Primary Motivator

The readings this weekend were all about money. Amos was talking about the dishonesty of those with money–how they were so focused on their own profits that they didn’t really care what happened to the “have not”s of the world. And Jesus said, “Guess what? How you use your money matters.”

Listening yesterday at Mass, it really struck me how those readings should skewer America. The obvious application is the question of income inequality: how many of the huge profits made by companies are held by those at the top of the food chain, how little is actually shared with those down the ranks.

But you know, so much of what we talk about in America centers on money. Many would like to believe we’re a Christian nation, but money–capitalism–is the primary thing that preoccupies our social and political discourse, even among Christians. So many things come back to money: health care and social programs would require more taxes, and we can’t possibly suggest raising taxes. Immigrants are perceived as a threat to American jobs, so again–it comes back to money. The question of whether a president deserves re-election is always about the economy. We’re having all these discussions about China and intellectual property and trade fairness, but nowhere on anyone’s radar is the question of just wages for labor, which is–let’s face it–the only reason manufacturing went overseas in the first place. It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.

We have a lot to answer for, and I don’t pretend to have a pat solution. I personally try to take a step back from the consumer culture by starting with secondhand clothing purchases as much as possible. But those clothes, too, were made by cheap labor overseas, and I order from Amazon just like every other red-blooded American. What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.

In any case, when I was looking through the possibilities for things to share today, this quote from my Beatitudes book seemed to dovetail with what we heard at church yesterday. Because what if? What if, instead of money, we made God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, the central principle that guided every other choice?

3 Replies to “Primary Motivator”

  1. “It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.”

    Would you say that the vast majority of the clothing we wear and the other things we use in the US is the product of labor attained by unjust means? That’s what I’ve heard many times, but I haven’t yet done the research to clarify and confirm that in a crystal-clear way. I want to be extremely careful, for the practical consequences of this are huge. There is so much to think through. What are the facts of the matter? How do we define “unjust” in terms of wages and working conditions? Etc.

    “What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.”

    This concerns me greatly. It seems to me that an enormous amount of the injustice in the world comes about because we like to talk about how unjust we are being but we don’t actually do anything to stop it. Am I currently acting unjustly towards laborers in other parts of the world by means of the clothing I wear and the other things I use? If so, how can I go on doing it? Again, I think we have to be really careful here. Perhaps it is not always wrong to attain things that are necessary and important to the well-functioning of one’s life by means of making use of conditions that are not ideal. For example, suppose that laborers in some country are not receiving all they ideally should have, and yet conditions are not so bad as to warrant an immediate cessation of all use of the products of these laborers. Instead, perhaps a reasonable amount of attention to making conditions better is what is called for while not ceasing completely to make use of what is available in the meantime. On the other hand, perhaps in some cases conditions are so bad that it is wrong to make any use of the products of such labor. In that case, what do we do? What if we cannot live in our own world without making use of such labor? What if our only alternative will bring harm to ourselves and our family and alienate us from the culture we can’t help but live in, even if we could still somehow stay alive? What if we can’t even stay alive?

    This whole issue frightens me, honestly, because in my mind and in my conscience I know I cannot acknowledge a wrong and still continue in it. I can’t be a person who talks on and on about how I am wrong and unjust in this or that area of my life, and, oh, I wish that I would be more just some day! Oh well! Once I acknowledge that I am living unjustly, I have only one option: to stop immediately. This issue seems so huge to me, both in terms of the amount of research and thought it seems to call for as well as in the enormity of the potential practical consequences. I feel like so many of us who express concern for social justice are too content to cry out lamentations but not actually do what we think we ought to do. But all the woes and lamentations and self-deprecations in the world mean nothing if we don’t actually do what is right.

    Here’s a thought: Do you personally know other people who are seriously concerned about all of this enough to be willing to try to think it all through carefully and do something about it? I think I do. Perhaps this would not seem so enormous if we could work together. Perhaps we should form some kind of a group and actually try to hold each other accountable to slog through all of this–however slowly we might have to go because of all our other life responsibilities.

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    1. You are are right on every count. It frightens me for the same reason: if I know there’s something wrong, then I am obligated to do something about it. But it all feels so huge to me.

      Here’s what I know for 100% certain about clothing. My husband bought suits, and the man who sold them to us said “Oh no, these aren’t American made; you couldn’t get this quality made in America. The labor costs too much.” Also, I know that I gnash my teeth paying more than $45 for a pair of shoes, even though that’s the same price I was selling them for 20 years ago at Sears. And I know that every single time I find an article of clothing I like at a crazy cheap price, it ships from China. And I feel tremendously uncomfortable about the whole thing.

      I have a tendency toward scrupulousness, however, and part of me thinks that thinking like I’ll be sent to hell if I realize there are problems and don’t find a way to fix them–that is a big problem, too. My hope, my reason for writing, is that I think too many of us don’t recognize the problem at all. If more of us felt the fear you and I feel on this, we would, I believe, start to see a way forward. It would help simply to have this issue acknowledged in discussions about China, for instance. Why is it all about intellectual property–OUR interests–rather than the just treatment of workers?

      As for the question of what if we aren’t able to live without contributing to the culture: there’s something to be said for moderation. I think our responsibility is not to engage in the sin of over-scrupulousness, but to look for ways to step back and minimize our contributions–and to do what we can around the edges, politically for instance, to get everyone else thinking about what is unjust.

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  2. I agree that over-scrupulousness is a big problem, too. Not only is it wrong and harmful in itself, but it’s also counter-productive, in that it makes it harder to objectively analyze the issues and figure out how to do the right thing. It can create a paralysis that stops progress.

    I agree also that moderation and balance are important in all of this, as in every area of life. On the other hand, the danger on the other side is that sometimes the idea of moderation can become a smokescreen for an excuse not to face up to the reality of certain problems or to actually do hard things that need to be done. We have to have a true balance–one that faces reality and doesn’t hide from duty but which also avoids irrational extreme reactions.

    So, again, at least for myself I come back to the need to slog through all of this systematically and figure out what is really going on and what my duties are. I appreciate the thoughts you’ve already shared on this. Please continue to share ideas–both theoretical and practical–as you continue to work through these things, and I’ll do the same.

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