Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Amos 2:6-16) transports me to New York City’s Chinatown on a visit I made with student leaders and civic engagement administrators from across the country ten years ago. We were there for a training at the Coro Fellows Program, an urban immersion leadership development program. The Coro staff placed us in teams of 3, and each team was dropped off in a different section of Chinatown, with the instructions to spend several hours there and find out all we could about what made Chinatown tick, who was in charge, what the strengths and challenges were. We were to find our way back to the Coro office that afternoon for a de-briefing. Our team thought we had found the motherlode of information, believing we had put our finger on the pulse of the movers and shakers of the community when we stumbled into a community organizing center in the garment factory district and got to interview several staffers. The surprise for our team, and for all of the teams, was that each one of us thought we had stumbled onto the center of the community’s activity, and each team came away with a very different set of answers. The politics of Chinatown was not homogenous; there were various and sundry interest groups relative to wealth and status, types of work, feelings about Taiwanese independence, etc etc. It was an eye-opener. I still remember how passionately those textile union organizers spoke about the oppression of the workers there, how Chinatown was home to the greatest concentration of sweatshops in America, how the industry moguls used ambitious Chinese American managers to maintain tight social control over the workers. I recently read something that tells me the Chinatown organizers still have their work cut out for them: The trendy designer Alexander Wang was implicated in a $450 million class action lawsuit for operating sweatshops in Chinatown to produce his famous high heeled platform sandals.
There were no doubt many competing interest groups in the holy land during the time Amos prophecied. Israel and Judah were divided, and each had its share of oppressive enemies breathing down their necks: the Moabites, Edomites, Amorites, etc. Amos may not have had designer platform sandals, but he had a platform. If a group of leadership students and administrators had been plopped down in the section of the community where Amos presided, they would certainly have been able to put their finger on the pulse of one leading the charge against exploitive labor and injustice for the poor. He set his audience up by lambasting all the other communities and interest groups for their various sins, getting Amen after Amen from his gathered crowd as he listed the complaints in threes and fours. Then, he saved his own community for last. I have a few things to say about our own community. God is not pleased, there are three or four things I want to point out to you, and he starts listing: Our own people, our leaders, sell the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample of the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. It sounds like taking advantage of the poor for a pair of platform sandals is nothing new. Alexander Wang’s forefathers were there on the pages of holy writ.
I don’t own a pair of platform sandals, but I suspect that if I looked at the labels of most of my clothing, there would be evidence that the needy have been sold out somewhere in the world to give me access to cheap stuff. Our system is set up that way, so that otherwise “good” people, people who teach Sunday School and lead Boy Scout troops and give lots of money to charity, feel pressured, feel obligated, to chase cheap labor around the world and trample the poor like dust. They operate under the cover of fiduciary responsibility, plausibly denying justice to the poor so they can meet the demands of shareholders to maximize the bottom line. And so the consumer will have a cheap pair of socks, if not an expensive pair of designer sandals. The economic patriotism of “Buy American” that I grew up with, along with a healthy respect for the union workers who made our stuff and brought us a middle class, has long given way to an economic treachery that begrudges any gains won by the seamstresses and sandal workers who organize and negotiate. Amos, foretelling Jesus’ own vilification of systems that concentrate wealth, sees the Israelite system eventually crashing in on itself like a heavy cart. It will be a day when the swift will not escape, nor will the strong be able to muster strength. I wonder if the Coro staffers are developing a generation of leaders ready to face that day.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.