I had an interesting conversation last week with my students in my freshman Cornerstone section. In the Spotlight lecture on Monday our speaker talked about the revelations that Chinese workers at the Foxconn factory were committing suicide due to their inhumane working conditions. This is worrisome because the Foxconn factory helps manufacture Apple products like the iPhone, the mobile device ACU gives to every incoming freshman. The speaker noted that by having iPhones we at ACU "have blood on our hands." That is, as consumers of Apple products, we were complicit in the Foxconn suicides.
So I asked, at our next class meeting, what my students thought about this. Our first order of business was to define "complicit." I asked them to use their iPhones (some irony here) to Google the word. In seconds we had the definition and I wrote it on the board:
com·plic·itTo clarify a bit I added the word "moral" in front of "questionable." Complicit, for our class conversation, was defined as being involved in a morally questionable act.
Choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act
So, was using an iPhone involvement in a morally questionable act? Were we, in a word, complicit?
To dig deeper, I asked my students another question. What if I found out that the shirt I was wearing was made by children in a sweatshop? Should I stop wearing the shirt and refuse to buy more like it? You'll recall some years ago Nike being implicated in the use of sweatshop labor. In light of this, should you stop buying Nike products?
The knee jerk answer seems obvious. Yes, I'd stop buying that product. This was the answer most of the students landed on. But I went on. Our response seems morally obvious when we are made aware of these unjust business practices. However, I asked the class, how many of you know which of your clothes or electronics or food was produced using questionable labor practices? For my part, I had no clue who made the clothes I was wearing at the time. Neither did the students.
But here's the problem, I went on. The effort to track down all the ways I might be complicit in this global economy is truly daunting. Of course, we talked about things like Fair Trade where we feel more confident that the links of justice exist all the way from front line producer/laborer to me the consumer. But outside of coffee Fair Trade isn't all that common around these parts. Even if you go 100% Fair Trade you'd still have some loose ends and some research to do. (BTW, the students also Googled Fair Trade and we discovered that gold, of all things, can come as Fair Trade. Which makes sense. I can imagine that Third World mining is pretty abusive. But all this just raises the guilt factor. I look at my wedding band and think, damn, is even my wedding ring a form of complicity?)
So maybe you try to go the sustainable route. Grow your own food and make your own clothing. A lot of Christians are drawn to this option in an effort to reduce their complicity in the webs of violence inherent in global economies. But can they fully escape?
That's the question I eventually wrote on the board: Can you ever get clean?
The church has a very old doctrine called Original Sin. Traditionally, this doctrine refers to an inner flaw in the human soul, what the Reformed tradition calls "total depravity."
For my part, I tend to think of Original Sin socially and systemically. Basically, you can't ever get clean. Systemically clean. The human condition is to be complicit, to have blood on your hands.
So the question I posed to the students was this: If that's the situation, what's your next move?
The recommendations and suggestions they offered were thoughtful and diverse. Some students noted that refusing to buy the products produced by sweatshops might make things worse for the workers. Others noted that refusing to buy things was an ineffectual way to change the world. Some suggested global and systemic changes. Others wanted to keep the focus local and personal.
I ended the conversation with this observation:
In the face of all this complicity we have to fight two competing temptations. On the one hand we need to avoid apathy. It sure would be nice if we could just buy our clothing and food without thinking about all this moral stuff. And some of my students were tempted by this option. The conversation was too unpleasant, too difficult, too close to home. Who wants to be told they have blood on their hands? It's just easier to reject that notion as hyperbole and get on with business as usual.
On the other hand, for those motivated to "get clean" as it were, we have to fight despair and cynicism. The problems are so big and our efforts toward justice so small. Will they make a difference? So we're tempted to give up, grow frustrated, and, eventually, lash out at the people who aren't falling in line. Demonizing the person who buys Folgers instead of Fair Trade. We wind up self-righteous and bitter.
So that's how I ended the conversation. I told the students, I can't tell you how to live or what choices to make. I don't know how to get clean. But I'm convinced that apathy and cynicism are not options for Christians.
That's no solution and it might be woefully inadequate. But for that day and that class that's all the answer I had.