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?

19 thoughts on “Now We (Mostly) Outsource Our Atrocities

  1. Very well written, and a poignant reminder of the terrible danger of politicizing Christian faith and practice. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire deeply impacted Al Smith, and was part of what transformed him from a cog in the Tammany machine to a genuine legislator and reformer.

    Years later, when Smith tried for the presidency (it’s hard to imagine an Irish Catholic running for the White House in 1928; JFK barely made it 3 decades later), he was seen by evangelicals (still called fundamentalists then) as some of antichrist.

    Evangelist Billy Sunday, out on the stump, said that the only people who would vote for Smith would be drunks and prostitutes.

    My grandparents and great-grandparents all voted for Smith,and I can assure you they were neither. Great-grandfather Patrick may have “liked his glass,” as they so quaintly put it, but he, like the rest, were decent, devout, hard-working people.

    But the great evangelical preacher of his day, in the fervor of a political campaign, rudely insulted them to whip up the crowds. Great political theater, perhaps, but shameful behavior for one who purported to be an ambassor of Jesus.

    And with that, I’m getting my second coffee. Besides, mom wants to read me something…

  2. I think the most difficult thing I’ve come up against in this discussion is that some [Christians] truly believe that the people who work in factories overseas are grateful for the job and if the factories aren’t there, they would have no work… how to combat this idea?

    1. Hi Katie! Good question…I guess I think, if dehumanizing, exploitative work is the only thing standing between a person and starvation (or the starvation of their kids, or lack of school fees, etc) of COURSE they will be grateful for that job. But what is keeping that factory job from being conducive to human flourishing–ie, safety standards, liveable wages, reasonable working hours? The answer is always greed, and the insistence upon rock-bottom prices. Industrial jobs CAN be decent ones, when workers are respected and treated right. If they are not, it is nearly always because someone above them is profiting off of their suffering.

      1. Surely Walmart and others of their ilk could make things much, much better for these foreign workers and still easily turn massive profits. It’s just that then their profits wouldn’t be quite as massive as they are now.

        So they callously leave things as they are, taking advantage of the fact that in so many cases those dehumanizing jobs really are the only option for the workers.

        Of course they know full well that half-starved Third-Worlders– accustomed to dictatorship and grateful for this crumb from the corporate table– are not likely to ever organize like we did generations ago. They also know that the corrupt leaders of these countries would, upon their request, gladly crush any such organization should it ever start.

        Besides, these countries to which they’ve shipped our jobs have large, young and growing populations, meaning an essentially inexhaustable supply of fresh meat for the grinder.

        A hundred Bangladeshis? No problem; they’re easily replaced. Call the insurance adjuster, increase output at the other factories, and keep it moving. After all, it’s almost Christmas!

        If those Bangladeshis were all still in their mother’s wombs they would have been deemed worthy of consideration and concern by evangelicals in this country. However by being born they disqualified themselves.

        The contemporary formula seems to be: Concern for human life before birth is assuredly Christian; concern for human life after birth is probably Communist.

      2. Exactly, Rachel’s Dad. Just look at how the mid-20th c. Central American dictatorships handled their populations at the behest of American corporations.

  3. Love your well thought out and “hearty” blog (and Dad’s comments too). I will share this on my facebook page. And, I share the boycott of Walmart. I have a friend who used to work for that corporation, who says that the company’s founder, Sam Walton, would not be happy with the ways that his sons are doing business these days. She respected Sam’s policies but is embarrassed by the greedy direction of the corporation today.

  4. “I began to suspect that Christian values … did not necessarily align with one or another party’s preoccupations.” So well put, Rachel, just like the rest of this essay.

    I think the parties interests also don’t align with the plight of the overseas workers. Lots of corporations give lots of money to each of the major parties, and that money comes from corporate profits, not corporate responsibility to far-off factory workers. Sad.

      1. It looks like a good book, one I’ll have to read.

        Incidently, one glance and I guessed it was published by IVP– that cover has to be by the same designer that did Rachel’s!

  5. excellent post! I posted about the fire on my Facebook and got some good discussion out of it. Would love for it not to sound “suspiciously liberal” to actually advocate for the care of the poor and disenfranchised! I grew up SBC and untangling republicanism from my faith is still a work in progress. (Though, now I’m surrounded by many on the ‘evangelical left’ and have to make sure I’m not swapping one platform for another without good thought and prayer.)

  6. You’re right, Tim. In fact, United Fruit’s antics in Guatemala were in the back of my mind as I was writing. “Crushing unions? Why, that’s no big deal– heck, we can overthrow the democratically elected governments of sovereign states!”

    Of course the banana boys couldn’t actually say that it was all about their profit and loss, so, like many still do today, they played the Commie card. It’s such a fast and easy way to dismiss any meaningful conversation about the poor.

    1. PS: Of course no one who complains about all the undocumented Guatemalans working here today knows anything about this, do they? In fact some of the best read Americans that I know have heard little or nothing of the CIA’s adventure down there.

      We crushed Guatemala’s best effort at self-determination and development, propped up nasty regimes to keep their masses (those that weren’t killed outright, that is) dirt poor, and now marvel that these long-suffering neighbors of ours should have the audacity to slip across the border to make a buck.

      Perhaps it’s a good thing that most of them are uneducated, often illiterate. They’re not taught the story either, so they come in peace. We earned their resentment and hatred, and what we get instead are some of the best workers we have in this country. Yes, they’re here illegally, but they’re here without the bitterness that is certainly due us.

      I call it grace, and I’ll gladly take it.

  7. Thanks for calling attention to this. I realize how marginally connected I am with the world of evangelicalism when I hear people share that they’re accused of being demonic for advocating vaccination. Wow. A demonic spirit has taken over the church when supporting justice for people who are mistreated is equated with being “liberal.” Isaiah 1:15 is a word for us to be haunted by in our gated communities of American privilege.

  8. I don’t want to say this too strongly, because I don’t know enough about the details. But as a life long liberal (to which I embrace the term) I am increasingly convinced that business and charity have to work in partnership, with government to bring people out of poverty.

    Katie said above that she wants to counter the idea that if factories weren’t there, then people would have no work. To some extent she is right. But she is also wrong in that, many of these people don’t have a better option. They do need jobs and garment jobs, as lousy as they are, are the jobs that are currently available in Bangladesh. I am all for supporting organizing the workers for better and safer conditions. But it does need to be done in way that is incremental so that jobs are not just outsourced to a place that has even less regulations.

    And there are many things that need to be changed in the US to encourage better working conditions in the rest of the world. For instance eliminating or lowering US crop subsidies on cotton. Working to increase the amount of US food aid that is given in cash, so that local crops can be purchased instead of shipping US crops overseas and flooding markets and destroying the local farmers that are already hurt by droughts. Did you know that US subsidy to just cotton farmers is $24 Billion over the last 10 year, while US aid to sub Saharan Africa is a bit over $4 Billion a year. And now the US is paying $800 million a year to subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers (because of a WTO judgement) rather than reduce our subsidies to internationally agreed upon numbers.

    My point is that no one wants these fires, not the business or the workers. Drawing attention to them and then working to provide grants and technical assistance to bring appropriate govt oversight and pressure on clothes buyers to have humaine conditions is great. But encouraging Walmart and others to just cut purchases form one particular supplier does little to solve the problem. They just move to another supplier that is basically the same.

    In many ways, I view this similarly to oil drilling in the US. I am not a fan of more drilling, but at least in the US it will be regulated and cleaner than if more drilling is done in Nigeria.

    1. Some very insightful comments…one way that I think these changes come about the best is through advocating to the decision- makers (dare I say lobbying) that they have to measure more than one bottom line to be profitable. As the manager of a social enterprise, we have to find ways to measure and demonstrate the social and environmental profit/value right alongside the financial profit.

      These types of changes come in more poweful structures when they are demanded on the procurement side as standards that have to be adhered to. But corporations will not demand these standards be put in place unless their customers demand it as well. I think we have to continue to educate consumers on how they are linked to these types of injustices– and for Evangelicals, that they should be as equally concerned with how their fellow humans are treated after they are born as before they are born.

      Keep up the good work, Rachel!

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