A Kitten and An Expanded Version of Tuesday’s Post

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Okay, most important thing first: meet Tintin! Tintin apologizes for appearing on the Internet in a towel, but he’s very small and his blankie helps him feel a little more cozy.

Second, and much less cute, I’ve written an expanded version of Tuesday’s post (on outsourcing and regulations and the Triangle fire and the fire in Bangladesh) for RELEVANT magazine. Here’s the punchy part below, and you can read it all here, if you like.

Horrific conditions in these factories—and thus, in the lives of the people who work in them—are not natural or inevitable. If unions and regulations transformed manufacturing jobs from poverty-maintaining to prosperity-making in the U.S., things could certainly be made much, much better for the workers who sew our fleeces and jeans and underwear. Walmart and others would turn slightly less enormous profits, perhaps, but enormous profits nonetheless.

Evangelicals are excellent at organizing boycotts and protests, or, in the case of Chick-fil-A, massive showings of ideological and consumer power. But it seems that Christians are slow to speak clearly and loudly against atrocities like this one. Evangelicals once attempted to boycott Disney for offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. But with Disney items found in the rubble at Tazreen (it is a small world, after all), will Christians speak up? Will they to leverage their considerable cultural and financial capital on behalf of those for whom families now grieve? Does the professed Christian faith of the Walton family cover the fact that their everyday low prices are tainted with the ashes of the poverty-stricken mothers and fathers who produce them? Does it simply sound too risky for evangelicals to insist upon laws and upon consumer habits that protect the life and the flourishing of the already-born, whether within our borders or across the globe? Have evangelical political commitments become so circumscribed that we cannot discern, much less name, the moral outrage of poor people dying so that rich people can become richer?

And after that, I really need a cuddle with Tintin and his blankie.

The Stubby Pencil

Asan, who is six, loves my son Aidan, who he summons daily by standing outside our house and shouting “Ten!”; “Aidan” has morphed in the Chichewa accent into “eh-TEN” and then attenuated, by Asan at least, into, simply “Ten.”

Asan likes to draw: the first time we met him, he clutched a small composition book, the kind American college students used to write their essay exams in (do they still do this?) and a pencil sharpened at both ends that was, tip to tip, perhaps one and a half or two inches at most.

Look at that tiny pencil! crowed one of my sons. (Asan wasn’t offended; he doesn’t understand any English, which is, as it happens, no impediment to his friendship with my children, who don’t understand any Chichewa.)

Inside my house there are no fewer than 144 full-length pencils, complete with erasers. I know this because I purchased and packed a Costco container of Dixon Ticonderogas, the kind that’s impregnated with anti-microbial something-or-other, because you never know what microbes may lurk upon the frequently-Purelled hands of American schoolchildren.

Have I ever used a pencil until it was one and a half or two inches at most? I do not think, in the 28 years that I have been scribbling, doodling, drawing, and writing, that I have. I have owned hundreds if not thousands of pencils, pencils of varying colors and hardnesses for sketching, shading, drafting, writing, filling in Scan-Trons and SATs and absentee ballots. But I have never removed the eraser so as to make use of that last quarter-inch of lead; never gripped that last inch tightly, awkwardly so as not to waste a bit.

Asan grips the last inch and a half or two inches at most pencil and draws a car, writes his name, copies Aidan’s name and then Graeme’s. I think of the pencils thrown out when they are still functional but too stubby to be held comfortably, of pencils lost in the bottoms of backpacks and the back of public-school desks, of the pencils lying in junk drawers until their rubber erasers crumble, and I think of the stories Asan could write, of the pictures he could draw, with 144 brand new pencils.

And I realize: the stories we hear are the ones written by the people who have pencils to write them with.

And I realize: sometimes poverty looks like a one and a half or two inches at most pencil–or no pencil at all–and that sometimes wealth looks like 144 brand-new ones, with thousands more just waiting.

Call the Midwife and the Gospel

I have a new post up at Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today women’s blog on the BBC series Call the Midwife, which I LOVED, purchased on DVD, and can’t wait to subject introduce my husband to. He is currently discovering the joys of Downton with me, and he liked the Anne of Green Gables/Avonlea miniseries ‘way back in the days, so I’m thinking he’ll like this one, too. Unfortunately for me his willingness to watch “chick” movies gives him reason to chide me when he wants me to watch some kind of comic book action movie with him and I’m all nah, I’d rather practice my Spanish by re-reading a translation of Pride & Prejudice…(an actual thing that I do.)

But ANYway, here is a snippet from the post. I hope you’ll pop over to the CT site and read it all. Meanwhile, I’m anxiously awaiting the availability of Jennifer Worth’s other two memoirs as Kindle books in the USA…in English. Not Spanish. At least not yet.

While Downton is a story of life among Britain’s very wealthy; Midwife offers glimpses into life among London’s urban poor. It’s based upon three (somewhat fictionalized) memoirs by former midwife Jennifer Worth, who interned with an order of Anglican nuns providing community-based maternity care in the populous East End. A little universe of its own, the area she served comprised dockworkers and other laborers and their families living in crowded tenements—ten or twelve children in two-room flats—where access to contraception was rare, families were large, and births were frequent. In the 19th century, to give birth in this world was to put your life in the filthy and ignorant hands of an untrained midwife, like Charles Dickens’ Sairey Gamp, a gossiping drunk who, at a birth, was far more liability than asset.

By contrast, the midwives of Call the Midwife are spiritual giants. Anglican nuns in the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus, they campaigned for decades for proper training and legal oversight to regulate the practice of UK midwifery. In so doing, the aimed to make birth safer for ‘the least of these.’ Their advocacy went beyond working for policy change; they lived and made their home among the people they served, in “working conditions so disgusting, and […] work so relentless, that only those with a calling from God would wish to undertake it,” wrote Worth. From the mid-19th century until the founding of the National Health Service in 1949, St. Raymund’s sisters were the only reliable midwives working among this population. At the season’s beginning, newly trained midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) joins the sisters in their work, if not their religious commitment.

Now We (Mostly) Outsource Our Atrocities

Maybe it’s a mark of how wolfish and how polarized the American political climate has become that I am seized with something like fear, or, at the least, fear’s relative, anxiety, as I think about how to start this piece. Because whenever I write something that seems, however tangentially or tentatively, to touch upon one or another issue that has, once again, however improbably, divided people neatly along party lines, I receive comments and emails insisting that I am sounding dangerously ‘liberal.’ The corollary is that my Christian faith and identity is, therefore, questionable.

I do and do not understand this. First, I do because I was raised on World magazine’s kid’s newsletter and then Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine and the notion that faithful Christians were Republicans because the paramount moral question of Our Day was and is always and only the question of making abortion illegal. This is what Christians should be struggling for: to change the law as it regards abortion. The Republicans supposedly wanted this; the Democrats supposedly did not; therefore, to be a Christian meant supporting Republicans; to be a Democrat meant not being a real Christian. It really seemed that simple.

But I don’t understand this because, even from an early age, I suspected that there might be other compelling ethical issues that ought to concern Christians. I was troubled by the execution of Timothy McVeigh, troubled by the death penalty in general–who but God could give life, and, therefore, who but God should take it? I was troubled by the criminalization of homelessness, by the horrifying fear and racism implied in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, by poverty in America and elsewhere. I began to suspect that Christian values, as I understood them, did not necessarily align with one or another party’s preoccupations.

Nevertheless, in the years I’ve been writing (and living) I have heard and read Christians insist that to support a system of national health care, or amnesty for people who have entered the country illegally, or tax codes that distribute the burden of taxation more equally, or firmer laws on assault weapons and handguns (to take just a few examples) is to violate American if not Christian values. The assumption from a number of prominent Southern Baptists after the election was that Christians would be grieving and sorrowful over the Democratic victory, as if all Christian values were expressed only in the Republican platform.

This is turning into a long on-ramp toward what I really want to talk about, which is the fact that this weekend, more than 100 people died in a factory fire in Bangladesh. A garment factory fire in Bangladesh, where 3 million people, mostly women, work in clothing manufacturing; Bangladesh is, after China, the 2nd largest exporter of clothing in the world, which is to say that it’s unlikely that you don’t own something that was sewn there. Since 2006, more than 500 workers have died in fires. This past weekend, over 100 people died because there weren’t enough exits and because there was no approach road for the fire and rescue squads.

Immediately I thought of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911; my father had told me the story of this fire when I was younger as an example of why we have laws regulating workplace safety. In fact the Triangle Fire–in which 146 people, again, mostly women, died–was the impetus for such laws. Not only that, it was the impetus for worker’s organizations–ie, unions–which, by many accounts, led to the decades of unparallelled prosperity and relative economic equality in the US (see this NYT op-ed for some numbers on that.)

These days it is stated, often with the force of ideology–of deep-seated and unquestionable fact–that government regulation is what kills the economy and is, therefore, bad. Pesky American regulations like minimum wages and limits on the length of the work day and work week and the age of workers and the number of bathrooms per worker and the number of breaks and the location of fire exits and the presence of extinguishers certainly do reduce profits, which is, perhaps, why it’s profitable for Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, and Walmart to have their clothes made in Bangladesh, where there are fewer ‘pesky’ regulations and garment workers are among the world’s lowest paid, earning $37 a month, and where, early this year, a union organizer was found tortured and killed.

Outsourcing is about more than losing “good American manufacturing” jobs. It’s also about losing those good American values that led us into years of prosperity, not perfection by any means, but prosperity and almost unparalled economic equality and safety for people in the workplace. ‘Outsourcing’ and getting rid of government regulations means returning to conditions that gave rise to the Triangle Fire, except that now, it doesn’t happen in our cities, but in cities a half a world away, while ‘good’ American companies like Walmart turn a hefty profit that never seems to trickle down to the people who work in their stores.

I have been accused by other Christians of being nothing less than demonic for advocating, for example, that people who can get vaccinated do, simply because cell lines from a fetus aborted in the 1960s were used in the development of one or another vaccine. There are similar declarations made regularly: avoid this, don’t vote for them, this is morally tainted. But rarely have I heard prominent evangelicals decry atrocities like this one, to declare an evangelical boycott on Walmart, whose clothes are certainly tainted with the blood–if not, in fact, the ashes–of the near-slaves who produce them, to declare this a matter of moral import, to insist that all of God’s children deserve not only to live but to flourish, and to insist that the government can and should implement laws protecting that life and flourishing, perhaps because to do so makes one sound suspiciously ‘liberal.’

Why suspiciously liberal, and not simply decent; simply Christian?

Why Is the Color of Band-Aids Caucasian?

How is it that before today I never noticed that Band-Aids are Caucasian-skin colored? Of course, there are Spider-Man bandages and clear bandages and Disney princess bandages, but when you’re buying a basic package of no-frills bandages, such as I did at Costco before coming to Africa, they are Caucasian-colored. (In grad-school terms, Caucasian-colored Band-Aids are the unmarked term.) Of course they don’t match my skin, or my husband’s, or my children’s, perfectly, but it’s close. You can tell that the manufacturers are at least trying to make them match.

I noticed this today because Pulicila, an eight-year-old girl who comes over every day, or nearly so, to watch the boys play soccer and to sit on the porch and smile at me and to play with my hair, whose texture, around here, is a source of fascination for children, most of whom are brave enough only to touch my children’s hair. But Pulicila is bolder than most; she insists on drawing me into various clapping games and circle games and regularly tells other children off for various perceived infractions. Like half the kids who come around, she wears no shoes; her skin is not only brown but toughened by constant exposure to the elements.

Today, I saw that the tip of her left big toe had been badly torn; there’s a flap that’s glistening slightly underneath but that is already stiffening and drying out with the dust. She speaks no English; I speak no Chichewa. “Oooh!” I say. “Ouch!” She said something and pointed over the fence. It happened somewhere over there, in that direction, but that’s all I know. I look again at her toe. It doesn’t look like the kind of thing that would require stitches, but it’s close to that point. Certainly it would be helped by glue, or a butterfly closure. I sit for a moment, wondering if I should do anything.

via Wikimedia Commons. (credit here)

Like many Americans, I love to fix things, or, at least, to feel like I’m fixing things. But my cultural sensitivity training has encouraged me to slow down that impulse, to stop and think. So I stopped and thought, and, a half second later, headed into the house for antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids. I gestured and motioned with my hands, a pantomime of informed consent, and then, as she seemed unperturbed, smeared a bit of ointment in the wound and affixed one Band-Aid over the tip of her toe to hold the torn flap back in place, wrapping another around the toe to hold the first Band-Aid in place since, again, she has no shoes.

She doesn’t move her toes or her foot the way my children do in anticipation of the Band-Aid’s contact with their skin; the slight movement of big toe away from other toes to permit the inter-toe passage of the bandage. She seems so surprised by the Band-Aid, as do some of the other children-I’m not sure, but it seems like the first time she’s encountered a Band-Aid. It’s then I realize that not every mother has Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment for cuts, or shoes for her children’s feet that would prevent such cuts in the first place. It’s then, too, that I realize how garish the Band-Aid looks against her 80% cacao skin; it may as well be hunter’s orange. It wasn’t made with her skin tone in mind.

How is it that, before today, I never realized that sometimes wealth means shoes and a first aid kit, while poverty means a preventable but present wound that’s easily treatable but untreated? Is this not true of malaria, of malnutrition, of HIV/AIDS, of death from diarrhea, things that no longer threaten us in the West, but remain the specter of death in places like this one? I put away the antibiotic ointment, toss away the sterile Band-Aid wrappers, wash my hands, and shake my head. I can’t unravel my tangled thoughts: guilt, gratitude, sadness, anger. One thought emerges, and I realize with a start that it’s a remarkably concise metaphor for so much of the injustice and inequality and, yes, racism that’s still with us, all over and everywhere, and the metaphor is this: Band-Aids are made for white people.