Thursday, June 09, 2011

I, the oppressor

Over the last several years, I've put a lot more thought into how I spend my money. You know, "responsible consumerism" and all. It began sort of on accident, when I was in a class that required me to write a weekly essay evaluating a news article from the viewpoint of biblical ethics. One week, while flipping through the only magazine I had (at the last minute, of course), I found an article about Wal-Mart's then-recent application with the FDIC to have their own bank. It was pretty much my only option, and so I began an essay that I honestly imagined would involve pulling ideas out of...that place from which less-than-grand ideas often come.

The more I read, the more I hunted through the Word, I was surprised to find some compelling reasons to avoid America's favorite mega store. (In the beginning, it had mostly to do with the destruction of community, a huge biblical value. Later, of course, I discovered a plethora of other reasons to stay away.) I began to mention the notion to other people, and it was on my mind a lot. It wasn't until about a year later, though, that I decided my words left me a hypocrite, and I made my last purchase at Wal-Mart.

Over the next couple years, I ran into other people who cared about their habits of consumerism. I read about food ethics, and I spent bits and pieces of time researching which clothing companies used sweat shops. I learned about fair trade, and about how to invest my money in organizations that support those whom larger corporations often exploit. Still, I felt a little overwhelmed trying to find information, and wished for a comprehensive guide. I searched, but found none. That is, until one day, wandering into a fair trade store not far from my house, I happened upon such a guide: Better World Shopper. The book (and website) rank a huge variety of stores and products for their ethical practices. Information in hand, I was forced to turn a corner and radically change how I spent my money. My goal became to consume nothing that got below a "C" in ethical rankings, and to seek even better than that when possible.

I did all this with a conviction that was passionate and yet still a little ambiguous. It was the right thing to do, right? The way of Christ calls us not to take part in supporting injustice, not to be an accessory to the crime, right? But hey, it's good enough for me to do my best. I mean, at least I'm not as bad as some other people, right?

The ambiguity left completely when, while preparing to lead a Bible study one day, I was faced with James 5:1-6:
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you."

The temptation with such verses is to distance ourselves from them, to try and learn from the warning given to "those other people." You know, the ones who oppress people and whose workers' wages cry out against them. Wow, such a harsh warning for "those people." It's gonna be a rough ending for them. As I prepared, though, I felt God asking me to linger over these words and listen a little more."What is oppression?" I sensed him ask me.

oppression noun
1. the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.

"Oppression is the misuse of power," I replied in my mind. "What is power?" he asked next. (Dictionary-wise, power in this sense is defined as
"sway, rule, sovereignty.") "Well, in America, money is power," I thought. "I mean, other things provide power here, too. But money seems to be king in the long run."

It took only a second to hit me like a brick to the noggin. Oppression is the misuse of power. Money is power. To misuse my money, then, to misemploy my financial voice, no matter how insignificant it might seem at times, was to oppress. It was not just to be an accessory to the crime, somewhat distanced. It was to be the oppressor. The hammer hit even harder when I heard a sermon by a man named Steve Chalke, who runs an anti human traffikking organization called Stop the Traffik. Speaking about oppression in the world of chocolate production (raise your hand if you invest your power- aka money- in chocolate), he read a simple quote from a young boy who served as slave in the industry, on the Ivory Coast (where much of our chocolate comes from).

"When you eat chocolate," the boy said, "you eat my flesh."
Over a year later, I tear up as I write those words. My consumption of a particular brand of sweet oppresses a young boy half a world away. I might even sponsor a kid like him through Compassion, and then turn around and perpetuate the systems that will enslave him.

(Side note: For a list of ways to eat chocolate without being the oppressor, check out Stop the Traffik's chocolate guide, or consult Better World Shopper.)

As a follower to Jesus Christ, I do not want my misused dollars to cry out against me. I want to hear and respond to the prompting of 1 Timothy 6:17-19, trusting in God rather than the almighty dollar, and using my money- my power- to do good. I will be honest: Responsible consumerism is a pain in the rear.
It takes a lot of extra brain power. It limits my options, eliminates some favorites, and it thwarts convenience and the ever-tempting bargain. It almost always costs more. But I believe in a God who will stretch my dollar if I use it well.

I, the oppressor, have not always used my power well. May I depart from that pattern a little more, every day, for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Pedro the Wise strikes again

It's summer, which means the lure of two wheels on dirt has come. Just yesterday, I returned home in classic form: a little blood, some gear grease in unusual places, and a lot of dirt. "I fell," were my first words to my husband. "Clearly," he replied, and laughed at me.

(Pedro, by the way, is the bike from which I fell.)

When I bike alone, which is usually the case (anyone want to donate an old bike to my husband?), I talk a lot. Not in my head, mind you. Out loud. I probably sound crazy, but somehow it is a part of how I navigate it all, my biking world of hills and rocks and sharp curves, all beckoning me to overcome them. Often, when I am approaching a hill that looks less-than-possible (generally when I am coming from the bottom), I will say, "I own you." Yep, that's right: I say "I own you." (Occasionally, "You're mine.") Of course, the hill cares very little about my deluded sense of ownership, and I'm sure its sense of self-worth would not be rattled by my successfully making my way to the top. In reality, I am speaking to myself. I am declaring to myself that the obstacle before me does not have the upper hand. I am declaring that I am capable of overcoming anything, no matter how daunting. Anything.

A few days ago, when I approached a few sketchy spots involving uneven rocks and a rather lengthy fall should I slip, I found myself saying, "No death wishes today, I think. No death wishes today." These are places where I weigh the glory of overcoming against the guaranteed broken bones (maybe death) of the fall, and I decide to take the humble route. Picking up my bike and trying to convince myself that I am not a chicken, I carry Pedro over the rocks and prepare to take on the hill immediately following. "No death wishes today."

The most common phrase to come from my mouth (and one that I have actually said many times even when I'm not alone) is, "No quitting allowed." In the midst of a hill that I had planned to own, when my muscles are about to stage an insurrection and gravity makes a compelling case for surrender, I tell myself that quitting is not an option. Failure? Yes, it is an option that I cannot always preclude. Quitting? This is what I have control over, and it is the thing I refuse. "No quitting allowed" reminds me of the difference between the two. Often it plays out with me falling to the ground before I will ever stop pedaling.

Every time I get back in the rhythm of mountain biking, I am reminded of a strange truth: it somehow makes me a braver person. Consistently facing obstacles from the seat of my trusty steed (this designation builds Pedro's ego), my perspective on life is a little different. I am more likely to face a daunting hill on this new adventure called marriage by saying, "I own you." Yes, I will tell that hurdle that it doesn't have the upper hand. Perhaps when life presents me with an obstacle and my heart calls for surrender, I will declare that there is "no quitting allowed," and that if I fail, it sure as hell won't be because I gave up. And maybe I will learn to face some circumstances in life in which the consequences outweigh the benefits, and I will have the humility to say, "No death wishes today, I think. No death wishes today." Perhaps I could learn to choose humility and wisdom over blind, prideful risk-taking, and begin to understand that my self-worth is in no way lessened as I pick up my bike and carry it for a while.

Here's to you, Pedro, for reminding me of what it means to be both brave and wise. And here's to you, God, for being creative enough to use an old, gray mountain bike to get through to my often distracted heart.