You Can't Buy Your Way to Social Justice
I'm afraid of some American Christians.
I am an American, but I haven't lived in the United States in a while. I live in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa, and when you pick me up at the Minneapolis airport, I might invite you to coffee and suggest the wrong place—you know, one that doesn't serve fair-trade coffee. I will arrive wearing the wrong jeans—ones sold by companies that don't offer fair wages. And I won't use the right vocabulary—the language used by Western bloggers to talk about social justice.
I've spent more than a decade living among the wealthy and the poor and the uneducated and the doctoral students and Christians and Muslims. I'm trying to figure out how to love radically like Jesus and how to be radically in love with Jesus in a place with 60 percent unemployment, where the oldest university recently turned 13, and where 99.99 percent of nationals don't look like me, talk like me, think like me, or worship like me.
But I haven't read up on fair-trade coffee or researched human trafficking statistics or purchased fair-wage clothing. Partly, I haven't had time. Partly, I haven't had opportunity. My green coffee beans come from an Ethiopian woman on the side of the street. My beef was roaming Main Street yesterday. My clothes are whatever I could fit in a suitcase. I don't know the right way to talk about gender injustice, even though I talk with friends about female genital cutting in everyday conversations.
It used to be that people returned from humanitarian or faith-based work overseas with dowdy haircuts and last decade's fashion. Now, I'm afraid I will come back and not know foundational things like what or where to eat. I won't know where to shop to update my outdated wardrobe. I may very well be judged as wasteful for taking a long, hot shower (for the first time in two years).
And so some American Christians scare me. Passionate blog posts about offensive words like "the voiceless" and beautiful photos of homemade clothing and inspiring essays about living off the land inspire me to make more informed choices. But they also make me nervous about my ignorance after years of being outside this milieu and evolving language. They leave me with a pressing question and, at the same time, provide part of the answer.
If my generation cares so deeply about global issues of justice and poverty that they are willing to change eating, clothing, and living habits, where are they? A significant challenge for nonprofits and ministries remains recruiting people who will commit to serve long-term outside the United States.
I know there are a plethora of good reasons that concerned American Christians can't just uproot and leave the States, from family to health to finances. I know I simplify. But I have a theory about what is partly contributing to the dearth of young Americans willing to spend their lives on behalf of others.
They think they already are.
They think that with their pocketbooks and food choices alone, by sewing their own clothes and purchasing fair-trade coffee, by boycotting Wal-Mart and preaching that as gospel, they have already done their part to address global injustices.
In Nicholas Kristof's documentary Half the Sky, actress Meg Ryan also thought she was doing her part to highlight child trafficking in Cambodia, but then declines to go on a brothel raid. She says she doesn't have the "adventure" gene. I appreciate her honesty. I have less appreciation for her ignorance. What did she think fighting sex trafficking would be like, if not going to brothels themselves? Her reticence is symbolic of goodhearted people who have forgotten about risk.
Buying fair-trade coffee, boycotting Gap jeans, and eating only organic vegetarian foods can be important and valuable decisions. They cost time, money, comfort, and an established worldview. But they cannot be the end of our response to the deeply systemic and complex issues that allow human suffering to persist the world over. They don't require risk.
But these things do: Moving your family across the nation, to the inner city, or to the other side of the globe. Letting juvenile delinquents play basketball in your church gym. Inviting pot-smokers and pregnant teenagers to Thanksgiving dinner. Letting a homeless man get in your car.
The Good Samaritan wasn't good because of the origins of his food or because he sewed his own tunic or because he moved to Canaan. Instead, he looked around him, around where he lived and worked and traveled, saw a human in need, and got involved. He gave up time, money, and most likely status and respect in doing so. As he went about his day, perhaps commuting on the dusty roads between two meetings for a high-powered job, he loved someone.
This kind of direct, relational service is risky because it involves people made in the image of God. People about whom Jesus says, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me." The Jesus who says, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
Consumer activism comes with the inherent danger of separating us from the very people we want to serve. To buy fair trade coffee, for example, we might need to drive across town instead of sitting in the corner café where people in our neighborhood mingle. We can buy that fair trade coffee and never know the family in Burundi who grew, harvested, washed, and roasted the beans. And still we can feel that have done our part.
Whether in a rural, urban, suburban neighborhood or among coffee farmers in Burundi or among university students in Djibouti, we must not forget that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking—or ultimately of moving from one place to another—but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We must remember that
"The purpose of eating more healthfully is not because it will change global food systems or politics or social structure, but because it allows us the health and energy to live life to the full, i.e., be co-creators with God in a beloved and merciful community that includes all humanity- regardless of where they shop for food or what they eat." So says Shoshon Tama-Sweet, who is featured in Christianity Today for his work fighting child sex trafficking in Portland, Oregon (and who, for full disclosure, is my brother-in-law).
Tama-Sweet is a man who loves as he goes, who doesn't mask the aftershocks of living and loving with risk. It affects his marriage and parenting, his faith. He shares how God meets him in the broken places of himself and his city because Jesus also said, "I will be with you."
While remaining passionate and continuing to gently educate the ignorant (like me!) about how our purchases affect the world, we also need to ask whether current trends are becoming a convenient excuse not to delve into the complexities of social justice. We need to ask whether our consumer choices distort the words of Jesus, and whether they help us enter relationships or separate us from others.
As Matthew Lee Anderson notes in his recent CT cover story, Christians begin to fulfill the command to love our neighbor as ourselves "not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we're really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World . . . we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways."
While it is practical and loving to use our purchasing power to make wise choices, let us also consider how to be actively involved with the people in our communities. By laying down more than our fashion and our tastes, laying down more than our judgment of those who eat and dress differently.
By laying down our lives.
Rachel Pieh Jones has written for The New York Times, FamilyFun, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, Running Times, Relevant, and EthnoTraveler. She is a regular contributor to SheLoves and A Life Overseas, and she blogs at Djiboutijones.com about being an expatriate, development work, faith, family, running, and writing.