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.