Over several years now, my wife and I have had an ongoing conversation regarding ways to help those in need. But, like a lot of us, the need is overwhelming. The more we see, the more we want to help. But the reality is, we just don’t have the resources—whether that’s time, talent, or treasure (and in our case, it’s usually all of the above!). We squeeze some room in here and there, but for the most part, we just don’t know where to turn. And, let’s be honest, how much change can one or two people make? Whether it’s devastation in Japan, or the enormous issues plaguing Africa, or the child slave trade, it’s just too much.
Or is it?
What if there were ways that our everyday decisions could impact people on a global scale? What if there was a chance that just, say, buying a shirt, could help reduce the exploitation of people around the world? The good news is that there is! I just read a book that helps ordinary people work for change in everyday ways. It’s called Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson.
I “discovered” this book by checking out Brian McLaren’s blog. Every so often he has links to people and/or activities that he thinks his readers would like. When I clicked on Clawson’s blog, she had a link to her book. When I read the cover, I bought it. The subtitle states, “The Global Impact of our Daily Choices”.
I found Clawson to be very approachable and authentic. On more than one occasion she admits to her own failures regarding everyday justice. And that’s so helpful. Too often we can let guilt get the better of us and just give up. But I think Clawson’s message would be, “Don’t give up! Pick yourself up and start again. Every little bit helps in huge ways.” That’s what I got from her book. And actually, it’s made me more hopeful regarding global justice issues. But where does one begin? Clawson covers coffee (“Fair Trade and the Daily Latte”), chocolate (“Modern-Day Slavery Exposed”), cars (“The Global and Local Impact of Oil Consumption”), food (“Choosing to Eat Ethically”), clothes (“The Story Behind What We Wear”), waste (“The High Price of Our Dirty Little Habits”), and debt (“Proclaiming Jubilee to the Nations”) and each has its own chapter. At the beginning of each chapter, she tells a somewhat fictional little story about the issue being raised. She then gives some helpful (but sometimes alarming and frightening) information. Next she gives some ways to make changes in those areas. And lastly, she finishes each chapter with additional resources—books, movies, and websites. All in all, it’s a very helpful and practical book. I won’t go over each chapter, but I will hit on a couple of points.
I have to say that the chapter on chocolate was extremely troubling. She writes,
“The majority of the world’s cocoa beans grows in West Africa...Farmers sell these beans...to Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars. So the beans from these countries are the source of most of the chocolate those of us in the Western countries consume...[Reports] indicate that there are high numbers of children working to harvest cocoa beans...these children typically aren’t family, or even local, but instead have been trafficked in from neighboring countries. These children face starvation and beatings, and many are forced to work for little to no pay” (pgs. 55, 56).
And then she brings this information home by writing,
“Much of the chocolate we consume has its roots in child labor, often forced or slave labor....[Most] of us are guilty of aiding criminal behavior, even slavery, every time we indulge in a chocolaty treat...No parent would request the kidnapping, beating and starving of other children so that they could serve chocolate cupcakes at their child’s birthday party, but nonetheless, this is essentially what happens” (pg 57).
Her point is, once we’ve been made aware about the origins of the average chocolate bar and yet we continue to purchase them, we’re knowingly participating in the exploitation of children. Clawson sees slavery (as well as other issues) as not “loving our neighbors as ourselves.” Therefore, we need to look past our local communities as our neighbors and look at the global community of humanity and beyond.
A friend offered me a chocolate treat recently. I asked her if it was slave-free. She didn’t understand the question. I explained to her the issues with most chocolate purchased in this country. “Really? Man, it’s always something. There’s always some cause or injustice about whatever we do. I’m just tired of it all and I don’t care anymore.” I was shocked. She has a small son. I’m just floored that we’re too busy or over-burdened to be concerned with injustices, especially when it pertains to children.
I’m sure we don’t need to go over the importance of children in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just one example will suffice: “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19.14). The importance of this verse is simply that Jesus (as was his custom) sees the “outcast” as equal to everyone else. They’re human beings that deserve our love and respect for the simple fact that they’re image-bearers of God.
It’s at this point that you may suspect that Clawson would suggest that we abstain from chocolate. But she doesn’t, thank goodness! Clawson offers some great advice in this regard, too. First, she makes certain that she doesn’t offend her friends (I didn’t offend my friend) or family by questioning them about the origins of the chocolate treats offered to her (she mentioned this a couple of different times regarding different issues). Furthermore, she talks about slave-free chocolate as the alternative.
Now, granted, we won’t be able to find slave-free chocolate at the local convenient store. We’ll have to do some searching to find it in our local areas (or we can purchase it online). Furthermore, once we find it, slave-free chocolate will cost more than conventional chocolate, “[Because] workers actually get paid for their work” Clawson writes. “As is often the case, our savings usually comes out of someone else’s pocket” (pg 46).
The next thing I want to touch on is Clawson’s final chapter—“Debt: Proclaiming Jubilee to the Nations” (pg. 165ff.) Debt relief is a huge thing (literally). I don’t think most of us can even grasp the enormous amount of debt by most of the countries in the world. Like our own personal or familial debt, a lot of the time, the essentials get cut so that we can pay off debt. Or, as the old saying goes, we often have to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” The difference, however, is that (for the most part) our debt is just that—ours. Most of the time, we’re in the financial mess we’re in because of our own doing. This isn’t the case for 2/3rds of the world. In those cases, the poorest nations on the planet are actually paying off the debt of their forefathers or corrupt government officials that ran the counties in the ground. And to sharpen the point a little more, the poorest countries of the world are paying the richest countries of the world, including the US.
On page 167, Clawson writes:
“[Some] countries have to use up the 80 percent of their national budgets to repay [loans that were ‘either irresponsibly given, acquired (and squandered) illegally by dictators, or are the remains of colonialism and the Cold War’] and their insane interest rates. To repay debts these countries have cut public education and health services, and stopped hiring doctors, nurses, and teachers…Nigeria has borrowed five billions dollars, and to date, it has paid back sixteen billion dollars, but it still owes thirty-two billion dollars…[Some] nations in Africa spend four times as much on debt repayment than on health care. To put numbers to it, some estimate that Africa needs $15 billion annually to fight HIV/AIDS, yet African nations pay $13.5 billion in debt repayment each year” (pgs 167, 170).
I don’t know about you, but this turns my stomach. When I read this chapter (and it has some really harsh things in it—especially the role the US has had in the debt of the world’s poorest nations), it dawned on me—a lot of the issues plaguing 2/3rds of the world would all but be erased if they were released from their debt. And that’s the focus of this chapter.
The Jewish Scriptures have a tradition about debt relief called the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). In that passage, Yahweh’s very clear about what’s expected during the holy year of Jubilee—debt cancellation, release of all servants and slaves, the return of lands, etc. Some scholars believe that Jesus claimed this very thing about his ministry:
Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the [Yahweh] is upon me,
because the [Yahweh] has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the [Yahweh’s] favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (Luke 4.16-21; adapted).
Scholars hold that “the year of the Yahweh’s favor” is another way of saying Jubilee. Furthermore, according to Clawson, “In the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to ask for God’s kingdom to be made known on earth and for debts to be forgiven. While some translations refer to ‘debts’ as ‘sins’ or ‘trespasses,’ the Greek word used there refers specifically to monetary debt, strengthening the call to cancel debts as the jubilee year required’ (pgs 175-176).
The ramifications of Jesus’ statement (“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it”) are far reaching. What this says to me is that God’s New Creation is, itself, Jubilee. And isn’t that what we find in our own lives? We were all slaves, St Paul reminds us in Romans 6, but we have been set free by Christ’s death and resurrection. And since we’ve been freed, we should be about extending Jubilee to the rest of creation, especially our neighbors who are suffering the most from debt.
It was just because of this understanding that a “worldwide jubilee movement” began to gain momentum in the mid-1990s by “establishing the year of 2000 as a year of Jubilee” (pg 176). Furthermore:
“The campaign ‘gained clout from the 24 million signatures on its petitions, and endorsements from Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and U2 lead singer Bono,’ achieving spectacular results…World leaders made promises in 1998, 2000, and 2005 regarding partial debt cancellation, and even these partial cancellations have resulted in significant change. After the relief of their debt, Tanzania was able to eliminate school fees, and 1.5 million children returned to school almost overnight. In Mozambique, nearly 500,000 children received vaccinations (ibid.).”
So where does the average person fit in this global crisis? Well, this is where it gets sticky. Small change is needed and helps in a number of ways, but some things need large scale attention and solutions. And canceling world debt is just such an issue.
Clawson tells the story of two everyday “soccer moms” who hosted a hunger banquet when they became aware of world debt. They invited their congressman, Spencer Bachus, to the banquet. And he came. After the banquet, Representative Bachus called the women:
“‘I doubt that this will win me many votes, but I don’t want to be responsible for even one more child going hungry.’ So he began to speak out for justice…Bachus, a devout Southern Baptist, had his eyes opened to justice issues because of the involvement of ‘church people’ back home. He introduced bipartisan legislation like the Jubilee Act in June 2007, and he committed to using his political career to help end suffering in the world’’ (pg 180-181).
So, for us to make these types of changes, we must speak to our family and friends about the injustice in the world. Perhaps we, too, could hold a hunger banquet and get others involved. Furthermore, “political involvement is a necessary step in some situations. And it’s something the ordinary person can easily do” (pg 182). To echo the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “[Shall] we let the children of Africa and Asia die of curable disease, prevent them from going to school and limit their opportunities for meaningful work—all to pay off unjust and illegitimate loans made to their forefathers?” (pg 177). No friends. We can not. We must speak out against these things and say, with Jesus, that now is the time to release the prisoners. Now is the time to recover the sight of the blind. Now is the time to liberate the oppressed. And now is the time of the [Yahweh’s] favor.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC