A Year of Living Justly?

A Year of Living Justly? July 26, 2012

There have been several excellent books in the genre “A year of” doing this or that: A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possibleand Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master immediately come to mind.

If I were to write a book of this sort, I think it would be The Year of Living Justly, and it would focus on my attempt to disentangle myself from every form of injustice that my shopping habits help perpetuate.

This blog entry is not about how I am going to write such a book, but about why I almost certainly won’t – or can’t.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: I can’t figure out how to disentangle myself from injustice.

I had the idea for a book of this sort as I pondered the contradiction inherent in what I was about to do on a recent trip to do some grocery shopping, namely purchase some fair trade coffee…at Wal-Mart.

Many might try to address the issue by saying, “Don’t shop at Wal-Mart” – at least not until its workers are paid a living wage that does not have to be subsidized by food stamps in order for them to be able to make ends meet.

But plenty of other stores have not done significantly better than Wal-Mart, and so it isn’t clear that simply choosing another retailer is going to help.

And even if I found a store that I could be certain pays its employees fairly in which to shop for groceries, I would still have to navigate the products. Some bear the fair trade label, but do I really know whether the people involved in producing the plant and processing it are paid and treated fairly?

And what about all the other products? Shall I walk into ALDI with a notepad, write down all the company names, and contact each one to ask whether children who should be in school picked those vegetables? Do I have a way of determining whether the answer they gave me on the phone, if I were to call them up, would be honest?

I would love to live justly, in the sense of disentangling myself from injustice, and to do so not only for a year. But I scarcely know where to begin.

And what about Chick-fil-A? If I buy those delicious waffle fries, am I contributing to discrimination against gays and lesbians? If I choose not to, am I harming a local business owner who is just trying to make ends meet while doing nothing to change where 91-year-old Truett Cathy gives his money?

In other words, are both actions unjust to some extent, and if so, then how do I decide which is the greater injustice? But even if I manage to choose the smaller one, I have still not disentangled myself from injustice.

The other question that troubles me is one that troubles us all when we contemplate action on the individual level to try to make a positive difference in the world: Even if I were to carry out this enormous task, how much difference would it make, if I and no one else made this effort?

This is where the subject of this post intersects most directly with a topic I’ve been discussing a lot lately here on this blog and on Facebook, as have others around the country. If we want to hold businesses accountable and demand that their payment and treatment of workers is fair and just, it is only as a community that we can do this. This is why liberals like myself are persuaded that there has to be a communal – and in the United States, this naturally means governmental – component to solutions to problems of economic and social justice. Customers can write letters on their own, or we can take our business elsewhere. But in our democracy we can also band together through the government that represents us, and demand things be expressed through law and overseen by government organizations, such as that food be inspected for safety, that a living minimum wage be paid, and pretty much everything else that has to do with ensuring that the freedom of the wealthy and of businesses does not ride roughshod over the freedom of the less wealthy and less powerful – assuming that we can agree that the right to eat without fear of being poisoned, or the right to be paid enough to live on for one’s labor, are rights that everyone should have in a society which emphasizes “liberty and justice for all.” But it is agreeing on that which seems to be precisely what the population of the United States cannot do at the moment.

And so key questions remain, concerning how we go about consensus-building, and why so many Americans think that their own freedom from paying taxes to support such concerns is more important than addressing the profound injustices and inequalities in our society, as other democratic and prosperous nations have done to a much greater extent than we have. If neither concern for others nor national pride persuades them, then what will? And to the extent that a given issue is a matter of justice, it is legitimate to ask whether doing something about it should depend on popular opinion, or are there times in which government can rightly insist on implementing the nation’s foundational principles, as happened in the case of slavery, segregation, and many other examples?

In concluding, here’s a nice video about the Chick-fil-A controversy, which addresses the Biblical inconsistency of those who claim to support “Biblical marriage” as well as the most likely reason why Chick-fil-A doesn’t discriminate against employees and customers: because it would be illegal to do so. In other words, government and legislative solutions matter, and they help in at least some circumstances.

The video also has an interesting idea for a protest (planned for August 1) that will test the company’s alleged Biblical principles.

What do readers think? How do we address injustice, individually and corporately? Should someone write a book on living justly for a year, and perhaps give us all some useful pointers? Do you have any advice for those who are concerned to disentangle themselves from social and economic injustice to whatever extent they can?

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  • When’s your Sabbatical? I just met a Notaire from Alabama who is an expert on international finances and also on disabilities – if he were to arrive in ‘your’ community of authors at the same time you did on a similar maybe overlapping Sabbatical – maybe you – in a team – could write the book. Name a few others you would like to write with. The community here is CSRS, the Centre for the Study in Religion and Society at Uvic. There are dozens maybe even 100s of books and projects they have done. This one would have to take on banking regulation and derivatives, bankruptcy and jubilee, etc. Maybe better be outside the US when the book comes out. You could prep for this before the Sabbatical and finish the whole after – but not on your own. Maybe I could even do a chapter on the Psalms – parables and governance.

    Ever thought of such a project? Of course you could do it in Taiwan too – I think they have a similar centre – perhaps not as mature as the one here…

    • I have a couple of years until the next sabbatical. I will keep the idea in mind – thanks for the suggestions!

  • Eric

    Not that it answers all of your questions, but I highly recommend William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Some related essays are here: http://works.bepress.com/william_cavanaugh/ Cavanaugh is a Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at DePaul and studied under Hauerwas at Duke. This book combines reflection on theological topics, like the Eucharist, with commentary on everyday economic life. I’m oversimplifying things, but his practical advice is to look for and help create truly free free-market and exchanges, especially via the (global and local) Church. Very much worth reading.

  • Kaz

    That those who clamor the loudest for tolerance are often themselves among the least tolerant people is now so common as to be almost axiomatic. The definition of a “bigot” is one who is intolerant of another person’s views, and there could hardly be more striking examples of such bigotry than what we are seeing from some of Cathy’s critics.

    I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Cathy had announced that he’s a male witch or that he worships Satan. Politicians probably would have lined up to offer him tax incentives to join their communities. But he said something that the Apostle Paul himself might well have said, and for voicing his honestly-felt opinion (however ill-chosen his words may have been) he is now on the receiving end of censure from those who are apparently willing to abandon the principle behind “Separation of Church and State”.

    It’s sad to acknowledge that today’s “open-mindedness” too often finds its physical expression in the form of thuggery. We all support the ideal that every man has the right to his own opinions, but we should thank those who are particularly dedicated to tolerance for reminding us that if our opinions happen to be the wrong ones, then we’d best keep our damned mouths shut.


  • Simon Cozens

    There are some answers in (plug alert) a book I published, Naming The Frame. I think it deals well with the “how much difference can one person make?” issue and the good-as-enemy-of-the-best issue. You’d obviously need to read the whole thing for context, but here are a few suggestions:

    We may disapprove of supermarkets but if we must shop at them, better the Co-op than Asda (Wal-Mart). In fact there is nothing wrong with limited goals. We can vote the bad out even if we do not know how to bring in the good.
    Input the right stuff.
    Take a stand on a limited number of well thought out issues. You cannot attend to all the world’s needs, but that does not mean that nothing is possible.
    Join with other people who feel the way that you do.
    Suggest to your own church that they have a series from the Bible on issues to do with poverty and wealth or social justice.
    Follow up some issue that has really grabbed your imagination by talking to your elected representatives about it. Similarly, take an issue to your local big name retailers.
    My experience is that one thing leads to another. The more involved I get the more I need to know.
    Start communicating. There has never been a better time. In addition to the faithful letter, there are emails, web sites, Facebook, Twitter, cheaper than ever phone calls, radio phone-ins and the like.
    Set aside specific time. One of the most usual excuses that people make for their inability to help the poor is that they do not have the time.
    Set aside a budget. Have a small amount of money available to finance your programme of social action.
    Finally, do we always have to be successful? Sometimes things are worth doing even if we know that we are going to fail. To die trying is better than to live knowing that we never gave it a shot.

  • Michael Wilson

    I tend not to worry much about the private beleifes of of any vendors I buy from, though if one felt reluctant to buy sanwiches from Chik-fil la I would understand. I stopped buying gas crom citgo gas stations because of the views of its “owner” hugo chavez. I tend to recoil however from busy bodies who try to gilt me into joining their boycott.
    On the issue of trying to make sure ones wages are just or fair, i think it best to let the market determine that. Any thing else tends to destroy value and at the end of the day makes poor people a little poorer than they otherwise would be. This is why the trend in Europe had been towrd moving away from the old policies toward more U.S. style approaches to the economy. For instance the the new president of France is their first socialist in 16 years.

  • Frank

    Still waiting for someone to present a scriptural case that God blesses and condones homosexual behavior in any form. Otherwise all we are left with is denying scripture and making up our own God.

    • Such rhetorical ploys may carry weight in the circles you move in, but to those outside of them they are obvious for what they are, attempts at polemical misrepresentation. Even those who claim to be conservatives would be judged as denying Scripture by the same standard.

      Why mot go back to the original thread and explain why you do not find the argument there persuasive? Why not offer a counter-argument or questions or something other than jabs and insults? Is your own position really so weak, that that is all you can come up with?

      • Frank

        So in other words you cannot either. Thanks!

          • Frank

            As I said I am still waiting for someone to present a scriptural case that God blesses and condones homosexual behavior in any form.

            Keep in mind this is not about how gay people treated. They should be treated with love and respect like everyone else. But homosexual behavior is still a sin and no one can scripturally claim otherwise, at least no one has put forth any compelling argument to the contrary.

            So in other words, you cannot either.

          • It sounds like you are saying that you have decided in advance that it is impossible to do so. But let me give you the benefit of the doubt. First, let me point out that there are at most a very few passages that address the issue at all. Leviticus can be ignored as it always is by Christians unless something is reaffirmed in the NT. In the New Testament, the only passage that is of clear relevance is Romans 1, and there homosexual relations are (1) assumed to be dishonoring, because they involve a man or woman taking on the role of the other, something that Paul and his contemporaries would have viewed as “unnatural” because men and women were thought to be inherently of different status, and (2) are said to be the punishment, in that cultural context, for Gentile sinfulness, not the sin of which they were guilty. All this, it must be added, was (3) in the context of Paul offering a stereotypically Jewish condemnation of Gentiles solely for the purpose of then turning the tables on precisely that audience.

            Same sex relations in Paul’s time typically involved teacher and student or master and slave. We would share his qualms about such relationships, but need not extrapolate from what he wrote that in all contexts, including in one in which the walls he himself helped break down by teaching that in Christ, there is neither slave nor free, male and female, one must view same-sex relations of a different character in the same way as he seems to have viewed those in his time.

          • Frank

            James I have read and studied all those assertions and others and they hold no weight in changing the sexual ethic that God created and is affirmed throughout the bible.

            The only way to include anything but sexual relations within a monogamous heterosexual sexual relationship as part of the biblical sexual ethic requires either ignoring, confusing, adding to, secularizing, emotionalizing or outright dismissal of scripture. You might be comfortable with that but the majority are not.

            You should be embarrassed to post your assertions publically.

          • The only way to ignore that polygamy, rape, and the treating of women as property were part of the Biblical sexual ethic is to avoid reading too much of it, in too much detail, with too much attention to wording and context.

            If I continued to approach the Bible in the manner you do, the same manner that allowed conservatives of generations past to appeal to the Bible to justify slavery and a variety of other injustices, in that case I would be embarassed.

          • Frank

            Oh dear just when I thought you couldn’t post something more ignorant you bring up slavery. Sadly you probably are not embarrassed by it.

          • sue

            This is an irrational argument i see on a few of these blogs there was polygamy in the bible so gay sex is ok huh? Do the men who assert this think the wives were sleeping together? Do you know polygamy is heterosexual? As for rape where is that affirmed? You are desperate to make the bible say what you want it to, not follow it

          • The point is simply that marriage was a radically different institution in bygone ages, including in the Bible. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 shows how differently rape and marriage were viewed – it is not affirmed, but it is dealt with differently, I hope you will agree. The same was the point of mentioning polygamy. While you might be surprised by some ancient discussions, including in the Rabbinic corpus, my point is not to suggest that this is a form of same-sex marriage. My point is that we seem to all already agree that it is OK for us to practice and think about marriage differently than in the Bible, and thus we need to take responsibility fo formulating our own view of the institution.

          • Here is a link to a discussion of the relevant passages in some detail: http://www.matthewvines.com/transcript

          • Frank

            I feel for that poor young man. Trying so haardto justify sinful behavior through terrible theology and secualr reasoning. Tragic.

            As I said I am still waiting for a scriptural case that God condones and blesses homosexual behavior. I will be waiting forever because it’s simply not there.

          • Do you notice that you never offer counter-evidence or counter-arguments, but only dismissals?

          • Frank

            The biblical sexual ethic has remained supported and accepted until recently as people try and figure out a way to live the way they choose to. The onus is on those who try and assert that the bible says anything but homosexual behavior is a sin. So yes it’s is up to you and others to make a scriptural case if you relief differently. Everyone is still waiting for a compelling and supported one.

            I can understand the ignorance of those that have not studied the bible extensively or those that may have never read it entirely or studied it all all but for a theologian, it’s nothing short of a major embarrassment compounded if they don’t even realize it.

          • But if when such a case is presented you pretend that it hasn’t been, and ignore the details of it, or claim against the Biblical evidence that women and marriage are still viewed today as they were by the Biblical authors, and ignore the acceptance of polygamy and the treatment of women as property in its pages, then what? What will it take you to read what others present, understand it, and answer with something other than dismissal and insult?

          • Frank

            What will it take? An intelligent and compelling case that God condones and blesses homosexual behavior. If its true it should be very easy to present it. Still waiting,

            If you were honest you would admit that it does not exist and that everything presented is purely based on human an secular reasoning.

          • Just saying “still waiting” over and over while ignoring what others say doesn’t reflect well on you. And as much as you may believe that you can bypass human reasoning, it is involved in your reading the Bible, people translating the Bible, and everything else related to this discussion. If you think you can sidestep it you a mistaken.

          • Frank

            Who is talking about sidestepping reason? There is nothing reasonable about affirming or encouraging sinful behavior.

            Still waiting simply means that… still waiting. Which means that no one has yet provided a scriptural case that God condones and blesses homosexual behavior. You unwillingness to admit that certainly does not reflect well on you or the school where you received your doctorate from. The fact that you seem to be a teacher is even more frightening.

          • Which of the arguments presented do you disagree with, and for what reason?

          • Frank

            Why don’t you make a simple list to why you believe that homosexual behavior is ok and I will respond to each.

          • I posted on it but you chose to move the discussion here rather than there, and I just shared a link to a lengthy discussion of the relevant texts. Please respond to each point made in either or both of those.

          • Frank

            I am not looking for a lengthy discussion just a simple list. You should be able to do that simply right? If you can’t or won’t do it just say so.

          • I am offering a substantive, detailed discussion. If you are looking for sound bites that you can easily dismiss, you have come to the wrong place. You need to engage in exegesis and hermeneutics and explain your conclusions and differeing interpretations clearly and rationally.

          • Frank

            And you need to be able to clearly and rationally present a simple case for your position. As a writer you know that if something cannot be said simply the work is not done yet. So I am assuming then that you still have more work to do to make your case?

          • I will continue to ask you to respond to what I have written until you do, so feel free to keep this up indefinitely.

          • Frank

            In others words you cannot do what I asked. That’s what I thought.

            Your stubbornness only invalidates your assertions you know. It makes you look like you do not know what you are talking about, something I suspect is quite true.

          • Frank, claiming this doesn’t work on a blog where anyone interested can easily search and find everything I have written on this topic, and can easily browse your comments and see that you have yet to actually make a case for anything at all whatsoever. But feel free to compound this impression for as long as you choose. The longer you make this threat without saying anything substantive in response to my own posts or the posts of others to which I have linked, the greater the impression of childish trolling and inanity.

          • Frank

            So instead of showing us all that you have thought through and have a simple scriptural case for your beliefs you try and put the attention back on me. A common tactic for those that are way over the head and really have nothing compelling to say. How embarrassing!

          • Let me give you the benefit of the doubt that somehow you have genuinely missed all of my recent blog posts on this topic. I will provide you with a link: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/?s=Homosexuality

            The first is only tangentially related, so feel free to skip it. The others are all precisely the sort of thing you say you are asking for. Please actually address any of the substantive points made in amy of them, or otherwise it will be clear that you have no interest in doing so. I refuse to subject those who may have subscribed to comments here to any more of your spam, as you simply leave the same comment over and over.

          • Bob

            It is not my job to distill all your posts to a simple, argument if you cannot even do it yourself. Thanks for letting us all know what you are unable to do: make a simple, compelling case that God condones or blesses homosexual behavior. Something I knew was true form the very beginning. Thanks for helping me make my point!

          • Bon

            And BTW banning me from posting proves my point even more.


          • No one is banning you. You are being prevented from spamming. I will gladly approve any comments from you that do something other than demand repeatedly what I have already provided, over and over and over again. I care too much about the majority of intelligent readers of this blog to have you ruin discussions here with your immature behavior.

          • Bob

            Um your intelligent readers, if they are actually intelligent, would demand what I asked for: a simple case for you belief that homosexual behavior is not a sin. Banning me for asking the question that you cannot or refuse to answer only exposes your flaws not mine.

          • But you have been provided with what you asked for, over and over again, and refused to engage even a single argument. I think perhaps banning would indeed be appropriate. Thank you for the suggestion. If you ever wish to actually engage even one of the details or points I’ve put forward for discussion, I will be happy to remove the ban, but until then, I consider you a spamming troll whose only interest is to attempt to ruin intelligent discussion by being so very annoying, rude, and inane that they will stop participating. Shame on you.

  • Kaz

    @Michael: I can understand why someone
    might choose not to patronize some merchant out of ethical concerns.
    Some people try to avoid purchasing goods made in oppressive nations
    like China, while others choose not to donate to certain charitable
    organizations because some of the funds may be spent to support
    things that they find morally objectionable. I admit that I’m a bit
    bemused at James’s suggestion that eating a chicken sandwich at
    Chic-fil-A could be tantamount to supporting injustice, though.
    Whether right or wrong, all Cathy did was express his honestly-felt,
    Bible-based religious conviction, a conviction that I can easily
    imagine coming from the Apostle Paul himself, were he here today to
    participate in the dialogue.

    So everyone who holds a religious
    conviction with which we disagree doesn’t deserve to earn a living,
    even though that person may treat others fairly in the context of
    doing business? The attitude in America today that those who hold
    the “wrong” opinions should be made to suffer for it financially
    is fascinating, albeit disturbing. I can’t help but wonder how much
    liberal American’s contempt for capitalism feeds that idiosyncratic
    ideology. How did a nation whose citizens constantly talk of
    tolerance become so intolerant of opposing perspectives? I’m not
    sure when it all began, but political correctness and the
    philosophically imprecise focus on “cultural diversity” (not a
    bad thing in and of itself) probably contributed to the metamorphosis
    whereby tolerance became Big Brother, and Big Brother a bigoted thug.

    Many have focused on what may be the
    most disturbing aspect of the Chic-fil-A issue, i.e. the unbridled
    abuse of political power whereby the principle of “Separation of
    Church and State” is hypocritically spat upon to score political
    points. Mayor of Murdertown’s Rahm Emanuel claims that Cathy doesn’t
    reflect “Chicago values” and therefore wants to keep him from
    opening more restaurants there, yet, according to a poll taken by the
    Chicago Tribune, the same percentage of the population in Chicago
    opposes gay marriage as those who support it. I’d allow that Mr.
    Emanuel merely confused Chicago’s values with his own, but it turns
    out that, on the same day that he criticized Cathy, he welcomed
    Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam in an effort to secure Chicago’s
    streets (see:
    Since Farrakhan has himself spoken out against gay marriage, it
    appears that only Christian opposition to gay marriage is against
    Chica… oops, I mean Rahm Emanuel’s values.


    • I agree that there has been a lot of selective indignation in this whole matter. While I understand there is a need to choose one’s battles, I don’t think that is what has been going on in this case. I am somewhat surprised that anyone was surprised to learn what to me was assumed to be common knowledge, namely that Dan Cathy gives to organizations that have an anti-gay stance.

      • Kaz

        @James: I’m not sure why his donation record would be an issue. If someone believes that one side of an issue is correct and that person is involved with the political process, then it’s natural that he will be likely to give money to those organizations that he believes have the potential of affecting the outcome in the manner he supports. I’m sure that there are organizations dedicated to gay rights activism, yet I haven’t heard any conservative politicians trying to ban individuals who give them money from opening businesses in their communities, have you?

      • Kaz

        @James: Also, from what I’ve read (and I haven’t dug into it, I admit), some would say that the organizations Cathy contributes to would be better described as “pro traditional marriage”, so I’m not sure how much influence those organizations have in the political process. Are those organizations even attempting to influence government policies? If they are, then I covered that in my previous post. If they’re not, then Cathy is the subject of activist hatred and bullying just because he happens to have an opinion that his opponents don’t like. One site had a quote that went something like this, “I hate Cathy because Cathy hates me”, yet most Christians who are opposed to gay marriage don’t hate gay people. I think that there are many people out there who simply want an excuse to hate, and Christians with traditional convictions are an easy target in today’s social and political climate.

  • Thanks to everyone who suggested specific books and web sites that address how justice concerns relate to shopping – which of course is just one aspect of living justly, I am well aware.

    For those interested in my further thoughts on the Chick-fil-A protests, I’ve posted some here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2012/07/whats-the-matter-chick-fil-a-chicken.html

  • Münchner Kindl

    And even if I found a store that I could be certain pays its
    employees fairly in which to shop for groceries, I would still have to
    navigate the products. Some bear the fair trade label, but do I
    really know whether the people involved in producing the plant and
    processing it are paid and treated fairly?
    And what about all the
    other products? Shall I walk into ALDI with a notepad, write down all
    the company names, and contact each one to ask whether children who should be in school picked those vegetables? Do I have a way of determining whether the answer they gave me on the phone, if I were to call them up, would be honest?
    would love to live justly, in the sense of disentangling myself from
    injustice, and to do so not only for a year. But I scarcely know where
    to begin.

    So let’s see if I understand you correctly:

    you can’t be bothered to find out how the fair trade label works by looking at what orginasation it is (or rather, that there are different fair trade labels : gepa is from the church while others are from organic groups).

    you don’t know whether to trust the information from the companies themselves, but don’t say anything about whether you would trust an independent human rights or enviromental group – who are busy monitoring and publiciszing which companies are doing what things wrong.

    you declare a false dichtomy between doing nothing – that is, shopping normally – and doing perfect justice – which you ruled out because you don’t know where to look for good information – instead of starting small and increasing actions as better knowledge comes along

    Is that a correct summary of your stance?

    Because I can not see how giving you information regarding problem one (what to buy) will help you unless you decide to adress problem two (all or nothing).

    • Thank you so much for your comment. You have indeed misunderstood me! This blog post is not about whether or not to live justly to the fullest extent possible. It is about whether or not I feel that I could carry it through to such a complete extent that I could write a book on the topic. For some products, the fair trade label makes things relatively simple. For other products and produce, finding out whether people have been paid fairly, from the growers to the pickers to the shippers, is less straightforward.

      And then there is the question of whether to take into account other matters of justice involving other species, and whether eating meat is itself an injustice, but that was not my focus here. But in a book on the topic it would also need to be addressed.

      This blog post is also a genuine appeal for suggestions on where to find information and which organizatiions to consult. I would really appreciate any and all suggestions.

      I apologize that my meaning was not clearer. I am not sure what led to the misunderstanding, but I do apologize for having given you such a wrong impression about what I was saying and why.