In my last post, I took a long look at my three brief weeks working a temp job in Seattle. The whole experience troubled my conscience, as I realized, increasingly, that many of the things I consume—things I cherish, like books and coffee—are produced by laborers under less-than-ideal conditions, and that I will never actually meet the people who produce and manufacture what I consume. It’s a symptom of the growing gap between the producing and the consuming classes.
We feel guilty about this, I think, deep down. We are increasingly aware that somewhere, some nameless people are working very hard to pick our coffee beans, or bind our books. We hear of unjust labor practices in faraway places. We hear of sweatshops and slavery. So we buy Fair Trade coffee and look into where our clothes were made and try to shop intelligently.
Here’s the thing: we don’t do these things because we believe it will solve the problem. No. Me buying Fair Trade coffee will not address the root of the problem. It is band-aid slapped on a gaping wound in our society. We know this, I think.
Rather, I submit that the main reason we “shop smart”, or whatever you want to call it, is to assuage our own guilt. We want to consume, but we also want to disassociate ourselves from the injustices that make that consumption possible, because they make us feel bad inside. This is a futile exercise.
What is the shape of Christian fidelity in the midst of this quandary? How then should we live?
I want to argue that although paying attention to how we shop is important, it doesn’t address the much deeper issue at stake here—the gap in community between consumers and producers. This problem is deeper, more basic—more radical. And radical problems require radical solutions.
Way back in the beginning of things, we Christians had a powerful and effective solution to this problem: community. Members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were required—required!—to share all of their possessions with each other. Those who held out, God killed. I’m not kidding about this. Look it up.
Paul and James alike, in fact, are outraged by any kind of rich-poor divisions within the communities they address (and, by extension, our own!). In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”
Now, here’s the fascinating thing about both of these passages: even though Paul and James are both upset over unfair discrimination within their communities, both of these passages assume that rich and poor were eating in the same room. They were, in short, in communion with one another.
That’s certainly more than we can say about our church communities today. How many churches have you been to where the gap between the incomes of its richest and poorest members was at all significant? There are wealthy churches, there are middle-class churches, and there are poor churches. Though we confess the same Lord, we choose to associate by class. There’s something wrong about that.
OK. So . . . that’s my diagnosis. What’s the prescription? C’mon, people, let’s hear some ideas: how do we go about addressing this issue in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes?