Thursday, May 09, 2013

Bangladesh and "Babylonian" economics


Somehow - God's grace - with everything else happening in the world, news concerning the grisly garment factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24th is still making headlines. Yesterday, Time released a photograph from the scene of the collapse, where two workers died embracing each other as the building came down around them (you can see the image by following the link; given the content, I decided not to post it here). The photographer, who was present all day following the catastrophe, writes: "Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable - it haunts me. It's as if they are saying to me, we are not a number - not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too."

According to the last report I saw, 794 men and women are believed to have died in the collapse--and I expect that total will continue to rise.

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We've just finished studying the book of Revelation at Grace UMC, and one thing I was only able to address briefly is Revelation's judgment on the economics of ancient Rome. You see this most clearly in Revelation 18, where we hear of the fall of "Babylon," John's name for Rome (a city famously built on seven hills - see Rev 17:9), and we get a glimpse of "the power of her luxury" (18:3). For instance, listen to Revelation 18:11-14, one response to Babylon's destruction:

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves--and human lives.
"The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendor are lost to you, never to be found again!"

The longer John's catalog of cargo goes on, the clearer it is that John's not impressed by these 'goods'. Luxury turns into monotony. These are but "dainties and splendor," which God's judgment has wiped away.
But not only is this evidence that Babylon has "glorified herself and lived luxuriously" (18:7), this is also evidence of Babylon's "exploitation of the wealth of her empire at her subjects' expense."* The problem is not just the luxurious living, but also the oppressive economics that supported Rome's comfort. That's most obvious with the references to "slaves--and human lives," but people living in the Roman Empire in the 1st century, the people John was writing Revelation for, would know, often firsthand, about the extent of Rome's exploitation of the lands she conquered. This went beyond slavery. In a famous speech before battle with Roman forces, a Celtic chieftain from this time, named Calgacus, denounced the Romans as the "robbers of the world." They plunder, butcher, and steal, he said, and they misname all of this "empire." This was the source of her luxury: the oppression and plundering of the lands and peoples under her influence. And the first readers of Revelation, those living in the Roman empire, to whom John was writing, would have known this as they read through the catalogs of stolen goods.

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Last week, in response to the factory collapse in Bangladesh, a piece by Wendy McMahan appeared on Christianity Today asking the Church to face the hard truths of how the cheap goods we enjoy in the US today often come at a frightening price to the workers producing them. "We need to stop and consider," she writes, "how most of us have supported an industry that lets people work in these dangerous conditions."

Read it here: Ignoring Worker Injustice Won't Make It Go Away.

Our spending, she suggests, ultimately shows that "we tend to care more about the price of our clothing than the conditions under which they are made." This is partly because we are so far removed from these people: "I will never meet my seamstress."
Yet, she insists, there's another factor we cannot ignore: that we have failed to love. "My sin against her is that I have loved myself too much, and her too little."

Our failure to love these neighbors, I believe, makes us no different than Babylon, exploiting the nations of the world so we can revel in our luxury and splendor. We have supported an economic system that routinely sends people into unsafe conditions to work long hours for stunningly low wages. Our demands for cheap products leave countless, faceless workers in a vicious cycle of low wages, non-existent benefits, and even, occasionally, factory fires or building collapses. (I've written about some of these issues before, focusing on Chinese manufacturing: the China price and me.) And if we can ignore these occasional news stories long enough, they'll go away, and we can move on.

Well, Revelation calls believers to stop ignoring it, to come out of Babylon and take no part in her sins (18:4). Christians cannot remain comfortable consumers in a system that abuses our neighbors across the globe, just so long as we can get our goods. That's Babylon's way; that's not the way of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. And we're called to follow the Lamb, to love our neighbors, to look out for their needs and their good.

So we have to find an alternative.

For a start, we can listen to the suggestions Wendy McMahan makes in her CT article. These may seem pretty obvious, but if we took them seriously they would radically alter the way we do our shopping:

1) "Support clothing companies that treat their workers well."
One resource she recommends is The Better World Shopper. This organization offers information to guide your purchases on their website, with a smart phone app, and through a book. Another resource on fair trade is Trade as One, a Christian organization that "has been advocating consumer justice for years."

2) "Buy less new clothing."
Her advise here is great, and simple:

The overstuffed drawers and closets in my house just might be a sign that my family doesn't need every piece of clothing that we own. We certainly don't need more. Buying less also allows us to invest more on fewer items produced under just and ethical conditions, rather than paying for piece after piece of cheap clothing. Plus, there are always thrift shops. Buying secondhand is resourceful and doesn't demand new supplies or labor be used for our clothing.

Finally,
3) "Give to programs that offer workers another option."
She leaves it to us to find out the best resources here, but the fact is, in Bangladesh and in other countries across the world there are organizations working to provide better opportunities for those otherwise consigned to a life of factory work--and we can help support their efforts.

If we took these suggestions seriously, they would make a strong start to a new way of life as consumers--and Christians who are entwined in economics that abuse our neighbors, "Babylonian" economics, we have to find a new way. We have to try and love our distant, nameless neighbors, even though it takes more effort, costs more money. That's just what it involves, following the Lamb out of Babylon.

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* This description comes from the New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, in The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 135.

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