Yesterday, day two of the Abolition Academy, the implicit theme of the day seemed to be messiness. There is a lot we can know about the supply chain from slaveholder to consumer–apparel corporations, for example, can identify every subcontractor and source all the way back to the cotton field much more easily than they often claim–but there are still complications in ensuring that no one in the chain is trafficked or enslaved.
For example, one of the requirements is monitoring: monitoring one’s suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, to make sure they are not committing any of the abuses that point to forced labor. (Examples: holding workers’ passports so that they can’t leave; requiring overtime; beating people who don’t make their quota.) Well, there are third-party monitoring organizations. But even they sometimes hesitate to make unannounced inspections, because they want to have a relationship of mutual trust with the subcontractors. (Hey, we can’t even get unannounced inspections in this country. But that’s because we specifically rewrote safety laws so that corporations could conceal problems before an inspection. Would you like E. coli with that hamburger?) The whole system is a work in progress.
For this and other reasons, instead of the shorthand “slave-free,” Not For Sale recommends the term “zero tolerance.” Even the most diligent company, conducting third-party unannounced inspections, can’t guarantee that abuses of workers’ rights won’t occur. The commitment we ask of them is that they keep a sharp eye out for these abuses, and when they find them, take effective action. That’s zero tolerance for forced labor. Monday’s facilitator compared it to a university having a zero tolerance for racism. They aren’t guaranteeing that no one on the campus will ever do anything racist–that’s not possible. Instead, they are promising to pay attention and to act on such incidents.
This is wisdom for congregations, which can be paralyzed by the impossibility of guaranteeing perfection. Being a Welcoming Congregation (UU lingo for proactively welcoming and supporting LGBTQ people) doesn’t mean promising that no one at church will ever utter a homophobic word; it means speaking up if anyone does. Being a multicultural, antiracist congregation doesn’t mean you always get diversity right, but that the congregation is stretching, listening to what its people of color have to say, and being willing to change. Standing for justice doesn’t mean you’ll never do something hypocritical like treat a church employee badly–on the contrary, it means you’ll diligently watch for just such moments and correct course when they happen. The aim is not perfection. We are human and messy, and so the aim is to be honest and keep on moving forward.
The troublesome verse, Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” has come in for a called-for re-interpretation in recent years. The Aramaic word that’s usually translated “perfect” evokes, not the absoluteness that “perfect” has in English, but a strong sense of integrity, maturity, completeness: a fruit come to ripeness, a person grown to adulthood, a body whole and healthy. In a world where, as last year’s Trafficking in Persons Report says, “it is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor,” it’s important this movement is calling us, not to perfection, but to integrity.
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A woman in the class recommended this primer, 18 minutes long, by the author of Disposable People and founder of Free the Slaves, Kevin Bales. If you don’t have time to read his book, check out this excellent talk.
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ETA that Boy in the Bands, my colleague the Rev. Scott Wells, just posted about one of the worst cases of child labor in the world today, the girls pressed into being soldiers and sex slaves of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Here’s his post, and here’s the link to help fund the film on the subject being made by a friend of his. Thanks, Scott!