Cheap shrimp

Confession: I watched a startling video today and I’m not sure what to think about it.

After a six-month study by The Guardian, the video was released to reveal the fact that cheap prawns (shrimp to Americans) come at a high price: human trafficking and slavery. Burmese immigrants pay brokers to bring them into Thailand to find jobs. Instead, some are betrayed and sold as slaves to ship captains, forced to work up to 20-hour days under alleged cruelty, neglect, and violence. These slave ships supply “trash fish” which is sent to feed the prawns grown and harvested by CP Foods, the biggest shrimp farmer in the world. In turn, Walmart, Aldi, Costco, and many other large international grocers buy their prawns (cheap) from CP.

One of the things I miss the most about being younger is knowing so clearly what to do in moral dilemmas. When I was in my twenties, the actions were tough but the answers were simple. I must surrender this situation to the Lord. I must give up my dream for the sake of someone else. I can no longer buy and eat shrimp. Now the answers are complex to me, and muddied by many surrounding issues.

On the one hand, I have a horror of being Shelob: a brooding and selfish monster growing fat on the blood of her victims. We call it exploitation of the poor, and I cringe away from the thought of it—even secondhand exploitation of the poor, which may or may not be different. I refused to shop at Walmart for a whole year because of this {previous posts here and here}. Walmart makes its money through pinching the necks of the Chinese poor and the American poor, and all of us pay for it. I thought I’d never shop at Walmart again… but I do.

Because on the other hand, I am beginning to realize that every day of my life, I benefit from the suffering of other people. I see my husband working hard to provide me with the means to live. I see my mother in childbirth, bringing me into the world. I see Jesus struggling for breath on the cross, my sins forgiven because of bloodshed. I buy coffee and pineapple and T-shirts gathered for me from the ends of the earth, sold too cheaply by people too far away who worked too hard for people who couldn’t care less. This fact is altered very little by whether I buy the T-shirt at Walmart or Dollar General or the Salvation Army or my neighbor’s garage sale.

Sometimes we call services “tainted” because they come at a cost: the lives of the innocent. I care about this. And God cares—His Book flames with passion against the shedding of innocent blood.

But then He offered His own blood, the ultimate innocent blood, in the place of others. We call it a sacrifice (Him for us) and we receive it with tears and humility. Now, like Him, the Jesus people are called and enabled to offer our love as a sacrifice for others (us for them) every day of our lives, to break the cycle of hurt people hurting people, to walk through death into life and turn the world on its head.

How then to think about the sacrifices of others? particularly when they are forced sacrifices? Should I reject the “tainted” vaccine from the tissues of a sacrificial child, the “tainted” prawns from the slave ships of Thailand, the “tainted” land stolen from Native Americans?

Or does my gratitude give meaning to the sacrifice?

Or does my use condone the sacrifice?

Does it help if I do not eat shrimp?

Crash landing

Confession: I don’t have an answer to the question.

Sometimes I think I don’t even know the question.

To any of you who felt jerked around in this story—“Where is this girl at, anyway? First this and then that–” Remember there’s a reason. I’m feeling jerked around too.

I like to imagine, in my fonder moments, that I am entirely independent and rational. I think I’ll wake up tomorrow morning free to choose what to wear, what to eat, what to buy… but that’s something of an illusion. Even waking up is not exactly by choice. And I wear what’s here. I eat what’s available. I buy what’s been brought to my town from Italy (kiwi) and Argentina (grapes) and China (toilet paper).

Some would say it’s impossible for me to buy, say, a fair-trade banana or an ethically produced smartphone.

What if the products I buy are only available to me because the world is not operating on the principles of Jesus?

Don’t you think that’s the case, more often than we’d like to admit?

Here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling.

1. With increasing knowledge comes increasing responsibility.

I mean not only increasing private knowledge, which can perhaps be turned off at will, but increasing public awareness. When abortion was first talked of in America, it was acceptable to call it “removing a blob of tissue.” Now that we’ve probed the tiny beating heart, discovered the grimaces away from light, unwrapped the oh-so-human features, even abortion advocates don’t talk that way anymore. We argue about what to do with it, but we all know it’s a baby in there.

Alan Paton wrote a story on the oppression of South Africa in the mid-1900’s. Through the mouth of one of his characters, he said this:

What we did when we came to South Africa was permissible. It was permissible to develop our great resources with the aid of what labour we could find. It was permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work. But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work… It is permissible to develop any resources if the labour is forthcoming. But it is not permissible to develop any resources if they can be developed only at the cost of the labour. It is not permissible to mine any gold, or manufacture any product, or cultivate any land, if such minding and manufacture and cultivation depend for their success on a policy of keeping labour poor. It is not permissible to add to one’s possessions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men. Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation. It might have been permissible in the early days of our country, before we became aware of its cost, in the disintegration of native community life, in the deterioration of native family life, in poverty, slums, and crime. But now that the cost is known, it is no longer permissible.      —Cry, the Beloved Country

An individual may bury his head in the sand if he likes, but society often knows better. We bear increasing responsibility, are given constant opportunities to unlearn our own errors. What’s happening in China’s factories and on Columbia’s plantations is easier to discover than it used to be. Celebrate the growing awareness.

2. With increasing knowledge comes a need for increasing faith.

One hundred years ago, there was little information about the poor in Brazil, or the politically oppressed in the Philippines. We trusted that God was holding the world together and looking out for His children. Today, we have daily and hourly breaking news from every quarter of the globe, and we feel immediate compulsion not only to care, but to fix.

There is much to care about—where my store’s coffee came from and how it treats its suppliers, where it dumps its waste and how much it pays its workers, whether it was started by a Wiccan and whether it will spend my money to campaign for gay rights.

In the 21st century, we still need to trust that God is holding the world intact and looking after His children. While learning, while caring, while working to alleviate, we need to resist the feeling that the world’s survival depends solely on us.

3. In fact, we must accept the fact that the world system is opposed to Christ.

We Christians reject the world system utterly. But we also live in it. Like it or not, the world system is what brings us bananas and smartphones (and convinces us we need lots of them).

When Walmart is dethroned, another turtle will rise to the top. Perhaps we cannot change this. Instead of just targeting upper turtles, can we crawl a little lower on the stack ourselves?

4. We must become willing to forego personal happiness for the good of others.

Propaganda should make us laugh. Advertising is all about people who want to take our money convincing us that personal happiness is the ultimate meaning of life, and personal happiness lies with their product. Clothing ads promise to make us look like a million bucks for only forty. Toothpaste ads promise us soul mates if we smile right. Oh really? That’s a turtle tower. They’re telling us Get higher on the stack. And P.S.—let us ride on your back to the top.

Everyone says “You can’t change the world, you know.” But the world is a very complex collection of moving parts. When I change a few of the moving parts, I have changed the world, and it won’t stop there. It matters to me if Chinese workers are oppressed. It matters if the stores I frequent believe in expendable labor. I care. And though I cannot change it all, I have daily opportunities to lay down my selfish demand that the world deliver happiness to Shari Zook at the expense of everyone else.

Maybe I can go without that commodity. Maybe I can grow some food instead of having it rushed over from Honolulu. Maybe I can find a way to give instead of take. The choices I make form habits, and my habits form me. Do my habits reflect selfishness or servanthood?

I want to cry out with the oppressed, to add my voice to theirs and make it loud in God’s ears. How do I do this? Am I trying to find out?

5. We need to remember that it’s humans we’re talking about on every level. And Jesus loves humans.

I can be so absorbed in solving world problems that I miss the ones under my nose.

I still vote with my money, and as often as possible I’m voting for the little guy. But when I really must shop from the big guy, I’m surprised to find that all of his workers are little guys. My Walmart cashier is a little guy, wanting to keep her job. My McDonald’s employee is a little guy, flipping burgers, chopping lettuce, handing me my receipt. I can’t offer help to a system. I can offer help to a person.

Into every place I go, I take Jesus—an excellent reason for entering the most depraved areas of the universe. And in every place I go, I meet Jesus. He’s there having a meltdown in the candy aisle. He’s there being harangued in a back room by his irate employer. He’s having trouble making decisions today because his mother is dying. He needs help with his cane and his bags.

Do I care?

*****

I’m learning here. Thinking and rethinking. What do you have to say? What parts am I missing?

Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff

Confession: I recently broke my year-long Walmart fast. On purpose.

I woke up one morning and said “Today is the day.” I got on my shoes and my courage, drove to Walmart, and bought these items:

  • Two pairs of black dress pants
  • Two Oxford shirts
  • Three leather belts
  • Two votive candles

I made this purchase for two reasons. First, because I needed the items. And I’d come to realize I could not buy them affordably in my town unless I shopped at Walmart. Secondly, because I was afraid to do it.

I am not afraid of very many physical things—snakes, tornadoes, bad men. But when I began dreaming about shopping at Walmart, dreaming of being found there by my church people, I realized I was afraid—and I knew that had to change. I don’t believe in coddling fears. Physical fears, I mean! Relational fears, I just wrap them up snug and sing them a lullaby and hang a big sign around their necks “DO NOT DISTURB.” But physical fears I like to shake up.

I was afraid of two things. I thought it hard to publicly shun Walmart for a year and then be caught there. So I was afraid of public opinion. And I was afraid because as the consumer, I felt myself to be the apex of a triangle, with all the blood of the oppressed weighing on my shoulders. I was afraid of private guilt.

The truth is that I miss shopping at Walmart. The American department store is a modern day wonder. It’s easy and fun; in one amazing place I can find nearly everything my family needs. No bundling kids in and out of car seats; no chain of unsuccessful stops. I like comfort and simplicity, and I was afraid I’d stop caring about that lady in China whose face I cannot see, and start caring only about what was easy for the Zooks.

So I checked out with an elevated heart rate and shaking hands. (Stop laughing. I’m being kind of serious here.) I recognized my cashier. She’s worked this Walmart for 15 years. “Are you allowed to accept a tip?” I asked her. No, she was not. Compliments yes, tips no.

Got home safely. Whew. Big sigh.

And then I realized I’d bought the wrong sizes. Two belts and a pair of pants would have to be exchanged.

Only one place that’s happening, babe.

I feel God pushing on me. Can you do this thing and shake your fear? Good. Go back again. I want to make sure.

I don’t want to root my choices in fear for long* — even the most moral choices, larger than this one. Fear paralyzes: fear of man, fear of culpability, fear of contamination. Fear was designed as a powerful short-term motivator. It’s not a safe guide for long-term decisions.

*Except, you will say, fear of God. That is true. But His is a fear that empowers.

Walmart is easy to target because it’s big–the culprit that throws its weight around. But it’s not a single-handed antichrist; it’s a reflection of the world in which we live. It’s Yertle the Turtle perched atop a stack of other turtles, but none of them want to return to the pond. Ninety percent are clawing their way to the top on the backs of others.

yertle the turtle

Are the other places I shop better? Do I have the power of choice I’m imagining?

*****

So. What’s the long-term idea? I’ll tell you tomorrow, if I discover it in time. (Big if.)

Fasten your seatbelts

Ah. More information has been discovered about our test-tube stores.

Store A is the largest store in town, and nine times out of ten offers the lowest prices. Store A is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Handy! The aisles are clean, the workers efficient. Store A extends forgiving return policies, matches coupons, and carries the five other items I need—Band-Aids, black dress pants, votive candles, mint tea, and sugar snap peas.

Store B is closed on Sundays. One of my friends worked there once. If you don’t have your receipt, you probably can’t return it. Store B runs good sales and works hard to be competitive–but generally speaking, name brands are expensive here; store brands taste like cardboard. The cashiers are sweet, conversing in loud voices over your head (with each other) while they’re ringing you up.

Now what do you think?

Eggs are still 99 cents at A, $1.49 at B.

*****

News flash from Meadville, Pennsylvania: More information is forthcoming.

Store A pays thousands of production workers three dollars a day for ten hours spent in overcrowded factories. From this stipend, rent is deducted for sleeping quarters in under-ventilated dormitories nearby—deducted, whether or not employees sleep there.

Do you care? Does it matter?

Anyway, that only happens all the way over in China.

In America, Store A only puts their workers through “boot camp” (quote from a worker I know)—intense pressure to perform and deliver. If you’re on the job, you’re sweating. Store A prohibits labor unions, requires their employees to work off the clock, and pays the kind of wages that require additional thousands of their workers to rely on government assistance for food stamps and healthcare. The cost to society is huge. But hey, they sell eggs for 99 cents a dozen.

Does it matter to you?

Store A crowds out local mom-and-pop businesses in hundreds and thousands of cities across the country. Store A is bigger and better; people flock to its bargains. Store A fattens the wallets of four of the ten richest people in America, whose last name happens to be Walton.

Does it matter?

Store B is one of those mom-and-pop businesses I mentioned, 40 years running, owned and managed by a local Baptist couple.

Does it matter?