Why the Congo Conflict Matters at Christmas

It seems as though the Christmas shopping season, which officially kicked off on Black Friday, is a bigger deal than ever this year. For the first time stores opened on Thanksgiving rather than waiting until the wee hours of Friday morning to welcome hoards of shoppers. Some people, eager to be the first to snag a killer deal on a 50-inch LED television, camped out in front of stores like Target and Best Buy Best for a week.

Truth be told, I don’t have a problem with Black Friday and Christmas shopping or with people camping out on sidewalks across the nation for days in order to get a good deal. I mean, who doesn’t want a great price on everything these days?

But I do have a problem when this consumer nation is uneducated about the products they are buying such as how objects are made and where the materials to make all the products we love so much come from. Sometimes it seems that America, a country in which education is freely available to any and all who desire it, operates as one of the more ignorant, uneducated nations in the world in terms of understanding how things work globally. 

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Do Capitalism and Christianity Fit Together? Let's Just Say It's Complicated

I like doing more than having.  Anti-consumerism just seems right to me. To be a lover of God and humanity more than a lover of things, to be a Christ follower who chooses abstracts like love and peace over crass commercial objects--this world view feels, to me, like a soft blanket I just discovered in my closet. On most days Henry David Thoreau feels legit. 

But my house is full of those same crass objects I claim to dislike. I bought a new messenger bag the other day when I already have two, and I was certain that the made-in-China wooden bird I bought for my kitchen table would make my house feel, you know, more bohemian. The capitalists who have custom-built their jacked-up mansions along the bluffs outside my city have also bankrolled dozens of charities and helped pay my salary as a public school teacher. In short, the paradoxes of capitalism are keeping me up at night, especially in an election year. To make things worse, most of the Christians I know don't see the paradoxes at all. 

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I Own 44 Slaves

According to a survey by the Fair Trade Fund, I have 44 slaves working for me.

I took the survey on a website called Slavery Footprint. I answered a total of 11 questions regarding items I have around the house and the type of food I have waiting to be devoured in my fridge. Based on my answers, I own 44 slaves.  That means that 44 individuals in various parts of the world worked by force and without compensation to make, build, develop, farm, etc. a number of ‘things’ and food that are right now sitting around my house.

Of course there is no way for the site to calculate the exact number given the fact they have no idea when and where I made the purchases I did to obtain the food and items that I have. But that isn’t the point is it?

The point is that we live in a global world of global trades and consumerism. Shoes, clothes, that new pair of jeans that fit oh-so-well, chocolate, coffee, light bulbs and just about any and all electronic devices could very well be tied to modern day slavery. The bricks holding up that building on the corner you pass everyday may have come from a brick kiln in India and made by the hands of slaves; many of who are just children and all of who do not deserve to be there. The delicious grilled fish had for dinner the other night may have been fished by young slave boys off the coast of South America or Africa.

The answer is not to stop building with brick or to stop eating tilapia. It’s not to stop buying light bulbs or a pair of jeans. Boycotting is not the answer. In fact, boycotts can cause significant damage to areas where our purchases are what’s keeping an economy active. However, we can become more aware, more creative and more proactive with our purchases in a way that sends a clear message against enslaving people.

I do think however, that as consumers, we must be aware of the global market we live in. When we purchase a dark chocolate-salted-caramel chocolate bar (my new favorite) or any other chocolate for that matter, we should know where that chocolate came from. Unfortunately cocoa fields in Ivory Coast (a West African country where a vast majority of the world’s chocolate hails from, is also home to thousands of child slaves working the cocoa fields. I don’t know about you, but as much as I love a good piece of chocolate, I’ll pass on it any day if it means ending the demand and therefore the need to enslave children to satisfy a craving. 

Fortunately modern day slavery has caught significantly growing media attention and is no longer an issue largely ignored. Actually, it’s quit the opposite. Ten years ago it was difficult to find products not made on the backs on the slaves. Today that is not the case. There are many places to which we can buy products and be confident no children, woman or man was enslaved for it.

Here are a few things we can do to make sure what we are buying is legit and not made by slaves:

1. Read the Bible and Pray. The most important thing we can do, those of who are Christ followers, is seek God and learn what his stand is on justice and injustice. Check out the Justice Journey Handbook for some study help.  "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you." -Ps. 89:14 And read Is. 58. It will knock your socks off.
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The Problem of Christmas

Christmas often reveals our emptiness. In a season dedicated to giving, we discover our own neediness; in a season dedicated to family and friends, our loneliness comes into sharp focus.

Two voices offering solutions to the problem of Christmas can be heard above the background voice of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Winter Wonderland.” The first is the voice of consumerism. Buy stuff! Find the perfect gift for others, get the perfect stuff for yourself, decorate your house perfectly, and you will happy and joyful. The second voice counters by reminding us that people are more important than things, that we should focus on the really important part of Christmas: love, joy, peace.

It’s easy to critique consumerism, because it’s so evidently shallow. But the problem is that both voices are partly true and partly false.

The Network of Consumerism

On this day saturated in the praise, worship, and deification of consumerism, I thought it be good to reflect on an old film that gets at the heart of where a society is embedded. When California is at a 22% unemployment rate (that figured factored by looking at the state average of unemployed plus those whose unemployment benefits have run out, those who have worked multiple jobs who do not have unemployment insurance, those are considered “discouraged” workers, and those who are small business owners who do not “show up” on the economic map), a national average of at least 15% unemployment (same equation used above, but we’re not considering those who are also too sick and or incapable of working due to mental illness), and an economy that does not seem to be “restarting” as quick as the propagandized pundits would hope, you would think that people would think twice about buying that iPad or X-Box. Yet, people have been camping out for the last week just to get “50%” off of something that was marked up to begin with.

Moreover, much of society has become increasingly selfish and self-centered as it relates to actual sharing and the spreading of wealth. Folks see the “poor” as lazy, ineffectual and a scourge on societal resources; of course until they themselves end up there, which seems to be happening more frequently these days.

We seem to capitulate to the insanity of spending more while numbing ourselves with the material goods of our day; only to need the next hit once the “second edition” is revealed. Now, I make no bones about me being a consumer as well. However, over the last few years my family and I have had a chance to step back and look at some of our spending habits in contrast of our love for people. As I have stated prior, our society and American Dream has become less about “life” and more about the love of things and the use of people; rather than the other way around.

This clip below is from the 1976 film Network. In an almost prophetic voice, the clip illustrates where our culture has gotten in relation to consumerism, materialism, and the dis-enlightenment of the American mind. As Neal Postman has articulated eloquently we as a society have “Amused ourselves to death.”

Thus, as we sit back and reflect on food, family, and friends, let us also begin to peer deeper into the habits of our American mind in relation to community and those who “have not.”

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Could the iPhone be Fueling a War in Africa?

NY Times journalist, Nicholas D. Kristof, wrote an article published in today’s paper he titled Death by Gadget. It’s a timely article in light of the release of the latest iPhone. Would you believe that by purchasing the iPhone and most electronics, for that matter,  you might be funding one of the deadliest wars in history?

Kristof has this to say about the conflict in Congo:

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.
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Scratching Where They Itch?

One of the most troubling things I see when I look at contemporary Christianity is the mentality that the church should fashion itself according to the needs and wants of the “audience.” It’s an idea that grew out of the evangelical church growth and seeker movements and is practically an epidemic today. Almost every evangelical church these days is to some extent thinking in terms of what the audience wants and how churches can provide them with a desirable product. It’s unseemly, to be sure, but it’s just a symptom of the consumerist culture we live in. Presumably, it’s how things must be done. Whatever else you might say about a product you’re trying to sell, the one thing you know for sure is this: the audience is sovereign.

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The Season of Prom Frenzy and Why This Year Was Different

Boys usually get only two cracks at attending their high school prom, and girls not much more. I, on the other hand, am one of the few people who have finally lost count. I started my prom run as a nervous Texas teenager in a hoop skirt before I was promoted to student teacher at the water table in a tiny high school in Missouri. Since then I’ve been the chaperone with the flashlight, the door checker, the dress code enforcer, the clean-up crew, the impromptu romance counselor, the freak dancing monitor, the restroom attendant, and ticket-taker.

My memories of each one are shaped by the themed photo backdrop created in the fantasy-driven imaginations of an eleventh grade committee:  the NYC skyline, a jungle tiki room, an English garden, the red carpet at the Oscars, a Paris boulevard, and even a ghastly pumpkin carriage made of light blue crepe paper, presumably waiting for a bootleg Cinderella.

Simons in the Pews

Hair fashionably mussed, a soul patch beneath his lower lip, the Singer steps onto the small stage and eyes the small audience seated before him.  A man in a dark T-shirt impatiently eyes the Singer.  Pen fidgeting in his mouth, he inquires tersely, "Okay, what do you have for us today?"

The Singer takes a deep breath before answering.  "Well, I'd like to start out with 'Not to Us' by Chris Tomlin."

"Okay," the man responds without emotion.  "Good luck."

Apprehensive, jittery, nonplused, the Singer takes a step forward.  And with all that he has, and all that he is, he opens his mouth.  And sings.

"Not to us, but to Your name be the glory," he proclaims.  "Not to us, but to Your name..." he repeats, each time with greater conviction.  The certainty of his beliefs seem to steady his voice, and he digs into the phrase deeper.  Taking a deep breath, he readies himself for the first verse.

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The Culture Industry of Christmas

As I sit here reflecting on this past Christmas, the Holiday season, the days leading up to Christmas, family, friends, and our society, I also reflect on the past year, the mistakes, the accomplishments, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am reminded that the culture industry of Christmas is a machine that gets going long before December 25th. I am also reminded that Christmas, at least here in the States, has taken on a commercial form that is trumped by little to nothing. I am even further reminded that the culture industry of Christmas has globalized itself and turned a Holiday that is supposed to be about a spiritual connection to Christ, family, religious traditions, humanity, and people in general more into cultural mores focused around buying, spending money we don’t have, getting that “good deal,” consuming products we don’t need, and waking up at ungodly hours to get a toaster oven for $4.99. Are we all consumed with just buying as a society? Where did the spirituality go? Yes, I’m sure that the praise and worship music blared through the speakers at Wal Mart gets us in the “mood” for Christmas and the blatant manger scenes at our local churches give us reflection on the “reason for the season.” I’m also sure that the once-a-year- giving spirit causes us to feel good about ourselves when we acknowledge the homeless person on the corner and give her/ him a couple of dollars because “Jesus would have done so.”
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