Sunday, 23 February 2014

A thought for Fairtrade Fortnight

This was originally written as a piece for the February 2014 edition of the Monkwearmouth Parish magazine. Thought it was apt to share it today!
For me, February has come to mean Fairtrade Fortnight. This year it runs from 24th February - 9th March, and I find it a good time to explore the principles of Fairtrade & ask some difficult questions of myself. Now some of you may feel the urge to immediately flip the page – you may think Fairtrade produce overpriced, or of poor quality, or just view it as not really any different from the other stuff on the shelves. You may feel that, if somebody has a job, they should be grateful. You may even believe that, as everything is so much cheaper in the developing world, the money they get goes a lot further – that they should try surviving in modern Britain on a low wage or pension!
If you do feel like that - I understand! All I ask is you please bear with me for a few more seconds.
You see, I know that for some reading this the cost of Fairtrade goods is a stretch too far – if you live off the Tesco value range, or only buy those goods that work out the cheapest through special offers or promotions, it becomes much harder to support or buy Fairtrade, as it is rarely the cheapest product on the shelf (though if you do spot it on offer, please take the chance – remember the story of the poor widow in the temple!1) However, for the rest of us, who buy our favourite brand regardless of the price because we “only get an ooo with Typhoo” or whatever, then we can use our resources to support Fairtrade and make sure that the people working to bring us the goods we enjoy are not exploited.
A bit of context. After World War II the links between individual countries financial well-being & that of the world economy deepened as new technology, especially in transport and communication, opened up the world markets. People in the “Global North” - i.e. people like us - got used to cheaper, more abundant food, clothing and lifestyle products; but while our material wealth increased, so did the divide between the rich and poor. This led to what has been described as the “race to the bottom,” in which corporations looked around the world for the lowest cost human labour and set about “exploiting” them for profit. Fairtrade is rooted in the Christian response to this.
The theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez sees sin as “the ultimate cause of poverty, injustice, and the oppression in which persons live.”2 He describes poverty as a “scandalous condition” in the Bible, and contrary to the will of God. Terms such as poor, weak, bent over and wretched are not only expressing degrading human situations in a descriptive manner, but are used as a form of protest; God taking a stand, made explicit in the “vigorous rejection of poverty.” Throughout the Bible the way poverty is described expresses God's indignation, as does the description of the cause of poverty: the injustice of the oppressors.3 Passages such as Job 24:2-14, Amos 2:6-7 and Isaiah 10:1-2 show this, alongside numerous Old Testament passages condemning fraudulent commerce and exploitation, the hoarding of the lands, corrupt courts, slavery and unjust governance. He also draws on the rules laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as well as passages from Exodus, to show God’s desire to avoid poverty becoming established among his people.4
Some of you may recall a talk I did on James 5:1-6 at Harvest time. In it I noted that for us, here in 21st century Sunderland, it is easy to skate over this kind of passage. We may not think of ourselves as rich, and probably don’t think of ourselves as people who hoard up gold and silver. But perhaps there is a challenge to all of us here that we need to take seriously.
For us, the fact James was writing to Christians, rather than godless, ‘evil’ people, is important. We may not think that we exploit, condemn and murder people, but if our choices support a system that does, then James appears to argue that we are implicated. Whenever we buy basic products like tea, coffee or chocolate that are not fairly traded, in a sense we have colluded with, and contributed to, unfair payment of workers and – in some cases - child slavery. In James' eyes, this isn't an option for a follower of Christ. For him, to turn a blind eye to this shows support such regimes, and makes us as bad as the rich oppressors.
The Fairtrade movement gives us Christians a framework to explore the concept that being poor is “a way of living, thinking, loving, praying, believing, and hoping, spending leisure time, and struggling for a livelihood.”5 Looking at scripture from the point of view of the oppressed gives weight to Fairtrade principles such as the “development of people to achieve their God-given potential…the fair and equal treatment of women and men” and the desire to “protect the interests of children.”6
So, however rich or poor we feel today, we are called to live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the world – to show “the free and unmerited love of God for every human being and especially the poor and forgotten…a key element in the message of Jesus.”7 Don' forget, the Bible has over 250 verses speaking on the proper use of wealth, and over 300 highlighting the response God requires from His people towards poverty and injustice (compared to, for example, less than half a dozen talking about the supposedly 'big' issue of homosexuality!)
I know how generous the people of this Parish are. As I said in the opening piece to this magazine my family & I have experienced this generosity first-hand over the last couple of months. So what I'm saying here isn't a hard message to hear – you could say I'm preaching to the converted! It's really just an encouragement to use the choice many of us have about how we spend our money.
The ultimate goal is for all trade to be fair trade – but this won't happen unless average people like us show we'll choose products that are fairly traded over ones that aren't.
So next time you’re doing your shopping, and especially over Fairtrade Fortnight, could you to take a few extra moments to consider the workers who have made the products you’re buying. Maybe use the time to prepare for Lent, which begins on the Fortnight's final day? Instead of giving up something, why not try swapping it for a Fairtrade alternative?
Are we brave enough to sacrifice a little more of our comfort to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?8

1 Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4
2 This quote is from Gustavo Gutiérrez in his book “A Theology of Liberation,” (SCM 2001) P74
3 See “A Theology of Liberation,” P258
4 For example Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Leviticus 23:22, Exodus 23:11, etc. See “A Theology of Liberation,” P260
5 Quoted from “A Theology of Liberation,” P11
6 See
7 Quoted from Gustavo Gutiérrez, “On Job: God-talk and the suffering of the innocent,” (Orbis Books 1987) Pxiii
8 Micah 6:8