catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 12 :: 2004.06.04 — 2004.06.17


Dignity through work

The current U.S. Presidential campaign looks as though it will be one of the nastier races in recent memory, with candidates taking derogatory shots at one another over issues such as the Iraq war, national security, prescription drugs and social security. One of the most important issues, though, probably won?t be mentioned at all by any of the candidates. Abortion? Gay marriage? Appropriate uses of power?

While these hot button issues?well, that last one isn?t exactly ?hot button??certainly merit discussion, the issue to which I refer is that of taking care of the poor. Not exactly a sexy topic, to be sure; however, as Christians, we need to heed Jesus? famous ?least of these? imperative: ?Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me?you failed to do it to me? (Matthew 25:45, The Message

). The poor, it would seem, should be a top priority for Christians in November?s election.

Unfortunately, the poor are not even on the political radar for either the Democrats or the Republicans. But it is easy enough to construct a hypothetical debate about the topic:

Democrat: I think the government ought to start such-and-such a program to help the poor.

Republican: Yes, I agree that the poor need assistance, but they have to be willing to work for it.

D: It isn?t that people aren?t willing to work. Most poor people are victims of circumstance.

R: The poor people I?ve met are just plain lazy; the American Dream is accessible to those who want it. You?re just a bleeding heart liberal!

D: You?re a cold-hearted conservative! What we need to do is create a fourth branch of government to help the poor.

R: There you go again, expanding the government?s reach into private citizens? lives. If we just provide enough incentive to the private sector, particularly the wealthy, opportunities will be available to those who will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take the bull by the horns.

D: You just mixed metaphors.

R: Did not!

D: Did, too.

R Did not!

Now, it could be argued whether or not it is the government?s job to take care of the poor, but focusing on possible ?solutions? seems a far more valuable use of time and energy. Though it would be nice if our governments would help in the matter, it isn?t necessary to start working right away (though governments have often directly hindered progress).

How, then, can we work for the poor through existing systems in ways that involve politically and theologically liberal and conservative people?

I think one piece of the puzzle is the emerging fair trade movement. Fair trade, or alternative trade, essentially seeks to put people back into the equation instead of merely demanding the greatest profit. In order to do this, fair trade systems knock out all of the middlemen usually associated with conventional trade and maintain low overhead on the retail side of the chain. Though work still needs to be done if fair trade is to escape its specialty niche, the beginnings of a more equitable and sustainable trade system are in place.

Fair trade is a unique part of ongoing efforts to help the poor because it appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals are happy because they?re fulfilling their (usually) guilt-driven desire to help the less fortunate, and conservatives are satisfied because the artisans in fair trade cooperatives are working for their keep instead of relying on handouts. More importantly, fair trade gives artisans the dignity of knowing that they?re part of a larger world community and that they are doing something worthwhile with their labor.

Helping individuals around the world realize their innate dignity as image-bearers by providing them with meaningful work for a fair wage is one of many ways we can show our love to the ?least of these.?

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