Do not store up for yourselves treasures
on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but
store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust
consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure
is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6: 19-21
Riches prick us with a thousand troubles in getting them, as many cares in preserving them, yet more anxiety in spending them, and with grief in losing them. G. K. Chesterton
The journey toward good stewardship is a journey toward loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is the journey toward embracing God’s plan for who we are, while turning our backs on corporate America’s plans for us.
This journey toward God and away from the temptation of over-consumption can be one of the most difficult things we will ever undertake. In the highly materialist U.S. culture, frank discussions within a community of seekers who are on a similar path can be supportive. Regular spiritual practices that bring us into the presence of the living God will give us courage and strength. Face-to-face personal encounters with those who have too little, listening to their stories, and allowing ourselves to be touched by their truth can give us renewed energy for the struggle.
We can live out our commitments to economic justice by taking steps to:
Living more simply is a way to engage the spirit in everyday life. Moreover, in a time of diminishing resources and climate change, when billions of people are living in poverty, it is a very concrete way to love our neighbors and creation. For centuries, Christians have chosen to live as simply as possible in community or alone. For them, the primary motivation may have been spiritual development and nurture. We can still seek those goals today, while also recognizing that voluntary simplicity has also become a way to live out the call to economic justice by using fewer resources and focusing on the importance of community.
The first step for many individuals, families, and congregations is honesty about assessing what we need versus what we want. Next is the need to determine one’s priorities and values. What type of lifestyle is faithful to our Christian values? Lifestyle changes are often easily identified, but the long-term commitment to make these changes can be difficult. Small groups that meet regularly to discuss their commitments and share their progress can be very helpful.
The Northwest Earth Institute in Portland, Oregon has created several curricula for use in small groups that speak to a variety of ways to live more simply, more justly, and on better terms with creation. Although the curricula are secular in nature, there is a spiritual base and they are easily adaptable to a church community. Two courses that deal with simplicity and sustainability are:
- Voluntary Simplicity (Currently out of stock; previous edition available. Cost: $12.00)
- Choices for Sustainable Living (Cost: $21.00)
Each can be used to begin conversations about what simple sustainable living might mean to each individual and what a commitment to follow the words of Francis Moore Lappe “to live simply so that others may simply live” might look like.
Every day we make choices about whether to buy and what to buy. These often casual decisions have enormous consequences for people around the globe and for the natural world. These questions for self-reflection can assist you in examining personal purchasing values:
- Does this purchase add positive value to my life, my home, or my community?
- Does this purchase harm or help the natural environment?
- Could I do without this purchase?
- How else could I spend this money? Could I save it for the future or give it to someone else who needs it more than I do?
- Is this purchase justified based on my faith-based values of economic and environmental justice?
There is useful information, suggestions, and resources in Our Money, Our Values: Building a Just & Sustainable World by Holly Hewitt Ullrich & Catherine Mobly (Pilgrim Press, 2010).
To be a more responsible consumer, you can:
1. Avoid buying products made in sweatshops. Nearly all retail stores carry goods made in sweatshops. In fact, most apparel is made in sweatshops. You can avoid buying sweatshop apparel by purchasing union-made clothes or those certified to be sweat-free. These guides can help.
Also check out No Sweat, Green America’s program to end sweatshop labor.
2. Buy fairly traded goods. Fair trade is an equitable exchange between the people who make products and the people who buy them:
- It empowers low-income, disadvantaged, and marginalized producers around the world.
- It eliminates many of the “middle men” and directly pays artisans, farmers, democratically run cooperatives, and other producers a living wage for their products, appropriate for their country and location.
- It encourages producers to engage in environmentally sustainable practices; respects cultural identity; and provides healthy, safe, and humane working conditions.
- Most important, it is a form of economic development, empowering poor communities and giving them the resources to improve living conditions.
Sources for fair trade goods include:
- The UCC Coffee Project with Equal Exchange is one way to participate in fair trade.
- An excellent source of more information is the Fair Trade Resource Network.
3. Use consumer and shareholder activism to drive better corporate practices. Multinational or other large corporations often contract with other, usually smaller firms, for products. These products obtained from subcontractors may be ready to be sold to consumers (such as clothing or food to be sold by a retail store) or may be used by a multinational manufacturer in the production of another product (like parts to be used in the making of a car). Even though the large multinational company may treat its employees and the environment responsibly, paying its workers a living wage and good fringe benefits, its suppliers may not.
Large corporations need to take responsibility for the behavior of the suppliers in their supply chain. They have the opportunity and power to require their suppliers to operate in a just, humane, and sustainable manner. Many corporations set the terms of their contracts with suppliers even to the point of specifying, in great detail, the materials and production processes to be used. But typically these contracts are silent regarding labor and environmental practices.
Consumers and shareholders (people who own a company’s stock) who are concerned about workers and the environment are engaged in pressuring corporations to establish codes of conduct for their suppliers to specify the standards that must be met. Independent monitors then observe the suppliers to ensure their compliance.
In the absence of laws to prevent abuses, consumers need to become more knowledgeable and responsible, These organizations provide more information on using purchasing dollars to drive better corporate practices:
Many individuals, congregations, and other faith-based institutions have significant savings and investments in endowments and pension funds, for example. These funds can be, and many people argue they should be, invested in ways that are consistent with the values of the investor.
The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) is a membership organization of some 275 faith-based institutional investors, including national denominations, religious communities, pension funds, and endowments, with a combined portfolio worth of $110 billion. ICCR is a leader in the corporate social responsibility movement, pressing companies to be socially and environmentally responsible. Each year, ICCR members sponsor over 100 shareholder resolutions on major social and environmental issues, calling on corporations to improve their practices.
The UCC Pension Boards and United Church Foundation are members of ICCR and engage in socially responsible investing.