One of the many reasons I have always admired the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he understood that as Christians we are called upon not only to “give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life’s highway,” but to question “whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished.” As Michael Eric Dyson points out in his recent biography of King, we sometimes forget that King was assassinated while answering the plea of local civil rights leaders to come to Memphis, Tennessee, to publicize the plight of striking sanitation workers, because he felt it “criminal to have people working on a full-time basis…getting part-time income.”
Economic justice should never be far from the mind of any Christian. Jesus’ sayings about money and possessions are frequently regarded as among the “hardest” in the gospels. Most Christians tend to water them down or explain them away. But the gospels make plain that among the people to whom Jesus turned his attention after his baptism by John in the Jordan were the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the persecuted, the downtrodden, captives, all who labor and are overburdened, the little ones, the least, and the last. Time and time again, Jesus feels compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and he takes action to heal their suffering. And some would argue that Jesus’ most astounding statement about the Kingdom of God was not that it was at hand but that it would be a kingdom of the poor (Luke 6:20-26).
This year – which has been proclaimed a Jubilee Year by the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and other churches – affords Christians a special opportunity to make a focus on issues of economic justice a part of their spiritual lives and ministry. The ancient Israelites celebrated Jubilee every 50 years, and hallowed this Sabbath Year by freeing slaves and forgiving debts (Leviticus 25:1-55). The Gospel of
Luke portrays Jesus’ ministry as a ministry of Jubilee in which Jesus has been anointed to “bring good news to the poor…[and] release to the captives” while proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The mainline churches have chosen to focus on debt forgiveness for lesser developed nations in this Jubilee Year, and much good work is under way to help ease the crushing burden posed by Third World debt. A second way that capital is drained out of lesser developed nations comes in the drain on human capital represented by the use of child labor and sweatshops to produce everything from toys to clothing.
Men, women, and children labor long hours under often brutal conditions around the globe just so that we can continue to adorn ourselves in the latest fashions. Thousands of faith-based groups – such as People of Faith Network and Mobilization for the Human Family – have begun an effort to stop brand-name companies like Gap, Wal-Mart, and Kathie Lee Gifford from using child labor and sweatshops to manufacture their clothing.
Mobilization’s Sweatshop Action Committee, for example, has been demonstrating and leafleting at Wal-Mart stores in an effort to get Wal-Mart to demonstrate some leadership in the sphere of human rights. Wal-Mart, which enjoys annual sales of $137.6 billion per year and $7.6 billion in operating profits, pays its workers 9 cents per hour in Bangladesh, 43 cents an hour in Honduras, and 12.5 cents per hour in China. Young women in the U.S. territory of Saipan who work for Wal-Mart often work 70 hours per week, and they are fired if they complain about forced overtime. Information about the letter-writing campaign and other efforts to stop these abusive practices can be obtained by visiting People of Faith Network’s web site at www.cloud9.net/~pofn or Mobilization for the Human Family’s web site at www.mobilization.org.
Graham Kelder is a public interest lawyer
and a parishioner at Christ Church in Cambridge, MA