Deliver Us from Wal-Mart?
The cavernous hallway outside Chicago City Council chambers is echoing with the sound of 150 people chanting, "We're fed up, we won't take it no mo'!"
The lady with the megaphone is leading a mix of union workers and community reform activists shouting slogans against the world's largest retailer. One of the protesters, Ella Hereth of the advocacy group Jobs with Justice, tells CT that Wal-Mart is the "poster boy for corporate exploitation."
She ticks off the complaints: low pay, scant benefits, race and sex discrimination, and profiting from mistreated workers in foreign "sweatshops." Before the Chicago City Council votes to block one store but allow another, aldermen label Wal-Mart "the worst company in America" and an "evildoer."
As it has grown into a powerhouse with sales of $256.3 billionmore than the sales of Microsoft and retail competitors Home Depot, Kroger, Target, and Costco combinedWal-Mart has become a lightning rod nationwide in local tempests of moral outrage. Church leaders (primarily mainline, liberal, and Roman Catholic) have joined grassroots activists fearful that mindless global market factors will steamroll human dignity.
"Wal-Mart's practices are immoral and unfair," says Reginald Williams Jr., associate pastor for justice ministries at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Pastors at the 8,500-member Trinity United and eight other African American congregations in Chicago called for a boycott of Wal-Mart.
Such anger perplexes other Christians who think of Wal-Mart as a family-friendly place and a company founded on the biblical values of respect, service, and sacrifice. Founder Sam Walton's autobiography indicates he taught Sunday school in his church, prayed with his children, and had a strong sense of calling to better people's lives. With the Protestant values of respect for the individual, thrift, and hard work, Walton was eager to improve customers' living standards through low prices.
"Is Wal-Mart a Christian company? No," said former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist at a recent prayer breakfast. "But the basis of our decisions was the values of Scripture."
Indeed, based in the Bible Belt town of Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has a tradition of tailoring its service to churchgoing customers. It sells only the sanitized versions of hip-hop cds bearing warnings of objectionable content. Responding to a campaign by the largest evangelical mutual fund group, The Timothy Plan, to keep Cosmopolitan magazine covers out of view of Wal-Mart customers, the company slapped plastic sheathes over suggestive women's periodicals and banned "lad mags" such as Maxim.
Wal-Mart knows its churchgoing, Middle America market. When Target Corp., a top competitor, refused to allow Salvation Army bell-ringers in front of its stores last Christmas, Bentonville seized the public-relations moment. Wal-Mart pledged to match the amount that Salvation Army bell-ringers collected at its stores.
In addition, according to Forbes magazine, Wal-Mart has become the largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise, with well over $1 billion in sales of such items as VeggieTales videos and The Purpose-Driven Life books.
Some Christians may be thankful for the values behind the Wal-Mart phenomenon, but others are voicing some of the unprecedented hostility toward the company. A biblical look at the retailer's labor issues may help Christians, among the one-third of Americans who visit Wal-Mart at least once a week, to discern whether they honor God in purchases and investments in the company.