Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Southland in the Springtime

I've been reflecting on a comment I heard some time back, and I think it's worthy of reflection. I'm paraphrasing, but the gist of it was that the speaker didn't think much of Christianity, because if it was such a good idea, how do you explain the backwardness of the southern United States? Hmmn, now that's food for thought isn't it? He had continued to comment that in a culture where everyone (or almost everyone) read the Bible, went to church, had prayer in schools and the ten commandments in the courtroom, and yet...and yet...(sigh).

I'm not from the south (I'm Canadian), and I've only ever been there once, so perhaps I'm not the best person to be responding to a comment such as the above, but I've known a few southerners in my time. I walked away from a southern affiliated Baptist church as a teenager because it supported racial segregation (at the time). They were from the south. I was fifteen, and I remember bursting into tears, in trying to explain what was so wrong about a system that exploited people, to a minister who was trying to say that he thought the churches in the south had been blamed for something that had been part of the culture, that people had grown up with. At the time what he said pretty much went in one ear and out the door with me, but I find myself wondering years later, did he have a point?

No. I don't think so. Even now I can't accept it, because the church is supposed to be a leader, isn't it? The preachers are supposed to be the practicers. I've been thinking lately though, that the reason that we Christians often end up looking so bad, is because Jesus looked so good, if you know what I mean. We're no better than anyone else, and sometimes we're undoubtedly worse, but I think our image problem as Christians is that so often we fail to reflect the image of the set of footprints that is carrying us towards a higher ground.Yet, people recognize an authenticity and moral standard in Jesus. In other words, we're not there yet, but we do have a vision of something greater, that despite our failings many of us are trying to do good. With that said may I ask, the next time you hear someone talk about all those hypocrites in the church, just remember the humble carpenter, whose words they are echoing. Jesus had the same complaint. 

So, I would never try to justify oppression, but whenever I hear people attack Christians or Christianity I always come back to the same conclusion. Namely, you cannot ground the intrinsic worth and equality of all human beings in an ever-shifting purely naturalistic process of material selection, you simply cannot. So, in this instance we can argue, and I can emphasize the Christians who fought against slavery, and an atheist would probably emphasize the church going KKK members who fought against reforms with strange fruit and burning crosses.(sigh) But at the end of the day, it was still a Judeo-Christian concept of equality that Martin Luther King knew he was appealing to when he stood up to speak.God bless his resting soul, but King was just living out who he knew he was in Christ, a man created in the image of God, a little lower than the angels. And it's still that Judeo-Christian foundation, my friends, when the UN talks about promoting human rights around the world, or Amnesty International or any other secular organization presents the same expectation. They are drawing water from the same inspirational well as Moses or Isiah or Jeremiah or Jesus. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream" -Amos 5:24  That's all I claim, that it's a Biblical foundation, through the grit, the good and the ugly.

But maybe that's the reason why if you look at slavery rates around the world today (despite the fact that the south dragged it's feet in the process), the historically Christian west tends to have the lowest rates of slavery in the world. That's the point I had wanted to make when I started this, that as much as secular commentators love to talk about the U.S., and compare the agricultural south to the industrial north, they fail to look at the issue on a global scale, the recognition that slavery is still an ongoing problem in much of the world. In fact there are more slaves today than at any time in history. Something that I think is also fair to mention, is that human trafficking appears to be increasing as secular influence in the west is increasing, shown in the slim minority of people who advocate for their right to work in the sex trade, while arguably putting at risk the majority who are finding that it's hard to prosecute human trafficking when prostitution is legal. That's just something that I'd like to put out there as food for thought.  How far can we take this "I want to do what I want when I want to do it" attitude, before it begins to affect the next person?

So that's where I was when I started writing this, trying to strike a balance between acknowledging the wrongs of history, while widening the lens to gain a broader, more global perspective on the issue of slavery or inequality. That's what I often try to do, to open up the discussion a bit. But you know, I think my own perspective may be changing, even in the last while as I've been thinking about this, and I'm beginning to realize that regardless of the often false dichotomy between secular and Christian in the west, I wonder to what degree do we have a shared responsibility in what remains an ongoing problem. I'll explain.


I'm a muddler. That is, I often think about this kind of stuff while I'm sorting laundry or doing dishes, taking out the garbage etc. The other day I was out shopping and I had all this in the back of my mind, while I was placing things in the shopping cart. So I was muddling while I was puttering through the isles of bargains that I was trying to find myself. I'll let you in on a few of my stream of conscious thoughts. "What a great deal on really big chocolate bars, mmmn, I love chocolate. Oh, my soon to be adopted son's birthday is coming up, those are nice little trucks for a pretty reasonable price, he loves trucks. He has trucks, but he does love trucks. Oh and yeah, My husband's birthday is coming up too, those are nice shirts, not sure where I'll put them, but I think he would really like that one, and that one..."  I'm a woman, what can I say. I find it very easy to spend money in stores haha, that's a confession of sorts. And then later that night in researching this, still muddling, I came across some of the links below, and that's when it hit me.

I say that with a warning to the sensitive because I've been haunted by some of those links, since reading or watching them. Teenage boys being beaten on cocoa farms after trying to run away in the Ivory Coast. Chinese factory workers putting in dehumanizingly long hours for a little more of not enough to live on outside of the factory farm they call home. Under-privileged girls being entrapped and sold into sexual slavery. People working back-breaking hours breaking up rock, people working with toxic products...for what? At that point I had to turn it off and go to bed but the thoughts have not left me. The images that impacted me the most were the eyes and the faces of the workers in a Chinese toy factory. Ghost-like empty vacuous stares on the faces of people who quite literally never left work except to eat and sleep, if they ate or slept.

I don't want to be a stick in the mud here, but the question I'm left with is, how much of this is the blame of the west? Is that a fair question? I mean, if 20 percent of the world's population is plundering 86 percent of the world's resources, how much can we expect the remaining 80% to have? Is it the poverty that they then find themselves in, that makes them so vulnerable to exploitation? I know it's not simple, and I know corruption plays a role and the actions of the people who are doing this, but...

A number of years ago (I would have been in my early twenties), an Indian friend was visiting Canada. At the time, she was telling me about how strange it felt to be living in Canada, with all these luxuries that she knew would not be there when she returned home. And then she started to name those luxuries: stoves, televisions, fridges, and that was what blew my mind. The things she thought of as luxuries, to me were literally part of the furniture. I'd never thought about it because I'd grown up with it, it was part of the culture. Sound familiar?

So what was that minister trying to say, that there was a need for labor in an agricultural society, where there was too much work to do, and not enough hands to do it. It created a demand for cheap labor, much like our western consumer based culture does now. So one man's cotton lot becomes another man's lot in cotton, but how will history judge us? Will our critics be kind to us, while they're sorting through our garbage, and trying to separate it from their drinking water? What will we say? What will our children say? But we grew up with it, it was part of the culture, toys at Christmastime, sales everywhere we went, the neighborly barbeque and beer peer pressure while there's always another credit card company wanting to give us their brand of plastic. But we rarely stop to think, because we never meet those foreign workers with their haunting eyes and their scarred backs. So we never have to ask ourselves, how on earth do people survive on a dollar a day?

I don't know. All I know is that it's humbling, and as much as I know I'm part of the problem, I also feel trapped by the culture I live in, the pressures, the expectations as a parent especially. And people think we're getting rid of religion? Laughable, isn't it, while we bow to our green god and beg the oracle sages called stock markets what our futures will hold. So were they guilty (in the south)? Surely they were. They were guilty as all get out, but how much more guilty were they than you or I are now, when we shop at our favorite box stores and carry out consumption in a plastic bag?  I'm as guilty as anyone, for the record. But maybe someone, looking back on our time, will say you know they made mistakes, but they were reaching for a good, they were trying to promote human rights around the world. They were trying to make a difference. There were people who saw the problem and were trying to make changes.

I don't know if it's true but at some point in my research I came across a site where someone suggested that the south was trying to make changes too, or at least some people were. Surely it's true that not everyone in the south would have owned slaves any more than everyone in the north was an abolitionist. And to be fair, there would have been people who had a lot to lose...I just wonder how we would respond if we knew that we were going to wake up one day and all of a sudden start paying the difference of everyone in China earning a liveable wage. Would we fight it, knowing it would have very direct effects on our lifestyle and habits?

So, with all of that said, I honestly don't know if it's appropriate to show kindness or understanding to the south. Were they a society in transition? Are we? Is it fair to say that we shouldn't judge history by where we are now? But if we never judged, how would we ever change, and how would we change, if we didn't keep reaching for a higher good? And perhaps that would be a positive note to end on, that we're still reaching...that maybe we too are a culture in transition, and like the south, we can remember some of the good, a people and a place with all the potential of a changing season, a southland in the springtime.

thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Here's the Indigo Girls,

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