Fair Trade Churches
By nathan george
November 15, 2011
There are 138 million people who regularly attend church in the United States. They collectively earn $2.5 trillion. If they were a nation, they would be the seventh richest in the world. Just under 3 percent of their income is given to the Church. Of that, only 4 percent ends up outside of the church walls. That means about 0.12 percent of that annual income could potentially be available for missional work. Plenty of data for hand-wringing perhaps.
When we talk about money in our churches, we only ever talk about giving—trying to get people to be bolder with it, to trust God as they give generously. These talks are usually given as churches get closer to their annual budgetary white-knuckle ride. Churches would love even Old Testament standards to be achieved where 10 percent of income is “given back” to God. There should be more giving, but it is not only a failure of our imagination but a gross distortion in our theology that has no practical framework for considering how the other 97 percent could be a Kingdom, a missions, a discipleship issue. Churches abdicate their influence in that space to the marketers, the fear- and greed-mongers who shape how we think we should spend it. And God does not have to figure at all. For all intents and purposes, Christians spend in ways that are no different from people who do not believe in God at all.
Of course, of that 97 percent we have to budget for not just spending but also accommodation, pensions, tax and, if we are lucky, savings. But still, for every dollar given to the Church, approximately $10 are spent in the shopping mall or supermarket. And our faith seemingly has nothing to say about it. Nothing to say about whether we should be buying something or not, whether what we buy reflects biblical values of justice to the land, the people who made the product or whether the merchant we purchase from is behaving despicably behind the scenes to get us the lowest price possible.
Can you imagine what would happen if the Church in America began seeing itself as the conscience of the free market? If every person who attended church in America made one average fair trade purchase in a year, 1 million families would be lifted out of poverty for one whole year.
My heart aches not because of the precarious existence of so many living on less than $2 a day, but for the crushing lack of imagination in the use of resources that are represented in the pews of our churches all over the country. We could be achieving so much together. We could proclaim Good News to the poor and freedom to the captive by buying products we need that they make for us. Perhaps more importantly than that, 138 million people deciding to exercise their spending power in line with biblical principles of stewardship, justice and loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves could be revolutionary. It could have profound effects on how every company in the country behaves and sources its products.
Much about fair trade has yet to be done, thought through, debated and implemented. But the good news is much has already been done. Fair trade as a movement was started by Christians who had a passion for justice and fairness—and a vision of a world where the workers in the field no longer cry out to the Lord Almighty. I started Trade as One five years ago with the specific objective of using it as a tool to awaken the Church to this enormously under-used resource of consumer spending to proclaim the Kingdom.
Charity does not fix poverty—jobs do. There is an old African proverb that says: “The hand that gives is uppermost. The hand that shakes is an equal.” The poor want the dignity of a meaningful job so they can take responsibility for their own future.
God created this world with the vision of mankind working in it. The absence of work, particularly among the poorest of the poor, is a missions issue. And thanks to the wonders of international trade, you don’t have to be a missionary on the other side of the world to live and act missionally to someone there. The rice you buy could keep families in rural Thailand together without the need to migrate to the urban slums. The T-shirt you wear could prevent an Indian cotton farmer from slipping into the despair of suicide. Those earrings you are wearing could be an expression of a new life that a woman rescued from commercial sex work now experiences.
In case it seems changing corporate and consumer culture is too ambitious, consider the temptations to apathy and despair that those within the historical church may have felt as they sought to change the slave trade, apartheid and reform of debt for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries.
God is waiting for us in humility to turn around and not just offer Him percentages of our income but to lay it all out there in front of Him. To ask Him to help us live more simply, give more generously and consume more consciously.