The Common Good

Waking the Church to Just Consumerism

The Hebrew scriptures recount time and again how God blesses the earth with enough provision and food for its inhabitants. The same is true of our world today --- there is more than enough to sustain a nourished and abundant life for all. However, our world often breaks away from God's vision of shalom for God's people. The machinations of humans devise and implement ways to pervert God's call and design for just economic systems in ways that instead keep the powerful rich at the expense of the poor.

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Agricultural and trade policies implemented by the rich and powerful countries of the world actively create a system to ensure their own cheap consumption, while artificially and oppressively deflating costs of food and goods elsewhere. Workers and farmers in the Global South are incapable then of meeting their costs of production, and left unable to feed their families. Their work and food is swept away through injustice.

The fair trade movement helps to "loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke[!]" (Isaiah 58:6) I believe the faithful believers and churches should be leading catalysts Biblically-rooted trade justice advocacy.

Increasing the number and visibility of fair trade products directly benefits international growers and producers. The fair trade system now directly involves 1,000,000 workers and farmers and impacts over 5 million individuals. By organizing communities at the local level, activists can make a measurable impact on markets to demand that international justice and equity are a priority. But it results in a critical form of education for consumers in the West and North. By understanding where the products we consume come from, and advocating for changes in the current market systems, we have a greater understanding of and connection to our neighbor.

In the United Kingdom, churches emerged as the key force in increasing access to and use of fair trade. In addition, major multi-national labels headquartered in the UK such as Cadbury Dairy Milk and Starbucks espresso have entered into the fair trade market. Corporations have been pushed to follow fair trade regulations because of the public interest and active involvement of religious institutions.

Within the United States, there has been significantly less engagement of Christians on this issue. The Roman Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant denominations have made significant commitments to supporting Fair Trade on a national or denominational level, including developing specific fair trade purchasing programs for their congregations. However, there are far fewer examples of those denominational commitments practically tricking down to the local congregation. When the church does begin to or when it does, it fails to impact the broader community. For many evangelical churches, there is significant, but yet untapped, opportunity for connecting congregations in this movement through the lens of Biblical justice and for congregations connecting how trade injustice effects the global church and how the approximately 138 Americans regularly attending church can begin to redirect some of their $2.5 trillion in spending towards fair trade purchasing.

In Boston and in Cambridge, our organization has led a community coalition (including local churches) to mobilize significant changes in access to and use of fair trade products and initiated the passage of resolution through Boston's City Council. We believe that our work has provided a new conversation that engages and mobilizes Christians in the Boston area about the transformative nature of fair trade. Our volunteer network, work with church leaders at the denominational/diocesan/presbytery level to encourage broad-level awareness and support of this initiative, which already exists at national levels with many denominations.

I don't believe we can sustainably engage Christians unless we appeal theological level. The Old and New Testament call Christians to live as called out people, living differently in a world that is often very dark. The primary we do that is through practical expressions of loving our neighbor.

Next week, the Boston Faith & Justice Network will partner with Pastor Dan Kimball, Trade As One, and Fair Trade Towns USA to host a webinar providing practical ways that American churches can use fair trade as a way to build the the Church.

If we have had any success mobilizing Christians in the greater Boston area around this or any other issue, it has been because we've taken the important step of theologically contextualizing complex social and economic issues from a Biblical perspective. There has also been one other benefit that often gets less attention than it should in organizing circles. As we've brought together a diverse group of churches and partners to join hands on the issue of fair trade, a new network of local relationships nurturing the Kingdom of God have been formed across local congregations and denominations.

Ryan Scott McDonnell is the Executive Director of the Boston Faith & Justice Network. Ryan has a deep belief that Christians should be at the forefront of justice movements supporting the poor and the oppressed. Ryan has worked microenterprise, social enterprise and refugee integration issues in Liberia, South Africa and the United States. For more information, please visit our website.

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