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Fair-Trade, Fair-Wage, Upcycled . . . and Taking Risks

There was a fascinating article posted yesterday byThis Is Our City called, “You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice.” It’s an article written to my generation of American Christians who are focused on saving the world by buying fair-trade coffee, fair-wage clothing, and upcycled accessories. The author, Rachel Pieh Jones, not only speaks to my generation—she speaks directly to me. I am conscious with my shopping. I care about buying organic cotton to protect the farmers in developing countries. I avoid certain stores and brands because of their mistreatment of workers. I prefer fair-trade coffee and go out of my way to purchase it. And I do it in the name of Christ. I do it to love my neighbors far away—even in a small way. Because I believe that in a free market country, in a world where money speaks louder than anything else, the choices I make with my money matter.

But that said, Jones makes some excellent points, namely that these actions alone don’t count as living a life of social justice. These actions, while worthwhile, don’t let us off the hook for enacting social justice in more hands-on, face to face ways. When we buy fair-trade coffee, it does help people in rough situations. But we are far removed from them. They are faceless, nameless people who we only tangentially affect. What about the poor man down the street, though, losing his home? Or the single mother of three working for minimum wage? We ignore these two but go out of our way to buy fair-trade coffee for the farmer in Honduras. Unfortunately, our purchase of fair-trade coffee gives us the feeling that we’ve already done our part in ushering in the kingdom.

But that’s simply a lie from the Enemy.

Jones writes:

Buying fair-trade coffee, boycotting Gap jeans, and eating only organic vegetarian foods can be important and valuable decisions. They cost time, money, comfort, and an established worldview. But they cannot be the end of our response to the deeply systemic and complex issues that allow human suffering to persist the world over. They don't require risk.

I agree. These actions, although meaningful, can give us a false sense of living our whole lives for God. But if we’re not risking, we’re not living fully for him. That doesn’t mean we should risk simply for the sake of risking, but we do need to regularly examine what risks God is asking us to take.

Not all risk is huge. We might be asked to risk our health by entering a filthy apartment to help a poor family clean and organize. We might need to risk our safety by spending time in a dangerous neighborhood. We might risk our possessions when we allow someone into our car or home.

Or we might be asked to risk a whole lot more.

Either way, it takes a lot more faith, courage, and dependence on God to risk something than simply to make wise choices with our money.

I know firsthand. As our small group has tried to serve people in our community, we’ve found ourselves in messy situations. Knowing how to minister to a mother with two little girls, one of which has severe deformities, was not only difficult, but also emotional. Trying to help a family of seven living in a single, rundown motel room who don’t have a lot of the basic life skills we take for granted was downright disturbing. Befriending a man living in a motel room alone, barely making it by, required that we rearrange our time and priorities.

Jones concludes that we must lay down our lives—not just our money—to love others. I couldn’t agree more . . . as long as we recognize that consumer activism is also important. We just have to remember to balance it with real risks in real relationships. Living fully for Christ involves not just our wallets, but also our calendars, priorities, and possessions.

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