Contracting, Subcontracting, and Burned Workers

Another garment factory disaster happened in Bangladesh since I posted about Sumi and Kalpona.  This one is a collapsed building that has killed 200 workers.  If you wonder how all these companies can deny any responsibility for garment industry disasters, it’s because they contract with someone who subcontracted to someone else.  When a disaster happens, they can say they didn’t approve that contractor to subcontract to this specific factory that didn’t meet code.  This happens in the first place because the contractor wants to guarantee the lowest possible price on goods to win the contract.  In all of this workers are essentially cogs in the well oiled machinery of industrialization.  Instead of machines serving humanity, humanity serves a system and that is nothing short of evil.

I can’t describe what things are like working in an Indian call center, but even in America call centers are run with a sweat shop mentality.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was way over idealized in its portrayal.  I know because the most miserable job I ever had was working at a call center for General Motors here in Austin.  IBM held a contract with Aditya Birla Minacs (a worldwide corporation that operates call centers in multiple states and countries based out of Bangalore, India) to provide a service to General Motors for the lowest possible price.  The job was actually the most intellectually challenging job I have been paid for to date and included the most diverse group of coworkers I have known.  The customers weren’t actually that bad.  All the same, I have never before or since had a work environment that I felt was such a dehumanizing experience.  I felt the system was so corrupt that I could not in good conscience ever purchase a General Motors vehicle.

Businesses like this are leeches on our local economy.  Many of the employees at this place were on food stamps and section 8.  There is a major employer in our city that hires nearly everyone full-time and requires a high school diploma and the ability to type to be hired.  Yet their employees have little to no disposable income to put back into our economy, have no paid sick time or holidays, and are collecting public assistance just to make ends meet.  The personal deductible on their health insurance for people who couldn’t meet certain healthy metrics including weight and blood pressure went to a couple of thousand dollars to way more if you had to put family members on it.  Since the maximum pay you could promote to in any of the positions at Minacs was around $12-$13 an hour, this is easily more than a month’s pay on top of the insurance cost already taken out of employees’ checks.  So when the City of Philadelphia wanted to pass a law that would guarantee workers sick time and Comcast protested, the first thought that went through my head was, “businesses like Comcast are probably what inspired Philadelphia to want to pass this law in the first place.  I can think of a few laws that Minacs makes me want to get the City of Austin to pass including making it illegal to force employees to clock out to pee if they can’t hold their bladder until their break.”

Of course laws are universal reactions to specific situations.  They are a start, but they cannot solve the sin behind the systemic injustice.  What really has to be addressed is the whole situation that pits employees and employers against one another, or rather the Plantation Economy.  The cynic in me says that while a better economy in my twenties might be why I never faced such a disempowering work experience until Minacs, the bigger cynic reminds me that most of my work experience was in Massachusetts and Alaska where workers have more rights.  So let me say as a native Texan who is a product of Texas public education, it really burns my biscuits that our whole educational system is about providing a steady stream of disempowered, compliant workers who are used to meeting metrics (standardized tests) to achieve outside goals.

I often hear conservative law makers talk about how raising the minimum wage (which is below even what Minacs pays) would be damaging to the economy.  I get that not every job is supposed to support a family.  As a graduate student, I work at a grocery store to earn extra money and don’t expect it to be my career on which I feed my future children.  However, places that expect that you will work full time and require a high school diploma and the ability to type are a different category.  Minacs is not a place that is designed to let you work a few hours a week to earn some extra money to supplement your income while raising children, going back to school, or paying off debt by taking a second job.  It is a grinding system that is designed to keep employees as disempowered and impoverished as the law allows and depends on taxpayer subsidization.  It is morally atrocious if the full-time employees of companies like that are the ones who suffer when we make cuts to public assistance for fiscal responsibility.  How about instead we enact legislation against employers who operate plantations?

The disturbing thing is that almost everything we buy involves participating in a system like this or worse.  Of course the call center workers in India have it worse off.  Of course the sweatshops in Bangladesh and China where most of our stuff is made are at the expense of human life and dignity.  If we want to talk about Christian values and American politics, then let’s start by declaring that using human beings as components of machinery to enable our ease and comfort is about as far from Biblical values as you can get.  If we are serious about change then we will lay it on corporations both as consumers and citizens of a democracy in which we actually have the power to initiate laws.  There is no plantation economy that is just.

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On Logs and Garment Factories

A tragic side effect of the bombing in Boston is that Sumi Abedin and Kalpona Akter won’t be heard in a city that would have listened to them.  They were scheduled to go on a ten city tour to end death traps.  This tour included three days in Boston that would have concluded with a protest outside the Gap in Harvard Square.  Sumi Abedin is a survivor of the Tazreen garment factory fire and Kalpona Akter is a labor organizer at the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.  They are in America and tomorrow they will be in Olympia, WA.  It shocks and abhors me to think that the value of a Bangladeshi life lost in the Tazreen fire was $1,200.  I am sobered to learn that demanding a pay of $71 for 208 hours of labor in a month is the sort of thing that can get you jail time and death threats.

While I don’t expect that any imams in Bangladesh are going to read this blog entry written in English by a mainline American Protestant woman, I still want to ask this question of them: What is the role of your faith tradition in standing up to injustice?  In a country where 85% of the population is Muslim, why are you not decrying these deplorable conditions?  But then I remember words from Jesus about getting the log out of your own eye before you can get the speck out of your neighbor’s and I realize that we Christians fail every bit to stand up even in America where we supposedly have power and don’t have to fear retaliation.

In Everyday Justice, Julie Clawson writes, “But the reality is that all of us who participate in the system have some responsibility for how it functions…Instead of abandoning sweatshops when they are revealed by the media, companies should instigate reforms and make recompense to cheated workers…True justice always involves healing and restoration of the broken.”

I think of the companies on my boycott list.  They include General Motors for operating a call center in South Austin that sees employees as pieces of machinery that exist for the purpose of profit, Wal-Mart for using contractors who use sweatshops and for putting small businesses out of business, and Chick-Fil-A for contributing money to groups that want to deny rights to LGBTQ people.  On the one hand, it seems very American to not want to do business with people who don’t agree with your principles.  But on the other, boycotting businesses rests on the assumption that the dollar or the bottom line is what really holds the power in the world.  In the case of General Motors and Wal-Mart, my boycott is precisely because they believe the dollar is worth more than human dignity.  And you might even argue that my boycott doesn’t matter since I’ve never actually owned a new car and most of my clothes come from thrift stores.

I called my friend in Boston to ask what it was like to be on lockdown while they hunted for the terrorists.  Since she lived in the suburbs, did she stay home that day?  No, she went to work at her job at M.I.T. because she would be docked a vacation day or pay.  That might not seem like much, but if you’re about to go on your maternity leave and have dependents who need your income, you’re already anticipating a financial sacrifice.  But then there is a photograph that has become viral on Facebook of a police officer holding milk for a young family that ran out on the day of lockdown.  This of course, begs the question of who sold him the milk.  Was it a grocery store cashier who wanted to make sure she didn’t get an occurrence in case she had to stay home for a sick child?  Or did she need that day’s wages to avoid eviction?  Or worse, did she know if she didn’t come into work that was it and she wouldn’t even have her job anymore?

So now I have to mention the good thing that Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby do: They close their businesses on Sundays and give their employees the day off.  That doesn’t let them off the hook for the bad things they do, but I don’t know of any well known progressive businesses that close for a day each week outside of family owned restaurants.  I’m not advocating a return to blue laws (which have been watered down to mainly meaning you can’t buy alcohol before noon on Sundays in Texas).  But somewhere in the spiritual practice of Sabbath is the understanding that money is not what holds the power and money is not what we must fear most.  If we were to stop doing business for one day a week and reduce our consumption, the world would not end.

But then we are obsessed with the apocalypse: the Zombie Apocalypse, the Left Behind Apocalypse, the Alien Invasion Apocalypse, the Vampire Apocalypse, the Nuclear Apocalypse, and I’m sure there are others.  We react in complete and utter terror at the idea that some outside force might shut us down and wonder how we would cope.  The scariest thing about all of this is that we all live in utter terror whether we are the CEO of Nestle (who somehow thinks that water should not be a human right) or the call center employee working two extra hours each day the week of Thanksgiving to make up for the lost pay of having a “holiday.”  We all tell ourselves if we can just lay up enough treasures, we won’t have to worry and be afraid anymore.  Sumi and Kalpona, the log in our eyes is this: we don’t any of us believe we have any power.  We have rendered unto Ceasar what is God’s.  We have yet to grasp that the Sabbath was made for us so that we might actually live.

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Heterosexism is a Sin that must be Renounced

The first woman I heard preach was a lesbian at a UCC church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that then became my church home in my early twenties.  In Hope and Suffering, Desmond Tutu states that if apartheid were shown to be a Biblical teaching that he would burn his Bible and cease to be a Christian.  These two statements that may seem like they have very little to do with each other are both the legacy of reformed theology.  It is the same Calvinist Congregationalists in New England who are remembered for scarlet letters and hysterical witch trials who now wear rainbow pins that declare “open and affirming,” and actually embody that ideal by ordaining and installing GLBTQ clergy.  Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid was repealed in South Africa.  Apartheid was an abuse of reformed theology to justify keeping whites better than blacks. 

I stumbled into that church in Harvard Square with belief in God and anger at church.  When I arrived, I found love and hope and my faith again.  We actually read more scripture in worship in that church than any other church I’ve ever attended.  I was also struck by how much we prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our decisions.  But then the reformed understanding of church is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. The Bible is the glasses through which we come to knowledge of God and ourselves.  But the Holy Spirit helps us understand how we should use and interpret scripture.  We are always being reformed because more often than not we exchange the glory of God for mere idols of our own invention. 

I had only been attending First Church a few weeks when they announced they were calling Mary as pastor.  Everything I had ever been taught to that point was that homosexuality was a sin but then I had also been told that women couldn’t be pastors.  I had an internal struggle in which I prayed to God to really convict me if this was a sin.  It should have been easy since this was not my personal “sin” and I had yet to invest much emotional energy in these people.  Yet, I felt no such personal conviction and had to admit to myself that every prejudice I could muster belonged to someone else, but not to me.  I know now why; Homophobia is rooted in sexism and I was deeply wounded by sexism. 

When I see articles like this one about “Reformed” Christian marriage, I cannot help but see echoes of the same reasoning used to justify apartheid.  The real reason same sex marriage threatens traditional marriage is because it exposes the rigidity of traditional gender roles.  There are times when I think that we can lay out most of the big issues with which our current generation struggles with the church and link them all to heterosexism based on gender essentialism.  Our emotional struggle with substitutionary atonement (that God demanded Christ’s death to satisfy God’s honor) has to do with beliefs about maleness that our current generation understands less and less.  We struggle with concepts like eternal damnation because most of us do not apply outdated gender essential categories of maleness to God even when we call God “him.”  We do not imagine that this sort of attitude towards sinners and those who disagree with us as normative for femaleness.  And in our current time, most of us cannot see this sort of anger as normative for maleness either.  Today’s good father changes diapers and offers to make his wife or his husband a sandwich.  Maleness as distant, authoritative, arbitrary, and only showing anger as an emotion is becoming a relic of the past that our current generation overwhelmingly rejects. 

In No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about the psychologically dehumanizing effects of growing up in an apartheid culture and being taught inferiority.  The example that struck me most was a gut reaction of fear he felt when there wasn’t a white man in the cockpit on a turbulent flight.  He realized in that terrible moment that he had “accepted a white definition of existence.”  What he described in this experience resonated with the type of doubt and self doubt I know too well as a woman in our heterosexist world.  Accepting a culturally constructed, male dominant definition of existence and marginalizing our own experiences is not trusting God, scripture, or confessions over our feelings; it is trusting culturally constructed, male dominant feelings.  For protestant Christians who emphasize the priesthood of all believers, it is allowing other people’s experiences to mediate between us and God.  

When reformed Christians speak of total depravity, what we mean is that we are so blinded by sin that we cannot perceive the fullness of life that God intends for us.  Any arguments for heterosexism based on looking at common patterns of human behavior cross culturally, past or present are based on an assumption that we can determine good, evil and the fullness of God by looking at ourselves. This flies in the face of reformed theology. If heterosexism is the second oldest sin then it is only because sin itself seems so natural.  

The Belhar Confession was written to renounce the sin of apartheid.  It states, “Therefore we reject any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation.”  Heterosexism is at its core an absolutization of natural diversity that is hindering and breaking the visible and active unity of the church.  The crisis of today is that many are letting their Bibles collect dust and ceasing to be Christians rather than accept that heterosexism is a Biblical teaching.  Reformed theology has everything to do with renouncing this sin.

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What is Your Existential Crisis?

I write this post because of a story that a convert to Islam told my World Religions class when we visited his mosque.  Our professor always asked people how they came to pick their religion – whether it was because they grew up in it or converted.  This man had been an Evangelical Sunday school teacher and had read a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict in hopes of being a better teacher.  He then decided that there was not enough evidence for him to accept the same verdict as Mr. McDowell.  Thus, he could no longer be a Christian because he didn’t think the resurrection really happened.  However, when he turned forty, he thought he should find the right religion because he didn’t want to be on the wrong side on judgment day.  I wondered if this man’s occupation might have something to do with computers (and as it turns out he was a senior engineer for IBM) since his thinking seemed to be very much based on evidence and fairly black and white.  However, more than that, I learned that day that the existential crisis that drives one person is not the same as the one that drives someone else.  This probably should not have come as a surprise, but it did. 

My existential crisis of faith when I was a young college student also came about by reading a book.  It was Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper, which was assigned for an Introduction to Missions class at Oklahoma Baptist University.  It was one of the few non-required religion classes I could take that didn’t feel hostile to women.  But suffice to say that I started a class being enthusiastic about sharing my faith and feeling called by God to do something that left me feeling ashamed of my faith and not sure I wanted to be a Christian.  I had never thought of God as a narcissistic monster who delighted in torture before I read Piper.  I took that class because I loved to worship God and wanted to serve God.  I left that class not really liking God. 

My existential crisis had primarily to do with hope.  I remember scrawling in my notebook of deep thoughts that philosophically, I thought that love and justice might in fact be the same thing rather than opposites – and learned in seminary that Paul Tillich thought so too.  But at the tender age of twenty-one, I thought my only choices were Evangelical Christianity or agnosticism/atheism or some other religion like Buddhism or something.  So it seemed to me that if you were an atheist and a woman, you could be an equal citizen rather than a second class one.  If you were an atheist, you might be dedicated to do something about the real world because you would realize this life was precious.  Maybe in the future, there could be an ideal society where people actually loved each other and cared about each other and we learned not to fight wars and had cured most diseases.  Maybe we could actually solve some of our problems and we wouldn’t have to have poverty and hunger anymore.  Maybe we could even travel to other planets and make contact with extraterrestrials.  And my crisis was that if the only choices out there are Star Trek or John Piper, then there wasn’t even a contest.  

So do we each have our own existential crisis that drives us?  In asking this question, am I making certain assumptions about the nature of reality based on my own experience?  The primary reason that I did not become an atheist was because I could not imagine away what I felt to be the presence of God.  It was simply beyond the limits of my imagination to not conceive that God was up there somewhere and that God was aware of everything including all my thoughts and questions (as well as everyone else’s).  It was personal experience that I have difficulty putting into words or naming with language.  No doubt most atheists would think it was really all in my head.  And maybe I have a psychological need to believe in God because I find the idea of a random, chaotic universe unbearable.  It is possible that could be the case.  Fundamentalists would also say that I’m wrong because if I can’t see things in black and white and in terms of evidence, then I’m just reading what I want to see into reality.  Of course, I don’t expect many of them to have read past a title like, “What is your existential crisis?” 

However, that’s the point.  We all perceive things differently.  Maybe the people who say they’d like to believe in God, but can’t, really don’t have that sense that I couldn’t imagine away.  It’s easy for me to say, “Well you just think that your only choices are Star Trek or John Piper, but let me enlighten you with liberal mainline Protestantism.”  However, I don’t think I would have lost or gained my faith with a book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  My questions would have had to do with the nature of justice and the desire for a better world.  I would still ask what the resurrection means and why it matters.  That is not to say that if someone proved beyond a doubt that it didn’t happen, that I wouldn’t have to accept the evidence.  But as long as there is space to believe in the resurrection, I will.  I think if you are inclined to think the resurrection didn’t happen because people who are dead have a habit of staying that way, then that completely misses the point.  The point (at least to me) is that if even death can be overcome, then why not every other injustice and hurt in the world?  Why are we limited to only what we see as being possible?  But then my existential crisis was a crisis of hope. 

 

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The Elephant in the Tomb

Ah…the week after Easter, that magical time of year when so many progressive pastors post their Easter sermons.  They basically say something like, “no one really knows what happened that day, but something did.  Whatever you want to believe about it is cool and all.  Now, let’s try to capture the essence of resurrection.”  To which I think, “I was totally reading your blog and grooving on everything that you were saying, but now you’re telling me that part of growing up is learning to acquiesce to a world smaller than ideal.”  Then I feel this sense of revulsion that harkens back to a conversation with my father fifteen years ago.  He told me that my summer job at Burger King was good for me because I wouldn’t only take jobs that would “benefit humanity and save the planet, but be willing to take jobs better than Burger King.”  It was wise advice in that there are times we have to take those jobs to eat.  However, that was also the summer I almost became an atheist.  Somehow what I heard was that growing older means becoming a cynic and giving in.  My existential crisis was and still is that I do not want to settle for the world as it is, accepting suffering and injustice as necessary norms.  So I will confess right here that my personal bias is that I put hope first defined in such broad, liberal terms as longing for a world in which there is no suffering, everyone gets along, and everyone is fulfilled in some way – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Ultimately though, I think whether you’re on Team Wright or Team Borg has more to do with something inside of you than it does with who made the most logical argument with the most evidence.  I’ll pretend Jonathan Haidt and David Hume have a point about reason being subservient to the passions.  As Haidt says over and over in The Righteous Mind, we are about ten percent rider and ninety percent elephant.  The rider would be our conscious mind that uses rationality and logic and the elephant would be our intuition.  If I pull out a 742 page book by N.T. Wright to make an argument about why the resurrection likely happened, I’m speaking to your rider, but not your elephant.  I know this is bold, but this post is for elephants.  There are already countless books written for riders.  If you think this means that this means I live in postmodern fantasy land and don’t believe in objective truth, I will remind you that ultimately questions about Christology (Jesus being both God and human and how that works out) and resurrection are questions of faith.  Faith engages something beyond reasonable evidence and logical arguments.  

The first reason some progressives have a harder time believing in a literal resurrection is often that people who make such stringent arguments for a literal resurrection do so on the basis of three morals that Haidt shows liberals don’t value as much as conservatives.  Their arguments for believing in the literal resurrection are based in authority (the Bible says so), loyalty (that’s what it means to be on Team Jesus), and purity (people who don’t take the resurrection literally are heretics and should be voted off the island).  Of course, since liberals don’t put much stock in these moral foundations, these don’t actually sound like good reasons to them.  That is not to say that conservative arguments don’t have validity.  But one reason N.T. Wright is the most conservative some liberals read and the most liberal some conservatives read is that he connects to all six of Haidt’s moral foundations.  In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright makes it clear that resurrection has to do with the renewal of all creation, which relates the favorite liberal moral foundation of care as well as the liberty/oppression foundation. 

The second reason that liberals have a harder time with a literal resurrection has to do with myth and literalism.  I don’t know if Joseph Campbell made a statement declaring that this particular resurrection didn’t happen, but he has thoroughly schooled our society in the concept of taking myth seriously without actually believing any of it literally.  In Hero with a Thousand Faces, we learned that the Sumerian goddess Inanna descended into a hell and came back.  At the center of Joseph Campbell’s assertion is that myths share common elements and we connect to them on a subconscious level that gives us deeper meaning.  We have learned that stories can be valuable and meaningful, even if they didn’t actually happen.  We spend billions of dollars entertaining ourselves with fiction that provides more substantive levels of connection and meaning than the average church service and then wonder why church attendance is declining.  The literal minded people often don’t connect as much on these levels and argue for resurrection by reducing it to a historical event based on evidence.  However if resurrection is excluded from the realm of history and relegated to the realm of probable fiction, then that too is just as much of a reduction in its meaning.  If we actually want to talk about benefitting humanity and changing the world, then somewhere the ideal and the real must meet.  I believe they meet in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – or rather my elephant believes this and my rider philosophizes about it incessantly. 

So here are what I perceive to be the two biggest liberal fears about believing in a literal resurrection.  The first is that the resurrection is not first and foremost related to a moral foundation based on care and liberation from oppression.  The second is that if the resurrection is a real, historical event that somehow reduces its scope and mystery.  Neither of these fears has any actual basis.  But then the thing about fear is that it is reactionary.  Easter Sermons however should be proactive declarations of hope.

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