Time to Wake Up & Smell the Coffee

How many hundreds of times have I heard that song and never really understood it? This evening in church we sang “O Holy Night,” one of the most melodious and moving of Christmas carols. When it came to the part,

Chains shall he break, for the slave shall be our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

the verse hit me in the face like a wet mackerel.

Slavery is something most of us Americans cannot relate to. In our minds it belongs to another century, another world. But slavery is so very much alive. In a sense, our prosperity as a nation was and always has been built on the backs of slaves. Even today? Yes, even today. So many of the things we take for granted (coffee, sugar, bananas, cocoa, cotton, bricks) are the product of modern-day slave (often child) labor, and those cheap bargains we congratulate ourselves on obtaining at stores like Walmart, Pier 1, Old Navy, and Kohls, may have been made by oppressed workers who labor in appalling conditions and without a living wage. I have often felt spiritually smug thinking that buying cheap clothing is something Jesus would do. But it’s not; not if what I wear is the fruit of cruelty, greed and injustice.

In his letter to Philemon, the apostle Paul addresses slavery in detail. Oh, not by attacking the institution directly; he was too shrewd for that. Contemporary critics often give him demerits for not coming out full force against slavery. Some go so far as to make him an accomplice in the slave trade because of his supposed silence. But Paul was no friend to slavery. This letter shows it. You see, he knew that Christians were just a tiny struggling minority, with no vote, no rights of citizenship (unless, like Paul, you happened to have been born in a Roman colony). The economy of the ancient world was built on slave labor, and to attack the institution openly would have been quixotic, if not suicidal for the church, whose enemies were always on the lookout for signs of subversive activity. Instead, in this letter the apostle demonstrates what happens when two kingdoms collide and how the gospel transforms a culture.

Philemon, a slave owner, is informed that his runaway slave Onesimus has been found and is now in Paul’s company. Having led the slave to the Lord, the apostle convinces him to do the right thing and return to his master, but not without a letter from Paul asking Philemon, an old friend, to use mercy. Paul then reminds the slave-owner that the man who was once his property is now a brother.

It is difficult for us to imagine how radical and subversive such an idea would have been to the ancients. Slaves were chattel, the lowest rung of society, and they comprised as much as a third of the total population of the Roman empire. The threat of slave uprisings waas therefore a real and constant source of anxiety. Slavery was and always has been founded on fear and force. But how does one now “own” or hold the whip hand over a brother? The new relationship in Christ (in whom “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female,” but all are one) makes slavery, with all its brutality and inhumanity, impossible. Christianity came not to destroy slavery from without, but from within, by raising the slave and lowering the master to the same status before God. Indeed, Philemon must consider setting one free who is already free in Christ; to keep Onesimus in bondage no longer makes any logical sense.

Chains shall he break, for the slave shall be our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

During this Christmas season, let us consider that the slave who picked the beans to make that cup of cocoa or the sweat-shop seamstress who stitched together that Christmas sweater is our brother or sister. And how can we allow a sibling to suffer to make us well-clad and comfortable?

In many ways both our prosperity and security as a nation are a mirage. There is no true prosperity, no true security without justice, only impending judgment. If these statements are true, the appropriate response is, of course, “What then should we do?”

Taking action against slavery and injustice takes both courage and sacrifice. It starts by educating ourselves about the products we consume. We can start by looking at websites such as these that help us to become ethical shoppers not just blind consumers. Once you start you will be shocked at how wide and strong and intricate the web of slavery and injustice is and how thoroughly our nation and our lifestyles are implicated in supporting them.

Buy Fair Trade products whenever possible. These are products, such as coffee, sugar, chocolate, bananas, etc., whose producers pay a living wage and do business in an environmentally sustainable manner. Look for the Fair Trade label. You will pay more, but who said doing the right thing was cheap? Speak to your local supermarket. Ask them to stock more Fair Trade products. Most grocers do nothing because we say nothing.

Clothing. The garment industry is responsible for a large portion of the world’s sweatshop and child labor. Chains such as Walmart and the Gap (which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic) and brands such as Nike have been deeply implicated in using sweatshop and child labor. Educate yourself about the clothing you buy and the merchants you buy from. There are many small online companies dealing in Fair Trade clothing. If you can’t find what you want there, you can always find great bargains and good quality clothing at thrift stores– and you’ll be stylin’ (at least in the Lord’s eyes).

Lastly, fight pornography. The porn industry is the biggest consumer of slave labor in the world. Don’t feed it. Fight it.

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2 Comments

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  1. Ray

    Thanks for the link to the Responsible Shopper. We Christians need to shop with integrity, even if it costs us more. Being a disciple of Christ should cost us something, but at the store, we tend to choose the cheapest item, even if that purchase is of dubious morality.By the way, is a mackerel more likely to hit you in the face when it's wet? I thought fish liked being wet. Fortunately, fish do not have fists.

  2. Try splashing a mackerel in the face with a glass of water and I won't be responsible for what happens.

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