Complicit no matter what we do? So was Jesus.

Ever get the feeling you'll be complicit in injustice no matter what you do?

I remember finding out that slave-labor was used to build natural-gas pipelines in Burma.

Thousands of slaves were involved in clearing the land and in construction work along the 65km pipeline.

So, of course I decided to boycott the French and British gas companies involved. That meant driving past the most convenient gas station to my house, a gas station owned by Chevron, when I needed to fill up our community car with gas. I encouraged others to do the same.

No biggie.

Boycotting crappy gas station coffee - really suffering for Jesus.

Boycotting crappy gas station coffee - really suffering for Jesus.

Then, I found out about the injustice involved in the manufacture of a key part of cellphones - a mineral called coltan. Most of the world's coltan is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The extraction of coltan has contributed to maintaining one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in Africa, which according to human rights organizations has led to*:

  • more than five million deaths
  • massive displacements of the population, and
  • the rape of 300,000 women in the last 15 years

Finding a cellphone that was "conflict-mineral free" became a big challenge.

Then, I moved to Cambodia and got to know garment factory workers who toil under exploitative conditions to make the brand-name (and unbranded) clothes you and I wear.

Time to go naked? Time to sew my own clothes? Wear sacks?

No seriously, it's a problem.

Whichever way I turn there is injustice. And I am complicit in the suffering of others. There's no real escape unless I go off the grid.

Next time someone wants to point out some injustice in the world I better be sure to stick my fingers in my ears and scream, "Lalalalalalalalalalalalalalala - I'M NOT LISTENING!" - or I'll be stripped of some other simple joy in life.

But here's the thing.

Jesus walked on Roman roads built by slaves. (proof)

Slaves and prisoners of war were often forced to perform the most difficult tasks of quarrying and transporting stone in building the massive network of roads for the Roman Empire.

There was blood on those stones.

And yet, Jesus walked on those Roman highways.

Does that mean He didn't care about injustice? Was he indifferent to suffering?

Of course not! Didn't He harangue the Pharisees about their lack of justice? (Mt 23:23).
Didn't He respond with anger to exploitation? (Mt 21:12).

But I think Jesus knew that there is a certain pride in our idealism that has nothing to do with seeking better outcomes for the poor and the suffering. We feel good because we're not complicit. We feel better because we're not responsible. We're not guilty. We wash our hands.

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Jesus points out the danger of this attitude in a provocative little story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. (Lk 18:9-14)

One was righteous (self-righteous!), supposedly free from injustice.

The other knew he was complicit. He knew he was guilty.

The point is not to embrace apathy nor to be paralyzed by the complexity of being human in a fallen world, but to embrace the humble stance of the tax collector who wept over how he had fallen short.

So where does that leave me?

Now, I still fight the good fight. I still battle against injustice. But with a healthier dose of grace and flexibility. I'm trying to stand tall with the humble posture of a recovering sinner.

Sometimes the purist is impotent.

 

(PS. Thanks to the hard work of human rights activists, most major cellphone producers announced in 2011 that they would no longer buy minerals from the DRC. So our work is not futile.)