No Easy Answer

Last Saturday night at the Wild Goose Festival, Hugh Hollowell (the director of Love Wins) was speaking at the Geodesic Dome.   The dome is a smaller structure constructed of branches lashed together to form…, well, a dome.  The events at the dome always centered around a question for which the speaker had no answer, so conversation was encouraged.  Of course, each speaker had their subject; Jay Bakker’s was about justice and the LGBT community, Nadia Bolz-Weber talked about authority in the church, you get the picture.  As Hugh’s focus is poor and homeless people, his question revolved around local mission as opposed to global mission.  His quandary was (and still is) how to reconcile the help he provides each day to those he pastors in the local area with the fact that, in doing so, he may be hurting someone overseas.  For instance, say three people come to him who have found a job, but that job requires steel-toed work boots.  In this instance, due to budget constraints, he has $100 to help them buy these boots.  He has two options:

  1. Buy boots that are made in America in a union-approved factory by adults who make a living wage. 
  2. Go to Wal-Mart and buy boots that are made overseas in a sweatshop by workers for starvation wages.

At first glance, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?  Until you consider that the American-made boots cost about $100 a pair and the sweatshop boots at Wal-Mart run $29.95.  So, for $100, he can put one person back to work and feel good about himself because he’s not putting money into an evil corporation’s pocket or he can put 3 people back to work and, essentially, screw some people overseas.  Puts a different spin on the issue, doesn’t it?

Hugh and I have had this conversation several times and I can tell you, there’s no easy answer.  It’s like asking someone if they want a broken toe or a broken finger; both options suck the big one.   Since Saturday night, I’ve looking for a way to reconcile these options and, at least in the short run, I don’t know that you can.  In 1991, convicted felon Edwin Edwards was running for governor of Louisiana and his run-off opponent was David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  It was an election the comedian T. Bubba Bechtol characterized by saying “Poor Louisiana just had to hold their nose and vote.”  And, I think that’s what you have to do here; both options stink, so just hold your nose and pick one.  And, he has.  He chooses to put the people standing right in front of him back to work, a choice I agree with even if I don’t like it. 

As a privileged as I am, it’s easy for me to sit back and boycott companies whose practices I don’t agree with.  Yes, corporations like Wal-Mart do some evil things and we need to hold them accountable for those actions.  At the same time, Wal-Mart provides goods and services to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.  They also provide employment to people who otherwise wouldn’t be employed.  Granted, those jobs, goods and services aren’t the greatest, but they’re definitely better than nothing.  How we fix one without screwing up the other is a question for those more learned than I.