Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Where is your brother?"

Where is your brother?  Children making balloons...
Recently on the plane from Nairobi to Grand Rapids, I watched a documentary on Pope Francis.  This week I heard this quote from him:

"Where is your brother?   May this question from God spread through the city and our hearts, but above all may it enter the hearts of the Cains of today.  Where is your brother, the slave?  The brothers you are killing every day in the illegal factories and in the prostitution rings?"

We all know the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4 where Cain kills his brother Abel.  "The hearts of the Cains of today."  What a great statement. Who are the "Cains of today" to whom the Pope refers?  Could I be a "Cain"?  Where is my brother?  Or even more difficult, who is my brother?  Part of the problem today is that we don't know our brother and therefore we don't know how to love or even locate him.

Computer parts waste
This quote reminded me of an Eerdmans book I recently read called Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh.  He presents an interesting case about the dilemma of knowing our brother.  He points out that what complicates this problem in our society is consumerism (not greed).  Most people in our society are not overly attached to things, rather they are attached to the NEXT thing.  People do not cling to things, but rather easily discard them in pursuit of "new and improved."  If you think about it, and if you look at the photos of landfills full of dumped technology, there is more than an element of truth to this.  The next new computer, the next new smart phone, the next new gaming system, the next new TV or appliances that do this, that or the other, even while the ones we own still work, scream to us daily through advertising. This truth leads to significant challenges.

Cavanaugh says, "Consumerism isn't so much about having more as it is about having something else; that's why its not simply buying but shopping that is at the heart of consumerism.  This restlessness - the moving on to shop for something else, regardless of what one has just purchased - sets the spiritual tone for consumerism" (page 35).

Out with the old, in with the new: a TV graveyard
What happens with this type of consumerism is that there are issues of detachment in the West from production, as it has moved out of our countries, as well as then detachment from labor and laborers.  In the North America, we often don't see production anymore, nor those involved in production.  US companies have become marketers of what others produce (like Disney, various clothing lines, many technology products, etc).  As we see less and less of production, and our neighbors are not the ones we know and see working in factories, we lose the connection with our brother. So we consume and discard, with little knowledge of those working twelve hour days, seven days a week for thirty-five cents per hour, producing these products that we dispose of easily. 

For those caught in the trap of consumerism, pleasure doesn't come anymore in the possession of the product, but rather in its pursuit; pleasure comes not so much in the having, as in the wanting.  Once we have obtained an item, it brings desire to a temporary halt and the item loses some of its appeal.  The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must be constantly kept on the move.

"We shop.  They drop." Cavanaugh says.  Literally.  Stories are told about people being forced to work sixty days straight without a day off, twelve to sixteen hours a day for cents on the hour. 

What to do about this?  We all have to be consumers.  There is no way around that.  Knowing where all of our products come from and trying to get to know our brother in a factory 7000+ miles away is virtually impossible.

But we can change the way we allow the desire of pursuit of the next new and best thing disrupt our spiritual contentment.  We need to somehow equate our purchases with the people who made it, understanding that the purchase in and of itself brings us into relationship with others.  The relationships must be characterized by promoting the good of community with God and other people.

Discipling Marketplace Leaders seeks to affirm all workers in all walks of life, caring for them socially, environmentally, economically,  and spiritually, and having them do the same for others.  Our lives as Christians need to be about this quadruple bottom line - the way we live and the way we use our resources matters.  Where is my brother?  He may be far away and I may never know his name or his face, but I CAN care about him in the way I choose to live my life.