Given that Christmas is a week away, I’d really love to be writing about good cheer, about love and joy, but recently I read a disturbing article in Mother Jones magazine, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave“, that just won’t let me go.
The article described working conditions in a warehouse that stocks and ships merchandise for online commerce. I was horrified by what Mac McClelland, a journalist who took a job there as an undercover reporter, described. Not only were the demands placed on her as a worker physically exhausting and sometimes dangerous, but she and her co-workers were subjected to emotional abuse as well.
The article was published in the spring of 2012, so you could say it’s old news. Except it isn’t. Just last month an undercover reporter for the BBC took a job at an Amazon warehouse in England and secretly videotaped conditions there which have been described as brutal. And in Germany, Amazon workers have gone on strike because of the working conditions and wages.
I do most of my shopping online these days, so even though not every online merchandiser exploits their workers, I found the scenario MacClelland describes deeply disturbing. I don’t want to support cruel distribution systems any more than I want to support the sweatshop manufacturing economy. But as we all know, in this globally connected, interdependent economy it’s not easy to know which companies are acting responsibly and which aren’t, and it’s pretty much impossible to extract yourself entirely from the injustices of the system.
What is easy is to point the finger at the corporate decision-makers as the villains in this story, but there’s more to it than that. Yes, it’s true that CEO salaries and shareholder profits all too often take priority over just compensation for workers, and it’s also true that government needs to do far more to ensure that workers are treated humanely and safely. But it’s just as true that those of us who always want to pay rock bottom for everything we buy are just as culpable, especially if we have the means to pay more.
The Gift Economy
This time of year our shopping frenzy reaches its peak — mainstream culture’s bizarre way of celebrating Jesus — and our gift-buying gives the economy a badly needed end-of-the-year boost.
But just because we spend a lot of money buying gifts doesn’t mean we have a gift economy. In fact, ours is just the opposite. Ours is a take economy. Most of us, myself included, have been acculturated into an economy that is all about trying to get as much as we can for as little as we can, which is why big box stores so often successfully decimate small, local businesses and why Christmas sales are so effective.
A true gift economy, which more often than not exists among indigenous people, is connectional and heart-centered. It isn’t based on the question of how much can I get, but how much can I give. Giving, not having, is the measure of one’s wealth.
At its heart, Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate God’s gift economy, Divine Love giving itself freely to the world. The Divine as depicted by the Christmas story is not transactional. Its economy is grace-filled and generous beyond measure, nothing like the economy which MacClelland describes so hauntingly in her article.
During my morning meditation the day after I read the article, the conditions for those workers crossed my mind again, and at that precise moment a very odd thing happened. The candle on my altar inexplicably went out. There hadn’t been any gust of air, the candle hadn’t burned down, the flame hadn’t drowned itself in a pool of wax. The candle just went out.
In the Christian community this is the season of lighting candles of hope, peace, love, and joy, and the self-extinguishment of the candle on my altar seemed like a statement about how the economic world we have constructed is so contrary to the vision Jesus held for our world.
Fortunately we have the power to manifest a different world, one more in alignment with Jesus’ vision, if we are willing to come together, engage our imaginations and unite our efforts. One of the inspirations that came to me this past week, for example, was of socially concerned individuals forming a union of our own, pooling our collective purchasing power to leverage governments and corporations to enact just regulations and labor practices. Maybe you also have some wild ideas about how we can kindle the flame of a more just economy, and if so, I hope you’ll share them.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the familiar tale, Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a conversion of heart. Firmly rooted in the take economy, Scrooge forces his clerk Bob Cratchit to work long hours in a freezing room for paltry pay. But when he has a vision that shows him his life from a larger perspective, Scrooge is liberated from his cold-hearted existence. Seeing his life as a miraculous blessing, he himself becomes a blessing, spreading the light of generosity wherever he goes.
In the end he became an avid practitioner of the gift economy, coming to understand what so many of us have yet to learn, that true wealth isn’t about money in and of itself. Rather, it is the experience of deep, loving connection with others and the overflowing gratitude that comes with understanding life as a blessing. True wealth, he gleefully discovered, increases not by being hoarded, but by being shared.