Today, in the 10:30 service, its our Sunday School Anniversary and we will have 29 children and youth (which is very exciting!) presenting the story of Jonah. Today is also the third in our sermon series – The End of Greed – after which we take a break over the school holidays – with the final sermon – Consuming as if the planet matters – on Sunday, 20th October, coinciding with our Eco-Fair the day before and the Blessing of the Animals that day!
So, all week this week I have had the story of Jonah (and the catchy songs the kids are singing) going round in my head, and the material from chapter 3 of The End of Greed, until finally the two converged.
And they converged in two ways.
Firstly, in thinking, as we commonly think about the story of Jonah, as a challenge to us to show love and compassion to those who are distant from us – who are different to us…
This care and compassion can take many forms, but in the pastor’s note I gave the example of being concerned about those who labour to produce the products that we use every day.
According to the McCrindle report Consumed more than half of us (57%) believe that its extremely or very important that those who make our goods receive fair wages, yet we are still slightly more attracted to getting a bargain (58%)! As the report says, “This epitomises the challenge of translating belief into behaviour. While 57% of Australians believe it is important to have fair wages for workers…, only 9% have chosen not to purchase an item that would have contributed to unfair wages…and only one in ten (10%) have purchased an ethical item of clothing.”
This challenge of translating belief into behaviour is also evident amongst regular church goers. While 63% value fair wages for those who make our goods, only 11% have chosen not to purchase an item that would have contributed to unfair wages.
We need to hear the ‘word of the Lord’ that came to Jonah; that challenged him to show God’s love and compassion to people who, like him, were made in the image of God and loved by God.
But the second way that I started to think about this passage this week – was not to identify with Jonah and his prophetic mission – but to identify with the people of Nineveh.
Now everything in the story of Jonah is a little bit larger than life. We have a prophet who’s told to go that way and goes the very opposite way instead. We’ve got a giant fish. And we’ve even got a worm that manages to become a key part of the plot.
But there is also the city of Nineveh.
According to the book of Jonah the size of the city is described in two ways using particular Hebrew constructions. It was ‘a great city even in God’s sight’ (or an exceedingly large city in the NRSV) and it was ‘a three days’ walk across’.
Now ‘a three days walk across’ is a pretty big city. The two largest cities in the world, in terms of land size, are the New York Metro area, 8,683 square kilometres, followed by Tokyo, 6,993 square kilometres. Using Google Maps and taking into consideration that New York is an unusual shape it seems it could take you 35 or so hours to walk across the city, or perhaps three 12-hour days. But archaeological records show at its greatest time of population, the city of Nineveh only had a population of 150,000 – nothing like the 18 million in New York or 33 million in Tokyo.
What the commentators say is that this description of Nineveh, as well as being larger than life like many of the details in this highly engaging story, is a representation, a composite of the great cities of the world, portrayed in the text as places of evil; of aggression, of acquisition, of oppression and exploitation, of greed.
And so, thinking through the implications of that in our global economic context, we are less like Jonah, sent by God to proclaim love and justice to the Ninevites, and more like the Ninevites themselves hearing from the developing world the prophetic voices of other Jonahs, crying out to us to repent and to turn from our greed and wickedness.
For example, we might hear the voice of Jonah in those who work in the garment industry in Bangladesh.
Scott tells the story of a t-shirt he saw advertised: “Nothing feels as good as a 100% cotton t-shirt for $5.” When he contacted the company asking where in Bangladesh the t-shirts were made and how well the workers were paid, he was told that information was confidential. He did some more research and discovered garment manufacturing was Bangladesh’s biggest export industry and that the country attracts business by paying the lowest garment worker wages in the world.
A living wage for a worker in Bangladesh , that would allow to buy food, shelter, clothing, transport and education for their children was 26,500 taka per month in 2013, yet the minimum wage for garment workers was just 5,055 taka a month, and involved working in conditions that were unsafe.
Or we might hear the voice of Jonah amongst the Uzbek children who harvest the cotton used to make these t-shirts in Bangladesh. The cotton industry in Uzbekistan is controlled by the government there and according to the International Labor Rights Federation:
For decades, it has used the forced labour of its schoolchildren in the early primary grades, college and university students, and civil students, to harvest the cotton by hand….Each fall, after the start of the school year, the government orders school to close…and send the children out to the fields, where they remain until the cotton harvest is brought in.
The conditions in which the children work are appalling….This has led to numerous injuries and even deaths….
Forced child labour ultimately is used to support the political elites that run the…government. Cotton farmers must sell their crop to the government at the below-market rates that it sets. Once purchased, the government sells the cotton on the global market for the actual market price. The Environmental Justice Foundation reported that cotton framers in Uzbekistan receive approximately one third of the actual value for their cotton.
The voices of these Jonahs come from many different parts of our world and they expose the dark side of consumption, that while consumers in Australia demand more and more goods at lower prices, lower and lower bargain prices, the companies that sell these goods, “scour the world for places to make them as cheaply as possible.”
In its worst form, this exploitation manifests as modern slavery, a multibillion-dollar industry which currently enslaves an estimated that 40.3 million people across our world. Kevin Bales, one of the world’s leading experts on the modern-day slave trade, notes that:
The list of slave touched products is long, so long that all of us are likely buying, eating or wearing something that has slavery in it. We can point to documented cases of slavery in the production of cocoa, cotton, sugar, timber, beef, tomatoes, lettuce, apples and other fruit, shrimp and other fish products, coffee, iron, steel, gold, tin, diamonds and other gemstones, jewellery and bangles, shoes, sporting goods, clothing, fireworks, rope, rugs and carpets, rice, bricks, and on and on.”
And yet the wonderful unimaginable twist in the story of Jonah is that when the people of Nineveh heard the cry of Jonah they repented, from the greatest to the smallest, even their animals, they turned from their wickedness, and God forgave them.
And for us, living in a culture where consumption is a norm, where according to the McCrindle report we consume simply because we can, we, too, can turn our behaviour around.
Scott offers three suggestions for how we can begin:
- Firstly, rather than simply refusing to buy from poorer countries (and further impoverishing their workers) we can speak up about exploitation. You may remember the information Peter Loone has given us – usually just before Easter – about how to buy slavery free chocolate. The good news is that campaigns such as these do have an impact. Companies are concerned that if word gets around that they behave unethically – they will lose customers, employees and profits.
- Secondly, we can preference ethical goods. Several certification systems, Fairtrade, UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance, work with producers in poorer countries to improve the quality of their product, their productivity, the ecological sustainability of their farms, to eliminate child labour and ensure all their workers enjoy decent and safe work. We can look for labels like these.
- Thirdly, we can preference companies committed to ethical trade. Not all companies are suitable for the certifications above, but larger multinationals that buy goods in large volume can choose to use their power – not to coerce their suppliers to cut wages and ignore safety – but to ensure decent work, pay and environmental standards. Baptist World Aid is now well-known and respected for its ‘Ethical Fashion Guide’. There is also another site org.au where you can purchase a supermarket guide which rates the products you find int eh supermarket according to environmental and social standards.
Professor of Regent College, Craig M. Gay writes, “In forming a Christian response to contemporary consumerism it may help to recall that the original meaning of consume is to burn, to exhaust and to destroy completely. The object of our response to consumerism, then, is to try, with the Lord’s gracious help, to avoid destroying ourselves in this behaviour and to try to prevent our neighbour from being destroyed by such behaviour as well.” Let us hear the voice of Jonah. Let us turn from allowing consumerism to destroy our lives and the lives of others.