The Kingdom Comes One Lonely Step at a Time—Until We Are Not Lonely Any More

I started bringing my own grocery bags to the store in the early 1990s. For many years, mine was a lonely habit. Although grocery stores in liberal Washington, D.C., stocked reusable bags for purchase, very few people used them. So when I got to the checkout line, the cashiers and baggers were often flummoxed, and sometimes obviously annoyed, by my bringing my own bags. They would ask, “What are these for?” If I had three bags’ worth of groceries and only brought two bags, they would say, “But we can’t fit all your stuff in these bags!” I would patiently explain that they could put the remaining items in a regular paper bag. Sometimes, as I left my apartment to go shopping, I would leave my reusable bags behind, not willing to deal with the hassle at check-out.

Today, of course, even elderly, set-in-their-ways shoppers bring their own bags to the store. Washington, D.C., now has laws whereby stores do not provide bags unless you pay for them. The culture has changed. What was once a lonely experience of bucking conventional wisdom and norms is now a routine part of grocery shopping that everyone accepts—shoppers, cashiers, baggers.

We can see a similar arc in the trend toward natural, organic, local foods. A decade ago, someone wanting to eat organic and local likely had to drive long distances to find a farmer’s market or organic groceries. Today, my town has two Whole Foods, and even the regular grocery stores stock organic produce and ground flax. There is a farmer’s market three times a week in my town center. Many people have summer vegetable gardens. As Mark Bittman reported in a recent New York Times article, even fast food chains are springing up to offer ethically sourced, healthier foods.

It seems that significant lifestyle changes (or even small changes, such as bringing one’s own bags to the store) for the good of our earth and its inhabitants become sustainable and adoptable by a large population only when communal values change enough that healthier, more humane practices become the norm. Big lifestyle changes for ethical reasons become most effective when done in community.

I was considering this phenomenon in light of my last post, on the helplessness I feel, knowing that my families’ clothing is likely sewn by underpaid workers in unsafe conditions, and also knowing that sewing my families’ clothes myself is not a tenable option.

What if, a decade from now, overseas workers are protected by some kind of certification process ensuring that clothing is made under fair, humane conditions, so that I can purchase “fairly manufactured” clothing in the same way that I purchase “certified organic” apples and “fair trade” coffee?

What if, a decade from now, cities and suburbs and even some small towns have tailors’ shops in their downtowns or strip malls, where regular housewives like me can go to have affordable (and reasonably fashionable) clothing made for our families?

What if, two decades from now, we have returned to an economy whereby much of our clothing and shoes are made locally, to fit specific people’s bodies and feet, and made to last for a number of years?

Over the two thousand years of Christian history, some Christians have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture. Some still do. In such apart-from-the-culture groups, expecting everyone to wear hand-sewn, look-alike cotton shirts, pants, and dresses is the norm. It is a communal value.

But most of us live as part of our cultures. While some Christians argue that we do so at our peril, I believe that we as Christians are called to help transform our world by living fully within it. It is impossible to spread the good news of Jesus Christ if our entire life is spent in community only with other people who already know and live by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Living fully within our communities and culture means that making big lifestyle changes for the good of the world and its inhabitants can be hard and lonely work. Such changes might require traveling long distances to find ethically sound goods and services, or having to repeatedly explain to perplexed people why we do things differently than most people (as I had to explain my reusable bags those years ago). Even attending church every week as a family must sometimes be explained to perplexed neighbors wondering why we “give up” our Sunday mornings so readily.

If anything good comes out of the tragic factory disasters in Bangladesh, perhaps it will be the first tiny steps toward a more sustainable, ethical, fair culture around fashion and culture—continued growth of “thrift shop” theology (and practice), a few enterprising folk with sewing machines making and selling locally made clothes that are also fashion-conscious, consumer pressure leading favorite brands to sign onto agreements to ensure garment worker safety.

Perhaps this is how the kingdom of God comes—one lonely effort after another to care for our earth and its inhabitants a little better, joining over time with other lonely efforts, until we are no longer lonely because we are working together, in community. As exciting as it can be to dream of grand gestures and sweeping revolutions, the fact remains that most significant change (for better or worse) happens incrementally, slowly, one small step at a time. That’s how we got here, to an uber-consumerist culture of citizens craving larger closets and renting storage units to store all of our ready-made, discount-purchased stuff. And that’s how we’re going to get to someplace different, and better—one tiny, seemingly inconsequential step at a time, taken in lonely, frustrating isolation, until we look up one day to realize we have made change happen, and we are no longer alone.




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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Tim

    America changed its laws on facotries and labor after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It wasn’tthe first factory disaster in the world, but it happened here in America and it happened under the watch of what was becoming modern newspaper media. American politicians had the political will to pass those laws because the public demanded it.
    The fire in Bangladesh is being broadcast by the ubiquitous media available today, but it didn’t happen here. I’m not so sure Americans have the political will to pass laws that would affect how we shop for clothes made on the other side of the world.
    Pass a law telling retailers they can’t give away free bags? Sure that one’s easy. Pass a law telling consumers they can’t buy cheap clothes made under slave conditions? I don’t see that one happening soon.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree. But the change I’m imagining here has little, if anything, to do with legal remedies. The Washington bag laws were passed only after a sizeable part of the population became used to bringing their own bags. I’m imagining change happening through evolving cultural norms that make it both easier and more socially acceptable (even desireable) to make more ethical choices. Yesterday’s post named my (our) complicity as individuals, and there is a place for that. We need to recognize how mundane, almost thoughtless choices we make have terrible ramifications for other people’s lives. But individual complicity is only one piece of the puzzle. We also have to name those ways in which our culture makes alternative choices difficult, and work to change the culture. Also, I think there’s a lesson to be learned from advice given to anyone trying to make a big change in their lives, like losing weight, paying down debt, or recovering from addiction. We note in such cases that the problem didn’t occur overnight, and neither will the solution. When I hear about what happens in Bangladesh, I want to know WHAT TO DO, now, to fix it. Well, that’s not how change works. Change is going to require lots and lots of small choices, both individual and communal, that will gradually change our relationship with clothing and those who make it.

      • Tim

        “change happening through evolving cultural norms ”
        Exactly right, Ellen. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the life of the law is not logic, but experience. When a society moves in a certain direction, the law follows to catch up with that experience as you saw with the DC shopping bag regulations. As people change their consumer habits, the law will eventually catch up, But change comes incrementally, not in one fell legislative swoop.
        Thanks for pointing us in the direction of that change.

  • Dave Parker

    Nice sentiments. Some things to perhaps consider:

    > Today, of course, even elderly, set-in-their-ways shoppers bring their own bags to the store.

    That could be unsanitary and even deadly. Illnesses and deaths due to foodborne bacteria increased after San Francisco implemented a plastic bag ban. Also, if you kill the bacteria that grow between shopping trips, that might be anti-environmental. I think it might be much safer for people and better for the environment to use recyclable plastic bags, like Walmart does. Here’s a recent paper (Nov, 2012) on the topic:

    “Gocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness”

    “Recently, many jurisdictions have implemented bans or imposed taxes upon plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.”

    > What if, two decades from now, we have returned to an economy whereby much of our clothing and shoes are made locally, to fit specific people’s bodies and feet, and made to last for a number of years?

    I think that kind of economy failed originally because it caters to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. No one aspires to spending their days cramped over a table making clothes and shoes. It’s much better for poor people’s health and well-being to have machines make clothing and shoes. For example, no one would be feeling guilty this week if a clothing machine in Bangladesh had been destroyed, instead of the lives of over 1,000 people.

    It’s similar to Whole Foods and organic foods — both of which are the current peacock tongues of the upper classes. Organic foods substitute hand labor for mass farming methods — and no one aspires to spending their days doing the back-breaking work of weeding.

    As Marie Antoinette would have said: “Let them eat organic arugula!”

    Example of history repeating itself: the American Arts & Crafts movement from about 120 years ago, which had similar motivations as yours, and which died out because ordinary people simply can’t afford handmade stuff.

    “Its adherents – artists, architects, designers, writers, craftsmen and philanthropists – sought to reassert the importance of design and craftsmanship in all the arts in the face of increasing industrialization, which they felt was sacrificing quality in the pursuit of quantity.

    Its aim was to create beautiful, useful, affordable, applied-art objects, so that art would be a lived experience for all, not just the affluent.

    Moreover, though the movement was successful in raising the status of the craftsman and promoting respect for native materials and traditions, it failed to produce art for the masses: its handmade products were expensive.”

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Well, we’ll just have to figure out a better way to do it this time then.