have yourself an ethical christmas

There’s a conversation that I keep circling back to. I don’t know why. It always goes badly.

But I also found recently that I’m an INFP (thank you, Drs. Myers and Briggs), which means that even though I hate conflict, I’m so deeply motivated by the things I believe in that I’ll always keep coming back to those things, even when they’re steeped in conflict. I just can’t keep away. It sounds a little sick when it’s put that way, but I hold out hope that it may eventually do some good.

I start the conversation like this: Biblical social justice includes the purchases we make. That’s it.

In college I reviewed a book on the ways that our consumerism wounds other people and, like so many books have, it ruined me. The book provoked me to wonder whether God cares where we shop and what we buy and who was exploited by the watermelon we’re holding and whether it’s ever okay to be part of that process, even if we didn’t mean to be.

I believe now that he does care – that all those beautiful urgings about gleaning fields and real fasts didn’t stop when the Bible stopped being written or when our politicians invented the internet. The responsibility belongs to all of us, even though we’re not all economists and lawyers. Global trade  can seem overwhelming, and it’s hard to know what to believe after what’s actually happening is filtered through the biases of the people on the ground and in the media. We may never figure out how to do economics so that it perfectly fleshes out our professed beliefs in social justice, but it wouldn’t do just to give up.

That’s why I propose that we start investigating where our stuff comes from.

mexico 24

The most common retorts to my justice-in-consuming theory are that we are already giving – to churches and charities – and that we can’t spare the cash for justly produced items (for example, chocolate made without the cost-cutting aid of child slavery can be shockingly expensive).

As for those who are already giving, I ask what you’re trying to accomplish. If we give with one hand and take away with the other, what was the practical point in giving? Take child sponsorship for example – a fantastic way to enable a child and, in an organic way, thereby enable her community. It’s beautiful to accept the responsibility of feeding and educating a child. But I wonder, why equip her for the workforce if we’re still okay with the systemic injustices that will exploit her once she gets there? Will we also accept the responsibility when she’s been flattened, maimed, or poisoned in one of our favorite megastores’ factories? Who wants the guilt of knowing that, in a small way, by contributing to the system that enables a company to sell cheap goods made by people in an unsafe environment, we might be responsible for the downfall of the very people we’re trying to help?

As for affording justly produced goods, I can relate, because I sometimes struggle to afford essentials. When I do have cash to spare, I like to think in terms of voting with my dollars: that is, I vote for the world that I want, and when I spend my money I show what I care about. The things I spend money on aren’t necessarily broken up into Christian and non-Christian things – God cares about all of it; he doesn’t let us off the hook about the ninety percent.

When the money’s just not there – when we can’t have something we want without hurting someone else, maybe it’s worth figuring out how to do without.

We won’t always feel that we have extra emotional energy to spare for people we’ll never know in countries we can’t place on a map. I feel this way sometimes . . . and not just because my grasp of geography is terrible. I burn out, sometimes gradually, sometimes in a skidding halt. But God is faithful to catch us mid-ugly-cry and remind us of what we were made for.

None of the following companies is perfect, but I’ll bet they’re helping more people than the companies that aren’t trying to help people. That’s a start. And until we achieve the excellence we’re called to – well, that’s what grace is for.

It happens to be our job to show people what Jesus is like. We shouldn’t celebrate his arrival two thousand years ago by exploiting the very people he came to save. This year I’d like to sing,

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name, all oppression shall cease

and mean it.

For those still tracking with me and probably not preparing to send me hate mail, the lists:

The 2013 Ethical Shopping Guide | Danielle L. Vermeer

Sustainable Fashion Companies [Pinterest] | Danielle L. Vermeer

Ethical Shopping Guide | The Art of Simple

The World’s Most Ethical Companies in 2013 | Ethisphere Institute

Shopping |  Everydayjustice.net

Fair-trade, eco-friendly, and organic clothing and toys at deep discounts[Pinterest] | Kristen Howerton

Companies with a conscience [Pinterest] | Alysa Bajenaru

Shopping with Ethics: a 5-Step Guide | Danielle L. Vermeer (in case it’s not glaringly obvious I want to be her if/when I grow up. minus the business stuff – you know, the whole INFP thing)

Abolishop | VT students developed a “web browser extension that allows consumers to see if the items in their online shopping carts are at risk for using forced or exploitative behavior in their manufacturing or distribution”

For those who are especially curious:

Recommended Reading & Recommended Viewing | Everydayjustice.net

Danielle L. Vermeer . . . just spend a day there. You’ll be better for it.

Fair Trade USA . . . again. all day.

Living More with Less | Doris Janzen Longacre

Everyday Justice | Julie Clawson [the book that I reviewed]

Responsible alternatives include thrift stores, local mom-and-pop stores, handmade gifts, donating to charity (or directly to a friend in need, sans fanfare) in lieu of gifts, and browsing Etsy to buy directly from artists (try using their new feature to find local sellers).

Please add to the list!

I understand that the ideal Christmas gift exchange in terms of sustainability and community and our “paper economy” (thank you, Wendell Berry) would probably involve me walking down the road to meet with you and trade a handful of multicolored eggs from happy chickens for a reusable jar of organic apple butter. But since we’re not there yet, and the dog disapproves of chickens, let’s please let our everyday decisions help people.

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One thought on “have yourself an ethical christmas

  1. Ha! I’m an INFP, too. No wonder so many of your posts click with me.

    Great piece, this. I’ve felt this way for a long long time. Reminds me of a great essay CS Lewis wrote about the topic. Lemme see if I can find it…

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