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:

[kuh m-plis-it]
Choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act
To 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.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Complicit”

  1. Very well-articulated description of the situation that conscientious (Christian or otherwise) find themselves in at this point in our history on earth!

    After recently reading 'Living Downstream' by Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and cancer survivor, which details the harmful effects on the environment--and consequently, our collective health--of short-sighted, irresponsible agricultural and industrial practices, I was convicted to do SOMEthing toward more ecologically-responsible living. The vastness of the problem is certainly overwhelming.

    I concluded and resolved that I'd start with small, "doable" things, like more recycling, attentiveness to water conservation, etc. And in addition, continue to educate myself about local and global environmental issues so that I can make informed choices in the future, especially as regards public policies on which I have a vote/voice.

    As a society, I think Americans generally tend to be comfortably detached from where our stuff comes from. Will God give grace on account of our willful ignorance forever, or allow us to feel the full consequences of our explicit and/or complicit actions at some point? I know I need to do better; be a better steward of my gifts; and have courage to stand for my convictions! Thanks for posting on this important topic...I need the encouragement to do, and keep on doing, right.

  2. "refusing to buy things was an ineffectual way to change the world"

    I disagree with this. It is our addiction to consuming cheap goods that fuels this.

    Consume less.
    Consume local.
    Consume 2nd hand.
    Consume union/fairtrade.

    if everyone did this to the degree possible to them, it would make a huge difference. if everyone started with just one area of consumption and then added one area a year, it would shake the economy, folks would go through a *withdrawal* but it's the only way to get things moving in the right direction. as long as we have a "free market economy* the only way to change things is to change demand, and not so much demand change.

  3. Oh, man, y ou aren't much help. When I saw what the subject was, I was hoping you would provide me with the answer I need. I am dealing with a similar situation right now, even as I type, and it is rather close to home.

    I periodically have to buy ... I think maybe I want to keep things deliberately vague... a consumable item for my church. I have been buying from a source which offers a good product at a good price and lots of variety to choose from. However, I have recently learned that there are serious allegations of impropriety and downright badness (not involving children, so I suppose it does not become a legal issue) against this supplier. I have no way to confirm the allegations. All I have to go on is testimony which appears on the internet.

    So, do I go on buying from this source? It supports some good people. It also supports an allegedly bad person who is hurting quite a few (relatively) innocent adults.

    If I buy, I am perhaps complicit. If I don't buy, I am perhaps giving credence to false allegations, and I am certainly depriving myself of a product I like buying and my church likes using.

    This is a really big, right-now struggle for me.

  4. Interesting discussion.

    I have to wonder, are any of us willing, in our efforts to wash our own hands of the mess, to take it to the logical end(s)? That would mean no more: computers, cell phones, automobiles, televisions (or anything electronic), lightbulbs, electricity, wood for building materials and fires, eating meat, farming...

    IOW, any technological advance of the last, oh, 50,000 years is now fair game to get rid of due to it's "complicitness" (is that word?) in causing suffering to someone or something.

    My question is where do we decide on some level of acceptable exploitation? Because, no matter what, someone or something is getting exploited for my benefit. What is reasonable? Who decides?

    Back in engineering school, we had a saying: "Ban mining! Let the bastards freeze in the dark!" It's a simple matter to, in our sanctimony and self-salvation in "doing something", declare our own carefully chosen activities as benign, all the while failing to realize--or choosing to be blind to--the fact that all the little things we moderns take for granted came to us on the backs of exploited nature or humanity. Do we need a list to prove that someone will always be the loser in the transaction?

    The Fall is so pervasive that we can't even begin to dent it. Fair trade or not; dolphin-safe or not. It really doesn't matter. When it all boils down, all our changes in lifestyle actually do is placate our consciences.

    We are still guilty... er, complicit.

  5. So far you only have allegations and they may be false or only partial. I would continue to buy from them till I had proof that they were doing evil, and only then if they continue to keep the person in question. Who knows, maybe the good people knew nothing of the issue to a point they thought they were doing ok. I suggest you not make hasty changes.

  6. Coopster, that's just a matter of degree, not an essential difference. The "complicity" remains, even if we have *ahem* progressed in the three millennia since Hiram had his people talk to Solomon's people.

    And it IS delicious. Think of it: the house of YHWH Himself, built on the straining backs of the unfortunate multitudes.

  7. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and even the conclusion, but I'll just make my one little observation. To say, "...I'm convinced that apathy and cynicism are not options for Christians." is a bit cynical in it's exclusionary nature. Let's just be honest and admit that you genuinely exclude non-Christians when you think about making this kind of statement. I even understand why you might feel the need to create "your own" group and call it Christianity or whatever, but I think the comment applies to everyone in our society.

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