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Rebuke Your Neighbor

Last year, the Rana Plaza garment factory suddenly collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring around 2,500. It was the deadliest such disaster in the history of the garment industry. To mark the anniversary of this horrific event, Rev. Thyra VanKeeken wrote this short reflection: 

The other day a friend posted a link on Facebook to a short YouTube video called “Handprint” made by Eco-Age’s Green Carpet challenge. The short video is nearly wordless, except for the sounds of people in multiple languages introducing themselves at the end, people who spent the whole video dressing a woman in beautiful clothes. The message is clearly stated, printed on the screen in a postscript:  “You carry the stories of the people who make your clothes.” 

It’s a very moving 2:45 video. Every article of clothing we wear has a story—from where the raw material was harvested, to where it was processed, to where it was dyed and sewed etc, etc, etc.  It’s a story with many steps and it’s not always a good story. In fact, it is often the story of underpaid workers working in unsafe conditions in underdeveloped countries eking out a living. 

Now, I like new clothes. And I like cheap new clothes. I like a bargain. I like to shop. 

How do I live this life here in these clothes in this country knowing what I know about where and how they were made and by whom? 

When I look in the mirror how do I SEE the hands of the people that made my clothes? The sight of all those people in the mirror in the video “Handprint” completely took me aback. I was shocked, guilty, and moved. 

Because, let’s be honest, it’s just easier not to think about it. It’s easier to turn that part of my brain off. And I do. A lot. Especially in large international big box stores where things are cheap and cheerful.  I think about what I’m saving, not what system I’m buying into. 

If we started caring about where our clothes were made, and by whom, we’d have to start caring about where the computer I am typing this on came from and what conditions it was built under, we’d have start thinking about the treatment of workers who harvest our food, who make our cars, who produce our jewelry, and what about who mine our minerals? I mean, once you start caring where your stuff comes from where do you stop? 

If I had to think of all of that all the time MY HEAD WOULD EXPLODE. I can’t do it. I just want to wear a nice new shirt. 

And the cost! Seriously, if we started caring about “ethical” everything we’d be broke.  Have you seen how much more expensive a Canadian Mined diamond is? Ethically sourced cotton is going to make that t-shirt you are wearing solidly three times the price. At least. Who can afford to care that much? 

But that is not the whole story, I know.   We can’t write all clothing manufacturers off. Some of the countries that produce the clothing we are wearing do have decent laws that protect their workers.  I also know, and could give you stats, on how bringing production and development to places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia is GOOD for those countries. A rising tide raises all boats right? The economy grows and fewer children starve to death, right?   

It’s easy to justify and to forget. It’s not like we’re for the bad treatment of workers in the garment industry, or in the cotton growing industry, who are trying to eke out a living on too little in dangerous conditions. But we’re not against it either. We vote for it with our dollars. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously once said: 

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

If we opened our eyes—or even really looked at what our open eyes already see—we would be standing face to face with all those elephants.  They surround us, and saying “gosh it sucks to be a mouse” isn’t enough. 

We ARE called to care that much, to care enough to learn about what we are getting ourselves into, to care enough to keep our eyes open. 

Leviticus gives us some insight on these issues, believe it or not. I know, Leviticus, who would have thought? As I was preparing a sermon on Leviticus recently I was struck by the words of Chapter 19. In a section about community life, about living together well, it has beautiful words about the fair treatment of all, about honesty, and about justice.  And it says this:

“Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt” (19:17 ESV). 

And the shoe drops. 

This means that you may not be the elephant. But if you aren’t speaking out for the mouse you are just as culpable. 

I don’t have it all sorted out, I do not. I do not think that there is one piece of advice that we could follow like “only buy Canadian made” or “avoid all products made in Bangladesh.” That would make this easy. But I am thinking about it, and reading about it, and trying to intentionally NOT turn my brain off when I walk into a brightly-lit, cheerful, and wonderfully cheap store. And that is the first step. I am trying to see all those hands on my shoulders.  

Editor's note: One way to take action for better working conditions in the Global South is to sign this petition, urging some of the retailers linked to the Rana Plaza collapse to change their practices. 

[Image: Flickr user C/N N/G]

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