrying off of young girls in forced marriages, the shooting and deaths of young people in many U.S cities, and forced human trafficking that occurs around the world.  Yet recognizing the evil in these acts, and the need to stop those perpetrating evil, is different than categorizing these actors as human outliers in their capacity for evil.

The cause of these horrific events is more complex that evil people triumphing over good people. In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Harper Collins, 1998), Christopher Browning considers why Nazi soldiers were involved in the killing and bloodshed of the Holocaust.  In seeing the “normal” character of many of these men (whose interviews he consults), one of the book’s disturbing conclusions is the evil that “normal” people can commit and rationalize.

I’ve been rereading Seymour Lipset’s Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (Routledge, 1990).  Even as this book is 23 years old, he makes some assessments about the U.S. ideology that still prove useful, and helpful to me in understanding a national tendency to want to see people as evil or good.

 The American Protestant religious ethos has assumed, in practice if not in theology, the perfectibility of humanity and an obligation to avoid sin, while the churches whose followers have predominated in Europe, Canada, and Australia have accepted the inherent weakness of people, their inability to escape sin and error, and the need for the church to be forgiving and protecting (79)

Since Lipset wrote this book, America waged a war where the talk of the “axis of evil” became prominent in national rhetoric.  In contrast to “evil,” stands those who are on the side of what is good and just.  As Lipset writes a couple of pages earlier, “Protestant propensity for moralistic crusades has been expressed in various efforts to reform the rest of the world by war” (77); these wars are often framed as good guys against bad guys.

What does it look like to see the evil in these atrocities, to fight for justice and to stop abuse and violence, yet to also recognize the complexity of why people commit these crimes? These incidents are connected to larger societal stories about political power and alliances, provision of the state, and beliefs about the value of different people based on demographics.

What does it mean to be a part of the fight against evil in this world (a desire, I suspect, many of us have)? As I reflect upon this, I realize I have more questions than answers. As Christians, I believe it requires recognizing that all of us are sinners and capable of great evil.  It calls us to be a Church that walks with those who are suffering, and offers healing to those who are mourning. It means protecting those who are being exploited or abused. It challenges us to serve as a prophetic voice against injustice—not only obvious violent acts, but also the ways systems are also part of that violence.

 

Trying for a Boy?

When people find out my husband and I have three girls, they offer a variety of responses.  Most of these are not positive and uplifting.

Three girls. I bet you’re still trying for a boy.

Poor Dad. You’re really outnumbered, huh?

They must have their daddy wrapped around their fingers.

Usually these comments are from people I do not know well, making the decisions about how to respond all the more difficult for me. I understand that many times people are joking, but there are disturbing beliefs often behind these sarcastic statements.

Daughters are radically different than boys.

Fathers can’t bond with girls as well as they can with boys.

Life is more complete, for mothers and fathers, when they have a son.  

In the United States, the ideal for families is often to have a daughter and a son, while in other places, we know that having boys is viewed as more preferable to having girls. For example, the film It’s a Girl, released last year, documents the killing of baby girls in South Asia.  The following clip below, the official trailer for the film, touches upon some of the reasons and consequences of this reality.

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Some of the same anti-female bias that drives the reality of infanticide and abandonment of female children exists in the United States.  Women and men, boys and girls, are valued in different ways, and we attach different potential to each of them.  And while I  assume that very few of the people encouraging me to have a boy would explicitly agree that females are worth less than males, they often see their potential as more limited than that of boys.  They see boys and girls as more different than they are similar.

However, when people bring girls into their families, we see that attitudes change. My current research project examines women leaders in the evangelical world.  Anecdotally, it’s clear that for many men who encourage women in leadership within the Church, it is the stories of their mothers and their daughters that make them passionate about gender issues. Seeing their potential limited can make men more passionate about issues of gender justice. On a larger scale, past social science evidence affirms that especially for men, having daughters seems to create more feminist views.  (Interestingly enough, some of this effect is found when men only have daughters.)  A 2008 article by Ebonya Washington, “Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues,” includes a good review of the literature regarding what we know about dads and daughters. She further finds that having daughters actually causes male legislators (in the United States) to take a more liberal stance when it comes to women’s issues.

In my own life, I can also point to multiple ways that having three daughters has challenged some ways I think about gender.  Even as I study gender and the social construction of gendered roles, my daughters have expanded my own understandings of what it means to be female–and ways we might think differently about that as a society. In the differences that exist among my daughters, they illustrate that there is not one model of dress, behavior, or preferred activities for girls.  They illustrate some of the breadth of what it means to be female.

In socializing my first daughter, I was very intentional to let her know that she could do whatever she wanted, and be whatever she wanted to be.  Yet in making sure she did not feel confined by what others characterized as ‘feminine,’ I believe I sometimes unintentionally devalued some of those stereotypical qualities we think of as feminine. What does it mean to have her celebrate the fact that she was created female?  I want this child who loves soccer to see that using the strength of her body through sport is a feminine act. At the same time, I also want to affirm in another daughter her flair for fashion, and interest in drama.

So no, I’m not still trying for a boy.  Rather, I am thankful that my husband and I have three daughters.  In a world that often does not value girls for who they are and what they can be, I appreciate the chance to tell them a different story. I love watching them be sisters to one another. And my relationship with them has spurred me to continue to research gender related issues, with a hope that all families will celebrate their female children, and encourage them to live out their full potential.

 

 

Theology, Silence, and Action

I recently returned from a two-week seminar in Brazil with the Nagel Institute and Calvin College, where I spent time in Rio, Brasilia, and Manaus (Amazon) with a number of Brazilian scholars, as well as Christian college professors from the USA.  Given this opportunity, I hope to be able to spend some time in future blogs sharing some of this experience.

As in the United States, evangelicals can be found supporting a number of political causes across the spectrum.  We had the opportunity to talk with evangelicals playing a key role in different political parties (social democrats, the labor party, communist groups), some involved in women’s movements, and others who were committed community activists.  I was struck by how connected theology was with activism for these leaders, as well as my peers in the seminar.

As a sociologist, I was also intrigued by the role of the sociologist within society, and within the church.  Let’s just say the situation in Brazil is different than the United States. Sociology was seen as important and relevant for society (and the church). Several of the Christians I I met were sociologists and pastors, or sociologists and activists.  Former President Lula de Silva was a sociologist. As I commented on last year (after attending CLADE V, the FTL conference in Costa Rica), evangelicals seem to use the social sciences in interaction with theology in more integrated ways than we do in the United States.  Sociology shapes the way that they make sense of their context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in Brazil, I was reading Katongole’s book, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010).  Katongole is a priest from Uganda who has been integral with reconciliation programs at both Duke and Notre Dame.  One thesis in The Sacrifice of Africa is that political institutions and most of the ‘modern’ states in Africa were created out of a foundation of violence, and violence is part of their core.  He enunciates the theology that was (and is) at play:

that these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited.  That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted.  For a new future to take shape in African, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted—by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (p.17)

For many Christians around the world, theology is recognized to be contextual. There is a recognition that theology must speak to the social issues and society in which it is embedded; to be silent is also a form of speech.  One of the favorite songs of our Brazilian group was “Xote da Vitoria,” which speaks of the violence that will not win within society; of a God who will overcome, and of people who join with God in that march.

The words of Katongole continue to occupy my mind as I ask myself about what it means for US evangelicals (myself included) to think more critically about the context of our theologies. As I read and re-read his thoughts about the sacrificing of African lives and the casualness with which it is accepted by society, I cannot help but think about how our society continues to accept the loss of young African-American lives with casualness as well.  While the Trayvon Martin case has garnered much attention, there are far too many cases where similarities exist.  I leave for Florida tomorrow to visit my family, thinking about Trayvon and the case of Roy Middleton – an African-American man shot at his own car, who was apparently mistaken as a burglar by neighbors.  I think of the case of Jordan Davis, a teen who was shot in his car at a gas station. As I sit here in Chicago, I reflect of the number of youth, many African-American, who die to gun violence, and the families who have lost multiple children to gun violence, and the lack of serious attention and outrage at this situation.  I think of the Chicago Public Schools, which continues to be under resourced.

As a church, what does it mean to speak out on the devaluing of life that much of US society has accepted?  In response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, as well as the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Voting Rights Act, Lisa Sharon Harper wrote an excellent blog at Sojourners about the ways we are moving backwards, legally, when it comes to civil rights for non-whites in our society.  It is outrageous.

Both Jerry Park and George Yancey have offered some thoughts on this site about how we engage in talks about racism and recent events, especially within the church.  We need to ask what these cases (and our responses) reveal about our underlying theologies about the value of all life.  What theology exists in our own churches when we fail to proclaim (in word and action and presence) the dignity, the sacredness, and the preciousness of all lives—whether those in our neighborhood, in places throughout the United States, or countries across an ocean?  What theology do I profess when I remain silent when violence takes life? What would it mean to truly proclaim that dignity?

 


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