by David J. Schmidt
Before I came down to southern Mexico to volunteer with Fair Trade coffee coops in Chiapas and Oaxaca, I was chatting online with a friend from Russia who praised “all the altruistic work” (her words) that I’m involved in. As her comments became more gushing, I tried to deflect her adulation a bit. “Well…um…you know, Ksyusha,” I said, “not everybody is as well-off as we are. And if we see that we can do something to change things, we should try to help out.”
I kicked myself immediately after making that comment. I realized (a second too late) that it only served to reinforce my own faux-sainthood. And Ksyusha responded in kind: “Well you must be a very giving person, David. Because if I spent all my time thinking about all the people who are suffering in the world, I’d go crazy. I mean, there’s always someone out there who is hungry or sick or suffering, I can’t spend the whole day thinking about them…”
The conversation petered off at that point: Ksyusha went off to work in Russia, and I went to bed in California. I kept thinking about our conversation after I had turned off the lights, though. Is Ksyusha right? Am I some sort of modern-day saint who has a supernatural capacity to feel compassion for others? The conclusion I reached was: no, I am not a holy person. (I think anyone who has spent an evening with me would agree.)
The work I do is not about sainthood, or even altruism for that matter.
It’s about justice. Setting things right.
Of course, all Christians are called to have compassion on those who suffer, to stand in solidarity with them, to welcome all of the suffering and downtrodden into the loving arms of the human family. But Ksyusha had a point…it is physically, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally and humanly impossible to always keep human suffering at the forefront of our minds.
If you think about it, at any given moment, there is someone out there who is having a hard time. And if you really think about it in a statistical way, during any waking second of our existence someone on this planet is experiencing something truly horrific and unspeakable. If we were to always keep ourselves mindful of all the pestilence, disease, senseless death, car accidents, cancer, rape, inexplicable illnesses, infant mortality and physical pain that exist on this planet, we truly would go crazy.
A good part of the reason we would go crazy is that the vast majority of this suffering is far away, disconnected from us. I call it the evening news mentality. In his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman writes about how television changed the way we think about “news”, bringing us sound bites and news stories about events taking place in communities disconnected from our own. Someone killed her infant child in Cincinnati. A drunk driver hit someone in Las Vegas. A teenage girl went missing in Orlando.
These are all horrible things that happen…but they have nothing to do with me. I don’t live in Orlando, or Cincinnati, or Las Vegas. I don’t know any of the families affected by these things to be able to offer them comfort. These events aren’t happening to anybody who might be the cousin or friend or grandparent of my neighbors. I once heard an anecdotal story of an elderly church lady who would regularly ask the members of her congregation to pray for the characters on the favorite soap opera. I wonder sometimes, is this so different from our obsession with the “tragic news case of the week”? I have no connection to these people and communities…so what is the point in my losing sleep over them?
But when it comes to issues like the labor rights of women who work in assembly line sweatshops of Tijuana, the coffee farmers of Nicaragua, the children harvesting cocoa in West Africa, or the plight of immigrants living in our country without papers, we are talking about an entirely different sort of beast. These are all plights directly related to our lives.
The children who work as virtual, and often literal, slaves in Ghana are doing so, not because of the cruelty of some distant despot who has nothing to do with us. They are doing this so that we can have cheaper chocolate. Our companies and our economy keep them in that place.
The coffee farmer trying to feed his wife and children and find enough money to send his kids to school and pay the bills is not a case of “random bad luck” in some distant corner of the globe. That coffee farmer who tries to survive when the world market price of coffee is a roller coaster that goes up and down unpredictably, the coffee farmer who never knows how much he will be paid for his harvest—his precarious situation was created by those who control the world coffee market. So that you and I could have predictable access to cheap coffee.
The woman whose working-class suburb of Tijuana was polluted with chemicals that the U.S.-based factories dumped into her neighborhood, whose child was born with birth defects just like most of her neighbors’ children…
…her neighbor who works 12 hour days on the assembly line just to pay rent…
…her other neighbor who lost part of his arm in the factory and was never paid indemnity…
…their lives are no regrettable accident. Those factories set up shop in their neighborhood because it was cheaper to do so. Because they are part of this big, glorious, global economy that brings us the cheap consumer goods that we find in Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart.
And when people flee these conditions—the world that was created by the soulless corporations and companies that bring us those consumer goods, a union-free, rights-free world that is kept that way by our military when countries challenge it—when people flee and come here in search of a better life, they get treated like criminals.
When people come to the United States following the natural flow of money and profits that are being bled from their homelands into the coffers of Phillip Morris, Nestle and Coca-Cola, when they follow that vast river of wealth flowing out of the South and into the North…they get treated like criminals, because they don’t have immigration papers. Papers which are practically impossible for poor people in their position to ever obtain in the first place.
These people are not strangers. They are not accidents. They are not distant, unfortunate circumstances. They are intimately, directly connected to our prosperity, our lifestyles, our wellbeing. Our opulence is their despair.
To be sure, there is plenty of suffering on this earth that is random, unpredictable, uncontrollable and senseless. And yes, the Church is called to heal that suffering and bring comfort to our sisters and brothers who are afflicted by it.
But let us not mistake immigrants’ rights, fair trade and social justice for such charity. These movements are about righting the wrongs committed by those who went before us. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of jumping into bed with Pharaoh, Caesar, Baal and Babylon. We engage in complicity with the empires of our broken world. Challenging the exploitative systems that dehumanize our fellow humans is not saintly compassion or altruism…
…it’s the least we could do.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants' rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.”